With the release of Unkle Bob's Embers the band's singer/songwriter reveals what sparked the album's genesis.
Prior to Scotland's Unkle Bob recording and releasing its latest album Embers, Rick Webster watched the band reach great heights and then dissolve into near oblivion. After listening to and reviewing Embers, Rick visited with Coyote Music to answer some lingering questions.
Coyote Music: Before delving into the Embers story, I read that Unkle Bob had a song featured in Grey's Anatomy. Have you seen the episode? How was the song used—background music, set against a video montage or a particularly emotional moment? And what song from what album, was used?
Unkle Bob: The song is called "Swans" from our first album Sugar and Spite. I have never seen the whole episode, but it was the ending of a two part special and seemed like quite a big deal—our MySpace page took about 40,000 hits in the 12 hours after the show. I’m very grateful for the show: it helped us sell over 100,000 downloads and find an audience we would otherwise never have reached.
CM: Songs for Others seemed to signal a return of Unkle Bob. Talk about just prior to that EP coming about. What was the state of the band, and of you as a songwriter? You've mentioned that you were essentially burnt out on music and songwriting. What exactly was it that pulled you back in for that project?
UB: Before I moved back to Scotland and started Song For Others I had hit a wall with music in general. I wasn't getting much fun out of what I was doing and couldn't really even afford to be a musician in London. But while I was still in London, we started a third album as a band (which we later scrapped) and were throwing around ideas with drum machines and synths. I stopped knowing whether it was good or not. It seems silly to carry on with something you're not sure is any good, but [our music] had a momentum of its own.
Every project needs a driving force, and that had been me. But I just wasn't there. With previous albums I had strong ideas about everything, but I lost the plot. Every project needs a driving force, and that had been me. But I just wasn't there. [Physically,] I had suffered from some singing difficulties after completing a 40 date tour in 2 months. It sounds dramatic, but I completely lost my voice for several years. This knocked my confidence and made my songwriting suffer. I could barely sing what I wrote. I was fairly depressed as a result—not a good place. So I decided to move back to Scotland and effectively end the band. Maybe there was another way, but at the time I couldn’t see it. I had to remove the pressure.
Over time, living in Scotland, my voice started getting better and so did the writing. My ex-manager set me up with a job Tour-Managing one of his new acts. I went out on and off for about 18 months as a road manager, putting bottles of water on the stage every night and driving people around. There were times when it was heartbreaking to watch someone else performing every night and it not be me. But at other times it was incredibly humbling and cathartic to see the industry from another perspective. It changed my ambitions in a lot of ways. It returned me to the idea of music in a purer form: making it for yourself...writing to express yourself, without trying to write a hit or sound a certain way. It suits me better this way—it feels more natural. I think it’s important to feel like you have an honourable goal. In my case I was (and still am) trying to have enough success to write and record another record. it’s important to feel like you have an honourable goal.
CM: So you began writing again and eventually put out Songs for Others. What was it about that EP's music that led you to pick up the phone and contact the rest of the band to record Embers?
UB: I felt like I had let the other boys down when I left the band in 2011, and I wanted to have some kind of resolution. I missed working with them on songs—I value them so much as musicians. Together we really sound like a tight unit that only really happens through playing with each other for such a long time.
CM: Embers was recorded in "a remote studio in Wales." Can you talk about how you came to find this studio and why Wales was the right place to record?
UB: Foel Studios in Wales was the place we recorded much of our first album in 2005/6, so it had a lot of great memories. It was also the place where we recorded the third album (the one we scrapped), so there were memories that weren't so good. There was a moment at Foel in 2011 when we were having a terrible time and I just couldn’t sing for shit and I promised myself I would come back and turn things around. Saying that, I never had a plan for how all this would work—it just happened. It is also equidistant between Edinburgh and London, so it made [geographical] sense (not to mention it has a Trident 80B Desk, which is fabulous).
CM: Embers was recorded in 5 days. Share a moment or two from that time that made you happy as hell you were all there. And maybe the opposite. Did you have any moments that made you wonder why you were jumping into the madness of music recording again?
UB: Honestly, the whole session from the start to finish was very positive and productive. I had done a serious amount of pre-production creating the basis of songs while at home in Scotland. So we were jamming on top of these demos which already sounded okay. We just had to add the human touch and perform them like we meant it. A lot of credit goes to drummer Chris Hardwick, who did a great job of inhabiting the songs. He left everything on the pitch, so to speak. It was great to bounce off each other just like the old days, when we were firing on all cylinders we were a band who loved the recording process.
CM: It was great to bounce off each other just like the old days, when we were firing on all cylinders How did the rest of the band like the recording experience?
UB: I think it reminded everyone of good times and probably made us consider again what might have been. At the same time I think the other lads felt pretty good about getting back in the car and going home to their own lives.
CM: Now that the album is out, what are the plans? I noticed on Unkle Bob's website there isn't a "Shows" section. Will Embers be solely a studio project, to be sold and promoted online?
UB: The album is out on July 7, 2014. We have been discussing a tour with the original members but [it's not yet clear whether] that is viable. [We may have] some new faces come on board for some local shows. If the record becomes successful, [we may] get the old team on the road again.
CM: I've seen a lot of artists doing StageIt shows online—you perform online, sell tickets, and have an audience...but it's all done online. Personally, I'd love to see you perform from the comfort of my home in Austin, Texas...even just a solo acoustic performance.
UB: That is something I would consider. I'll look into it.
CM: Anything parting thoughts?
UB: The plan for Embers is to avoid all the nonsense that I didn't enjoy about music the first time around. This time it's all about good vibes, enjoying the journey (not some idealised destination), and, first and foremost, the music. If the album becomes successful it will be on its own terms and likely by way of word of mouth.