10 May 2004 in Music

Back on the MacBraynes Circuit

As CAPERCAILLIE hit the road on a back to the roots tour of the Highlands and Islands this month. KENNY MATHIESON talks to DONALD SHAW about the band odyssey.

Karen Matheson and Donald Shaw © Capercaillie

ONE THING which Capercaillie very definitely don’t share with the bird they are named after is a reluctance to be seen in public. The band are well-seasoned road warriors, but their tour under the auspices of the Scottish Arts Council’s Tune Up scheme this month will take them back to their roots in more ways than one.

The funding has allowed them to contemplate a tour round small venues on the (mainly) west coast and the islands which would normally not make financial sense, and they will be tackling it in an unusual acoustic format which recalls their early roots in more straightforward traditional music.

“It’ll be great,” Donald Shaw reckoned. “I don’t think we’ve done what we call the MacBraynes tour since 1986. The gigs are great when you go out to South Uist and Barra and so on, but it’s equally about some of the characters that come along. It’s always at the back of our minds that we’d love to go back and play some music for the people we got it from in the first place. We’ve pretty much made a career out of digging through the gold mine of Gaelic song and culture, and a lot of the songs we’ve done over the years are ones Karen learned from her grandmother in Barra.

“We haven’t had a lot of opportunities to play that kind of gig over the years, which is primarily down to economics, to be honest, so this is a great chance. We are doing it as six piece acoustic line up without drums or percussion, and Ewan Vernal will play double bass rather than electric bass, so I guess we’d better get practising –there’ll be no place to hide! If it works out, though, it would be good to do more of that kind of thing.”

Singer Karen Matheson and Donald (accordion) will be joined by regular band mates Charlie McKerron (fiddle), Manus Lunny (bouzouki), Michael McGoldrick (flute and whistles) and Ewan Vernal on this scaled down jaunt. The band originally formed in Oban, and celebrated 20 years as a working unit last year, a fact Donald confirmed in the course of carrying out some research for a souvenir programme of last year’s full band tour.

“I knew it had to be close,” he admitted, “but it was only when the research was done that I realised that the first time we performed under the name Capercaillie was for Radio Highland in April, 1983. That was pretty scary – I used to see things like The Boys of the Lough’s 25th anniversary and say that’s ridiculous, how can you keep going on that long! And here we are.”

Karen Matheson © Capercaillie

The band have undergone a lot of musical changes as well as the odd personnel shake-up in those two decades (former stalwarts include whistle player Mark Duff, a founder member of the band, and bassist John Saich, currently gainfully employed at HI~Arts). Donald and Karen are the only two original members still in the band, but one of the great strengths of the group has been that it has maintained a solid core membership over long periods of time, while regular injections of fresh blood have ensured that the formula was not permitted to grow stale.

“It’s like a marriage, really – you have your honeymoon and you have your bleak times, and eventually you know what it is about each other that makes it work, and you settle into it. That was very much what happened with us, but there are times when new musicians have come in and really given the band a kick.

“A prime example of that was when Michael McGoldrick joined us on flutes and whistles in the late 90s. Michael’s arrival gave Charlie and myself a real boost, and had us looking to our laurels! Although Michael’s background is Irish, he was very much into doing the Scottish stuff with us, and he knew all the material from the albums before he ever joined the band. He came in at a time when the band was doing a bit less than we had been, and he gave us a lift. I think we are all less reliant on Capercaillie as our sole living these days, and that has given us a fresh aspect as well.”

If the band’s music is very firmly rooted in Scottish traditional music, they have consciously expanded the range of influences which have been brought to bear on those roots (they will shortly reissue their very first album, the cassette-only Cascade, on CD for the first time). According to Donald, their fusion aesthetic evolved in an organic fashion.

“I think the progression of the music over the years has been very natural, and for me the changes have come from record to record. We have taken each album we have made very seriously, and tried not just to repeat what we did before, but to do something which has excited us musically at the time, even if that meant making the odd mistake. We draw on the things we hear around us, whether it be rock or jazz or fusion or dance music or whatever, and we find that we pick up a lot of ideas when we toured to places like South America or the Middle East.”

Capercaillie’s other principal trademark is the singing of Karen Matheson, notably on Gaelic songs, which have remained a constant presence in the band’s repertoire from their earliest days.

“Both Karen and I were brought up in an environment where Gaelic song was very strong, and we kind of absorbed them by osmosis to some extent. We realised the Gaelic songs were probably our strongest material, but we have worked on ways to recreate them within our own sound. They have great possibilities with melody and rhythm, and we are totally at home with that. We’re not on a mission for the language as such, it’s more just a matter of what comes naturally to us.

“Karen is finally going to record a traditional album this year,” he added. “We’ve been talking about that for about 15 years now, but I think it will happen this time!”

That development of new recording technology has changed the way all bands work, but the fundamentals of making records remains the same.

Charlie McKerron © Capercaillie

“With the hard disc recording systems available now you can be pretty creative, and we can work on stuff at Charlie’s place near Aviemore or at Manus’s in Donegal, because we all have the same gear. It’s important to remember not to lose the focus on the music and get too caught up in the technology, though. So many times now we are working on songs and have three or four different versions going, but time and again it turns out that the first take is the one that has the soul and the excitement. The ideal is always to make full use of the possibilities the studio and technology have to offer, but always keep that warmth and energy at the heart of the music.”

Capercaillie were among the early bands to go down the route of setting up their own label, Vertical Records, having had a less than satisfactory experience signed to a major label in London. That has benefited a number of artists issued on the label, including Michael McGoldrick, James Grant, Alyth McCormack and NUSA.

“I was feeling that I was spending months putting everything into a project then handing over the baby to someone else. That grew increasingly frustrating, and I thought rather than going around moaning I should do something. I knew it would be hard work and I wouldn’t make money from it, but I shared the opinion of lots of my peers that what we wanted was a fair contract that wasn’t binding for more than one album at a time.

“In pop if someone is giving you six figure sums you can understand that restriction, but in our market place a lot of smaller labels were guilty of doing that unfairly. I signed people for one album at a time, and I also wanted to try some different ways of getting records out there.

“The market is changing very fast. People can record much more cheaply now, and it’s hard to get records into the retail outlets. I do less records now just because of the time and energy involved, and it’s not got any easier, but I don’t regret having done it.”

Capercaillie will play at the following venues in May 2004
Rhinns Hall, Portnahaven, Islay, Wednesday 5 May 2004
Corran Halls, Oban, Thursday 6 May 2004
Glenuig Hall, Glenuig, Friday 7 May 2004
Aros, Tobermory, Isle of Mull, Saturday 8 May 2004
Southend Hall, Isle of Uist, Monday 10 May 2004
Vatersay Hall, Vatersay, Barra, Tuesday 11 May 2004
Gathering Hall, Portree, Isle of Skye, Wednesday 12 May 2004
Macphail Centre, Ullapool, Thursday 13 May 2004
Universal Hall, Findhorn, Friday 14 May 2004

© Kenny Mathieson, 2004