Never chasing your attention: The Yummy Fur interview
The Yummy Fur have quietly become one of Glasgow's most beloved bands despite releasing no music this century. Now, as a long-awaited compilation album means their best songs finally enter the streaming age, frontman John McKeown explains their endurance
The man strolling through The Old Hairdressers should be, by rights, turning people’s heads. This is a no-frills bar beloved by Glasgow’s DIY music scene. And when it comes to doing things your own way, few Glaswegian songwriters have done it as well as the man sitting down to speak with The Skinny on a typically overcast Scottish summer’s evening.
John McKeown – known as Jackie to friends – has been writing and performing music for three decades. He’s fronted several bands, played with numerous big names, and had his music held up as an inspiration by everyone from Fat White Family to Beth Ditto of Gossip.
It's as the vocalist, guitar player and creative driving force behind The Yummy Fur that he remains best known. Originally formed as a trio in 1992, the group evolved through several expanding line-ups before splitting at the tail end of 1999. Two of their former members – drummer Paul Thomson and bass player Alex Kapranos – would subsequently reemerge as one half of Franz Ferdinand and climb the wall of pop stardom.
After a decade off, The Yummy Fur have reformed on several occasions with public awareness of them seeming to grow each year. “The longer you don’t do something, the more people talk about it,” grins McKeown. “I remember talking about the first time we reformed in 2009 to Gary Walker from Wiiija Records. This lassie, who was maybe about 25, was so into our show and was telling Gary how good it was. He told her: ‘they never used to be this good’. We play a lot better now than we did first time around.”
The Yummy Fur never had a manager or a promoter and emerged at a time when social media meant reading a newspaper left lying in a pub. The old lumbering giants of the weekly music press had little time for them. Yet the group still managed to play across the country and build up a following outwith their home city of Glasgow.
Their debut album, Night Club, was recorded in a basement in the city’s West End on a budget so low the end product sounds like it was produced in 1976 – not 1996 at the height of Britpop. McKeown wrote short, sharp songs with angular riffs with lyrics about real-life characters. One critic described them as sounding like “the Glasgow equivalent of a crossbreeding experiment between The Fall and Half Man Half Biscuit”, which was not intended as a compliment despite McKeown being a big fan of Mark E. Smith.
In 1998 The Yummy Fur produced their best record – technically a mini-album as it was released on 10" vinyl – Male Shadow at Three O’Clock. Known to fans as the Canadian flag album after its artwork, it tackled concepts including Catholicism and sexuality, consumerism and drug consumption. Finding those tracks in the streaming age proved difficult, however. Their records are long out of print and those that do surface are snapped up by eager collectors. Now, finally, a new best of compilation, Piggy Wings, will be released this month on Mogwai’s Rock Action label. So what was the hold up?
“The album was ready to go around 2010,” explains McKeown. “The people who were going to release it then fell through. And every time Franz do an album, everything has to kind of shut down for a bit. We couldn’t play without Paul.” There was no question of ever bringing in another drummer. “Paul and Brian [MacDougall, long-term guitarist] – they are the band. You can’t go below me, Paul and Brian. After that, it’s just silly.”
Despite its long gestation, McKeown never grew impatient. “I don’t think of The Yummy Fur as what I do,” he says. “The Yummy Fur was something we did do and finished in 1999, and then brought back ten years later when we did some tours. It was really good fun. Then after that, every couple of years someone would ask us if we wanted to do something. But I never wake up and think: ‘Right, The Yummy Fur!’"
Their stop-start reunion suits the band members, he adds. “It was that thing when you play one gig, and someone else asks you to play another one, and then someone asks you to do an American tour. So we did a whole bunch. And then came back and went: enough! It’s good fun being in The Yummy Fur... but I don’t want to be in The Yummy Fur. That sounds like I’m being flippant and glib about the band. I love the band. But I don’t wake up thinking what shall The Yummy Fur do next. It’s nice at the moment to have Rock Action dealing with it.”
McKeown admits there is far more interest in the band now than when they first called it quits in 1999, which he attributes in part to their connection to Franz Ferdinand. To the uninitiated, their music can, at times, feel abrasive or even a little unsettling. But it’s all delivered with an informal charm, and there’s a definite appeal in the way they never chased attention – the idea of inviting journalists to attend their shows never occurred to them.
“We would get reviews in Melody Maker or the NME, but I don’t ever really remember engaging with the media,” McKeown says now. “It wasn’t like we were stand-offish. We never sent a demo to any record company or anything like that. Honestly, we were in such a bubble. I was making records. I was playing gigs.
“Occasionally, I’ll meet younger kids in the pub who will ask me things like: 'How do you get a gig in a place like Nice N Sleazy or Mono?' I always say: just be good. You don’t need to send a tape to anyone or know someone. Just be interesting and make yourself stand out. Be unique and you will get noticed. You might not make any money but you will definitely get gigs!”
After The Yummy Fur, McKeown went on to form the 1990s – a more pop-friendly three-piece band who released two well-received albums on Rough Trade in the second half of the noughties. A third album was recorded in 2011 but has never seen the light of day. “Does anyone want an album?" asks McKeown. "You can put an appeal in the magazine."
But it remains The Yummy Fur that people most want to talk about. As he listened back to tracks while compiling Piggy Wings, McKeown admits he found some of it “quite odd music – there’s some weird riffs and shouty vocals”, but insists that was never deliberate. "To me, at the time, I thought it sounded dead melodic. I was influenced by people like The Supremes. It never occurred to us that what we were doing was different.”
Aside from his Yummy Fur duties, McKeown is focusing on his new band, Our Lady of the Stars, who recently supported Jarvis Cocker in Leith. “I have never had a sense that I am owed a living from music, or that I should have the right to make an album,” he explains. “But nobody is stopping us, so we’re playing gigs and maybe somewhere along the line someone will ask if we want to make a record. Which is how I’ve always done it.
“With The Yummy Fur, I like that we have songs that, every five years, seem to mean something different. The band is perceived differently now than it was then. I’m glad I didn’t write a bunch of songs about splitting up with my girlfriend or the Miners’ Strike. I was saying to a mate recently: be careful what you write lyrically now. Because in 20 years’ time you might still have to play it!"