Glasvegas: Out of Exile

Returning from the wilderness with album number two this month, Glasvegas frontman James Allan reveals the reasons for the band's retreat

Feature by Paul Neeson | 13 Apr 2011
  • Glasvegas

Late in 2009, Dalmarnock’s most famous musical export were on top of the world. Having seen their profile change from that of a speakeasy, cult-band with a clutch of promising lo-fi demos, to critically acclaimed rock and roll saviours within the space of a few short years, their potential seemed limitless – their fate, surely, to conquer the industry.

Their eponymous debut album was pitching itself at the top end of numerous industry year-end lists, and the nominations were following, having already claimed the NME Philip Hall Radar Award in 2008. Quickly recording a follow-up mini-album in a Transylvanian Castle – the darkly inspired Christmas ode A Snowflake Fell And It Felt Like A Kiss – had proven that there was plenty more in James Allan’s creative tank, and the band were beginning to hang with some true heavyweights, providing support for U2 and Oasis. But it was at this unlikely point – with the world at their feet – that Glasvegas took a step back, and disappeared off the radar.

Fast-forward almost fourteen months, and the band has returned to the fore, with a tour of some lesser-expected Scottish venues – Troon, Kirkwall and Dunoon all fall on the itinerary – leading to a fully fledged European trip. They’re also poised and ready to release their long awaited sophomore album, EUPHORIC /// HEARTBREAK \\\. Their resurfacing has brought with it some notable changes; ex-drummer Caroline McKay has departed, replaced by the Swedish Joanna Lofgren. Their leader has also pulled rank, dropping the band’s trademark all-in-black outfit, favouring a born-again, celestial white instead; though the dark shades remain.

When we talk with James he’s in Paris – juggling an afternoon of media commitments prior to their show that evening at Nouveau Casino. With rumours having hinted at a classic rock and roll breakdown for James around the time of their retreat from the limelight – they reputedly cancelled their last few shows with the Kings of Leon as a result – quite what to expect from the conversation is uncertain. It’s with a disarming honesty then, that he informs us in the least possible rock star terms that his morning has been spent raiding Euro Disney for merchandise, followed by a relaxing bath. “There’s Mickey Mouse balloons everywhere!” he booms. “We’ve got Disney dog bowls – mugs as well – they always go down well with the family.”

Relaxed, warm, friendly, and seemingly in the mood to banter, the benefits of Glasvegas’ break seem to be written all over him. But why step back at what seemed like such a career making point? “For the band, it was the right time,” he states unapologetically. “It was ‘write an album’ time, not showbiz time.” Did their departure from the public arena need to be so dramatic – could there not have been some compromise? “My sister [who manages the band] just didn’t want us to do any more interviews. She was kind of like, ‘People will be sick of ye. Give them a break!’”

Allan seems unconvinced by the suggestion that the at times sycophantic posturing of the music media may have been detrimental to band and fan alike. “To be honest with you, I don’t know how any bands could complain about overhype. All the media attention is what gives people the chance to connect with and invest time in the music – or not. But it gives them and us that chance. And I’m appreciative of that. Where do you draw the line and say ‘I can’t believe these magazines keep on writing about the band?’” So what of the rumoured breakdown – did James really bow under the pressure, reduced to singing to his pet goldfish? Again, he laughs, perhaps defensively on this one. “I’d like to think I was having fun,” he says, “but then I’m not going to say I was losing my mind. I’m a bit biased that way.”

Regardless of motive, the band ultimately took their manager’s advice, decamping to Santa Monica in March of 2010 with the intention of using the space and time to clear their minds and get back to basics, to what mattered most – writing music. As James puts it: “When you reduce yourself back to your beginnings, that’s kinda like shattering yourself to put the pieces back together, so then you can move forward.”

A sojourn abroad to regain perspective seemed to make perfect sense. But, as James explains, with the band inhabiting a luxurious mansion on California’s sun-kissed coastline for the duration, the situation on this occasion was very different to that of the sessions for their debut album in New York. “We had people calling up asking about the new songs, and we had a blank canvas. I mean, just for us to stay on that beach – I probably shouldn’t say this – but it cost 25k a month. It was only a few years ago that I was unemployed and had nowhere to live. That was a big difference from writing the first record. There was heavy financial pressure.”

Besides being tasked with meeting the hopes of their label, much of the pressure the band faced was internal. “The way I see it, your own expectations are always going to be greater than those around you. I think you can say that for most people, in most walks of life.” As for James’s personal demands, he states them in simple terms. “I just wanted to make the album as good as it could be.” Again, the issue of hype raises its head: Can Glasvegas ever live up to the headlines? James’s answer is measured. “There have been times when I really felt the pressure – I’ve been lost, scared, petrified. I don’t mind admitting that. But when you’re writing the songs, when you’re that focused, everything else disappears.” He asks if The Skinny plays football, to which we mumble something about ‘occasional five-a-side with pals.’ Regardless, he enthusiastically continues with the analogy: “It’s like when you play football, and you’re running with the ball, and you’re focused, and there’s this silence all around you. You can’t hear anyone. You’re just acting on instinct, and in a split second you do something and you don’t really know what you’ve done until it’s happened. That’s what I love about football and music.”

The approach clearly worked, with EUPHORIC /// HEARTBREAK \\\ primed and ready for release this month. It’s very much still set in the Glasvegas mould – a colossus of choruses, dark emotional drama, and distortion – but with more in the way of hooks. “I think I’ve let go of fear, most of all,” says James of the fundamental change in his own approach to the band. “When fear kicks in, it can put you out of character, whether that’s being over-confident or big-headed, or whatever. I promised myself in Santa Monica that this time around, if the band were to last to make another record, I would let my guard down a bit, show some compassion, some more affection,” he offers with a quiet sincerity. “I hope that’s the one difference.”

EUPHORIC /// HEARTBREAK \\\ is out now via Columbia Records

Playing Aberdeen Music Hall on 23 Apr; Edinburgh HMV Picture House on 24 Apr; Glasgow 02 Academy on 25 Apr and RockNess, Inverness on 12 Jun

Join Glasvegas for a meet and greet at Avalanche Records on 24 Apr