A Distant History: Idlewild mark their return with Everything Ever Written
On the eve of their 20th anniversary, Idlewild return from a five year break with new album Everything Ever Written. Roddy Woomble and Rod Jones tell us about the old days, new band members and where to draw the line with back catalogue embarrassment
Back in 2009, when The Skinny met with Roddy Woomble and Rod Jones to reappraise Idlewild’s sophomore album 100 Broken Windows, we noted that the Edinburgh-formed band had experienced a career trajectory that was almost custom built as a teaching tool for aspiring indie cadets. A scrappy, yet spirited EP with a strong local buzz was followed by a confident debut which was in turn followed by a barnstorming second album that really put the band on the radar. This was followed by huge commercial success before industry downturn led to them being dropped, picked up by a smaller label before crowdfunding their sixth album, Post Electric Blues, in 2009.
Amazingly, since then the somewhat-amorphous quintet have managed to tick a few other boxes on the rock 'n' roll itinerary, namely the classic album tour, followed by the ‘indefinite hiatus’ and subsequent reunion. It’s the last of these points that finds us chatting with lead singer Woomble and guitarist Jones ahead of their new album Everything Ever Written, on the occasion that they've recorded a new session for The Skinny, comprising seven specially selected tracks, one from each of their album releases thus far (which you can find collected here).
“I think some of the songs on our early records are still quite strong,” begins Woomble when asked whether the session is an indicator that he is comfortable with Idlewild’s legacy and where each release stands within it. “Musically speaking, a lot of it is pretty rudimentary as it was heavily influenced by what we were listening to at the time but those are the things that people like about it of course. Nowadays though it’s hard for me to get excited about playing some of it. Generally speaking, for me it starts at 100 Broken Windows – from then on I can listen to our stuff without getting embarrassed.”
“The minute you take a break from something, what quickly comes into focus is why it was important to you” – Roddy Woomble
That may seem a bit harsh on debut EP Captain and 1998’s Hope Is Important, yet listen to early single and fan favourite When I Argue I See Shapes for example and you might mistake Idlewild as an angsty American post-punk band rather than the more rustic, familiar indie-rock outfit they would soon become. “With Windows I started to sing in my own accent,” explains Woomble of the Yankee snarl he had previously adopted. “We became a bit more assured, partly due to being a wee bit older, but also we were starting to feel that we could do this, we could be an interesting band, bearing in mind that after Hope Is Important, quite a lot of people wrote us off.”
“There was definitely a lot of criticism of us back then,” agrees Jones of the period running up to their second album. “People felt we were great live but that the records didn’t quite convey this and weren’t up to par. I suppose Hope Is Important maybe felt like an advert for our gigs, so the jump to 100 Broken Windows was huge in terms of songwriting and production. I remember listening to Little Discourage and Roseability with Colin [Newton, drummer and third surviving original member] and thinking ‘this sounds like a proper real band.’ I think we were as surprised as anybody else at that point in time.”
In this regard, 100 Broken Windows cemented Idlewild’s status as a studio band once and for all, so much so that at the end of 2009 we proclaimed it the best Scottish album of the decade. When speaking to both Woomble and Jones at the time, it was clear that neither quite felt the love for their own baby that we clearly did, however, a five year hiatus has softened opinions. “I think 100 Broken Windows is a great reflection of who we were at the time,” admits Jones looking back. “It was a young band with excitement and energy; that’s something I understand now more than I did at the time or in the years following it.”
Whilst their second album ushered Idlewild into the fringes of public consciousness, it was their third offering, 2002’s The Remote Part, that really brought the band huge commercial success. Peaking at number three in the UK album charts and spawning the hit singles You Held the World in Your Arms and American English, it saw their ever-increasing levels of production and pop-orientated songwriting reach out to a new audience whilst managing to keep a large portion of their existing fanbase. Yet not everything was rosy behind the scenes and amid acrimonious circumstances, bassist Bob Fairfoull left the band in 2002, leading to several line-up changes over the ensuing years.
“I don’t consider the band as ‘us three’ with other people just stuck in,” clarifies Woomble of their membership's fluidity. “Everyone who’s been brought in at different points has really added something to the band, but obviously Rod and I have stuck together through friendship and by having a good working relationship.” Jones agrees and gives praise to fellow founder member, Newton. “I don’t think people give him enough credit because it’s quite often about the singer, the guitar player or the new members whereas there’s something Colin does that just makes things sound like Idlewild.”
That indefinable chemistry continued with 2005’s Warnings/Promises, an album written in the Scottish Highlands but recorded in Hollywood, California. Marking a clear departure from their over-driven guitar roots and embracing more folk and melodic influences, it proved divisive with fans but remains a firm favourite with the band. “We were really able to take our time with it,” says Jones of what makes it an exemplary record by his own standards. “To have those experiences in L.A., and be able to take three months over a record – nobody has the time to do that these days, except Coldplay. It’s a shame because I think sometimes records can suffer because of it.”
Though marking the beginning of a ‘new’ Idlewild, it also signalled the end of such excesses, as the band were subsequently dropped by Parlophone in late 2005. However, anyone expecting the band to be full of major label-baiting bile should probably look elsewhere. “Bitter musicians slagging off major labels is more often because they’ve been dropped,” laughs Jones. “For us, it was a really crucial part of our growth and without it we wouldn’t have got to where we did. We weren’t really thinking of where it was going at the time so much as we were getting to make records and go on tour. To have that time and luxury to just focus and concentrate on it as your main thing and not having to squeeze it into evenings and weekends, that does make a massive difference to a band.”
Warnings/Promises also marks the last Idlewild album – until their latest – that both Woomble and Jones can truly get behind. 2007’s Make Another World is described by Jones as “probably our weakest, in the sense that we decided we wanted to quickly make a rock record and consolidate where we were. I think that was a mistake.” After a 10 year ‘Best Of’, they returned with 2009’s Post Electric Blues, notable for its brush with crowdfunding at a time when Kickstarter was just getting kick-started. However, Woomble admits it wasn’t their finest hour either. “We stalled a wee bit latterly,” he says. “We were just a bit… bored is too strong a word, maybe disheartened, so we decided to take a break and re-evaluate what was important to us.”
Both concur that the subsequent break was always a hiatus and not a split, though at around five years there have certainly been lengthier periods of silence, even from fully functioning bands. That silence was broken in November last year when Woomble ended several months of online speculation, revealing that the band had been working on an album with new members Luciano Rossi and Andrew Mitchell taking up keyboards and bass guitar respectively.
“We didn’t sit around and have some kind of board meeting about it,” laughs Woomble when asked what prompted the decision to reunite now. “I really like working with Colin and Rod so we always knew we were going to keep in touch and work on a new record within a certain time frame, we just didn’t really know when that would be.” With writing and recording sessions in the band’s spiritual home of Edinburgh and Roddy’s actual home in Mull, both chief songwriters had to make slightly more arduous journeys than the days when, as Rod puts it, he could “put some guitar parts on a tape and then take them over to the next block of flats where Roddy lived.”
Yet it only took the pair an extended visit each to lock down the bulk of what has become Everything Ever Written, with Jones putting such efficiency down to the pair’s longstanding relationship. “It was really easy to slip back into,” he reveals. “We have an understanding of what the other person means without needing to explain it, so at that point I knew we were going to do something and when Colin got involved it was obviously going to be an Idlewild record."
Both agree that their latest recruits helped shape Everything Ever Written beyond the constraints of the original trio. “We just gelled as a band really quickly,” says Jones. “So much so that we tried to write a couple of new ideas and that’s where the lead song Collect Yourself came from, at the very last moment, as lead songs often do.” Woomble agrees, adding that “with Andrew and Luci, vocal harmonies are much more prominent, so we’ve got this whole other layer of atmospherics going on now. In that respect it feels like the reincarnation of an old band.”
It’s a fair statement, even for a band who have always pushed and evolved their sound. Everything Ever Written is, perhaps more than any previous Idlewild release, an album that sounds beholden to nothing from their past. It’s a fresh canvas woven from a five year clear-out, where Come On Ghost, a woozy blues stomp with an unexpected jazz coda, rubs shoulders with the sombre, gospel-inflected likes of So Many Things To Decide.
“We have quite eclectic musical tastes as a group of people,” explains Woomble. “With past records, we’ve not really let that seep into it as we realise that Idlewild are known as a melodic rock band, so we’ve kind of kept to that template in the past.” Yet with soaring pop harmonies, as seen in Nothing I Can Do About It, even purists can get on board with Everything Ever Written. “It’s probably the most diverse record we’ve done,” agrees Woomble.
With 2015 marking twenty years since their original formation, it’s entirely understandable, necessary even, that Idlewild are progressing in this way. In conversation, it’s the sound of individuals more assured of their place than they were when we spoke to them pre-hiatus and on record, a band back to doing what they love. “We’ve already talked about working on some songs for another record,” Woomble reveals of their new found drive and determination. Jones is no less enthusiastic. “It really has reinvigorated us and made us look at the possibilities,” he adds. “We’ve only just scratched the surface of where we can go with this new incarnation of the band.”
A change is as good as a rest as the saying goes, but Idlewild have benefitted from both a change and a rest. With it has come a renewed strength and determination and a band near-unrecognisable from the one that broke onto the music scene all those years ago. “The minute you take a break from something, what quickly comes into focus is why it was important to you,” Woomble concludes. “It didn’t take me too long to realise it was quite a special thing, an important thing, and certainly something I didn’t want to close the door on.”
With Everything Ever Written, that door is most definitely open once more, and we’d encourage fans old and new to step inside.