Kiseleff

It's good to be focused as an artist - that's how paintings, scripts, sculpture, records - you know, it's how good stuff gets made. But to be focused... is to be blessed. It isn't easy. Inspiration comes and goes like a bad boyfriend, and concentration is next to impossible in a world of flashing lights. So I'm not being too overly dramatic when I say it's damn near a miracle that Kiseleff's "A Sound Seal" was ever put to disc - Al, half of the Scottish duo (along with collaborator Hal) isn't known for his "collaborative spirit" when it comes to the studio, and mixing that with the traits of focus and inspiration makes it quite difficult to get anything done. Al elaborates, "To be very honest I have always had problems with bands in the past.  Most people would tell you that I am a very co-operative, collaborative person. However, when it comes to music I have a very clear, fixed idea of what I want to do, and I find it difficult to ‘share’ that vision. So typically I would present a song idea and the others would (quite rightly!) say ‘what about this?’ and I would say ‘no’ and the whole thing would fizzle out." Luckily, Al found his musical match in Hal, a solution to the collaborative problem... but how do we answer the question of inspiration for "A Sound Seal"?

Interestingly enough, Al came across a stack of letters, letters that chronicled the journey of his Scottish ancestors who emigrated from North Uist to North America via Liverpool back in 1838. Talk about a creative outlet! Al plugged in and didn't look back - he says "I was lucky, I inherited a load of family records, going way back over many centuries. But the papers which really stood out for me were a collection of letters my three ancestors sent back to their family in North Uist from America. It’s easy to take travel and migration for granted now. But back then this basically meant leaving a small, tight-knit, remote community to go somewhere entirely alien in the certain knowledge that you will never go back. No phones, no Skype, no email. Your only connection is sending the odd letter, maybe once a year. What was really vivid for me was the contrast between the massive strategic events happening as backdrop (the Indian Wars, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, hurricanes…), and the simplicity and innocence of these guys.  And the gaps are filled with intrigue." Check it out, for sure. Kiseleff will be spreading the word about the record you can sample for free on their web site, so give it a go. There's much more to learn below, so keep reading for the answers to the XXQ's.

XXQs: Kiseleff

PensEyeView.com (PEV): How would you describe the sound of  Kiseleff and what do you feel makes you stand out over the others in your  genre?

I guess what makes us different from a lot of bands is that we haven’t jammed around gradually developing our sound. I had a very precise image of what I wanted to sound like, an image which has been pretty fixed for a long time, maybe twenty years.  Then last year I decided to have a real effort to get it together and was lucky enough to meet Hal, the chemistry just worked and we nailed exactly what I wanted.  I guess there are some contradictions in our music – the tone and mood is a bit dark and sometimes ominous, but the tempo and melodies are quite upbeat; there’s a New-Wave-era feel but the way we actually play and record is really quite contemporary. But I like contradictions, I think you get a bit of creative conflict and therefore something new from them.

PEV: What kind of music where you both into growing up? Do  you remember your first concert?

When I was really young I would listen to my parents’ Beatles records and some more traditional Scottish stuff they had, then I started getting into Bowie.  Suddenly everything exploded for me when I was started High School in the early 1980s and I was doing paper rounds, stacking shelves whatever just to scratch enough cash together to feed my record-buying habits. These were the magical years which I can recall as if they went on for decades, constantly searching the music press for upcoming releases, the thrill of unpacking and playing a new record for the first time.  There was a really vibrant local scene in Scotland at the time, bands like the early Simple Minds, Skids as well as the whole Orange Juice/Postcard scene. Then I was really into Joy Division and Magazine as well as some of the more black eyeliner stuff like early Cure, Bauhaus and Virgin Prunes.  Then there would be another obsession around electronic acts like Orchestral Manouvres, early Human League.  And then more ethereal with The Church, and The Chameleons and The Sound.  It was a great period to get into music because the genres were so fluid and narrow, so you could slip in between the different tribes quite easily.

I remember my first concert well, not for all the right reasons.  I went with a couple of friends to see the Skids at Glasgow Apollo.  The problem was that we were just 13 – we all asked our parents if we could go, they all said ‘no’ so of course we went anyway.  It was a great gig, but at the end of it we went to the train station and of course the station had closed for the night.  So we just sat there until the morning, and got a bit of a hard time when we got home the next day…

PEV: Having all been in other bands before how is playing  with Kiseleff different then those other works?

To be very honest I have always had problems with bands in the past.  Most people would tell you that I am a very co-operative, collaborative person. However, when it comes to music I have a very clear, fixed idea of what I want to do, and I find it difficult to ‘share’ that vision.  So typically I would present a song idea and the others would (quite rightly!) say ‘what about this?’ and I would say ‘no’ and the whole thing would fizzle out.  With Kisleff we just hit upon a really focused method – I present the song idea, we try to detail exactly the sound and the feel and then we work together to nail it.  And of course you still get the idea developing and going in different directions, but in a much more organic and creative way.  One thing which I thought would be a problem is actually our greatest asset – we are based 400 miles apart (I am in London, Hal in Glasgow).  So we don’t hang around for days/hours/weeks discussing which position the mic should be at on the guitar amp.  Because our time is more rationed, we are just scarily focused; we’ll kick off each morning with just the vocal guide, a lyric sheet and a discussion, and by the end of the day that track is done.  I’m sure that’s not everyone’s ideal way of working, but it really pays off for us.

PEV: What was the underlining inspiration for your music?  Where do get your best ideas for songs?

I’ve never sat down and consciously ‘written’ a song – I’ll just get ideas or fragments popping into my head, usually at the most random, unexpected moments.  Then the challenge is to somehow capture that fragment before it disappears, and maybe link it to another idea, and then develop it into a song.  What is maybe unusual about our album ‘A Sound Seal’ is that some of the songs have been written and developed over the last 5, 10 years or even longer. Then I found this family material and suddenly I had this fantastic world to play with, a canvas to build stories and identities and images on.   So I rewrote all the lyrics to the old songs, and the process of writing new music just took off as well.  So if there is a single inspiration, it’s finding those letters and my imagination just suddenly being set alight.

The one exception on the album is ‘Chaos’ which is a cover of a song by The Church.  I have never been into covers at all, but ever since I heard the original of this I had a really vivid different version in my head, and it seemed to fit naturally with the story and the other tracks on the album.

PEV: Thinking back to when you first started out do you  ever look back at your career and think about your earlier days and how you’ve  arrived where you are today?

I am just glad I took a step back from it for a long time.  The music I am making with Kiseleff is what I have always wanted to do. If any previous attempts had been successful, they’d have been compromises.

PEV: What’s one thing we’d be surprised to hear about  you?

I am a qualified Football (soccer) coach.

PEV: Several decades after abandoning your early dreams of  pop stardom and a multi-talented UK based alt pop-rocker, you’ve returned with  “A Sound Seal” a unique, vibrant collection  of songs that chronicle different aspects of the journey of three of your  Scottish ancestors who emigrated from North Uist to North America via  Liverpool back in 1838. Tell us more about this album. What can fans  expect?

I just hope it takes listeners to another place.  That’s the best thing music can do.  I was lucky, I inherited a load of family records, going way back over many centuries.  But the papers which really stood out for me were a collection of letters my three ancestors sent back to their family in North Uist from America.  It’s easy to take travel and migration for granted now.  But back then this basically meant leaving a small, tight-knit, remote community to go somewhere entirely alien in the certain knowledge that you will never go back.  No phones, no Skype, no email.  Your only connection is sending the odd letter, maybe once a year.

What was really vivid for me was the contrast between the massive strategic events happening as backdrop (the Indian Wars, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, hurricanes…), and the simplicity and innocence of these guys.  And the gaps are filled with intrigue. One brother builds a grocery store in Florida, which is blown away in a hurricane.  The next we hear of him he is fighting in a battle in Mexico. They were just human beings, thrown into an entirely alien world, struggling to survive and make some kind of progress.  And that struggle just struck a cord with me.  The modern world is always presented to us as an ego-centric place, we’re all the boss.  The world revolves around us. But it doesn’t.

So the album is inspired by these letters and the world they created in my mind.  It’s not a factual narrative, but a mash-up of the events and characters and emotions.  It’s broadly chronological – Quicksilver Universe is a prologue, then it runs from ‘Savannah’ about leaving home through to ‘New World’ about realising that home is now a different place.  But you know that is just my inspiration, if these songs mean something to the listener, in any context and in any way that works for them, that’s great.  That’s the magic of music, it’s just a prompt for the imagination of the listener.  Try to dictate what the listener hears and you have failed.

PEV: Was it hard to create a work that reflected your  family’s history? Did you feel any added pressure?

No, it think reading the letters I wasn’t thinking of it as my family, I guess because it is old enough to just seem like a bunch of historical documents.  The family aspect helped in that I was able to understand the world they had come from in the Hebrides, which of course is the unspoken dimension to the letters.

PEV: What can we find each of you doing in your spare time,  aside from playing/writing music?

Well I have three young kids, so most of my spare time revolves around doing stuff with them.  

PEV: Name one present and past artist or group that would  be your dream collaboration? Why?

Well there are many artists I really admire.  The Church and Steve Kilbey’s solo work have been the biggest musical constant in my life.  And I truly love some newer stuff like The Twilight Sad.  But the last thing I would inflict on these talented people is having to work with anyone quite as uncollaborative as me!

PEV: If you weren’t playing music now what do you think  each of you would be your career?

I have no intention of being a full-time musician.  I would go crazy. For me, music comes from the other things in your life, and if you eliminate the other things…  

So I run our record label, Scolpaig, and do lots of contract work.

PEV: So, what is next for Kiseleff?

For the next few months we want to concentrate on getting ‘A Sound Seal’ in the hands of as many potential fans as possible.  For me success is measured by depth not width – I’d rather find a small group of people who really connect with what we do than have a passing acquaintance with everyone.  At the same time I am working on a new set of songs and I guess we will start planning some studio time and putting the next album together in the second half of this year.

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