Tales of the city
As Glasvegas prepare to take their world to other places, Richard Purdon meets their idealistic frontman James Allan
Things can happen fast in the world of rock’n’roll. There has been a seismic shift in the lives of the members of Glasvegas since they featured in Arts Books and Cinema at the end of last year. Evenbeforethereleaseoftheirdebutalbum, the global reach of the four Glaswegians is apparent, with fans such as Lisa Marie Presley and Debbie Harry and forthcoming sold-out tours in the States and Japan.
Yet the band remain staunchly East End in their vernacular and their attitude, and their particular form of local humour keeps them grounded. Frontman and songwriter James Allan has an outlook shaped by the valued characters in his background and the space he grew up in.
He passionately believes in expressing the reality of street life and the dilemmas of people in the East End of Glasgow with the same energy and vitality that Martin Scorsese demonstrated when capturing New York City’s Little Italy neighbourhood in Mean Streets. Allan could easily be sound-tracking a Scorsese picture – he captures his East End characters with the same emotional intensity as the director, and there’s a morality that sparks up on first listen of the forthcoming debut disc.
“If you are insincere with your girlfriend or your family, you might think you are being clever but no matter what your threshold for guilt is, it will get a grip of you and it will destroy you,” says Allan. His Scottish brogue tells of absent fathers, destructive addictions, social worker/ client relationships, street stabbings, prison life and ice cream vans. His stories come served with the hypnotic punch of multi-layered guitars that burst into a sonic wall of sound and doo-wop vocals – the effect is devastating. But the real masterstroke of the album is that amid such dark and disturbing subject matter, the overwhelming sensation is one of a soul exploding with hope.
Significantly, the band in black spent two months away from Glasgow this year recording their much anticipated debut in New York City.
“There are more similarities between the two cities than people would imagine,” admits Allan, fresh from recording with Rich Costey, producer of Franz Ferdinand, Interpol and New Order. “The record company wanted to cut down on the chances of the record not being legendary so they got Rich in to co-produce”, he says with a laugh. “The guy is a scientist of sound. He can move things from third to fifth gear really quickly. He’s an inspiration, I love him. He hired a black ’49 Cadillac for driving us round Manhattan. It was a weird way of living. How did all this happen? I’ve hardly had time to see my gran or go to a game.”
Allan’s dream was to make it as a professional football player, but after stints at Gretna and Falkirk, the dream slipped away. Not previously particularly interested in music, Glasvegas became another way of expressing himself. It’s his relentless dedication to not diluting that voice that adds a sense of urgency and intensity to the Glasgow four-piece’s live sets. As music the world over succumbs to the curse of sameness, it’s rare to hear a band express the idiosyncrasies of their home city with such sheer and unapologetic vigour. Sitting back with a glass of Moet in the Firewater venue on Sauchiehall Street, Allan is clearly having the time of his life; despite not quite living his own particular dream.
“I think a lot of kids see the Stones or footage of some other band and want to live that life, hoping they might get a bit popular or famous. I’m not trying to do that with our band; I’m trying to let my guard down and let my own personality and vision pour out. This is our world and no-one else’s – it’s not about living the dream or about being in a clichéd rock band. I want the electricity between the four of us to flow out on a stage; it’s a hard thing to truly and sincerely let your guard down.”
There’s undoubtedly a conviction about what he says and it’s a perspective that is his alone, not something he attributes to coming from the East End. “To be honest,” he says, “it doesn’t matter what your class background or religious background is; certain people are just a bit more sensitive than others and some are a bit more numb and oblivious to things. I’m a bit too sensitive for my own good, I’ve been like that since I was a kid. A lot of that guilt stuff from when I was a kid comes out in the writing. These are common things for people but you just don’t normally hear it on a pop record.”
It’s not just the lyrical content of Allan’s songs, it is the way every word is sung as if it’s going to be his last. He makes waiting for the ice-cream van in a housing scheme sound other-worldly and exotic. That’s because, for Allan, it was.
“A lot of the memories in the music I make come from the places I grew up in. When you are producing the music, you can get quite distant from it, but when I listen to it again I can visualise the street where I used to stay in Dalmarnock and that ice cream van. I want to let that visual perspective come through with as much sincerity as I can. When writing Ice Cream Van I could see Lily Street and Parkhead in the background. I think I’ve done a pretty good job because no matter where I go and sing that song I can see those streets and those places.
“It’s a case of taking your world to other places. Somebody asked me: ‘How are people outside of Glasgow going to get this?’, but my response was ‘Are you surprised that people get Bob Marley?’”
So is it the disregarded and ignored of Glasgow who are about to make their debut on the world stage? “There are great thinkers in Glasgow’s working class,” Allan says. “There is an exoticness in the Glaswegian accent and in a lot of our culture. I’ve found beautiful places in the city – there is a certain gothic element and a real electric intensity. It can be a bit too much for certain people, especially if you aren’t used to it.”
For Allan, there is a basic humility and concern for others that governs the character of the city. It’s rare for a pop song to document the concern a social worker has for her client, the way the single
Geraldine does, but that’s the landscape that makes Glasvegas so appealing.
‘The simplicities in life are sometimes overlooked. It’s something as simple as showing compassion in your community. I think compassion for another human being is underrated, because everybody is running about daft. With Geraldine I was intrigued by the relationship between a social worker and a client and someone dealing with showing compassion on a daily basis – and I didn’t want to make that obvious until the last line of the song.”
Part of Glasvegas’s appeal is that straightforwardness. You can imagine lyrics off their forthcoming album being debated in Glasgow taverns in exactly the same voice. Flowers and Football Tops references the fatal stabbing of Rangers fan Kriss Donald and ends with keening lines from You Are My Sunshine. SAD Light’s nod to Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star is eccentrically poignant.
“I like very simple words. When I was asked to pick an inspirational lyric, I chose Elvis’s Heartbreak Hotel and the line ‘I feel so lonely, I could die.’ I respect words; when people say things you can underestimate how much they mean them. And when I sing words, I sing them with every bit of my personality; I mean it 100%.”
Glasvegas are playing Scottish venues this week before heading to the States.Leftto right,RabAllan,PaulDonoguhe,James Allan and Caroline McKay