Richard Youngs interviewed by Stewart Smith
Active since the 1980s, Richard Youngs is a genuine underground hero, with a prolific output that spans psychedelic folk, industrial electronics and uncategorisable performances which ‘teeter on the brink of music’. As the featured artist at Counterflows 2015, Youngs will be giving three different performances. On the Friday he will unveil a specially commissioned piece for vocal quartet, ‘Experiment for Demolished Structures’. Saturday sees him play a lunchtime set at 78 with The Flexibles, a punk trio featuring his eight-year-old son Sorley and regular co-conspirator Andrew Paine. Youngs rounds off his Counterflows weekend with an acoustic solo set at the Glad Cafe on the Sunday.
Resident in Glasgow since the early ’90s, Youngs grew up in Cambridgeshire, where his first musical reference points were 1970s Top of The Pops and his parents’ collection of early music. It was the early Pink Floyd singles, however, which sparked a lifetime of sonic adventures.
I lived until I was in 11 years old in Camridgeshire which was maybe crucial to things, because the first music I heard that was outside my parents’ taste, in fact the first music I heard that was probably electric music beyond maybe a couple of things on Top Of The Pops – which was pretty bland at the time, it was the early ’70s – were the first two Pink Floyd singles. I had a friend who in some way was distantly related to Syd Barrett and they had the first two Pink Floyd singles. I remember hearing ‘See Emily Play’ and the middle eight, with the feedback guitar solo, blew my mind. I was seven or eight years old and it was unlike anything I heard, I couldn’t detect a tune it it, and I found that wildly exciting. I think that was crucial.
Your father was into early music. Do you think that has been an influence?
Early recorder music, choral music. Probably. I grew up not liking it, but I like that stuff now. I was probably surrounded by very un-histrionic music, which I always thought was a mark of Pink Floyd, at least until Roger Waters became the main songwriter and they became a song delivery mechanism.
I guess it has that English sense of reserve?
It’s very much an English reserve, yes. I’ve spent a good a quarter of a century trying to knock that out by living in Scotland!
You experimented with tapes from an early age.
You can get two cassette recorders and overdub. I used to take apart cassettes and make loops from them. And then I got hold of a reel to reel which you could change the speed on and make things go backwards which was just phenomenal. Through my teenage years I saved and saved and saved and got another reel to reel which you could do echo on by doing sound on sound. And again I saved and saved and saved and got a four track reel to reel – the world’s your oyster then! I’ve gone back to using four track reel to reel now – it’s where it’s at I think right now.
You discovered underground and experimental music via Open University and John Peel.
Yes! Open University was Gaelic psalm singing, among other things, musique concrete, Stockhausen, ideas about music that you wouldn’t get anywhere else. John Peel – it was post-punk when I started listening. The stuff that was happening then… you could hear something on an almost daily basis that was unlike anything you’d heard before, and as you get older that gets more difficult, but as a young teenager…
There’s that constant sense of revelation?
Yes, absolutely. It was like a revolution. It seemed like that at them time. Because there was so much grim stuff going on in the UK at the time – it was the early ’80s – that seemed to be where any form of freedom still was.
There are those two lines running through your music – psychedelic and post-punk/industrial…
Yes, you’ve put in a nutshell what scarred me!
I had classical piano lessons and I had a piano teacher who cycled out to the village we stayed in. He must have been a student at Cambridge University and he was very encouraging. I remember my dad went to Australia for six weeks. It was quite a traumatic thing in my childhood and I remember writing something like a blues songs that involved elbowing the bass note and this piano teacher was very encouraging about that. Unfortunately he moved away and I got the village piano teacher who had no time for such nonsense.
I then moved to Hertfordshire and had classical guitar lessons for a while. My teacher said if there’s anything you want to learn how to play give me cassette of it and I’ll work it out and we can play it – in addition to all the standard classical stuff. He was great. And then he moved away and the new teacher said, sorry son you’re plucking the strings wrong, we’re going to go back to basics. And that really robbed it of any excitement in ever had.
But yeah, I was in some bands, experimental duos, standard stuff really… I dunno if it was standard – was it standard? I dunno. Everyone else was creating normal things, I locked myself in my room and listened to unsocial music.
You made your first solo album, Advent in 1988.
Yes, I recorded that in 1988 and I was in my early 20s then.
You started working with Simon Wickham Smith around the same time?
No, I met him – we’d been friends for quite a while and I’d done Advent and it wasn’t going anywhere – I had 300 copies in my bedroom. And I jokingly said to him, double LP next! And he said, ‘Ok, when are we doing it?’ So he came round the following weekend and we recorded Lake. We pooled our funds and released it. Same thing happened again until we sent a copy of Advent and Lake to Forced Exposure and they ran reviews and said they’d sell a few. And they sold out of the entire run of those records in a few weeks. Job done.
You were also a member of the long-running experimental group the A Band.
That’s when I was living in Nottingham. That was around the time I released Advent and Lake. That was a backing band for a saxophonist called Vince Earimel to begin with. He didn’t turn up for the first gig and I don’t think he turned up for the second one! So that became a band with different line ups every time, named differently every time, but it always began with the letter A. I think the only constant was Jim Plaistow was in the line-up. He was a joiner and had a white van, so he could transport things. He also had a percussion frame he’d built with angle-grinding tools hanging off and I think that defined the A Band sound – Jim’s percussion.
Your 171 Used Train Tickets album (where Youngs reads from a stash of used train tickets) was recorded at an A Band gig.
That was at an A Band show, yeah. The local record store had taken a few copies of Advent, sale or return, and they’d filed it under A, like Advent was the name of the band. So for that performance, Advent was the name of the band. The train tickets was only part of the performance. After that there were other people on stage. I think there were maybe four five in the lineup, a more A Band sound after that.
You’ve done a lot of solo music, but also collaborative work. Do you think there’s a certain nature to your collaborations? They often tend to be duos – do you like that dynamic?
They do. Usually, before I collaborate with someone, I’ve been friends with them for a long time. Possibly the way I relate to people isn’t a gang thing, it’s more one to one, and it’s often an extension of friendship. Often just talking about music – an absurd idea might come up and we think, ‘let’s go and do that!; And that’s the start of something. The A Band was… I guess there was a bunch of us. I was probably in less that ten, maybe even less than five, of the performances.
Then there’s The Flexibles, that’s a trio and we’re playing Counterflows. And that all started probably a wet school holiday morning and Paz [Andrew Paine] was round and I was looking after Sorley and the name came because Paz is a yoga teacher and Sorley, being very young, was very flexible. I’m the least flexible member of The Flexibles. It was just one of those things… Sorley’s got quite a way with words, but he probably won’t admit it. Shove a microphone in front of him and he’ll come out with great lines and I quite like the way he plays guitar and he enjoys playing guitar, so that is the Flexibles dynamic. And drum machine and Paz’s bass. We swap instruments, but that’s the classic lineup I think. We recorded a potential 12” on Saturday – live to four track reel to reel, I think it’s a really good recording and I’d like to get it out there.
You have a lovely dynamic with Sorley – you did the Wintersong event at Platform in Easterhouse together.
Yeah, by necessity, because I’d lost my voice. On Thursday I could barely speak and we had a run through. By Friday I said, ‘Sorley, y’know I think I might be alright for tomorrow night, my voice is beginning to come back and he said ‘No!’ He was really keen to do it.
‘Mountain of Doom’ on [2013’s] Summer Through My Mind – he was off school with chicken pox. I was looking after him and we had some downtime in the afternoon so I said, what shall we do? He said, ‘write a song’ and he just came up with these words and I said, ‘that’s phenomenal, let’s record it, and here’s a harmonica.’ So he blew the harmonica and I sang it and played the guitar, and what’s on the record was what was recorded that afternoon as he was recovering from chicken pox. I saw one review, I think it was in The Wire, where they doubted whether he had written those words – could a five year old in his private time write those words, but y’know…
When you did the orchestral piece at Tectonics, how did it feel when it came together in the end?
Kind of unreal, because I’m so used to making music and hearing it as you do it, but this was a different way of going about things. I didn’t really know what it was going to sound like together. I played the violin parts myself and translated them to score. The brass parts were formed from all the D-Beat band names and I just translated them. And I knew what a d-beat sounded like and that’s what the percussionist was playing. The feedback… I knew what it was going to sound like as feedback, but I didn’t know what it would sound like as viola. I knew we’d have some electronics and a guitar solo, but I was just hurling things at the score going ‘what’s that going to sound like? I dunno, just go with it’.
For Counterflows you were commissioned to create a vocal piece, ‘Experiment For Demolished Structures’. How does composing for a vocal quartet compare to arranging your own vocal parts?
Nothing like that. I did the orchestral piece at Tectonics last year, and I saw Exaudi there. We were talking about music the likes of which you’ve never heard, and that was music the likes of which I’d never heard, it was quite mind-blowing. I said to Alasdair [Campbell], in jest, probably hours after the set, ‘well, I’ve got the orchestral piece under my belt, so next, the choral piece’. And he said, ‘ok then’. Put me on the spot.
I’ll tell you about the technique. I do like the Brutalist architecture. To write this I got some tracing paper and I printed out onto it stave notation. I then got pictures of brutalist architecture, some piles of rubble, blew them up in photoshop, contrasted them out so they were black and white, underlaid them with the tracing paper, scanned them in as PDFs. So you’ve got stave notation with this mess underneath. I’ve got some software which is aimed at people who’ve done some hand notation and can then scan them in and convert them into something editable in computer software. I figured it would attempt to translate whatever you could throw at it into something meaningful which you could edit. And pretty much it does. Occasionally it says ‘cannot recognise’. And it throws back at you this score which you’ve got to edit because it’s like 15 note chords which you’re expecting a soprano to sing – it’s not going to happen, you’ve got to get it within their range. So I built it up out of little bits of that and hacked them together. Bizarrely the result is quite tonal.
Now I’m shoehorning these words in based upon demolished brutalist structures. I want to keep the notes I’ve got through this process, but fitting words into is quite… awkward. But I”m going with that. I think it’s Lou Reed who said ‘I am what I am, it is what it is, and fuck you!’ So I’m just doing it. I’m going to listen to any difficulties and work with that, but I think the ranges are ok, it’s just whether or not the syllables are translatable. I had this problem with the orchestral piece because I translated guitar feedback into viola part – it was very much the spirit of ‘give it your best shot’. It was quite a challenging sight read at first, so I said just give it your best shot.
It’s not a graphic score because what the players get is traditional stave notation, but when I’m getting into it, it’s like I’m thinking, I hear this tune in my head, let’s put that down onto a stave. My sight reading isn’t what it is… there was a time when I could do it, but I’ve just lost the knack.
I had this idea of vocal clips. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Ableton Live, the software, and it’s lots of clips of midi. So I had the idea of building up the score with lots of clips of notation. I did have the original idea of saying ‘go!’ and playing the session like you would in Ableton, but in the end I’ve hacked it together as I see fit.
How do you go about directing the singers?
The issue is going to be tempo. I’ve no sense of regular tempo, so we need someone who has and can keep them in line.
Can you tell me about the lyrics for ‘Demolished Structures’?
Well, I’ve made some notes on demolished structures, and the soprano is going to be singing about the Tricorn shopping centre in Portsmouth. There’s a great book by Celia Clark [Tricorn: The Life and Death of a Sixties Icon co-authored with Robert Cook] who I’ve been in touch with, about the Tricorn Centre, and there was recently an exhibition in Portsmouth about it. So that’s the soprano part. The alto is gonna be singing the Rainbow Slides [swimming pool] in Stirling and the tenor is going to be doing the Odeon Elephant and Castle, which was a Erno Goldfinger building. I recently played outside a Goldfinger building, the Balfron Tower in London. But this is the Elephant & Castle. Which was due to be listed on a Monday but it got demolished the weekend before, I thought that was a bit cynical. The bass is going to be The Hive, on University Avenue in Glasgow. I played there once and that is truly demolished. They’re putting something there as we speak. So those are going to be the buildings they’re singing about.
I thought I’d stick to UK buildings. There are a lot of great demolished structures closer to home and at least ones which kind of meant something. Madelaine used to go to Portsmouth on holiday, so she knows quite a bit about the Tricorn Centre. She remembers it being totally awe inspiring as a child and the people from Portsmouth they were staying with hating it. She really felt good about it as a child.
I’m glad Charles Anderson’s modernist mural from the front of the Rainbow Slides has been preserved.
Yes, I hope the lyrics reflect that story of hope. It’s weird, because when I write words usually it’s not the case that I have a subject matter. A phrase will come to my head, or something will happen, or I’ll feel something or mishear something and it comes out of that. But here I’ve actually got to write on demand. It’s not like the white heat of inspiration has hit me, it’s like I’ve got this subject and I’ve got to write something about it.
And that’s different to your normal process?
Absolutely. In the normal process you don’t necessarily have to come up with words, you don’t have to come up with a bit of music. You can do something else, you can go for a nice walk. But here I’ve got to come up something for a deadline.
The brutalist buildings might seem an unusual subject to those who associate your lyrics with nature and more pastoral themes?
Possibly, but I’ve begun to tire of that a bit because there seems to be a lot of it about and I’ve come to think it’s maybe a bit easy and we’re generating this false rural utopia. It’s not how it is. I think I’ve come to realise I’m a lot more urban than that. And yeah I did grown up in the countryside, but I’ve lived a long while in a city and I really love the city. I think actually, it possibly was that, but if you look a bit closer it’s more to do with states of mind than states of countryside… Even when it comes to something like ‘Low Bay of Sky’ [from 2007’s Autumn Response]. That was improvised on the spot and I remember I had a book open in front of me about trees, but I think if you look at those words, it’s a mental state ‘low bay of sky’, it’s not a nature description. And winter isn’t exclusive to the countryside. Summer Wanderer – if you take the Gaelic translation of Sorley – Somhairle – it’s literally ‘Summer Wanderer’. Obviously Gaelic culture is very – well, it’s urbanised now – but obviously all that comes from a very non-urban setting. The Summer Wanderer was wandering away from that rural setting to somewhere else, but my summer wandering was very much in the city. I think urban and rural have a different relationship now – they used to be quite distinct but now are quite blurred. And I think we are maybe more united by our psychology than environment… possibly.
The winter thing I did was another case of having to come up with words. Alun [Woodward] from Platform asked if I would take part in this event which was to do with winter, so I thought I’ll come up with something new about winter for the event. Winter has 154 days, so I’d come up with 154 lines and it became this thing which subsequently I performed elsewhere. One such place was in Poland and the guy who had invited me over to Warsaw said, ‘I really liked that, can you record it for my label?’ So I recorded it for his label and he’s going to release it on the first day of winter 2015. It’s the Populista label, operating out of Warsaw. I bought a reel of tape which lasted 33 minutes, which is the duration of the piece. The lyrics have been subtly altered. I saw ways to improve them through live performance. What you’ve got on the record is the memorialised version and that’s probably how it’s going to be from now on. But it’s a piece that I’ve only performed in winter, so I’ve got a couple more months and then I’ve got to put it away until next winter.
The composition of the piece seems system-based, almost Oulipan.
I had to write something about winter so I came up with a plan where there were 14 lots of 11 lines, every first two lines would be climactic, every third line would be addressed at winter. There’s a scheme there, so it’s quite like Demolished Structures in that you’re writing to order. But usually you can’t pinpoint where the inspiration is, it’s just walking along and maybe… I was buying my train ticket here and I heard someone in the ticket booth talking about their migraine and a mother talking to her daughter saying ‘you fought it away with your foot’ and it brought instantly to my mind ‘I fought migraine with my feet’. Maybe that’s the start of something! It’s things like that. It’s usually senseless doggerel!
On the Sunday at Counterflows you’re doing a solo set.
The solo set is going to be acoustic and voice. Sometimes when you talk to a stranger about what you do, what you play live, and you’ve got to make it sound socially acceptable, you say ‘I play acoustic guitar and sing’. But I think that only captures the half of it. I did an acoustic guitar and voice set and somebody came up afterwards and said ‘that was like a cross between William Bennett and Stewart Lee’. Now if you can do that with an acoustic guitar and voice, I’m quite pleased with that, because there is an element of playing the room and stretching their expectations. It’s not storytelling, there’s a performance aspect to it. I feel I’m at a stage with acoustic guitar and voice where I can get up there with no material whatsoever and still deliver a performance. As it is I do have material to fall back on and I do deliver material, but I never have a set as such. My acoustic guitar playing has got to the point where I’ve totally stripped it of all ornament and I think my acoustic guitar style could be quite disappointing to anyone who comes along expecting me being something like Sapphie or May because on those records I was possibly playing more ornamentally, more artfully. It’s just the way my style’s gone. I could play like that if I wanted to, but I don’t feel the need. Again, reacting against the way folk has become a catch-all for a certain kind of virtuoso storytelling faux-idyll.
And a reaction against your own previous practice, trying not to repeat yourself?
Yeah, absolutely. When I did that house show, the final night I did an acoustic guitar and vocal performance – the previous nights hadn’t been that – and the final thing I did was ‘Soon It Will Be Fire’ from Sapphie, and it was bizarre, because it was kind of like Sinatra going into ‘My Way’. There was a ripple of applause, like ‘finally! He’s cut through that experimental crap and he’s delivering now’. That was possibly a rare moment. Having said that, I did three performances in London recently and although I didn’t do Sapphie, the first night I said to the audience, this is going to be about songs, if that sits uncomfortably with you, come back tomorrow night when it’ll be something different.
Some might see you interest in playing with the audience’s expectations as rather bloody minded or perverse?
Oh I’m totally bloody minded and why not? I’m not doing it out of misanthropy, I’m doing it out of trying to make it interesting for myself. If I’m on stage I’m thinking, for the next hour of my life I don’t want to be going through the motions. I think there’s a danger if you’re a song delivery mechanism on stage that you could be perhaps going through the motions. I’m probably setting myself up for a fall here! Come the Sunday night of Counterflows I’ll be saying ‘okay, now I’m going to play ‘Soon It Will Be Fire’. I’ve got a psychological need to keep it interesting for myself, which is possibly a bit selfish.
I once was told by a promoter that what I’d done was inappropriate. I think they were wanting something different, but y’know, it wasn’t too disappointing.
You were once thrown out of a folk club for playing the same chord for 15 minutes…
That was in the ’80s, I was physically ejected. That was ’19 Used Postage Stamps’, I don’t know if you’ve heard that. It’s actually the opening track on the seven CD No Fans boxset. I had a list of things as lyrics, things I’d received through the post, and I was just going to keep on going, playing the same two chords, and see what happened. The deal was… these old folk clubs were fantastic because you didn’t have to pass an audition, you didn’t have to submit a demo, it was very democratic. You get up there and do what you wanted, and people did, but it was usually within the folk idiom. Yeah I had an acoustic guitar and voice, but after about five minutes it became very clear I wasn’t going to be doing anything other than singing very elongated syllables over the same two chords. Ten minutes was the rule and maybe 13-14 minutes in the comperes realised I wasn’t going to shift and the guitar was taken out of my hands and I was ushered off. I got a cheer from the audience, I think it was entertaining, and there was something like ‘it did him a lot more good than it did us’. But yeah, I was testing it. There was another time I went along to some folk club with a reed organ, and I just started sellotaping down the keys down and I ended up having a debate with the audience about why the hell I’d done that. I was young, I was that intense, I was angry. It’s not a deliberate provocation. The whole thing’s a bit of an experiment.
What have been your favourite shows?
I think the house show [Glasgow Open House festival 2014, where Youngs played a three night residency in a West End flat] was really fun, because I could do lots of different things. The first night I did a zither and towards the end of that show Luke [Fowler] came and did a bit of modular synth with the zither. The second night I did guitar, then voice… It’s nice to do all those different things, I find that satisfying. I did a night in Manchester with several different sets, that was quite satisfying, even though only about ten people came. But that was quite good because you could have a relationship with the audience, control the situation. Someone said to me afterwards ‘it’s not about entertainment is it?’ which I quite liked.
It’s satisfying when I feel I’ve done something personally interesting. Not necessarily when you’ve got a big cheer from the audience. Very much probably on my own terms, which is maybe a bit selfish. Equally, you do shows where I felt I did a good version of what it is I do and the audience seemed to appreciate it, and that’s nice. And afterwards people come up to you and say ‘I really enjoyed that’ and that is nice, it would be foolish to say I didn’t like it.
I’ve played to audiences who have no interest in what I do, I’ve played to audiences who are quite antagonistic, but I think with Counterflows the audiences just want you to do well… probably. They’re not out to get you – I hope!
Last year you played a gig at Glasgow Green as part of the Commonwealth Games. I heard you got a sing-along going.
Was it a different kind of audience to what you’re used to?
Possibly. Actually my dad came along to that one. Usually he doesn’t enjoy it, but after I’d finished playing he came up to me and went ‘HEEEY!’ I think he got quite a lot out of it. He’s in his ’80s and it was a really nice moment. It was a terrible day, it was so wet. The only other time I’ve played which was wetter was Lushfest, which was this event for Lush employees down in Dorset. I think it was the wettest day in Dorset on record. The Lush employees decided to go home and I ended up playing to the other people on the bill basically: Pelt, Alexander Tucker, the guy who had organised. That was the audience. It was actually very good!
Counterflows is very much a festival that draws on the Glasgow grassroots scene. Do you feel you’re part of the Glasgow scene?
I lived in Glasgow for probably about five or so years before I played live. When I moved to Glasgow I’d had records on Forced Exposure and things like that. I remember David Keenan coming to the first live show, I was supporting Ganger, and he came came along thinking ‘that can’t be THE Richard Youngs’ and I was speaking to him afterwards and he went, ‘what, you live in Glasgow?’ Cos he had bought the Forced Exposure record and it was a total headfuck for him as he’d bought these records by a guy who lived in Glasgow and he hadn’t a clue about it. I was very much on the periphery for ages and I’m not really a scene player but as time goes on you make friends and I guess probably I’m part of the scene now. But I’ve probably done it very much on my own terms. I remember in the early days, y’know, taking a record to a record shop asking if they’d stock it, and they’d do sale or return and sell one copy. But I’ve probably got more of a reputation now in Glasgow. I haven’t really done anything to become part of the Glasgow scene, it just evolved over decades.
What’s on the horizon beyond Counterflows?
Well, VHF is doing a 7 CD retrospective box set No Fans compendium. All the No Fans releases, along with new material and unreleased material. So that’s the big release. I’ve also got a protest record which we aim to get out on election day. We’re just doing the artwork for that. The winter record in winter. A potential Flexibles 12”, we’ll see if anyone wants that. I’m going to be doing a record for Golden Lab. I’ve been working on that and I can exclusively reveal that it will be called Varispeed Etudes. Luke [Fowler] gave me this reel of tape. He’d just found it, this beautiful, pristine 5” reel of tape. I said ‘that’s a lovely reel of tape’ and he said, ‘have it, fill it!’. So I filled it with some ‘varispeed etudes’. Probably pretty obvious what it is! I should say that when I played London, Dylan Nyoukis was supporting, and he had these two cassette players with varispeed on them. And I remember having this conversation with him afterwards, saying ‘varispeed: it’s the future’. So it kind of came out of that.
You’d been recording digitally – why the return to analogue?
I had a major, major computer crash and I had to erase everything and fresh install and at this time it was Christmas I treated myself to a 10” reel of tape to record the winter thing because I thought it would sound better on reel. And it does sound great on reel. Now the Varispeed Etudes is on reel, the Flexibles 12” is on reel. I decided everything I record from now on is going to be on reel, because it cuts through the crap. You’ve only got four tracks to say something and it gives it a certain sound. Sure, I bounce it down onto computer, because things are digital to a certain extent, but it means you’ve got to focus, there’s no frivolity, it’s midi-free. It’s a leaner, meaner recording machiner. It’s ham-operating. I’m ham-rolling at the moment.
Finally, which acts are you most looking forward to at Counterflows?
As a middle-aged man with responsibilities I don’t often get to see much music in a live situation, apart from whatever’s on the same bill as me. I very much like the opportunity to be surprised, so I’m going into it like, hey there’s other music, let’s bring it on! I’ll experience it as a rare treat. I’m very open-minded, I’ll take it as it comes.