Lady North: Technical Ecstasy

From hatching schemes in a Tesco car-park to playing gigs for Sunday league footballers, the only way is weird for mathematic riff magicians <b>Lady North</b>

Feature by Jason Morton | 04 May 2011

You walk down Duke Street in Glasgow, carrying your electric guitar, your effects pedals, heading to your first away gig – a major coup for an Edinburgh band trying to make inroads to the UNESCO City of Music. You’re with your bandmates – who also happen to be your mate-mates. You get up to that bit where Duke Street turns into a post-industrial outback. Then Paul, your drummer, tells you he's been reading the map wrong; you'll have to double back, and quick, to make the gig on time. You make it by a thread, only for the barman to serve you with the news that you should have been emailed earlier today – ‘the gig's been cancelled boys’.

It's enough to shake any aspiring musician, especially the instrumental trio inquestion, whose more ‘math-rock’ (humour us here) tendencies might seem more natural a fit in the west than their native Auld Reekie. Enter: Lady North.

Scott Bullen, primary songwriter and de facto leader of the outfit, recounts the story with humour and candour in the back room of a Leith bar, as he and bandmates – bassist Jamie Steel and drummer Paul Bannon – reflect on the band's history to date.

The birth of Lady North occurred in a Corstorphine car park, according to Bullen, set to the soundtrack of the 2006 album Easter by now-defunct American post-hardcore group These Arms Are Snakes. "They're the band that we communed with,” says Bullen. “I remember me and him [nods to Bannon] being in this white van he used to have at Tesco in Corstorphine when we first heard that album. Just listening and saying 'I can't believe how good this sounds'. Like crazy hardcore dreams.” Of the Seattle band’s sustained influence on his own approach to songcraft, Bannon attributes: “The way they play really short things that are repetitive, then things will change, like the timing that they're in – that influenced the way I write; very short, very sharp things that will loop better and get bigger and bigger. That's the sort of thing that'll amuse me more."

Paying the ultimate respect, the band took its name from the ninth track on Easter and set about forging its own sound in the practice room, time signature by time signature. A major breakthrough for the boys came in the guise of what at the time seemed like a crisis – the departure of singer Ali [Shiels]. Opting for studies in Glasgow, the split left the band seemingly voiceless, but the now-trio of Lady North had their spirits raised once they hit the practice room. "It was like a light went on," admits Steel. "We're an instrumental band now. It just felt so much more natural."

Bannon – who also puts in time with Steel in Dupec as well as handling the trap kit for Dead Boy Robotics – elaborates: "I think because we don't have a singer, we have a lot more room to work. We don't have to worry about writing lyrics or the way that he sings."

With this newfound focus on instrumentation, the band's early output garnered unavoidable comparisons to Oxford manufacturers of danceable, staccato guitar-laced tracks Foals and math-rock godfathers Don Caballero, both of whom Bullen concedes have made an impact on their style. "I had a wee nap today, and I listened to What Burns Never Returns by Don Cab," he says. "As you're having a nap, it's nice – as much as it's crazy and all." The (math) rock’n’roll lifestyle comes at a price for Bullen – who supports his efforts in Lady North by putting in time at a high street retailer. So it seems excusable if he's Delivering The Groceries At 138 Beats Per Minute in his dreams during a wee lie down in-between two very different lives.

As for Foals, Bullen acknowledges that the band got him experimenting with guitar triplets, something shared with another band he says he draws yet more inspiration from – Battles, one of Warp Records’ finest. The ‘everything at the wall’ aesthetic allure of that Brooklyn outfit – in addition to a touch of Minus the Bear – crops up tastefully on their latest collection of recorded tracks, which the band plan to release as an EP later this year.

In addition to the musicality of Battles, Bullen suggests the production of Mirrored has led them to seek a refined recording, making the EP's production a more prolonged affair. “We're trying to get more of a bigger, more atmospheric sound but it's not quite coming across yet," he says of the trial and error process.

Cards close to the chest, the band are also in tentative talks with Edinburgh specialist label Gerry Loves Records about releasing a split vinyl. However the music finds its way out, they’re in unanimous agreement that they need to find a way to marry the increasing complexity of the sound with the kinetic energy of their live performance, something they pride themselves on delivering.

"That's all we wanna do,” says Bullen.”Put on a semi-decent live show, especially as we don't have vocals. If you go see a band with vocals, the singer will speak to you; he sets the tone. Because we don't have that, we need something to be staring at."

Lady North's spiritual forebears tend to bring a certain electricity to the stage, so it's no surprise the trio feel the need to up their game when the high profiles support slots come knocking, one of which involved attempting to trump Chicagoan post-rockers Maps and Atlases at a packed Sneaky Pete’s recently. "That was a really, really good show,” beams Bullen, still. “Maps and Atlases have been one of our favourite bands since they released Trees, Swallows, Houses years ago.” But the band all agreed they were too star-struck to give their heroes much in the way of chat.

"You just wanna be like ‘I love you, I love you, I love you so much’’...think I came across as a bit of a dick, 'cause I didn't know what to say to them," Bullen admits. "But that was one of the best gigs we've played … opening for a band that we love."

Officials for the Scottish Alternative Music Awards might have caught that show, or one of the other inspired performances they’ve given over the last 12 months, as Lady North were tipped for Best Live Act for 2010. Although the band didn't win and Bullen couldn't even make the ceremony at Classic Grand, Steel says it wasn't a total loss: "There were Jägermeister Girls, scantily clad and giving us test tubes full of Jägermeister… so that was like, a bonus."

Or at least a warmer reception than they had the first time they visited Glasgow. Coming back to the story, Bullen explains that the barman – after informing them their gig had been axed – saw the band's plight and offered them fifth support on the bill for another show happening that night, though admittedly it wasn’t Lady North’s usual clientele. "We're playing to a Sunday league football team – screaming 'Play us something we know!' And to be fair, I've never gone as crazy on stage - I was absolutely loving it."

Playing Sneaky Pete's, Edinburgh on 8 June