Savage Mansion on debut album Revision Ballads
We speak to Craig Angus about his debut album as Savage Mansion, Revision Ballads, the Glasgow music scene and about not being complacent in trying times
"We started off being fairly bad, by the time we split up we’d got a lot better, but it was never going anywhere."
It was a blessing in disguise when the early incarnation of Savage Mansion – Poor Things, who formed in 2010 – disbanded in 2016. Initially, though, frontman Craig Angus didn’t see it that way. "I took it pretty badly," he says. "It was an amicable split but I was so embarrassingly melodramatic about it, considering that it was plainly obvious to anyone paying attention that we were reaching that stage in our lives."
Poor Things had been a fairly collaborative effort, so Angus didn’t anticipate the freedom of writing on his own, which inevitably meant writing different kinds of songs and taking it in the exact direction he wanted. It was the clean slate he needed all along. "This is exactly what my friends in Catholic Action were saying to me. I’d been in a band that just sounded like Weezer a lot of the time, and then suddenly I’m sitting in this bedroom in the house I’d grown up in writing (what I thought) The Velvets or Jonathan Richman would have written if they’d come from a nondescript town in Scotland."
While Savage Mansion was born out of an instinct to do something different, Angus still looks back on his time in Poor Things fondly – the name of his new venture even being taken from a song that Poor Things were working on for their never-to-see-the-light-of-day second album. "We had some friends who lived in this real shithole of a place in Glasgow, who passed the house on to another group of friends the following year. They called the house the ‘savage mansion’, which I always just found really funny."
The additional members of Savage Mansion joined out of happenstance and, to this day, the line-up remains pretty casual. Currently, alongside Angus you'll find drummer Taylor Stewart – "a mad wee guy who I know from playing in Herbert Powell who I thought was hilarious and really wanted to play music with" – and Andrew Macpherson and Jamie Dubber, both from Catholic Action, but the actual line-up of the live band changes depending on how busy people are. "Right now Taylor’s focusing on making the Romeo Taylor (Stewart’s electronic side-project) stuff into the sort of cultural phenomenon that can make him millions. Lewis Orr, who I know from drumming in the Martha Ffion band, is playing with us right now, but it might change, or expand, in the future. Who knows – whatever feels right."
The various name-checks of certain Glasgow bands throughout our chat – as well as recollections of hazy summer days spent drinking Buckfast and forming friendships – points very much to an understanding of experiencing music as a community. "It’s like anywhere, there’s some incredible music happening in Glasgow," Angus says, "but there’s also some stuff I don’t dig going on. It’s pretty difficult to get bored here."
Indeed, there is something about Glasgow that keeps people there. Angus left Perth for Glasgow to study in 2008, but the pursuit of music lingered the whole time. "I was obsessed with getting the NME, Q, whatever music magazine was on offer as a teenager, and reading it cover to cover. Glasgow was close by and had all this history and it was always being mentioned in those magazines – Franz Ferdinand was a big thing for us at school. It had to be Glasgow, and – aside from that 19 month period where I lived in Perth midweek – I’ve not left, nor had the desire to leave."
Angus has recently started promoting shows with Siobhain Ma (Happy Spendy) in Glasgow under the moniker Underachievers Club which launched last month at Celtic Connections, and is heavily involved in the city’s DIY scene, contrary to his own beliefs: "I don’t know if I am!" he says. "I feel uncomfortable with it: there are promoters, record labels etc in the city who have been doing this stuff for so much longer than I have – real stalwarts."
Angus and Ma set out with the purpose of promoting in order to be more active members of a community that has served them so well, and, essentially, give back a little more. We discuss how we think DIY communities can be improved, and swiftly move on to the subject of being a woman in the music scene. "I realised from talking to Eimear [Coyle, from Happy Spendy] and Siobhain more in depth about this that even in fairly progressive circles, the gender gap is still a vast one. So that’s one thing that as promoters we’re thinking about."
Recorded in two bursts of three days with a fellow Glasgow music scene stalwart (the aptly named Jamie Savage at Chem19), Savage Mansion’s Revision Ballads is an album that’s as comfortingly familiar as it is subtly idiosyncratic and timely. Angus’ reverence for Neil Young is manifested in the energy and honesty of every track, with an emphasis on capturing mistakes and using them to his advantage. Various literary influences also imbue a lot of the tracks – Philip K. Dick feeds into Infinite Factory and Situation Comedy, while Dog O’ Tears is named after a character from José Saramago’s Blindness.
Revision Ballads is a culmination of all the potential and creativity that the band exuded on earlier recordings. It’s easy to denounce a band like this as derivative – the slacker-esque melodies certainly recall the likes of Stephen Malkmus and Pavement – but Savage Mansion are not mere copycats of bygone eras. Angus uses his influences as a tool to create something familiar but very much of its time, no doubt thanks to the political themes that are littered throughout the album. Dog O' Tears, for example, is a response to living in an increasingly xenophobic society. We observe how an increasing amount of bands are engaging in political discourse using their own music. "How could you not?" says Angus. "We’re living in difficult times. A lot of the musical paths we’re collectively treading have been walked already – I think guitar bands are fairly out of fashion and I can see why.
"There’s more new territory being explored in hip-hop – that recent Earl Sweatshirt album is astonishing. But I don’t think the conversation ends there. The challenge we have now is to attempt to reflect on and alter the times we’re in to still be relevant. I don’t think all music has to be political. There are other ways that lyricists can keep it novel. I was particularly bothered by the Brexit vote. Not so much the idea that the EU is terrible – I think it could be reformed – but the plainly racist rhetoric, and the racially motivated aggression that emerged."
Contrary to the laid-back nonchalance of Savage Mansion’s music, the band negate any form of idleness in favour of effecting change. Angus is already working on their second album and, cultivated by an interest in Glasgow's history, insists that there will be a lot more urgency in the political side of his songwriting. "I’ve been doing a lot of research into Glasgow for it; trying to view the city as a character a bit more. I’ve been reading about the Suffragette movement here, John Maclean and the power of collective action, as well as young lads who went to fight fascism in Spain, and Glasgow’s role in the slave trade which is horrifying.
"We just can’t get complacent. I think it’s good that people stand up. There’s great music to be made if you can use it all as fuel. I remember hearing Alternative Facts by Mush for the first time and thinking they’d written an anthem for a specific moment. I’m raising the expectations for myself in that regard this year."
Revision Ballads is released on 15 Feb via Lost Map Records; Savage Mansion play The Hug & Pint, Glasgow, 15 Feb; Conroy's Basement, Dundee, 16 Feb