While for myself, personally, the Nineties were dominated by mostly North American alternative and power pop bands and solo artists (you know who I’m talking about), there was still enough listening time to heartily embrace the handful of new British combos producing their own unique take on melodic acid tinged guitar pop. Straw, Octopus, Orange, Super Furry Animals, Dererro, Out Of My Hair/Comfort all spring immediately to mind here and I’m sure Don could add just as many to that hallowed list that we would agree on.
The Supernaturals feature high on that list for both of us and with a welcome new album on the horizon, Bird Of Luck, it felt like the right time to sit down with the main guy James McColl. In the first part of this interview we talk about the band's career. The second part next week will feature a track by track breakdown from James on the new album.
So James! What are your earliest memories of getting into music?
"The first instrument I learned. when I was eleven. was the flute. I can read music and play it to a decent standard. My school was St Ninians in Kirkintilloch and there was a little school band with five members. It was like a secret Masonic Society, two flutes, two clarinets and an oboe. There was a girl in the year above who played the other flute and I fancied her, so that was an incentive as well. I had to hide my flute in my school bag in case some hard nut spotted it and kicked my head in for trying to get above myself.
I’d tell my friends I was away down to Woolworths for my lunch and then sneak over to the music room. It was in the days before they realised that getting kids to play music stimulates them. It was great playing little bits of Mozart and Telemann with other people and sneaking lustful glances at the girl playing the flute.
In the late Seventies, everyone would watch Top Of The Pops on a Thursday night. It would be the best night of the week for Telly. I’d watch Tomorrow’s World as an appetiser and then Top Of The Pops. From about 1978 to 1983 there would be a couple of great artists on every week. From Blondie,
Squeeze, The Beat, The Police to The Smiths and Orange Juice. It was like a conveyor belt of magnificence. That was when I got hooked on music."
So when did you form a band?
"I got into playing the guitar when I was sixteen. My Dad bought me a little practice amplifier called a “Badger” and a Japanese copy Stratocaster called an Ibanez Roadster as a reward for studying for my exams. I practised with all my spare time. Derek, the other singer in The Supernaturals, saved his odd job money from his summer job and bought a sky blue Tokai Stratocaster and a “Badger” as well. With our other friend, Dwees, who played the bass badly, we would rehearse in our bedrooms. He had a “Badger” as well. The noise was incredible and not in a good way. The neighbours would complain incessantly.
We then saved up and bought a Dr Rhythm BOSS drum machine and tried doing a gig, in front of primary school kids, with the drum machine. Gav, the eventual drummer in the band, ran onstage, pressed the start button on the Dr Rhythm and then ran off, with stage fright. The kids stomped their feet and started clapping. It was a buzz.
We finally chipped in together and bought Gav a battered old drum kit off Del Amitri and we sort of had a four-piece band. We did try to make a demo in a studio in Dumbarton. Derek was the main singer at the time and he refused to sing for some reason. The engineer offered to sing the song for us and finish writing it. It was an inauspicious start and put us off studios."
When did you start writing songs?
"I started writing songs a few years after I learned the guitar. In the late Eighties we’d go to a rehearsal room in Glasgow for the Saturday afternoon and pay twenty pounds for six hours. I’d say to the band “I’ve got this new song” and then play “Come Round Here (You’re The One I Need)” by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, without changing the lyrics. It would be battered out on a Telecaster so it didn’t really sound like the original anymore. The band would be like “Wow! That’s amazing! How did you write that?”
Then I quickly realised that songwriting was about writing about yourself and pulling apart and putting together other people’s songs and adding your own element. We just enjoyed banging away every week without playing gigs."
How were The Supernaturals formed?
The Supernaturals were basically me, Derek and Gav and we were at primary school together. Our manager, Gerry, was at school with us as well. Mark the bassist came along in 1988. Around about 1990 things changed in music in the UK. It seemed like the old fashioned stuff we liked like The Move, The Monkees, Slade and Madness was swinging back into fashion. There was also a lot of great bands like The La’s, Teenage Fanclub, Suede, Primal Scream, Dodgy and many more.
At the same time we started going to a studio in Edinburgh called Split Level. It was run by this eccentric guy called Neil. You’d be doing your guitar overdub while trying not to trip over an oily gearbox for a VW Scirocco that Neil had decided to dismantle on the floor of the studio."
So Big 7 was Recorded?
"We put together cassette albums called Big 7 and Dark Star in 1993 and then two CDs “Sitting in the
Sun” and “Let it Bleat” from these recordings. There was no record business in Glasgow and no internet at the time so we decided to just get in a van and tour and sell our cassettes after the gigs like one of our favourite bands, The Replacements. Every weekend we’d head off in a Transit van to places in the Highlands and then gradually, Glasgow, Edinburgh and London and festivals.
Our manager, Gerry, was a real hustler. At one point he got us onto the bill at T In The Park on the Sunday by going to the Promoter’s house and hassling him like Eddie Murphy in Trading Places. The downside was that we had to play outdoors in Hamilton Town Centre the day before to a procession of people going to T in the Park. It was a heatwave and the local alcoholic likely lads, wearing just shorts, were trying to get on the stage and play our instruments, while we were performing. We had to do it for the cash, which was £500, I think.
When we toured in 1993-95 we’d play two- hour sets. We’d play our own stuff and do loads of covers like “Skyways” by The Replacements, “Flavour of the Month” by the Posies, “Look Out Here
Comes Tomorrow” by The Monkees, just music we liked. People would think we’d written these
songs, which we never denied.
I’d wandered into a fancy dress shop in the West End of Glasgow called “Starry Starry Night” in 1993 and bought this amazing full sailor suit. I looked like I was on the deck of HMS Ajax in 1938. The girls in the audience at a gig in Skye loved it. The band all started dressing up for gigs. We’d do anything to liven up things up, get people to remember us and sell our cassettes.
By this point Ken had joined as a keyboard player and he would ride around on a BMX during the encore. We’d jump on tables and play guitar behind our heads. It was brilliant fun. Every weekend was an adventure. We gradually had to quit our jobs as the stress of getting home at 7am and then getting up at 7.30 am got too much. Gav, our original drummer, had to drop out and Alan joined. We sold lots of cassettes and built up a big mailing list.
By about 1995, after about three hundred gigs around Britain, we could just about fill King Tuts in Glasgow without having a record deal. We even put a tour together that summer where we went round seaside resorts like Torquay and Falmouth. We were camping at campsites. We’d sit around during the day cooking on our Camping Gaz burners, playing keepie- uppie and then at 5pm, we’d get in the van, put our stage clothes on and head out to the gigs."
So then you were signed to the Food Label?
"Andy Ross at Food heard one of our mini CDs “Let it Bleat”, decided we had potential and signed us that year. Our first trip to a recording studio was with a producer called Phil Vinall, who worked with The Auteurs. It was Fish’s (from Marillion) studio in Edinburgh. Fish’s wife was the beautiful model from the “Kayleigh” video. I’d last seen her in 1985 peering longingly through a fence in East Berlin.
She cooked the meals at the studio. We’d get to watch her dollop bits of ham pasta on our plates while she creaked around the kitchen in tight leather trousers. That was the best bit of the recordings. The actual recordings were terrible.
Eventually, Andy persuaded us to work with a guy called Pete Smith and he produced “It Doesn’t
Matter Anymore”. Pete had recently worked with Chris De Burgh. We weren’t really up for it as we hated the De Burgh. But Pete did a fabulous job of disciplining the band, chopping our songs up to make them more to the point and his engineering skills were amazing.
He was like a football team manager and he’d hairdryer us all at different points. He'd been an apprentice at Spurs and was always trying to get a bit of football banter going about Celtic and Rangers. We would ignore him to wind him up, it was one long psychological game. I really liked him though. He’d break you down to the size of a full stop and then build you back up again. He’d worked with Sting and he’d say things like “Sting couldn’t even play that as good as you James.” Just to butter you up. It was patently nonsense."
The album did really well!
"Yeah it was reasonably successful, as were a lot of the singles. Smile was a decent hit in the UK and quite successful in Japan. The song had been quickly written in a rehearsal studio in 1995 by me, Ken and Alan, the drummer. I’d gone home that night, scribbled some lyrics while eating my Spaghetti Bolognese and the next day the band thought the lyrics were alright for the time being, so they stuck. It has gone on to be our most successful song and has been used in a lot of adverts and TV.
We spent almost all our time either touring or recording at this point. We loved it all. If it was a treadmill for some bands. then we were like a gym instructor who was raring to get on and work out. After playing to so many difficult and sparse audiences in our pre Food days and sleeping in sleeping bags on the promoter’s kitchen floor. being signed to Food/EMI was wonderful. We played with a lot of good bands like The Boo Radleys, Gene, Silver Sun, Grasshow and Blondie.
Our second album with Food was called Tune a Day which we recorded in 1997 with Pete Smith again. At one point in the studio at Chipping Norton we were watching the live feed of Lady Diana’s funeral on a TV screen and Chris De Burgh was singing to the congregation in St Paul’s. Pete was raving at Alan, telling him to up his drumming game while shouting at the TV screen telling the “De Burgh” to “get into fackin tune”.
The main single off Tune a Day, “I Wasn’t Built To Get Up”, was a No 25 hit. The album did quite well and got some good reviews. Our final single was called Everest and we’d done it as a loving pastiche of AOR records like Foreigner and Toto. The video had us throwing a giant metal rose off Snowdonia, while we all got dressed up as Sir Edmund Hilary.
We thought it was great, but that may just have been the large amounts of whisky we were consuming. The public thought it was crap and didn’t buy it, so we knew we were in trouble with the label. We did a gig in Portsmouth and there was a long coffin shaped cardboard box backstage. We carried it onto the stage like a coffin and wrote “RIP The Supernaturals” on the side and had a mock naval burial for our career. The audience seemed to like that.
Around about 1999 lots of the bands that had been signed in the 1990s were dropped by EMI and we were just another one of them. There was a pre millennial thing going on. Orchestras and heartfelt songs with acoustic guitars were “in” and we didn’t really fit into that. In hindsight we should have shamelessly jumped on that particular bandwagon.
EMI were amazing at promoting us, they really knew their stuff, so it wasn’t really the usual blame the record company thing that bands have. Basically the record buying public weren’t into us that much and didn’t buy enough of our records. We just had to accept it and move on."
You responded with "What We Did Last Summer"
"After we got dropped ,we decided to record our next album, What We Did Last Summer, ourselves. We wanted to mix things like Beach Boy harmonies, “My Love” by Wings and also a lot of French music I was listening to like Mellow and Serge Gainsbourg- with some electronics. It took about two years to make and I thought it was really good and had a chance of doing well. It was a mix of 60’s harmony pop and 2000’s electronics.
Koch Records signed us. They needed a “proper band” after having made millions from Pokemon and World Wresting Federation records and wanted to waste some of that money on us. The first single was called “Finishing Credits” and by this point, things were on a bit of an upswing for us. We had an excellent guitarist called Paul and a new keyboard player, Davie. Radio 2 loved the song and were going to playlist it at the end of September 2001. All was looking rosy.
Then 9/11 happened while we were in London doing a BBC World Service Acoustic Session and the BBC put it on their banned songs list because of the lyric “It’s the end of the world as we know it, it was written in the stars that we’d blow it.” In retrospect, I should have got that fax of the official list of songs that were banned and framed it on my wall for posterity."
Mark, the bassist, had left earlier in the year as had Ken. By the release of What We Did Last Summer in 2002 it was just me, Derek and Alan left. I kind of missed Mark and Ken and after a pretty dismal tour of places with murals on the wall of Johnny Cash and Bob Marley, we chucked it. We should maybe have taken time out, but we’d been going for ten years, pretty much full tilt and we were worn out.
As an aside we sold our equipment to a Christian Rock band. Gerry, our manager went off to work in the building trade, to quote him, “Because there’s a lot less sharks than the Music Business” and Alan went to work for William Orbit."
Then you were involved in The Hussy's.
"I spent the latter part of the Noughties doing The Hussy’s. Fili was an amazing singer and a really good-looking front woman. She has a sort of deadpan voice and a deadpan sense of humour and it was such a great experience writing and co-writing songs for a girl singer.
You could go somewhere completely different than The Supernaturals. We had an excellent band with some great players. We did a few albums, which were all worth checking out and some really good songs like Roller Disco, Tiger and Just Think Of My Heart Like A Campervan amongst many others. Fili went to live in Calgary, Canada, as her husband got a job there, So that was The Hussy’s kyboshed."
So we got the surprise of 360, a new album by The Supernaturals?
"I thought that was me finished with music and to be honest I was quite happy because I’d done lots of stuff, some of it quite successful like Smile, Built To Get Up” by The Supers and Roller Disco by The Hussy's. Also quite a lot of music that was obscure and unsuccessful. I had done all the things
I wanted to do like get on Top of the Pops, tour around and get in the Guinness Book Of Hit Singles.
Because we were all at school together and had the same circle of friends, most of The Supernaturals would still see each other socially. Around 2012, we decided to go into rehearsal rooms and play cover versions, like a lot of old guys do. We started playing “Blue” by The Jayhawks and it was uncanny how the lyrics seemed to document some of our times together. Lyrics like “where have all my friends gone”, “I always thought I was someone, turned out I was wrong” and “It’s hard to sing with someone when they won’t sing with you”.
We then started playing our old songs, which were basically cover versions to us. We had to get the albums out and try remembering the chords. One thing led to another and we put “360” together over a few years. We just went back to the basics of the band from 1993, it was the same four guys and it was very easy to do. We all had the same roles and we didn’t want to have much technology in our music. We wanted to just sing about heartfelt and amusing things at the same time."
How do you approach the songwriting process?
"Compared to some of my peers I’m not all that as a songwriter. But when it comes to the actual process I can add my my tuppence worth. The obvious one is I just to sit with a guitar or a piano and wait for ideas to come. Sometimes that can work straight away. Then if you’re not getting anything, listen to something you like and try and imitate it and add your own thing or reverse chords or change Rhythms.
Drums and Rhythm are really great ways of stimulating your mind. So a good strategy is to sample some drums you like and play along with them. You’re just doing that in a rehearsal studio with a drummer anyway. Unexpected sounds and instruments, tunings, instruments you’re not familiar with - these are great ways to stimulate song. I once had to do a talk to some kids at a college and that was pretty much what I told them.
As regards lyrics, I’m like a magpie, I always listened out for people saying catchy phrases. Could be a friend, could be a movie or even a phrase from a novel or book. You get the general idea for the lyric and then build it around the phrase. That’s how songwriters have been working throughout the twentieth century. It’s an old thing. It’s a mixture of the subconscious and the conscious and tricking yourself.
I’m fortunate that I can write songs whenever I want and I’ve always been like that. I think a part of it of the really amazing songwriters like McCartney and Prince and so on, is that they don’t think too much about it all and just do it. They are really good at using their subconscious.
Finally which bands are you influenced by?
"If I was to pick 4 it would be the Move , The Replacements, Slade and maybe Madness."
The second part of this Interview is published next week. This will cover the new album, Bird Of Luck and includes a track by track explanation from James.
Bird Of Luck has a digital release on 1 August 2019. However initial copies of the CD are available via Amazon here. CDs will be available in the States via CD Baby from 1 August.