A musical collaborations go, Adrian Crowley and James Yorkston have worked a little magic into My Yoke Is Heavy. Here they talk exclusively to FRUK about how it all came to be so.
I asked Adrian and James about how they got to know each other and they both recall the same gig. James was playing in Dublin almost a decade ago and Adrian picks up the story, “He was playing in Dublin with his band and I had bought a ticket for the gig. On the day of the gig I got a call from the promoter who I knew pretty well. The promoter asked me if I could lend an acoustic guitar for this gig he was promoting. He said the chap who was playing that night had a problem with his own guitar. So I said, who and what is the gig? He said James Yorkston And The Athletes. He said ‘it’d be great if you could lend him an acoustic guitar if you have one. I can put you on the guest list … plus one’, he offered. I said, no problem, I have one alright but I haven’t played it a while. And no need to worry about the guest list. I was going anyway.”
Adrian was in the middle of moving and had all of his stuff in piles of boxes. He was also in the middle of ripping out the old carpets so there was dust everywhere. Added to that the guitar in question had been somewhat neglected as Adrian by then had switched to playing electric guitar exclusively. Still, dust and all James was grateful as he recalls, “Adrian rolled along with his Takemine and I borrowed that. It wasn’t a great guitar and it had much thinner strings than I was used to, but I was pleased to have it.” Adrian adds, “I don’t think he enjoyed playing the guitar. Though I must say, it sounded great. The poor guy, the strings must have felt like train tracks – they hadn’t been changed in about three years and must have been covered in 100 year old soot from that old carpet.”
[pullquote]By the end of the tour we were all like old buddies[/pullquote]A few months later their paths crossed more seriously, and Adrian tells me, “I had been added last minute to the bill of an Irish tour he and King Creosote were doing. I was totally disorganised and hadn’t arranged transport or accommodation. I remember walking into the venue in Belfast during sound check and everyone was like, ‘Who are you? Are you lost?’. I remember saying ‘I’m Adrian, remember? I’m going to be joining you on tour.’ This gruff guy was shaking his head saying, ‘No, no, there’s been a mistake, you should have stayed in Dublin!’ I was about to leave and walk back outside into the dark rainy night when the gruff guy (James) called me back and said ‘oh, aye, I remember now. By the end of the tour we were all like old buddies.”
James meanwhile recalls, “We had no idea Adrian was going to be there so when he appeared in Belfast I was slightly taken aback. In my book I refer to this awkward moment as though it was very short and he was quickly and warmly invited into the fold, but a mutual friend told me that Adrian had said I’d been very rude to him. My memory isn’t the best, but the truth is probably nearer that latter.” Despite this he echoes the feeling that they’ve since become great mates adding, “Since then, Adrian and I have done a load of tours together, at least 4. We did a couple around Ireland with Alasdair Roberts. They were good fun, I remember them fondly.”
Even before My Yoke Is Heavy, there has been some degree of collaborative recording. As Adrian remembers, “Just before saying goodbye, Kenny told me about this festival he had started the year before and invited me over to Fife to play, the following spring Homegame. Anyway I suppose that was the start of a lot of things. Over the years we talked about recording together. Actually James came over to Dublin and played on Long Distance Swimmer several years ago, and I’ve contributed to some special edition releases of his since that time – like that version of his song Shipwreckers I did for the box set of When The Haar Rolls In.”
[pullquote]I’m okay in the Barbican now, but the first few times I played it I did find it a bit unnerving. I mean, it’s bigger than the village I’m from[/pullquote]Remembering the genesis of this release, both recall a concert in 2006 and Adrian tells me, “It was Spring 2006, as far as I remember. There was a big extravaganza organised in the Barbican in London. The list of artists to perform was quite something, apart from Daniel himself there was Teenage Fanclub, the now sadly missed Vic Chestnutt, Howe Gelb, Jason Pierce, (Mark Linkous was due to play also but couldn’t make it, bless him). Yes, Daniel himself played and it was quite something.” It seems it was probably James who invited Adrian to the event and he confesses, “I was asked to play and I asked Adrian to join me, though I can’t remember exactly why. I think it’s because I thought he was a massive fan of Daniel Johnston’s and he’d appreciate it, but I read somewhere Adro saying it was because I was nervous of playing solo and that could be true. I’m okay in the Barbican now, but the first few times I played it I did find it a bit unnerving. I mean, it’s bigger than the village I’m from, so no real surprise.”
It seems the choice of material however was fairly straight forward, although James admits, “Well, the songs which I sang at Union Chapel were chosen by my then girlfriend, who is a massive fan of Daniel’s. And those were the songs I stayed with for this record. I think they’re kind of the obvious DJ songs. The hits.” Adrian confirms, “It didn’t take much really to come up with which songs to do. James already had chosen bunch to do live and I added more songs that I loved. I must add that I had never played any of Daniel’s songs before this. I sat down at a piano in my sister’s house and thought I’d give them a shot. I felt the songs resonate with me and I just let them do with me what they wanted. I think after years of listening to songs you love, been intermittently and tangentially, they embed themselves in your subconscious and then your own natural interpretation waits to be ignited.”
It wasn’t the only Daniel Johnston moment for James and he recalls, “The other main DJ thing I did was opening for him and then playing with him at Union Chapel. That show got turned into a DVD. It was pretty good fun, I recall, hanging out with Adem who is a very friendly, warm and open individual.” He admits, however, “I’ll be honest, I’m not a massive fan. I mean, I like him and appreciate him and would always try to catch him at a festival or if he played in Pittenweem, but I never listen to him at home at all. That said, I do enjoy his songs. They’re simple and catchy but with some killer lines, I guess. I think I described it elsewhere as being like 50’s Doo-wop or the early Beatles. Just great, short pop songs.
[pullquote]All sorts of items were used to make a joyous racket. Kids toys, spurs, 1960’s tape recorder to garble the sound a bit here and there[/pullquote]When it came to the recording of My Yoke Is Heavy, Adrian and James worked remotely and I ask if there was any particular brief or goal that they were working towards. Adrian explains, “Both James and I were into the idea of home recording with the most basic of equipment. We didn’t use computers, just old tape machines and near archaic porta studios. All sorts of items were used to make a joyous racket. Kids toys, spurs, 1960’s tape recorder to garble the sound a bit here and there… The machine I was using mostly to record had a built in CD burner, so in order to mix down/ export any of my work, I had to burn a CD. There were loads of CDRs piled around my desk in the end with notes scrawled on them. I’m not sure if I sent some of these to James or not. I think I did.”
James can’t recall the duo having any proscribed ideas before they started saying, “My tracks were based on the demos I’d made for Adro when I was doing that Barbican show and then we just sent Wav. files back and forth. We hadn’t rehearsed or anything and neither of us were taking it too seriously, just making a cheap but fun CD-r for the Fence Homegame thing. There was no brief I remember other than to make it as good as fuck and not worry too much in the process.” He candidly admits, “ I’ve used samples since The Lang Toun, which we made in 1999 I think, but they’re always very subtle and hidden so I don’t get sued.”
It seems Adrian also has a love of the unexpected, “I had always loved using tape recorders, four track recorders, mini discs Dictaphones, mainly for rough work but now and then something about the sound would stay with me. A part of those recordings would make their way onto a record of mine. I’ve recorded pigeons taking flight and footsteps for songs of mine like From Champions Avenue To Misery Hill or the rustling of dried leaves for songs like Liberty Stream. I do like the atmosphere of sounds other that what comes from a conventional musical instrument. They trigger something in my mind, personally but can work in an ambient musical sense also.”
[pullquote]Sure, I’d love to do more with James. I’m sure we will. We’ll no doubt cook up some plan over a few whiskies sometime soon[/pullquote]So what are the chances of future collaborations? It seems the door is open, but both are busy and Adrian admits, “I’m not sure yet about touring this record. We may manage one or two shows in 2014. Both of us are working on new albums at the moment. I’m in the thick of a new record, myself and am constantly touring solo around Europe. As I write this, I’m getting ready to go on a tour if Netherlands and Belgium. After that, it’s back to working on my next album. It’s coming along nicely, so I’m excited about that. Sure, I’d love to do more with James. I’m sure we will. We’ll no doubt cook up some plan over a few whiskies sometime soon.”
James tells the same story, “I’d love to tour this, but Adrian’s in demand all over the world which makes it tricky. I’m just working on my nth album for Domino Records, hopefully out some point next year. Got a great crew with me and it’s sounding really good so far. Very happy with it. Adro and I have talked about doing another thing and I’m certainly up for the idea. I remember before we settled on Daniel Johnston as the guy to cover we’d considered Mississippi John Hurt and a few others, so we’ll see. Maybe we’ll do a Beach Boys album, or Magnum.”
Well I guess that’s mostly good news in that it seems both are well underway with new projects. Adrian managed to get his answers back before flying off on tour, so there is no let up in the work load. As for that future collaboration, well have to wait and see, but in the meantime at least we have My Yoke Is Heavy: The Songs Of Daniel Johnston to enjoy.
Interview by: Simon Holland
James & Adrian from a few years ago – “True Love Will Find You In The End” (by Daniel Johnston)
My Yoke Is Heavy is out now on Chemikal Underground
Order it here