An interview with RM Hubbert prior to his gig at Mad Hatters on the 27th of September as part of his UK headline tour.
I know, silly title in so many ways. But then before the interview I had, like any interviewer, taken the time to listen to his music, read the bio on his site and information from sleeve notes. And yes, I even checked out Wikipedia. One thing we got out the way is that Hubby, while born in Paisley, never actually lived there and considers himself as being from Glasgow. Good, because as a Greenock Morton fan I have never forgiven the Paisley Panda (St Mirren’s mascot) for running along the front of the Morton fans with a giant aerosol tin, insinuating we were smelly; so, no petty differences and possible sources of tension to be resolved then. And yes, I thought I knew a bit about Hubby but what shines through when you speak with him is the depth and integrity of the man and the artist. Generous and charming, this is how our conversation went.
Roddy: While I have some appreciation of your inspiration, I’m curious to know if you have any enduring influences?
Hubby: Ehm, sure, I mean I grew up listening to groups like Mirror Men and Black Flag, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Junior and to be honest it’s still them. When I was learning acoustic guitar I listened to a few people, Sabicas and a Brazilian guitarist called Baden Powell . . . but I don’t listen to a great deal of acoustic music to be honest.
R: Oh – that’s intriguing . . .?
H: It’s more that . . . I like to try and make the acoustic guitar sound like a whole band.
R: Well certainly on First & Last you have a very full sound. It had been described to me as being very dark, I first listened to it on my way to the beach and I thought there were some quite cheery parts. I mean there are shades in there, quite a bit of light – is that fair?
H: Ehm – not a great deal of light on that album, but that’s the great thing about instrumental music, you get to imprint your own feelings on to it. It’s one of the things I love about instrumental music in that it’s a lot easier to put your own feelings and emotions, your own experience into it when you listen to it. You’re right though, there are happy moments in that album.
R: (Here’s where my research let me down folks). For example I particularly like the compositions dedicated to your wife – I mean the description you give of watching her knitting and then painting that scene with a guitar, that’s absolutely lovely.
H: Yeah, well thank-you. She is now my ex-wife . . .
R: Oh – okay. (Just in case anyone is embarrassed on my behalf, we did at least have a laugh at this faux pas). Well, the second time I listened to First & Last was on my way to a funeral and I certainly picked up on the darkness then, I had a completely different emotional reaction to the album. If I understand you correctly, you don’t set out to push anybody’s emotional buttons but your own, but do people share their reactions with you?
H: Yes, especially after shows. I mean, I use writing music as a kind of therapy, I’ve suffered from depression for a long time; First & Last was written in the aftermath of both my parents dying. So when I’m playing live I explain what the pieces are about, y’know I talk about why I do it, and so yeah, people do come up afterwards and they’ll share their experiences and that kind of thing as well. It’s a good thing to do, it’s good to talk about that kind of stuff.
R: I’m quite fascinated by that, because if I’ve got this right it’s only after you’ve written and reflected on a piece that you come to understand the significance of it?
H: Aye, I rarely sit down with the intent to write something and I tend to only write one thing at a time, so I think whatever is happening in my life just kind of seeps into it and that’s where the meaning comes from for me. I see them as wee documents.
R: Is it quite cathartic at that point, you’ve certainly alluded to the process as healing or certainly helping you stay well. Can they be quite cathartic for you, these small epiphanies?
H: Yeah, I mean it’s more performing and explaining them that gives a bit of release but, it’s nice when it starts to click.
R: Do you still have an emotional reaction to the material when you’re playing it, even after the passing of time and having played it several times?
H: It changes – it’s changed over the years. A lot of the stuff from First & Last I wrote six or seven years ago, so a lot of the stuff that was very raw at the time is, well it’s quite nice now. It’s a reminder of the person for me whereas before it was a reminder of a very specific event or something bad happening. Now it just gives me a few minutes to think about them, which is really nice. It kind of ties into this idea of instrumental music, that the purpose and the subject matter can change over the years which is something that’s maybe not so easy to do when you have words which tends to set the meaning in stone So yeah, I mean I still have an emotional response to it but it changes, it’s not as intense, which is a lot about what the new record (Breaks & Bone) is about, about letting go of all that stuff and moving on.
R: I also found it evocative and visual, I had lots of imagery going on in my head and it suited the landscape that was flashing past, I was driving down the A9, so I suppose I couldn’t help thinking that it’s got huge potential as a soundtrack, is that something you recognise and how would you feel about that.
H: Well people have used some of my music in films and it’s fine, I’ve only written one soundtrack and I, well I don’t enjoy it very much.
R: Oh right – so the accidental stuff is much better for you?
H: Yeah well it turns out that I don’t take direction very well so . . .
R: Moving on, the first track on Thirteen Lost & Found, We Radioed; I felt it was very much like a refrain from First & Last and that it would sit comfortably on that album. Was that intentional, was it a nod in the direction of First & Last?
H: Ehm, not really, We Radioed was actually something that I improvised in the studio. I think we had recorded that on the first day of recording, Luke and I had done stuff in the morning and then Aidan came in to do some stuff in the afternoon, and I think Aidan was late and we had half an hour to spare so we played about but eh . . . Yeah Luke, Luke was a huge influence on me musically when I was growing up, he was in a band called Long Fin Killie who were a band I really loved, y’know they really shaped my guitar playing when I was in my early 20s. So this was the first time we’d done any music together, it was a really big deal for me. So saying it was shaped by previous stuff – it was actually shaped by those last 20 years of music for me, it was a really cool thing. So we improvised that in a couple of takes and, well I think it made a really great statement of intent for that album.
R: Given what you’ve just said, was it always going to be the first track for the album?
H: It wasn’t even a song that had been written for the album, we’d actually finished and recorded another song, so it was really more just two guys playing guitar, which is what I really liked about it we played off each other really well. That album in general, the last thing we were thinking about was the music. The whole point of doing the album was to re-connect with these people and I thought the easiest way to do it would be through writing music, because, well we’re all musicians. So it was kind of the least important thing. It was interesting getting together and having a bit of a play and then trying to shape it into a cohesive musical experience as well.
R: Well you see that fascinates me because the album is wonderfully diverse yet cohesive. In fact I think both albums work really well ‘as albums’ and I prefer to listen to them all the way through. But, Sunbeam Meets The Hour – a lovely poetic title – kicks of with a koto is that right?
H: No actually it was gu zheng – a Chinese harp, played by Marion Kenny. Marion and I wrote the music for that and then Hanna (Tuulikki) came in quite late in the process actually. Marion studied in China – flute and story telling – and once we had the music together I thought that Hanna’s voice would really suit the feel of what was going on there. Hanna and I had only met a few months before so I thought that would be a nice way to get to know each other a bit better.
(As befits the album, Hubby isn’t sure of the chain of events that led him to meeting Hanna in the first place, perhaps most likely through her boyfriend Ben Reynolds and Alistair Roberts.)
R: It was a fortunate connection then because one of the striking elements of the album is the contrast between the voices, between Hanna and Emma Pollock and then Aidan Moffat with that fantastic narrative quality that he brings to the album.
H: Aye Aidan is fantastic, he is one of my favourite singers and definitely one of my top lyricists. But yeah, all the musicians on that album were extraordinary.
R: Speaking of Aidan’s track, Gillian Smith, is she real?
H: Yes!! She’s actually mentioned in the single, The First Big Weekend (Arab Strap), she’s mentioned in that as well.
R: Okay. How did you feel about getting the award? (For those of you who don’t know, the Album Thirteen Lost & Found won this years Scottish Album of the Year Award).
H: Great. It was totally unexpected. I was steaming. I really wasn’t expecting it. It was brilliant, it’s been nothing but good for me.
R: Has there been a reciprocal response, are you getting people looking to collaborate with you now?
H: Yep, but I’ve been doing quite a lot of one-off collaborations anyway, I enjoy going into the studio and doing stuff. But yeah, there’s been a lot of press interest after the award and it’s been a lot easier, people are a lot more willing to talk about it.
R: I know you used to play in a band El Hombre Trajeado – my confession being I’ve never listened to any of the material – how would you describe it.
H: Well it was kind of post-rock, mostly instrumental. It was 10 years, we’d been together for quite a long time and we did OK, a few Peel Sessions and met some of my favourite people.
R: Do you miss being in a band, you seem to be on the road quite a lot do you miss the company?
H: No it’s fine. One thing about touring as a solo musician is that it kind of forces you to be sociable after the show. When your in a band it’s easier to just be a ‘gang’, and you never really meet anyone so I kind of find it’s the opposite actually, which is good because I’m naturally quite introverted, it’s good for my mood . . .
R: I understand that you are doing some singing on Breaks & Bone, how would you describe your singing voice, who do you think you sound like.
H: I sound like . . . I sound like me! It’s quite gentle sounding.
R: Are you quite comfortable with it?
H: Yeah, I mean I’ve been singing for 20 years or so, it’s a slightly more melodic version of my talking voice.
R: OK – well that’s quite pleasant.
H: Aye – well a hope so.
R: So I have some understanding and appreciation of the influences, inspiration and processes behind the first two albums, where is Breaks & Bone coming from, what was the creative process like on that album?
H: It actually started off as an idea I had for a 7 inch last year. One of things about when you are going through therapy after someone’s died, is that the therapist might suggest that you write a letter to the person of all the things that you never got a chance to say, and it was something I never managed to do for my parents, it felt too final, I’ve never been able to do it. So last year, I’d toured pretty much for three years, pretty much constantly, and started to feel that while it can be really helpful talking about this stuff on stage, I thought I’d make this 7 inch basically as a letter to my parents; a side for each of them, as a kind of, a way of letting go. So I made the 7 inch and afterwards I realised I wasn’t ready to let go – and I also realised it was one of the most depressing records I’d ever made so I thought I’d kind of take the next year and make an album out of it, give myself a bit more time. So this album is very much about letting go of that stuff and trying to move on, accept my depression and living with it as opposed to fighting it all the time.
R: Is it (Breaks & Bone) more depressing than ‘Gloomy Sunday’ or less depressing
H: I think it’s a pretty happy record actually! I don’t think it’s a depressing record, it talks about depression and deals with death and stuff but I don’t think that necessarily a depressing thing to talk about, I think it’s quite a healthy thing to talk about.
R: Depression is a pretty debilitating thing but if I’m hearing you right it’s also a part of your muse, of your creative process. If I could take way your depression tomorrow would you thank me for it?
H: Yes. It’s a horrible thing but at the same time – there is a song on the album about that – where it is a horrible thing but at the same time it’s afforded me many good things. Because of the depression and because of the way I’ve chosen to deal with it, I now get to play music for a living, which is something that hadn’t happened previously. So it is an interesting point you make, because, without it, would I make as interesting music? – probably not.
We talked about Stephen Fry and his insistence that he wouldn’t change his mental health status. Hubby said, “I know that a lot of people wouldn’t – I would. I’m not so precious about my art, I make my art to make myself feel better, if I didn’t have to do that, I could do other stuff. I would rather not have the illness to be honest.”
R: It seems to me that your music defies the genre-trap. Is there such a thing as a typical Hubby audience, what’s the demographic, who is turning up and who is buying the album?
H: It’s pretty wide actually, ehm, but I’m not sure. A lot of my audiences are late 20s, 30s, 40s – but you get some kids there as well. I suppose a bit of an older audience.
R: So a lot of extra large T-shirts get sold?
H: Eh, aye. I did this thing right form the start with my t-shirts where I never put my name on any of the t-shirts so it never really advertises me in any way.
R: But your artwork is quite distinctive – I mean even this new one of your wee dog D, that’s going to make a great t-shirt.
H: Aye, well he features on the last album as well. But yeah, the new album features photography by a very talented photographer called Luke Joyce, he does these ultra detailed portrait shots that I really love.
R: I noticed Breaks & Bone is officially released on the night you play Mad Hatters – is that an official album launch.
H: Eh, aye, that whole tour is an official album launch to be honest . . . it’ll certainly be available for sale.
R: Finally, the ampersand trilogy – an emotional triptych inspired by life events, a cohesive body of work, what or where next. Are you going to move on?
H: Possibly, I haven’t thought about it at all, when I was making this album there was this thought in the back of my head that it does finish off this particular subject matter for me, to make it easier to move on. So – I have no idea what’s coming next . . . I hope people like it whatever it is.
I’m sure they will. Now living in Troon – retired to the seaside but never idle – I think we can expect a typically intense, personal and creative follow up from RM Hubbert. His compositions are, as alluded to above, a very fine expression of the capacity of music to help people to connect with others, and, with themselves; and of the unique ability of instrumental music in particular to both endure and to provide a universal language.