Interview with Craig B (A Mote Of Dust)
Craig, thanks to your F.A.Q. I don’t have to start with the question if The Unwinding Hours have split up. You describe your new album as acoustic, quiet and dark. If “A Mote of Dust” was a book: What story would it tell us?
If it was a book, A Mote of Dust would be a snapshot of someone half way through their life attempting to make sense of everything that has happened so far. It’s connected to past experiences and events but these have all contributed to new questions and the attempt to look for clearer answers. Although I am aware this could easily be accused of self-indulgent naval gazing, it is also framed by the quote from Carl Sagan which the whole album is inspired by. It reminds me that my place in the universe is one of complete insignificance. Our planet is just a tiny pale blue dot in a vast and seemingly empty space so what sense can be made of life when faced with this conclusion? You can imagine how much fun it is to have to listen to me talk like this when munching on my cornflakes in the morning…
Speaking of dark music: It seems that you don’t like to write happy songs that much. Does this mean that you write songs mainly when there are dark thoughts in your mind or is this a false assumption?
It’s not a false assumption but it’s not the only time I write songs. I have used music over the years to work things out in my own head and to express feelings that I may not have been able to talk about but I have also tried to express other, more hopeful feelings as well. My main reason for writing songs is purely selfish but I have always wanted to hopefully express something that someone else, somewhere, may be able to understand and connect with. There is a great quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald about literature but I think the same point is equally true of music: “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that all longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”
I’m also not against people writing happy music (except Pharrell Williams – there is nothing worse than a millionaire swanning about telling everybody how over the moon he is with his life). But personally, I find that difficult to do. I have tried to write about nothing in particular or try to write fictional songs but there always feels like something is missing. I promise you, I’m not miserable all the time but making music can be beneficial to your wellbeing so there is often an element of getting things off your chest to try and deal with them. I don’t want to get anything off my chest when I’m content because I want to savour and enjoy the experience.
What role had Graeme Smillie and Paul Savage in the process of making this album?
Graeme Smillie played piano, keyboards and bass. He used to come on tour with Aereogramme and played bass live with The Unwinding Hours. He co-wrote “Yield” and made that song so much better but generally contributed to every song he played on. We recorded the majority of it live in the studio so he played an integral part in making the whole thing come alive.
Paul Savage is one of the best producers and engineers that I have had the pleasure of working with. He’s not scared of pushing you in different directions but also has a really inspiring creative and experimental streak that allows songs to develop spontaneously in the studio. He really helped add to the whole atmosphere of the record. Aereogramme worked with him on our first album so I had wanted to work with him again since that time.
What’s your favourite singer/songwriter album? Is there one that had a greater influence on “A Mote of Dust”?
My favourite singer/songwriter album is probably “Songs of Love: Live” by Mark Eitzel. I was obsessed with that record for so long because it manages to capture the raw emotion and passion that one person and a guitar can express. He makes mistakes, sings out of tune and forgets lyrics and yet it comes across as incredibly honest and moving. Singer songwriters can sometimes be the most boring musicians out there but often a singer is able to write, play and sing something that grabs hold of you and has the potential to be more powerful than a full band. To me, songs like “Re: Stacks” by Bon Iver, “Witches” by the Cowboy Junkies and “Brockwell Park” by Red House Painters have all been songs that capture something genuinely dark and beautiful about what it means to be human and I’ve been trying to do the same for many years now.
In “Home” you sing: “It’s clear that I don’t understand this life/ But I feel that I should try/ I’ve made mistakes/ But that’s how we find our way” What advice would you give the 18-year-old version of yourself if you could go back and talk to him?
Ha! Good question. I probably wouldn’t even listen to myself! If I did though, I guess I would try and explain that most people in life are scared or worried about the future and are making it up as they go along so don’t be too hard on yourself for feeling so lost. I would definitely try and get it into my thick skull that “everything in moderation” is the best rule to live by (especially regarding intoxicants) and probably explain that putting some effort into dressing well will make you look less like a baggy clothed idiot. Life is one big lottery though. You have to try and make it through the challenges as they arrive and try not to go crazy.
One song that obviously stands out is “Work of Our Hands”. It sounds like there’s a band. Doing everything on your own vs. playing in a band: do both ways have their advantages? What’s the main difference to you?
It’s not really a band because I played bass, rhythm guitar, sang the vocal parts and the bass drum is also me stamping my feet. It was more to do with Paul and I wanting to try and make something closer to a pop song. It’s a common theme in every album I’ve been involved in (and some could argue it’s a common mistake) that I never want to make an album that includes only one type of song. Granted, the Mote of Dust album is mostly quiet over all but the distortion in “Pull Me Back In” and the percussion on “Work of Our Hands” were important elements with which to break it up a bit.
Writing on your own has the advantage of not having to argue with anyone else but collaboration is always more interesting and creative. I had to do this album this way because of University commitments and since I knew I would be leaving Glasgow. On the other hand, many different opinions in a band can make for slow, contentious progress but that tension is often what makes the music work. They are different processes but I miss being in a band. When it works, it’s the greatest feeling.
„Wolves in the Valley“ is one of many beautiful songs on “A Mote of Dust” – also because of the lyrics. How important are the lyrics for you in your songs?
Lyrics are probably the thing I struggle with the most when it comes to song writing. The guitar part will come about by just mucking around and melodies seem to appear quite naturally but it’s the lyrics that can haunt me for days and weeks. I have songs that have been sitting in limbo for a long time because I can’t find the right words for them. I can’t really explain how it works or happens but sometimes the idea for the song will just spring to mind and it can then develop but at other times I can’t think of a single word that feels right at all. Because I love music so much it also means I can really hate music equally as strongly and a lot of the time it’s the awful lyrics that will make me detest a song the most. So yeah, lyrics are very important to me and I feel like I could always improve so when I hear a lyric like “Are we human or are we dancer?” I just think the author must have spent 5 minutes on random sentences, went out for a burrito and forgot to finish them off.
„Wolves in the Valley“ also comes with a meaningful video that was directed by Brendan Smith. How do you decide what a video should look like?
We shot a lot of footage that never got used but we also had even more ideas that we never got a chance to try out. We didn’t really know what the video would look like but once we got up to the highlands of Scotland, the landscape and the changing light leads you in certain directions. The video looks great though because of Brendan’s skill as a director/photographer. You need to have an eye for a great shot and he has that ability with the added knowledge and experience of digital cameras, which lens to use and how to work with natural light. Working with him is quite similar to working with Paul Savage. They both have a genuine passion for what they do and excel in trying out ideas. I’m really proud of the video and it couldn’t have been done without Brendan’s creativity and invaluable advice during editing. He’s a very talented individual.
There is so much amazing music that is coming out from Glasgow – and for many years now. What is it that makes Glasgow such a creative place for rock music?
I’ve been asked this question a lot over the years and I’m never quite sure what the answer is. It’s certainly not one reason, that’s for sure. My personal experience of starting a band in Glasgow was definitely influenced by the amazing live scene and so many decent bars/venues to play, the comradery between bands, the DIY ethic of many people, the refusal to move to London to “make it”, the lack of ego of many musicians, the connection to the Glasgow school of Art and many more reasons. You could also argue that, like many countries, the capital city (i.e. Edinburgh) attract the tourists and caters to that industry so other cities get more room to breathe and create a more interesting and diverse musical environment.
With Aereogramme and The Unwinding Hours you got only the attention of a certain audience and you said once that you never wanted to get as big as U2 anyway. Do you think it’s easier to write songs when someone’s free from expectations and pressure?
Saying I never wanted to be as big as U2 was probably me being defensive about our lack of success. I have no problem with huge bands and I actually have no problem with U2 because there are far worse bands out there. I may have been referring to the fact that being that famous must have a huge effect on your ability to move around freely and I doubt I would enjoy that. In terms of pressure, it’s probably useful to some people as it keeps them on their toes but most musicians will tell you that expectations are generally ignored. You will never be able to please everyone so you have to be able to enjoy what you do first and foremost or else you will hate playing those songs on tour every night. I’m rubbish with pressure but I was always quite crafty in Aereogramme. By the time the first album was out, I had an album’s worth of new demos to work on so I kept ahead of myself to avoid the pressure. I’ve also never had record companies getting on my case so I really don’t know what that’s like. Chemikal Underground were always very relaxed about albums. It was ready when it was finished.
Iain Cook is now on his way with Chvrches. They are doing something quite different compared to Aereogramme and The Unwinding Hours. Could you also imagine such a shift in a new direction for yourself and if yes: what would this sound like?
I’d love to do something incredibly heavy, but I don’t have the technical skills required for that and my screaming voice got destroyed by Aereogramme. I’m always itching to do something much heavier that anything I’ve managed before though so you never know. The problem though, is that I would do three heavy songs and then want to do something different. I like the idea of a crushingly heavy album with moments of minimal ambience. It’s the extremes I enjoy the most. As much as I genuinely love pop music, I do not have the ability to write it. I wish I did but no, it’s not in me.
You use to sing about “hiding places”. And still you’re in the spotlight as a musician. It’s a simple question: Why do you (still) do it?
“Cracks in the Mirror” was written with this very question in mind. After Aereogramme split up, Iain and I knew that we couldn’t do it full time anymore but we still enjoyed the creative process of writing and recording so we decided to only commit to it part time. With this album, I was genuinely questioning whether I should continue at all but after I finished writing “Cracks…” I realised I wasn’t ready to give up just yet. I think about retiring every single year but then part of me tells myself not to take it too seriously, to just relax and do it if it feels right.
I wouldn’t say I am in the spotlight at all actually, quite the opposite, and that allows me a lot of freedom. Also, I think I would have given up a lot sooner if I was trying to make a living out of music. It’s now just one of the different things I do but I still really enjoy the creative element like designing the album cover, working on the video, writing and playing and now self-releasing records. It’s been a very challenging but rewarding experience and at the end of the day, if there are still people interested in hearing new songs, it’s the main reason to record and release them.