The Fence Connection: Randolph's Leap recap a year of working with their heroes
As an eventful 2012 winds down, we get acquainted with Adam Ross of indie-folk ensemble Randolph’s Leap to discuss albums, 'proper' albums, and the perks of Fence patronage.
When Randolph’s Leap christened their 2010 debut EP Battleships and Kettle Chips, they did so with the utmost innocence. “It was weird – I had no idea ‘kettle chips’ was a brand name,” protests founder and frontman Adam Ross. “I thought it was just like ‘crinkle-cut’ or ‘ridge cut’…” So when Kettle Foods Inc. got in touch, Ross naturally assumed the worst. But, in a warming tale of corporate kindness, the company’s response was less litigious than feared. “I was worried we were going to get a cease-and-desist ordering us to stop using their brand name, but they sent us some crisps instead. I will mention that they were almost out-of-date-crisps” Ross adds, lest we get too rosy an impression of the gesture. “We had 32 bags I think – which was a lot of crisps to eat in one week before they went stale…”
Luckily, Ross wasn’t left to tackle this potato mountain alone. A six-piece at the time of Battleships and Kettle Chips, and with a brass section since recruited to bring membership up to eight, Randolph’s Leap has gradually become a many-spoked wheel with Ross the de facto hub. The Nairn-raised songwriter first performed under the name in 2006, and now uses the moniker for both solo ventures and full-band activities. “The idea initially was to take on loads of people so that, on a good day, we can have eight people playing, but then the rest of the time have [whoever’s available],” he explains. “I thought if somebody can’t make it, it wouldn’t matter. But what I found is that whenever we have a rehearsal and somebody isn’t there, you really notice it. Everyone else in the band is a great musician, so they always add something.” Everyone else? So he's exempting himself from that? “Er, yeah…” Ross nods. “Three chords and a capo is all I know.”
The complete roster currently stands at Gareth Robert Perrie (keyboards), Vicki Cole (bass), Iain Taylor (drums), Andrew MacLellan (cello), Heather Thikey (violin), Ali Hendry (trumpet) and Fraser Gibson (trombone) – any plans for further expansion? ”No it would be stupid,” Ross laughs. “I mean, it’s stupid to have eight people in the first place. The logistics of trying to do a tour at the moment, it wouldn’t work, I don’t think – financially, and in terms of everybody getting time off work, stuff like that. We did a gig in London recently, but that’s as far as we’ve gone. So it has its downsides.”
When asked how playing with seven other bodies onstage compares with going it alone, Ross’s preference is clear. “The times I enjoy it most is when the band are just making a racket, and I don’t really need to think about what I’m doing,” he smiles. “During a solo gig or a quiet one, it’s much more nerve-racking because you can hear every cough and every little whisper or comment in the background. Whereas with the full band, the whole audience might be chatting but you don’t know cause you can get lost in your own wee world and pretend you’re Bob Dylan or whoever. If you get a good solo gig it’s great, but they’re a lot harder to pull off – especially when people don’t know who you are. I mean, yeah, if you had thousands of adoring fans who came up and hung on to your every word it’d be great, but most of the time we’re playing to new audiences, and it’s harder to make an impression or create an atmosphere when you’re on your own and terrified. The full band gigs tend to give me a bit more confidence.”
Judging by the recently-released Hermit 7” (the first Randolph’s Leap release to feature the full eight-piece), this confidence translates well to tape. In place of the (to appropriate a lyric of Ross’s) “endearingly shambolic” sound of past releases is a more polished and muscular dynamic; when second track Mutiny releases a blast of distorted guitars and keys, the volume is unexpected but invigorating. “Once we brought the brass in it kind of lifted everything,” says Ross. “It took us up a notch in terms of noise levels. We used to not let Iain play with sticks – very occasionally we’d let him do a gig with sticks, but never a rehearsal as we’d all be deaf by the end of it. Andy has recently been playing electric guitar as well, which seems to work… basically, we’ve become a bit louder, there’s a bit more energy to it.”
One thing that has remained a constant are the lyrics, which are as intelligent, witty and perceptive as ever (“no man is an island but an archipelago/ is something I could aim for if you’d only let me go”). Ross names Ivor Cutler, Jonathan Richman and Stephin Merritt as key influences in the development of his own distinct lyrical voice. “I’m not comparing myself to any of them, but these are the kind of people that I listened to and something clicked,” he says. “I was like, oh yeah, you don’t have to necessarily sing about being in love with your best friend or being really depressed.” Instead, Ross sings about underdogs and hangovers, feeling squeamish and pretending to luge in the bath, an array of subjects sometimes serious, sometimes silly, but always smartly and affectingly phrased.
Released as part of Fence Records’ Buff Tracks EP series, Hermit caps a year spent under the nurturing wing of the Fife collective (“Just being at Away Game was one of the highlights of the year,” Ross enthuses). For the EP’s sold-out launch gig in October, the support slot was filled by a “songwriter’s circle” of Fence-associates led by label chieftain Johnny Lynch – a show of peer support that Ross still seems pretty chuffed by. “Having been a massive, massive Fence fan for years, that was pretty surreal,” he says. “It was Johnny, Ziggy from FOUND, and Dave from Kid Canaveral taking it in turns to play. They totally upstaged us.”
In addition to Hermit, 2012 saw a wealth of other recordings released under the Randolph’s Leap banner, including two home-recorded albums, each with its own distinct style: the lo-fi cassette hiss of Randolph’s Leap and the Curse of the Haunted Headphones, which mixed acoustic folk with jaunty electro interludes; and the even more stripped-back As Fast as a Man, nine home recordings featuring Ross and Thikey only. Then there’s The Way of the Mollusc, another nine new tracks packaged with Introducing, a compilation of songs featured on previous EPs. That’s a lot of material in one year. “It’s partly the result of taking the lo-fi route a lot of the time, where it’s more instantaneous,” Ross shrugs. “If I’ve got some songs in my head, I can just record them and put them out… I think it’s quite useful nowadays to be able to do that. I think we’ve kind of got it lucky, because of the kind of music we make. The sonic properties don’t have to be at a certain level, it’s more about just the general feeling of the words or whatever, so you don’t have to spend loads recording it. It’s weird though, because people say we’re prolific but we’ve never released, like, a proper album.”
By a ‘proper’ album, Ross means one involving the full band – something they’re currently in the midst of recording. “We’re almost a third of the way there. Having done really, really lo-fi stuff at home that sounds mince, and then having gone to Chem19 to record the Fence EP, our album should be somewhere in between. We’re doing it with Pete [MacDonald] from the State Broadcasters, at his house. I enjoy recording there, without worrying about deadlines and stuff. Chem19 was great, but I was really stressed out, watching the clock the whole time. So it’s nice to be able to take our time over it.”
Randolph’s Leap round out their year with a couple of Christmas parties: the Olive Grove Records shindig at the Glad Café on 14 Dec, and Kid Canaveral’s Christmas Baubles event on Dec 22, where they’ll play alongside Malcolm Middleton, Meursault and many more. Then they’ll welcome in the New Year at Mono’s Hogmanay party (alongside Johnny Lynch and as-yet-unannounced special guests), before commencing an already busy 2013. “We’re playing a gig at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh [16 Feb] which seems pretty daunting cause it’s huge,” Ross laughs nervously. “We’re going to maybe try and have a single ready just before that, and then the album… I don’t know, before summer, hopefully. We’ll just see what happens with that.”
With the crisp windfall engendered by Battleships and Kettle Chips in mind, The Skinny asks whether they’ve considered any copyright-infringing titles for the album. After some pondering, Ross offers a trio of options: Plasma Screens & Levi Jeans and Hazelnut Lattes & Maseratis beckon the more lucrative endorsements. “Although truthfully,” he concludes, I’d be happy with Waterproof Coats & Scott’s Porridge Oats.”