Baubles, Labels, and Sliding Doors: Kid Canaveral interview Edwyn Collins
After a banner year which saw the release of his eighth studio album, Understated, Edwyn Collins invites Kid Canaveral's David MacGregor and Kate Lazda to his London studio to muse on the festive season, independence, and how he could've ran the internet
What do you ask a man who has been the driving force behind not one, but two independent record labels – Postcard Records, co-founded with Alan Horne, and his current imprint AED which he runs with wife Grace Maxwell – the first of which arguably sparked a Scottish musical renaissance in the 1980s that delivered a blueprint of possibility to generations of bedroom musicians, producers and pop dreamers? A man who has experienced the highs and lows of international pop fame and exhaustive world-touring, following global hit A Girl Like You in the mid-1990s? A man who has suffered life-threatening and altering illnesses and emerged on the other side with two albums boasting some of the most energetic, upbeat and excellent music of his 31-year career so far?
This was the question I found myself sweating over when The Skinny asked me and Kate from Kid Canaveral to go and have a chat with Edwyn Collins ahead of our annual end-of-year shindig Christmas Baubles IV, at which he is appearing. We swapped our guitars for Dictaphones and notepads, then headed to Edwyn’s London studio for a memorable hour of questions, answers and anecdotes.
We meet Edwyn and Grace in the car park outside their studio and are informed triumphantly by Grace that the boiler has been fixed and we’ll not have to suffer the November elements. Not that this would’ve been a problem, given the natural warmth the pair exude as hosts. We’re given a tour of the facilities, and wide-eyed looks of excitement are exchanged between myself and Kate as we’re shown dozens of guitars, several of which recongisable from record sleeves in our personal collections. Coffee and tea is served and it’s half an hour before the tape recorder is turned on, such is the friendly and welcoming atmosphere in the studio lounge. Our anticipated one hour interview will run, unnoticed, into four-and-a-half. A bottle of wine that’s “just kicking about” in the kitchen appears somewhere in the middle. I never claimed to be a journalist, OK?
Grace Maxwell is a force of nature, and still displays the sharp wit and provocative humour typical of her native west coast of Scotland, despite having been in London for over 30 years. She goads Edwyn as “the man who hasn’t paid a phone bill since 1982,” which he admits, with a chuckle, is in fact correct. This is by no means the last appearance of the man’s infectious laugh, as he proves himself to be a very animated and good-humoured interviewee. Grace has been acting as Edwyn’s manager since she took on the job for Orange Juice in the mid-80s and currently runs AED Records with her husband. “The whole idea was to be independent,” she says. “The whole thrust of 30 years, it doesn’t matter if you’re skint, you have to plough your own furrow. I’m not an artistic person but if you don’t understand that it’s about the fucking art then I’m not interested.” It is clear that these days they very much come as a team. Elaborating on his occasional administrative lapses, Collins recounts staff at his local DHSS office back in the 1980s inviting him into a back room of the office to inform him, while holding a copy of the NME open at a photo of him performing with Orange Juice, that his benefits were going to come to an end.
The conversation drifts naturally towards the current state of the music industry. AED is a label we have great affinity with, given that Kid Canaveral started out releasing records in 2007 on our own label Straight to Video Records. We share an unshakeable belief that, despite the many benefits the internet has brought over the last 15 years, there remains a place for the physical product. Thankfully this is a value that our current label Lost Map Records also holds dear. Vinyl releases are at the centre of AED’s ethos and sales figures for Edwyn’s last two albums are proof that regardless of what the major labels would like us to believe, the majority of people willing to invest their hard-earned cash in music do want something to put on the shelf as well as on their mp3 player. “Far, far more physical copies are sold [than people might think],” he says. “If you make a nice product, people want it. We know people who are buying records who don’t have a record player.”
"Back in the Orange Juice days I was scared shitless. Nowadays I am confident" – Edwyn Collins
Before his stroke in 2005, Edwyn was always the “the tech-savvy one” and Grace is of the firm belief that if the internet had existed in 1979, Postcard would have taken over the world. “Edwyn would have been brilliant at the internet,” she says. “The mistake people make is that they think they’ve got the internet and it will do it all for them. But you’ve still got be interesting. You can’t bore people to death. You can’t expect people to be interested if you’re not interesting.”
In 1998 Collins appeared on Newsnight to debate what effect the internet might have on the music industry. Grace recalls, “Edwyn had done all this research, and he was so brilliant and so clever. You thought it was going to be year zero for the music industry, and you were welcoming it, weren’t you?” He agrees, adding dryly that “before my stroke I was something of an intellectual. The head of MCA said something like ‘well we’ve been through all this before with cassettes...’”
As well as recording his own music, Edwyn also produces the majority of the albums released on AED at their West Heath studio. Edwyn and Grace built their first studio, “a tiny place near Ally Pally,” so he would never again have to ask a record label if they were allowed to record an album, or have anyone “telling him what to do.” Grace describes this as Edwyn’s second stage of independence after Postcard. "It was a bit of a nightmare," she starts. "But we got the album made that had A Girl Like You on it [Gorgeous George, 1994]. The idea was to have a studio where you could make your own records and produce people, and that money would allow him to make records. He didn’t go, ‘I’ll make a record that will have a track on it that will go nuts.’ We didn’t know that was going happen.”
Collins looks at Grace and sheepishly brings up the thorny issue of a sample in the aforementioned smash hit. “You know the drums? 1-2-3, Len Barry.” Grace shoots him a look both loving and withering. “Yep, there’s a sample,” she says. “You didn’t tell me about that did you?” At this point, Edwyn starts to sing a Len Barry number. Grace continues, “No-one even knows that song but Len Barry noticed. We got done retrospectively. Usually Edwyn’s songs came out in obscurity and no-one noticed anyway!”
When asked what he enjoys most – producing or performing – Collins states that he is “split 50/50,” with a look of devilment in his eyes. It’s clear that his studio is a place where he feels totally at home. “Back in the Orange Juice days, it was a problem to interpret my songs,” says Edwyn. “Working with producers. Nowadays it’s easy.” I put it to him that his albums since his illness have been really focussed and upbeat, to which he responds, “Before my stroke I was maybe a little bit depressed. And after my stroke I’m happy generally. Full of vigour!
“Back in the Orange Juice days I was scared shitless. Nowadays I am confident. Listen to me, I had a stroke but I am now confident about myself and my abilities. I’ve evolved as a songwriter but back in the Orange Juice days I was naïve. I couldn’t play my instrument.” Asked if he tackles songwriting differently to when he started out, Collins describes using a “Sony tape recorder. £20. I got the chorus first, then a verse. But the chorus was relatively easy, the verse is a bit of a nightmare. Dilemna I did on my tape recorder up in Helmsdale. I did the trumpets and the harmonies. And then the chorus [Edwyn starts singing some of recent single Dilemna]. In the studio we do the guitar, and Paul Cook does the drums.”
His path could’ve been very different, though. Edwyn recalls his dismay at being kicked out of the hard rock/prog band Onyx in which he was the banjo and ukulele player in his earlier years in Dundee. “I came up with the name!” he remonstrates.
Given that the reason we are sitting across from each other is a Christmas Show, I apologise in advance of asking what a typical Christmas in the Collins-Maxwell house is like. Grace courteously obliges us with, “up in Helmsdale, some in London, but they always used to be in Glasgow with my sister, she’s Christmas berserk!” This prompts some debate between Grace and Edwyn over the festive merits of Chuck Berry, and a ringing endorsement from both for The Temptations’ Christmas album. “It’s a belter!” says Edwyn. “Their version of Silent Night is pretty out there…”
After a lot of amusing family chat and an anecdote about some middle-eastern royalty that may be considered libellous, Grace eventually brings things back into focus by asking, “So, what do you think of Christmas, Edwyn?”
“I’m 50/50” he replies, with another burst of that laugh.