Tales of the city

As Glasve­gas pre­pare to take their world to other places, Richard Pur­don meets their ide­al­is­tic front­man James Al­lan

The Herald - Arts - - Arts -

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

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