Edinburgh sextet Broken Records changed things up a bit for their sophomore album, Let Me Come Home. Leaning on a love of Americana and anthemic, arena-ready songs, the band delivered a confident followup to their much-praised 2009 debut, Until the Earth Begins To Part.
Broken Records, which includes frontman and guitarist Jamie Sutherland, his brother Rory on fiddle, guitarist Ian Turnball, guitarist Dave Smith, keyboardist Andrew Keeney and drummer Craig Ross, have a slew of UK dates this spring, including a hometown gig this Sunday, April 17. During their recent swing through the States, they dropped by The Alternate Side's Studio A to play Let Me Come Home tracks like "I Used To Dream" and Jamie revealed why his fellow University of St. Andrews classmate, Prince William, was never considered for the job of Broken Records' bassist:
Kara Manning: When I first heard this record I thought, “Ah! Scottish band. You can feel the expanse of the country, the mercurial weather and unpredictable geography of Scotland.” What Sigur Rós does for Iceland, Broken Records does for Scotland. But when I began to do research, I realized that I was totally going up the wrong alley - you’re completely inspired by Americana, Bruce Springsteen and movies by Elia Kazan and Terrence Malick.
Jamie Sutherland: Yeah, a lot of the record was trying to think about getting out of Edinburgh and Scotland. I guess that kind of sound is lodged in your subconscious. The things you’ve grown up with. But it was more a conscious effort to move away from anything particularly Scottish. On our first record, we tried to look East and tried to pick up more French, chanson music and polkas and things like that. And this time we squarely looked West, across the Atlantic for inspiration.
Kara: When you came off of the last record, you were a hugely buzzed about band in the UK and a lot of record labels were chasing after you. So the enormous pressure of putting out the second album and writing it, must have been extreme. Was it a conscious decision to start from scratch?
Jamie: I’ll come up with a lot of the ideas and bring them to the guys to flesh out. A lot of [the second album] was largely written in a month, from February 2010. We’d never been in the position of having to come up with a whole new batch of songs before. We had some sketches of ideas, but the hardest thing to do is to start writing again. At the time, a lot of friends were losing jobs and there was weird pressure kicking about. So that’s where the themes of the records came out.
Kara: It’s not a concept record, but there is a very strong theme that runs through it. There are two songs that bookend the album: “A Leaving Song” and “Home.” Was there that cyclical idea?
Jamie: We talked about a sort of tracklisting or running order for the album, but Rory had the idea of putting “Home” last. I hadn’t really realized the overarching theme. A lot of the stuff buzzes around in your subconscious. A lot of the songs are me and a lot are other people, stories and things. I had no idea that it was going to fit together so well or the songs were going to speak to each other as much as they do.
Kara: You said in an interview that you could never be quite as personal as some writers, like Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit. But you seem to be debating a lot of very dark, internal questions lyrically. There’s even a violence to some of the lyrics.
Jamie: Yeah, I struggle to enjoy fully the nice things in life. I need a little bit of nastiness there just to bring out any of the good sides. I like that in people so we always try to do something to make the songs a little darker. Like Scott from Frightened Rabbit - I could never [do what he does]. I still have this level of British reserve. And I think that sometimes you should keep things back, even though you can make a connection with people by these days opening yourself out on the internet with your lyrics and your art. We try to broadbrush some of the specifics to make it more accessible to other people I guess.
Kara: You’re such a vibrant, charismatic live band and I would think that to capture that energy is so hard in the studio.
Jamie: I think it’s been not so much a struggle as a realization that it’s very difficult to do. We tried to catch it on the first record but for various reasons we managed to do three quarters of that and never managed to get the last bit.
Kara: You worked with Tony Doogan who works with Mogwai a lot - a smart pairing - but did you work live? Was there a lot of overdubbing?
Dave Smith: It was pretty much in the standard way of putting bass and drums down first. There was no live playing in it really, well obviously we played live. But Jamie has always said that it should be two different things. You should have a record that’s done in a different way and a live sound that’s done in a different way. And it is hard because people have said that we haven’t yet captured the full sound of a live show. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, I don’t think. If the record is enough to convince people to come along to the show, they see something different. You don’t want to go to a gig and listen to a CD.
Kara: Have you toyed with the idea of a live EP or album?
Dave: Yeah, maybe.
Jamie: That’s how we got to working with Tony, actually. We did a concert sponsored by a famous beer brand in Edinburgh and Tony was on board to mix live tracks of it that you could pick up at the end of the show. With the first record, we felt that the rock band element had been slightly overlooked in terms of throwing every kind of conceivable instrument onto the record and when we got these back and heard how the guitars had been done - obviously, working with Mogwai, he knows how to make a guitar angry-sounding - and we thought he was the guy to go with. He totally helped me through a tricky patch as well. When we started the band I sang in a lot higher register and because I’d never done any serious singing before, when you use it, it changes. You can find different parts of it that you weren’t able to do before. We have an early demo of “Nearly Home” and it sounds ridiculously kind of high and thin. The bottom end just wasn’t there. Increasingly now I find my voice is dropping a lot more as I’m using it more and the high end is a lot harder to use. I used the high end because I loved Jeff Buckley records when I was growing up and you want to throw loads of reverb on it. Certainly, inside of all that and the influences, you’re just trying to find your own thing. I wouldn’t say that we as a band are a finished product in any way, shape or form. We’re still trying to work out that little thing that is us.
Kara: It is hard when a band has so much early attention, as you did, buzzed about by the NME or being the BBC darliing, but doesn’t have that time to grow. Were you able to rebuff that and take your time a bit, or are you still struggling with that?
Jamie: In terms of home, we were buzzy for a bit, but we had no control over that. We were an Edinburgh band playing smallish venues and all of the sudden people started writing about you. And the time period of the band just got sped up a lot. So the first record, which we’re all immensely proud of still, we viewed that as serving your apprenticeship. Nobody goes into work on their first day and is the best at anything. You need to learn what you’re doing and what you’re looking to get out of studio or a songwriting process and refine it. It’s a craft.
Kara: Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads was a big influence on you. There’s a beautiful duet [with Jill O'Sullivan of Sparrow and The Workshop] called “Dia Dos Namorados,” which in Portuguese means “Valentine’s Day." Was it a deliberate homage to a murder ballad?
Jamie: Well, half of the tracks off of Cave’s Murder Ballads are actually old Scottish folk songs, so the tradition is there. I think we’ve always veered away from being a folk band because in Scotland the connotation is that everyone is going to start ceilidh jumping or dancing at your gigs whereas in America, the folk tradition is viewed as these murder ballads and Woody Guthrie. So in a weird kind of way it was just trying to reclaim what is actually your own heritage in songwriting and a murder ballad is a fairly strong part of that. It was reclaiming that for ourselves just because that’s what you wanted to write on that particular day.
Kara: As a Scottish band, you give any Jersey band a run for its money as far as creating a kind of "Born To Run” anthem with “A Darkness Rises Up.”
Jamie: Springsteen is a huge influence of mine. I came to him quite late and I know quite a lot of guys, I’m 28 now, who dismissed him earlier and then found his records talking to them. I think he has that thing with guys-of-certain-age where suddenly you feel like you’re being talked to directly! He’s just a genius. The other guys aren’t such big fans and they’d wish I’d shut up about him though (laughs).
Kara: And you made the philosophical decision to drop out.
Jamie: Best decision of my life.
Kara: And Rory, your brother, was studying architecture and also dropped out. Your parents must have been thrilled.
Jamie: Yes, well mum’s just about forgiven me now. My mum and my big brother actually flew out to the Mercury Lounge show. I guess their logic was that you only get to see your sons play Manhattan once in your life. That’s how much faith she has in us.
Kara: The original idea was that Broken Records was to be a label? Or a collective?
Jamie: Where we went to university, Ian and I met there and played in bands at St. Andrews and ….
Kara: Wait, were you at St. Andrews at the same time as Prince William?
Jamie: Yeah, same year. Hideous.
Kara: And you couldn’t get him to join your band.
Jamie: No. We thought our own particular brand of atheist, socialist, republican songwriting at that time was possibly not his bent (laughs).
Kara: So what started as a label idea became a band.
Jamie: When we came back to Edinburgh, Ian was a year above me, and we didn’t know that many people and we began to play open mic nights and Rory started coming down from Dundee more and more. It was kind of a reverby, dirty three kind of not-really-folk thing. After that we were just desperately trying to get together this band. I had this old Fostex 16 track recorder and the idea was to record other bands and put their records out as much as I could and get them to play our songs and that way we could get a band by default. Or at least make a record.
Kara: Very sneaky.
Jamie: Yeah, that was the whole point. And that idea was ripped off from Saddle Creek and the Bright Eyes collective. A mix of both. They remain one of my absolutely favorite bands. One of the great things about going away with The National is that you just get to watch them, how they carry themselves, what they do through soundchecks and then you get to pick up bits and pieces along the way. Some ways to do things, some ways not.
Kara: Can you tell me a bit about the song you’re doing next, “I Used to Dream?”
Jamie: It’s about getting fat and old. I guess there are a few songs that tie into the idea, “The Motorcycle Boy Reigns” specifically, about where you thought you’d be when you were 17 or 18. It’s that ten-year school reunion thing that starts the mind going, about what it possibly is that you have become.