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Bells ring out for Briggs' new band

ABOUT ten years ago, a shaggy young rock’n’roller named Riley Briggs and I were married in a touching, if slightly bewildering, ceremony at a gig in the old 13th Note premises on Glassford Street, Glasgow. Presiding over the not-entirely official, legal or even coherent splicing of two complete strangers was the veteran eccentric Californian producer and performer, Kim Fowley, whose shows had a habit of wandering off into enforced audience participation.

I was the unwitting "volunteer," a reluctant bride - and according to the words of Fowley’s improvised wedding march, Briggs’ "crabmeat woman." Shortly - well, immediately - after our sham nuptials, my new husband and I parted, presumably never to cross paths again. Briggs, it transpires, spent years playing in indie bands in Edinburgh, before forming a prog-rock band who revelled in the snappy moniker, Firestone - The Legend Of The Hawk.

"Our entire set was a rock opera," says Briggs. "We spent a bit too much time in the practice room thinking up daft concepts for the band rather than getting out and playing."

Firestone split up three days after releasing their only single - a single which was to resurface in a radically reworked format in Briggs’ next band (and the reason for our first contact since the "wedding"), the tenderly celebrated Aberfeldy. Prog rock odyssey Heliopolis By Night was transformed into an indie pop take on the Carpenters’ Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft and became one of two singles this year which alerted the wider listening public to the folksy charms of Aberfeldy.

"It was originally part of a concept album about alien abduction and the pyramids of Egypt," explains Briggs, without a trace of embarrassment. "It was a bit like that film Stargate. We were all reading Erich Von Daniken and Graham Hancock books at the time."

Mercifully, Aberfeldy are the polar opposite of Firestone, but the dozen songs on their beguiling debut album, Young Forever, have their roots in the Firestone endgame.

"The band split up about the same time as I split up with my partner and I was a bit miserable about everything - music, life, love," he says. "I locked myself in my bedroom with red wine and no telly and wrote most of the songs on the album." Armed with this bedsit set, Briggs spent a couple of years gigging solo at acoustic nights in Edinburgh, where he first met fiddle player Sarah McFadyen.

"I was spectacularly poor and needed the money, but I got pretty sick of playing on my own really quickly," he says. "I much prefer being in a band and letting other people do some of the work, although I still tend to be the one bossing everyone around and claiming all the ideas for myself."

McFadyen, whose background is in folk music, came on board, joining drummer Ian Stoddart and bassist Ken McIntosh in Briggs’ burgeoning ensemble. Pianist/vocalist Ruth Barrie was recruited to flesh out the boy/girl harmonies which are something of an Aberfeldy signature. "It’s the first time I’ve been in a band with girls and it’s nice," says Briggs. "If it was a couple of guys with guitars, it would be a bit more ordinary. Sarah and Ruth make it really special, the way they work together and do harmony glockenspiel playing."

The other key influence on the genesis of the Aberfeldy sound is the idiosyncratic way they recorded their album.

Producer Jim Sutherland offered the band free recording time in a tiny studio above Edinburgh’s Bongo Club and created the album’s lo-fi intimacy by gathering the band around one solitary microphone. "We basically worked the songs out in the studio with Jim standing over us," Briggs says. "The three singers and my guitar were right up at the mike. We plugged the bass straight into the desk and stuck the drummer in the corner with bits of cardboard on the drums and Jim would move us an inch this way and that. It was incredibly hard because we had to play the whole song together without a mistake about ten times and then edit together the best takes." Although this sounds like a deliberately perverse way of working, Briggs and Sutherland had already attempted, then rejected, the full pop production on some of Briggs’ songs.

"There was too much choice basically," he says. "And we found that the little demos we’d made with just me and a couple of other people singing right into the mike and Jim at the back playing finger-cymbals had a nice quality, so we tried to expand that.

"We recorded keyboards using cheesy old 70s organs that don’t stay in tune bought at car boot sales for £7. And Ken makes these little amps out of shortbread tins using bits of radio and TVs, so we used them. It’s all very simple, stripped back, no effects pedals - and I’m a big fan of mucking about with synthesizers, effects pedals and making strange space rock music!"

The band held on to their recording for months, but gradually the sweetness and simplicity of the music began to strike a chord, and the respected Rough Trade label offered to release the album. Now, good things keep happening.

The whimsical, syncopated Summer’s Gone is to be plucked from the album for use in an Argentinean beer ad. Furthermore, a low-key Celtic Connections appearance at the start of the year led to what will be their biggest gig to date - supporting Blondie and the Scissor Sisters in Princes Street Gardens on Hogmanay.

"I do feel slightly weird about doing a gig that size in Edinburgh," says Briggs. "At first we thought we should try to play to the crowd, do some Harry Lauder or something like that, but we’ve come out thinking we should just represent ourselves in a professional manner.

"I never imagined I’d sell more than 50 records with any band I was in," he continues. "I’m really surprised at how well our band’s doing. One minute you’re struggling and then the next it feels like you’re coasting. People are urging us to be good. I don’t know what that switch is that happens."

Maybe it’s time for me to start claiming alimony...

Aberfeldy play the Liquid Room, Edinburgh with Fire Engines and Sons and Daughters tomorrow; Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh with Blondie and Scissor Sisters on Friday; and King Tut’s, Glasgow with David Kitt on 21 January.

FIONA SHEPHERD
Wednesday, 29th December 2004
The Scotsman


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