Luke Plum, mandolin player from Tasmania, and West Highland fiddler Angus Grant are both active in the session scene. That's in-between recordings and tours with the globe-trotting band Shooglenifty. Not to mention adventures with the Funky String Band!
(This interview was recorded in Perthshire in 2007.)
Well, I’ve got Luke Plum and Angus Grant with me here, and Luke was the first Australian to be interviewed for our radio program, and now you get the honor of being the second Australian to be interviewed on this radio show, so welcome back!
Oh, it’s a pleasure, Fiona.
You are from Tasmania, and you were living in Tasmania, happily, until you were, (I shouldn’t say “until”, that suggests that you are not happy anymore). You were living in Tasmania, and then you were recruited to play over in Australia on a tour by Shooglenifty. On the back of that, you emigrated right across the world to Scotland, and are now based in Edinburgh. So, how’s life been treating you since that big shift?
Oh, it’s been good, you know. I’m coming up for my fifth anniversary, and yeh, wow! It’s been really good, it’s been a great opportunity that I couldn’t really afford to miss.
Well, obviously, playing in the band has meant that I’ve traveled a whole lot more and heard a lot of music from the places that we’ve traveled to that I just wouldn’t have had the chance to do back home. And I think also the music scene is a little bit more kind of integrated into a wider audience than it is back home, which makes being a full time musician kind of a lot more possible. So, yeah, it’s been a lot easier, I think, to come over here and do that.
From the West coast, from a wee place called Coul, just outside Fort William. Well, my Dad plays as well, so I learnt from my Dad when I was about six or seven, I got my first fiddle, and I’m still learning from him!
So, you came to Edinburgh along the way and you are one of the founder members of Shooglenifty. Can you cast your mind back and tell us how all that came together, because the band from very earliest seemed to create its own vibe, I mean, it’s kind of a unique kind of take on the music.
Basically, we just started playing a session in a pub in Edinburgh. We used to play in a band called Swamptrash, and when they split up we decided just to carry on playing together and basically sat in a pub and played tunes, and moved to another pub when that one got too busy, and started again in an empty pub, and eventually we had to start plugging in, because there was so many people came along. So, there was never an agenda or a plan of what we were going to do musically. It just kind of happened.
As well as appealing to people throughout the world who will tune into music from Celtic roots, if you like, in the broadest sense. You also probably appeal to people who are looking for a kind of worldy feel as well, with the music.
I think one of the things about Shooglenifty is that we have never really gone for the Celtic thing, as such. We happen to be from Scotland, and Tasmania, you know, like some bands really go for the Celtic sound and all that sort of thing, but we’ve never really … again, no agenda, no plan to consciously do that.
As you say, by not kind of putting a banner on your music yourself, it’s allowed it to remain a bit fluid and to appeal to people in whatever way they receive it themselves, or whatever they think they might be looking for and to plug into. What’s your sense of how music has been developing in and around the world of Shooglenifty. I mean, what’s your take on what you see coming up in and around you, or as you travel?
I think people are coming out of their ghettos, you know, like in Edinburgh almost around the time that we started there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between jazzers and folkies and people that were into Rock, or whatever you want to call it, I suppose, and there was a lot of interaction and people just coming out of their ghettos. And I think that’s due to, particularly in Edinburgh, there still is a really vibrant scene of people willing to take risks and experiment with music and have fun with it.
I think also that as people are becoming more and more willing to mix it up and do all of that kind of stuff then there are also people who are, okay let’s go back to the beginning and do really really faithful traditional music, which I think is really beneficial as well, rather than things being kind of too homogenized, or whatever.
I think it’s very important to have an idea of where the music’s come from, as a base, you know, before you start taking it apart and deconstructing it. I think it’s good to have that, a grasp of where it’s come from.
Progressive festival organizers, musicians and audiences themselves have all moved forward and are happy to just hear what’s going on with music and to give the artists a canvas on which to check out one another’s music and to see what might emerge. So, you’ve just come on from the back of a great time at Celtic Connections. We saw you rounding out the Highlights program on the television, which was a nice accolade to end with the band. What was your take on it? It was a new Musical Director this year, it was Donald Shaw, and he definitely brought some new ideas to the program. It seemed as if he took it even further in terms of what you are saying, broadening it out and bringing in all sorts of people that might just have something to say to each other with their music.
Donald’s got a huge amount of respect for musicians within the business we call “show” and I think he’s done a great job. But, I’d also have to say that, I mean Colin Hynd did a brilliant job for the last, what is it, 10 years plus, you know. And I think Colin was the one with the vision to have a fairly wide palette of music, you know, and I think he deserves a lot of recognition for that.
The band started in a pub, and I’ve been playing sessions pretty much since day one. I think it’s definitely, I mean it’s a lovely wee session in Birnam here. We don’t know who’s going to come along. Last week there was about 5 or 6 people, the pub was quite quiet, so it was a really lovely quiet session. Then last night-- two pipers, and there was about 14 people last night, making a big rammy, which is great as well. So, I like the excitement of not knowing how it’s going to go. But, back to what you were saying earlier. To me, that’s the roots of the whole thing. Just sitting playing tunes with people.
And presumably, it’s that vibe that inspires what you do with Shooglenifty. I mean, because it’s always had that raw, edgy feel that sometimes just happens in a session. What about you Luke, what do you take from these weekly gatherings?
I think there’s something very different about playing music with people and for people when they’re two feet away from you, as opposed to behind a security barrier, and all the rest of it that you might get at a gig, which is great in itself, but there’s something that’s very immediate about being in a session. You know, you don’t know which tunes the other people are going to play, and everything’s a whole lot more, yeah, “immediate” is the best word for it, I think, and that keeps it all real, you know, which is really important. I certainly notice it if I miss it, you know. It is, it’s like it completes the musical experience, you know, to have that thing as well as touring and recording and writing and all the rest of it. I think it’s crucial.
And then, as the word travels around about a session like that and that it’s there virtually every week, then as musicians are over in this country traveling, they often make their way to stop en route and get in there with you as well.
Yeah absolutely, and that’s great. I mean, last week was a relatively quite one, but I think the week before that we had a guy from France singing Chanson music, you know, a few Salsa tunes in French. I mean, brilliant, you know? And that again, that’s something quite different from going to a festival on the other side of the world and seeing a band from France. To have a little guy right there next to you, just doing his music. That’s really important.
How the music is discovered by people who love it and how it’s distributed by people who are involved in it is totally changing all the time with so much web-based activity, as well as the traditional radio programs and music distribution that’s always been there. What’s your sense of all that? I mean, do you feel that it is only helpful? Or are there ways in which it’s sort of confusing as well, in terms of how your music is … you know, your music becomes global all the time now, constantly on the web in so many different ways, and reaches people in every corner of the world in those ways, who may never ever get a chance to come and see you play. How do you feel about how all that’s been evolving, I mean, is it only helpful to music?
I think so. I think it’s helpful to music, but sometimes it’s … yeah, I mean it’s two-sided as far as bands are concerned, I think. Yeah, that’s absolutely true, they get the … you know things like My Space, and all of this kind of thing. You know, you can get your music heard by people that you never could have got to, unless you got a big record deal you never would have had the budget to be able to try. But the disadvantage in it is that it’s total saturation, you know. And I think that’s where I draw the distinction between what’s beneficial for music and what’s beneficial for bands themselves. You know, it might not be that wholly beneficial for bands, but the fact that everybody’s got a chance now, whereas way back when, it was only if you got the deal, only if you had the cash, you know. I think that really is just a general benefit to the scene. You can’t afford to have people resting on their laurels, anymore, for example. Which is great.
Yeah, it’s real democracy now, and anarchy!
Yeah. Absolutely, it is. Yeah.
At the same time, I think all the layers still exist. I mean, more people listen to radio than have ever listened to radio, people still want to buy CDs and have music themselves, even if they do end up decanting it into their I Pods or whatever. So there is still a sense that people will still distribute and want to participate in supporting music in the way that they always have, as well.
I think we’re lucky, actually, in that the market place that we have for our music, I think people are more likely to buy the CD at gigs and even in the shops rather than download them. Whereas huge Rock bands people are not going to think twice about downloading their latest album. But I think it helps the scale of where we are in the whole thing that people still want to actually hold the CD. I mean, music formats have been changing for years and people still go out and buy the product, whether it’s album, vinyl or a CD, DATS, all the rest of it, Mini-discs. People do actually like a physical thing in their hand.
Tell us what’s next for Shooglenifty. You’ve been making some great splashes with the albums, they have been very well received as they’ve been coming out, and I understand that there’s another one in the works.
That’s the new album called TROOTS which was a year kind of stewing in between various tours that we did last year.
And then for Luke and Angus, as well as coming up and running your session here in Birnam you have some projects together as well, don’t you?
We’ve got a wee sideline …
A cottage industry!
… a wee band called Funky String Band with legendary Australian singer Peter Daffy, and obviously because he lives in Australia it makes rehearsals a bit tricky! So, we play once a year, maybe twice a year. If we go over the Australia we’ll organize a wee tour before or after a Shooglenifty tour, and Peter usually comes over November.
Yeah. The plan is that Pete will be over again in November and we’ll launch the second album with this line up, which includes now Jamie Jauncey from the Tap session on that, keyboards and general good humor. And, we’re very excited about the prospect of Jamie and Peter being on the road together in Australia in December, so fingers crossed for them.
You’ll have to do a blog! Back on the high tech side! Well, it’s great to talk to you, and it’s lovely to hear how varied you’re keeping it all and we’re fantastically fortunate that you spend some of your time making music right here in our back yard, and for those who don’t share this back yard, you’ll get to hear it coming out with Shooglenifty and Funky StringBand. So, Angus and Luke, it’s been a great pleasure, thanks very much. And will you come back and be my third Australian guest?
Absolutely, maybe I’ll be your only Australian guest!
Yeah great. That’s an honor worth holding.