Although there’s not a dirt road in sight, Scottish guitarist RM Hubbert still caught our attention here at the Americana UK Towers. The former El Hombre Trajeado frontman plays folk music much in the same way as other great UK players such as James Blackshaw and the late great Jack Rose, and with his new Latin-influenced solo album, First & Last, marking an end to a year long break, things are looking bright for the Glaswegian. We spoke to him about doing things the Radiohead way, flamenco dancing in the streets and his Will Play For Food Programme.
Interview by Soren McGuire
The one thing that really stands out on First & Last is your guitar playing. I know a few chords myself, and might even dare the odd Stairway To Heaven given the chance, but your playing is just amazing. Do you remember when you first realised that the guitar has so much more to offer than just the "usual" G-D-C-Em chord progression? And how much practice does it take to get where you are today in terms of musical skills?
I was really into bands like Sonic Youth, Black Flag and Minutemen when I was growing up. They seemed to approach their music from a completely different angle. Dischord was encouraged, as was experimentation. When I started developing an interest in playing guitar, these were my reference points. It was only later that I bothered to learn any chords!
I’ve been playing electric guitar for about twenty years now, since I was fifteen. I started playing nylon acoustic guitar about five years ago. It took a good three and a half years of daily practicing before I was comfortable playing live again. I still play every day.
Please tell me about your musical background. Do you think everything you've done in the past would at some point lead to this moment, to this album?
I have been playing electric guitar in bands and releasing records since the early nineties, most notably with El Hombre Trajeado from 1995 to 2005. El Hombre usually produced short, complex, mostly instrumental pieces. We were usually labelled as post rock or math rock. The basic of the idea behind the band was to take the drums and bass guitar and put them to the forefront. We really liked the idea of reinterpreting some of the more interesting dance music structures and conventions of artists such as Black Dog or Aphex Twin within the constraints of a traditional guitar / bass / drums / synth / vocals band setup.
With regards to past experience feeding into my current work, I think that it is both inevitable and welcome. First & Last is the first album that I have made that has a very particular purpose. The idea was that the music should provide a snapshot of the last five years of my life. It had been a very hard time for me, both of my parents died and I finally got a diagnosis for the chronic depression that I had periodically suffered from since my teens. I have always found it easier to express myself through music so I decided to write this album as a form of catharsis. That’s not to say that the album is all sad, there are as many happy pieces as sad. That’s the beauty of life, no matter how bad things get, they always gets better.
Has the Latin influence always been there? And where does it come from? There's a lot of good things to be said about Glasgow, but it's not exactly sunny beaches and flamenco dancing in the streets, is it?
Glasgow is many things but Mediterranean is not one of them! You can certainly be forgiven for thinking so, given my previous band name and current fascination with flamenco techniques and structures, but no, the Latin influence is relatively new.
I started studying flamenco techniques and structures about four years ago. I realised quite quickly that although I loved the emotive power of flamenco, I didn’t connect with it melodically. That is when I decided to experiment with using the techniques and rhythms with different melodic structures.
Do you ever miss the power of lyrics? Do you fear that melody and playing itself sometime falls short when it comes to expressing yourself musically?
I don’t think so, I’m far better at communicating emotionally through the guitar than I have ever been verbally. That isn’t supposed to be self praise either, more a damnation of my inability to talk to people at a meaningful level. It’s a male Scottish thing.
You stopped playing live a few years ago and started studying these various musical styles. What brought on that decision? Did it feel like a re-birth of sorts?
There were two main events that brought this change.
The first, as I mentioned before, was my father’s sudden illness and death. I was looking for something to take my mind off of the current situation and knew that learning flamenco guitar would provide a massive challenge to me. The second was far more pleasant. The last shows that El Hombre Trajeado did was with a lifelong hero of ours by the name of Mike Watt. He is a musician who was in Minutemen, fIREHOSE and latterly, The Stooges. Both his music and ethos have had a massive influence on my life. Anyway, he comes from the American punk tradition of the late seventies but never stopped progressing. His live show at the time was based around a punk opera that he had written about his father for vocals, bass, organ and drums. I was dumbfounded when I saw it. It made me realise that punk was not about any style of music, it is about finding newer and more fulfilling ways to express yourself. Punk is what you make it.
There seems to be a growing infatuation with acoustic avantgarde/composatory folk music among younger British artists today. With people such as yourself and James Blackshaw, the legacy of John Fahey and the late Jack Rose is being carried on. Why do you think that is? What moved you towards this music?
To be honest, I am very new to this scene and am not particularly well informed about it. I don’t listen to a lot of solo guitar or folk music myself with the exception of Alasdair Roberts, James Orr Complex and Baden Powell.
My reasons for playing solo, instrumental guitar are borne more from a desire to express myself as honestly as possible. I am neither a great vocalist nor lyricist so I find that I can more accurately get my point across with just the guitar.
When you're playing live, how much do you allow yourself to "stray" from the path? Do you ever improvise and just see where the song might take you?
It depends on the show. I do improvised shows occasionally, usually with dancers, which are a lot of fun, if not a little hit and miss.
For my solo shows, I never stray from the recorded versions. I like to limit my pieces to around the three / three and a half minute length with the entire set rarely lasting longer than thirty minutes. I have a short attention span and presume that others do too, especially since my usual audience are not really used to the quietness of my shows.
I'm very intrigued by your approach to the whole copyright-debate. The album is released under the Creative Commons license, and you've done a "Radiohead", letting listeners decide themselves how much they want to pay for the album. I admire this approach, but does it pay the bills?
It actually pays at least equally as well as the more traditional model that we used with the El Hombre releases, with the advantage that the music is much more widely distributed and listened to. At this stage, which I share with at least 95% of working musicians in the world, the biggest problem is getting anyone to listen to my music. I would rather encourage people to share, remix and reuse the music.
Here’s a favourite quote of mine that sums up the ethos far more eloquently than I can manage. It is from a man by the name of Tim O’Reilly; “Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy”
You also set up the "Will Play For Food" scheme. Please tell me about that? How has it worked out so far?
The Will Play For Food shows are my favourite ones to do. Basically, If you are willing to invite some of your friends around to your house and cook some food, I will come around and do a show in your home, free of charge. I’ve met many great new friends through these shows. The audiences tend to be far more varied as well. Also, the music works much better close up and intimate. We are in the process of setting up Will Play For Food tour of the Netherlands and possibly Belgium and Germany in the summer. I’m very excited about that.
As I understand it, you're planning the release of another album featuring among other, Aidan Moffat and Alasdair Roberts. How would you define the Scottish music scene these days? Is there a strong sense of community?
There has been a real resurgence with the DIY scene in Glasgow over the last few years. Organisations like Nuts & Seeds, Cry Parrot and Winning Sperm Party are putting out great records and putting on really exciting, challenging shows with artists from all over the world. Vic Galloway, Glasgow Podcart, Radio Magnetic and Subcity Radio are all championing new music through their podcasts and radio shows. The initial release of First & Last was actually a collaborative effort in the form of a limited edition, hand bound book featuring some writing by myself about each song and contributions in the form of prose, poetry or artwork from some of my favourite artists such as Toby Paterson, Luke Fowler, Sarah Lowndes and Danny Saunders.
My next record will be made up of musical collaborations between myself and some of my favourite Scottish musicians. Presuming that everyone asked takes part, it will feature Aidan Moffat, Emma Pollock, Alasdair Roberts, Luke Sutherland, Marion Kenny, Jenny Reeve, Kim Moore, John Ferguson, David Gow, Stevie Jones, Stef Sinclair and Shane Connelly.
It’s a really exciting time to be an artist in Glasgow right now. I am glad to play my own small part in it.
RM Hubbert’s First & Last is out now on Ubisano. You can find out more about how to buy it at his homepage, RMHubbert.com which also offers info on his Will Play For Food programme and other things Hubbert