Drever, McCusker and Woomble: Folk to the power of three

Kris Drever, John McCusker and Roddy Woomble talk to Paul Mitchell about chance meetings, moody rock kids and how to make folk go pop

Feature by Paul Mitchell | 26 Sep 2008

Kris Drever explains his view of the differences between musicians from the “folky scene” (his words), and those who ally themselves to the rock/pop world. “There’s a general camaraderie among folk musicians; a lot of shenanigans as we essentially meet one another at various points around the globe throughout the year. Sooner or later you have a pint and a night out with just about everyone.” Sounds like effective networking, but why are the rock kids any different? “ Some people that I’ve met whose livelihood depends on the rock or pop world, well, they don’t really hang out with other bands much. They tend to stick with their own camp and don’t seem to communicate with one another. I don’t really know why that is. I suppose in the folk world, if you start acting up like a big shot, you’re going to get shot down in flames.”

The Skinny is speaking with Orkney-born guitarist Drever (a member of experimental folk act Lau), multi-instrumentalist and producer John McCusker and long-time Idlewild frontman Roddy Woomble on the release of their collaborative album Before The Ruin. The record has been warmly received, attracting applause not just for the allure of the softly spoken compositions within, but also the suggestion that it was put together in a very short space of time. McCusker makes it sound so: “We just started meeting up in my flat and wrote a few songs together over the course of maybe ten or twelve days.” Woomble however, suggests that the reality is otherwise. “The actual process of completing the songs and recording them, fleshing them out, that took a long time and getting all the guests in and putting all the parts together. The record doesn’t sound like something that was knocked off in the afternoon, it’s quite an accomplished piece of work because it has so many different shades - lots of instrumentation.”

In this remark he is paying tribute to the production work of McCusker, who was charged with taking the source material and polishing it up (“but not too much, we all agreed that overdoing it would not be a good thing” adds Drever). McCusker drew upon his high standing in the scene to bring in guests as accomplished as Radiohead drummer Philip Selway (whose solo album he is producing), Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and Irish singer Heidi Talbot. The project, initially slated as Woomble's next solo offering to follow 2006's My Secret is My Silence (produced by McCusker), quickly became one in where the chief protagonists just, as Drever remarks, “threw our hats in the ring and started playing ideas at each other”.

So, with all agreeing there was no definitive plan from the outset, lyricist Woomble explains how he grasped the opportunity to develop his songwriting. “I was interested in exploring themes which I normally wouldn’t write about myself. I suppose the loose theme of the record is man’s relationship with the sea. The sea is one of those metaphors which can be used for lots of things. I was quite interested in writing about the islands, particularly Orkney. Before the Ruin is reference to standing in front of the sea. It can pull you in; you can discover other countries.”

McCusker admits that he played it by ear when putting the finishing touches together. “We didn’t know if it would sound like Teenage Fanclub with bouzoukis, whether we were going to make a poppy sounding folk record or something in between. It seems sometimes like there’s a guy inside of me who wants to be in Teenage Fanclub, but I play the tin whistle so it doesn’t get to pan out that way. Instead of rocking out we found that it turned out to be quite gentle, and hopefully the listeners will be able to get drawn into the record and find new things with every listen.”

The camaraderie Drever mentions is genuine. The trio are generally effusive in their admiration for the work of the others without going overboard with generic platitudes. McCusker explains the air of mutual respect that pervades. “We met in Sandy Bells about ten years ago. I went over very drunkenly having watched him play the double bass and said ‘We have to be friends now’. I’m pretty sure that’s how it happens all the time really”.

Drever, McCusker and Woomble play:

The Ironworks, Inverness on 2 Oct

Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow on 3 Oct

Queens Hall, Edinburgh on 5 Oct

Before the Ruin is available now via Navigator