Much has happened for Kris since we last talked, both personally and professionally. You can’t always separate these two strands, as was clear the moment I arrived at the dressing room door, waiting while he finished a video call with partner Louise and newish arrival, 18-month-old Soren. This led naturally into our first conversation. They’ve set up home in Louise’s native Shetland, so how does that play out with the life of a professional, touring musician? As you might expect from someone with Kris’ generally laid back view of life, the response was the understated –
“The geographical challenges of living in Shetland. Yes, there’s a bit of that …”
The last few months have seen him in Ireland (twice), Denmark and the current UK tour. Has he deliberately organised his tours into longer blocks?
“… it’s kind of the way the dice have fallen to some degree, and I need to do quite a lot of work just now.”
That comment diverted us off into considering how typical the workload of the last few months has been, but we later returned to, let’s call it ‘The Shetland Challenge’. Kris had an easy way of illustrating just how productive the last decade has been for his music.
“Early on this tour I got a delivery of some unusual and older bits of merch from Tom at Reveal Records [Kris’ record company], and I was looking at a full trestle table of albums and EPs and vinyl. The three solo albums, Drever, McCusker, Woomble, the two albums with Éamonn [Coyne], plus 2 EPs with Éamonn, the EP with Boo [Hewerdine] plus the supplementary one I did with the new album, plus all of the Lau material. And that’s all in the last decade. I don’t know what that works out as, but it’s certainly more than an album a year.”
That’s a hefty work rate by anyone’s standards. However, Kris pointed out some significant differences within the collection.
“Mine and Éamonn’s records, they were really about representing what we were doing when we were going out on tour. They weren’t big productions, we did little bits of reinforcement, occasionally we would do things with expanded line-up but really they were about saying here is Kris Drever and Éamonn Coyne’s flat-picking traditional Irish and Scottish music. Whereas, the solo records, the Lau things and the Drever, McCusker and Woomble are slightly more artistic pursuits… …as in we’re composing music especially… …and the whole thing is part of our aesthetic choice.”
With the mention of composing, it seemed appropriate to ask about Kris’s song writing. He’s described songs on last year’s solo album, If Wishes Were Horses, as ‘semi-biographical’ and many reviewers have commented on both the personal nature of some subject material and on the sophistication and quality of the song writing. The nomination of the title track for best original song at this year’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards is a testament to that second point. But what had prompted him to include such personal songs?
“I’ve always written, but I haven’t always had faith in the quality of what I’ve been doing… …I like things to happen naturally and to sound like ‘that’s what’s happened’. I think a lot of times people pick a concept and say, ‘right, I’m going to write this’. As a result, it sounds a bit laboured and a bit contrived… My radar for that kind of stuff is quite finely tuned, I can’t get over it and so I can’t enjoy it. I feel I’m hardly likely to be unusual in that regard and so when I make things, I like for them to sound as though they really do come from some other place, one that’s not just concept and business… there’s that other bit of us involved in all of this…the place none of us can put our finger on.”
So, I imagine the songs could have developed over a lengthy period before coming together on the album?
“They did eventually form something of a package but the oldest ones, some parts of them, possibly date back to before I finished work on Mark The Hard Earth . I probably finished those songs maybe a year and a half before [recording Wishes]. So, I finished a few things I’d been sitting on.”
Two of the songs, When the Shouting is Over and Five Past Two, originally appeared on the EP Last Man Standing that Kris made with Boo Hewerdine.
“Yes, they were written in a short space of time immediately before I made the recording with Boo. That was before I’d decided to make a solo record. So, [as] the other things that were written around that time ended up being part of the solo record… they all felt that they belonged to the same album.”
“When the Shouting is Over, I started writing that… the actual riff, it started off as a little whistling thing, and I think I started that before Lau put out their first record… I might even have put it forward as a thing for Lau. [Pause for Kris to pick up his guitar and play the riff]. So, that was lying around waiting, and bits of that song are maybe ten years old. So maybe a little bit of it [the motivation for the Wishes album] was tidying up all these different things that had been lying around on different recorders. Let’s get all this music that I’ve been meaning to do something with for a while and… well, do something with it.”
“But it was also a good period of time when… I found a little stream of believable narrative. I could draw on stuff that had been happening in my own life without it [pause] just being cringey. It happened… that voice was there at that time, and I was able to use that same voice to wrap up all those things.”
Two songs from Wishes deal with relationships in a particularly personal manner, I Didn’t Try Hard Enough and When We Roll In The Morning. These songs seemed to be a significant departure. Had being settled after the move to Shetland with a new partner, becoming a father, given him the confidence to find the ‘voice’ he described?
“There was no conscious decision to do that; it was really natural, it all just kind of happened. All the songs were finished before my son was born but, yes, certainly there was a feeling of, yeah, that’s a done deal. And yes, I think people quite often care less about others’ opinions, don’t they, once they’re parents.”
That led neatly on to discussing another aspect of the Shetland Challenge. In a previous conversation, soon after he’d settled into a single man’s existence in Glasgow, Kris had been enthusiastic about the opportunities for social music making provided by big city living. Shetland may be famous for its traditional music scene but did it provide anything equivalent?
“I don’t have time!”
“I feel like I’ve got unfinished business with Glasgow. I might like to go back there at some point, take the family and go back there. A lot of my musical friends are there, people I write with, studios and stuff… There are times when it doesn’t make a lot of sense travelling back to Shetland when you’ve a day off on tour for instance. So, in those instances, I still go and hang with my Glasgow friends. People like Louis Abbott and Euan Burton, who were on If Wishes Were Horses, I do a lot of stuff with them, writing, and discussing ideas is important too. You can execute things well all the time, to some degree, but if there’s not enough depth in the idea in the first place, then it’s only going to go so far. So, some of what I do in Glasgow is sitting and talking through ideas, often with, ‘Mmm, this beer is delicious’, interspersed into the conversation. I still feel a lot of ties to the cities of Scotland, I still need that input, and when I go there I’ll try to watch other people playing music or see some art. Shetland’s amazing for different reasons.”
In May, two gigs in London and Edinburgh feature Kris with a full band, will Louis and Euan be part of that band?
“They certainly are. I really do love them; I think they’re amazing. The full band on that record [Wishes] is remarkable in that all of the people who aren’t me, are truly extraordinary, not just very good. They actually can do anything, Ian Carr, Louis and Euan. So it’s like a dream team thing for me, to get those people thinking on things. I put the If Wishes Were Horses record together and, to some extent, I called the shots… But what it’s given us is a solid footing to start generating new music. I’m going to invite them in to make the whole thing with me. I’m just going to go in and say, ‘What now?’.”
So, can we look forward to seeing a Kris Drever Band more regularly?
“In my future, there are at least two things I’d like to do. One is an entirely solo record, just guitar and vocal, and the other is to have that [a band with Ian, Louis and Euan]. And, obviously, more Lau, at some point soon I suspect.”
It was inevitable our conversation would eventually turn to Lau, but there was one more aspect of Kris’ solo work to clarify first. There were six years between his last two solo albums, was it likely the next one would require such a long gestation?
“I’ve started writing again, I’ve got some good new songs, some of the best things I’ve written, I think. So, it might not be, it might be that in six months’ time I go. I’d be surprised if it were five or six years, three at the outside I would expect.”
And so, on to Kris as one-third of the musical powerhouse that is Lau. Lau has just announced the release date for Decade, a compilation album with the band’s choices of the best of their last, well, ten years, along with dates for a companion tour, but what about new Lau music? Is that in gestation?
“We’re in conversation. There’s a Dropbox folder full of weird noises that will eventually turn into music. We always do a big show in Edinburgh towards the end of the year and what we did last December was a dry run for the shows for this year. We’ve made a show where the first half is entirely acoustic, all of Lau into one microphone. And we’ve done what we always do, each tour, and re-written bits of music, so some of the early stuff is now in the second, electronic half and some of the electronic stuff is now in the acoustic half. We take bits apart, take little bits of things that people recognise and make them into slightly different pieces of music. It’s the first time we’ve done anything as complete as that in terms of a show. We’ve always operated on an album cycle and because we’re just out of one, having finished The Bell That Never Rang, and we haven’t started a new one, we put all our energies into making a really great show that people will want to go and see.”
Album production is another strand of Kris’s musical activity. Does he have any projects coming up?
“I’m about to produce a record for a group from Nashville, 10 String Symphony, Rachel Baiman and Christian Sedelmyer. They both play 5 string fiddle, sing and Rachel also plays the banjo. They’re coming over to Scotland in April for recording, I’m not sure when the release will be.”
“I’m getting more and more into production. I don’t know that I could do it full-time because I really enjoy playing the music myself. But I find it all fascinating and very useful for my own thinking about music.”
Showtime approached, and I left Kris with his guitar to loosen up voice and fingers. A review of his gig, with support from Kaia Kater, will appear shortly.