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Mapping out the future

MOST bands give away their style as soon as they give themselves a name. If their moniker starts with the word ‘The’, for example, it’s a safe bet they’re a bunch of zeitgeist-chasing garage rockers. Perhaps they’re a solo artist heading out under their given name, in which case wistful, heartfelt singer-songwriterly action can’t be far from the truth.

Not so Edinburgh’s Aberfeldy, though. North of Coldstream, of course, we understand that they’re named after a perfectly picturesque but otherwise nondescript Perthshire town, but what does that tell us? Maybe that they’re a bunch of bearded, middle-aged folk musicians setting the standard for accordion soloists everywhere.

But how would that tally with the fact that they’ve recently signed a recording deal with Geoff Travis’s highly fashionable Rough Trade Records? And are the first Scots to do so since Belle & Sebastian?

The band’s singer, songwriter, guitarist and architect-in-chief, Riley Briggs, seems in no doubt as to the significance of the name, however. "I think I regret it more than anything else at the moment," he says. "When we initially spoke to Rough Trade, the first thing Geoff said was, ‘So what about the name? Are you attached to it, at all?’ And we stupidly went, ‘Well, all our pals in Edinburgh know who we are, so let’s stick with it.’

"It actually came from a conversation I had with Jim Sutherland, our producer, because our first gig was coming up and we had to think of a name. He said I should name the band after somewhere great I went on holiday, and I remembered going to my granddad’s caravan in Aberfeldy with my parents. I liked that at the time, in a Mull Historical Society sort of way.

"In the end," says Briggs, "you can have a really good name and a really s*** band, and hopefully we’re the opposite. After all, people must have laughed their heads off at the Beatles - ‘what, like the insect?’ - and at least when we speak to people from Germany or America, they’ve never heard of the place. It’s only Scots that dislike it as a band name."
The band themselves are irresistible, an effortlessly light and catchy mixture of pop hooks and expansive country spirit. To sum them up - either live or on the debut album released this month, Young Forever - is hard, because only snippets of their influences are recognisable. But to say that they sound a little like Belle & Sebastian with Briggs’ pastoral Neil Young-style falsetto coming through in the mix would not be shooting too far wide of the post.

THE GENESIS OF the band lies within the vibrant, but hitherto unheralded in comparison to the west coast, Edinburgh music scene. Briggs initially started out demo-ing the songs alongside Sutherland at a studio upstairs from the old Bongo Club on New Street, with soon-to-be rhythm section Ian Stoddart and Ken McIntosh coming in to help out. Stoddart was previously in the short-lived Win alongside Davie Henderson - of Fire Engines and Nectarine No.9 fame - while McIntosh played in a ska band on the circuit.

He was also playing acoustic gigs on his own at the city’s renowned folk pub, the Royal Oak, where he met violinist Sarah McFadyen. Briggs describes her then as "a rising star on the Edinburgh folk scene" through collaborations with groups like Harum Scarum, and says their meeting was the best thing to come from his time on the open mic circuit.

Finally, deciding the band needed two female singers, they recruited Ruth Barrie, a documentary filmmaker McFadyen knew from Edinburgh College of Art. At the time, Barrie was working in the cafe at the Bongo Club, where Briggs just happened to hear her sing with a group of African performers who were over for the Festival. The invite was in the post soon after.

Their source material was a collection of songs which Briggs had written over the previous years.

A significant inspiration for Briggs’ stockpile of gorgeous ballads and sweethearted summer soundtracks was distinctly personal. "I had just come out of a long relationship," he says, "and found myself living on my own for the first time in ages. Or rather, with a couple, which perhaps wasn’t the best thing. So I sat in the bedroom the whole time. I’d been to France and come back skint with loads of wine, so I sat drinking that and writing. There you go, if I had lots of money and no wine, this album would never have been. So it’s your typical heartbreak situation, really."

Was it? Because all the songs are rather upbeat and romantic. "Yes, they are," he agrees. "But that’s because I was single again and meeting new people, and... I dunno, you write a girl a song and you think they’ll be impressed. Plus it was almost like... like exorcising... God, that sounds much too pretentious. I’ll just say that writing songs for girls doesn’t work. But it’s a change from pyramids and spacemen."

A similarly individual tale accompanied the making of the album, which was all recorded using just one microphone. Briggs claims they only decided this halfway through, after recording five or six songs, loving the results and the fact they could listen to the finished effort straight away, and deciding to press on.

"Of course, the rest of it was a nightmare. I wanted it to sound lo-fi, but Jim’s a stickler, so we had to make no noise at the start, and then things like the keyboards were so tricky. When we got to 12 songs it was such a relief... we’ll probably start the next album the same way, but I don’t think we’ll paint ourselves into a corner with such dogma in future."

Still, it was this thinking which led to such marvellous moments as the one during ‘Heliopolis By Night’, where both girls sing with fingers pinching their nose in the absence of studio effects - their favourite live moment, according to Briggs.

The one-mic method also lessens the impact of those Belle & Sebastian comparisons. Like their Glaswegian labelmates, Aberfeldy have one man’s vision behind the songwriting, honey-sweet female backing vocals, and all manner of instruments - violins, keyboards, xylophone - adding to a palette that may well be described as beautifully, heart-snugglingly twee. Briggs doesn’t see it.

"I don’t think we sound anything like them," he says, "and to be honest the only thing I’d heard was the song that sounds like the Eurotrash theme [‘Legalman’] until we went to Rough Trade and got some of their CDs for free. I think they’re a lot more referential, although not in a pastiche sort of way.

"Any comparisons are probably just because we have the same record collections, which is the same one that every indie band has - Nick Drake, Neil Young. We all sit there saying, ‘I want to make a record that sounds like After the Gold Rush’."

Quite possibly, in years to come, people will also say they want to make a record that sounds like Young Forever - and tourists will come to the town of Aberfeldy for an entirely new reason.

Aberfeldy play Nice ’n’ Sleazy’s, Glasgow, Saturday, 7.30pm. The album Young Forever is out now on Rough Trade

Scotland on Sunday
Sun 5 Sep 2004




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