RM Hubbert (from 2012)

tweety stuff –  @ronanfromcork

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this was originally written for http://wearenoise.com/ in 2012, which had a revamp a few months ago and doesn’t have an archive up yet.

reposting this so as to share ahead of his concert at the Clonakilty Guitar Festival on Sunday 21 September. Can’t wait for it, but alas I must!

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I know it’s pretty redundant to say on a music site run and read by people who have a more-than-casual-relationship-with-music but it truly is a joy when you are blindsided by a support act you’ve never heard of before. I was so excited about getting to see the Bill Wells/Aidan Moffat Ensemble

for the first time in Cargo in London last December, that I forgot to get enough people to go with me to use the tickets I bought or even check out the name of the opening act before hand, not to mention give him a cursory listen online.

There was a flamenco guitar set up on the stage, so I assumed it was gonna be a girl who looked like Lisa Hannigan, or else a boy who looked like Lisa Hannigan. On comes this big fella with tattoos and 3/4 length cargo pants (hardy harr, venue pun) and starts line checking and tuning the guitar. “ The roadie is setting up, the support act must about to come on”; I suggested to two randomers next to me with the wisdom and experience that comes with years of going to gigs early to get full value for the ticket, (they didn’t seem solemn enough for the occasion to be honest, ie they were young people in their twenties).

But instead, with egg dripping slowly from my face, the man that is RM Hubbert  sat down and played a set of instrumental meditative pieces, that to my ears were some sort of burley zen. He didn’t demand attentive silence, he commanded it; and it was given willingly. Funnily enough the next time I saw him in The Grand Social last March (2012) or so, once again supporting the Wells/Moffat experience, he not only did that again but he also managed one of the hardest things for an opening act to do. The audience all slowly shuffled up the 20 feet or so between them and the stage without him even implying they should. Having been the opening act on a good few occasions, this really is a hard thing to achieve; to get an atmosphere going in a sterile room by just doing what you do; to get 100’s of people who haven’t heard of you to give up chatting and ‘one more quick drink in the bar’.

I spoke to him to him last week, ahead of his headline gig in The Grand Social on July 26 (2012). First off I had to apologise about the assuming he was “just” the roadie, but I expect it happens all the time? “Haha, you’re the first to admit it! I actually quite like that an audience may not expect me to do what I do based on my appearance. For the record though, I’ve never owned a pair of 3/4 length shorts. Never!”

After some quick wikipedia during the break after yer set, I learned that you were a founding member of El Hombre Trajeado <elhombretrajeado.bandcamp.com/album/shoplift>, (full disclosure, I’ve heard of them in interviews with other Scottish bands but have only heard a few songs myself), it was handy to drop into conversation after the gig with other bearded men on their own at the gig. But what chain of events led to you leaving the sound and indeed instrument that you made serious inroads with, to start playing one that is very rare in the post-rock world you are grew up in?

“I started studying flamenco guitar in early 2005. To be honest, it was a completely arbitrary choice, as I wanted something to do that would my mind off of my father’s illness and subsequent death. I’d read somewhere that flamenco was very hard so I picked that. The more I studied, the more I came to realise that whilst I loved the raw, emotive qualities of flamenco, I was quickly bored with the melodic structures so I started playing about with different tunings and melodies.”

Having read a few bits about you since, I’ve seen referred to sometimes as a composer, was learning a fresh instrument a new departure in your writing style too?

“I tend to noodle away mindlessly. Something I will come along at some point that grabs my attention. It’s a pretty iterative process; I rarely have anything concrete in mind when I start. I like the idea of the events around you informing everything you do, including writing music.”

This attachment to the working in the moment has been followed through in how you created your latest album? [Some of the people on the record include Alasdair Roberts, Aidan Moffat and Cork’s Michael John McCarthy, and it was produced by Alex Kapranos from that young up and coming band Franz Ferdinand (who was the one of the recording engineers of the first El Hombre Trajeado albums, when he went by the name of Alex Huntley.)]

“Aye, The entire purpose of Thirteen Lost & Found was to use it as a means to reconnect with some of my old friends and to get to know some of my newer friends better. I found myself unexpectedly single in 2010 and realised that I had lost touch with the majority of my friends over the last decade. I thought that it would be easier to reconnect with these people by writing music together. After we started, I figured that it might work as a good way to get to know some of my newer friends better too. In fact, the only part of the process that lacked forethought was the music itself. I asked each of the collaborators to not write anything in advance of us meeting up. I did the same. I wanted to try and capture the reconnection so to that end, whatever we had at the end of the first practice was what we ended up recording. It was a fun and terrifying way to make a record.”

This almost fearless take on songwriting is also shown by occasionally covering Mogwai, So I assume was a very easy undertaking since there are six of them with very intricate arrangements and he’s a guy with one guitar?

“Haha, aye, piece of cake! I actually just did a reworking of another track for Mogwai’s upcoming remix album as well. Same process for both pieces. Figure out key parts and transpose them to solo guitar. Normally the bass line and main melody. I added in Auto Rock’s percussive part too, I think. I normally find it very difficult to play other people’s music but Mogwai are actually a really great band to do this with. We share a lot of musical history so I can usually get a grasp of where the song is coming from. Plus, the tunes are fucking brilliant, that doesn’t hurt.”

While his latest album features a host of collaborations and instruments he has been touring solo solidly for nearly two years, I wonder does that much time on the road with just his guitar end up with the material evolving much?

“I don’t tend to change the music after it is recorded but I have found that the stories I tell about each piece have changed. Sometimes considerably.”

But simply referring to those introductions as ‘the stories you tell”, seems a bit of an understatement, you are very open about some very tough moments in your life; I am reticent to say that talking about serious depression to be ‘brave’ as I feel it implies that those who don’t are ‘weak’; but I do find how you communicate verbally what these instrumental pieces are about and represent, to be refreshingly open.

“Aye, it’s really the main reason I go out and play to be honest. I find it much easier to talk to a room full of strangers about my depression / parents / etc. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of. I could have had a far richer life if I had been more open with my loved ones.”

Your battle/relationship with depression was the root of your first solo album, First & Last, can you talk me through briefly the background of that album?

“I was diagnosed with chronic depression in 2005, shortly after my father died. After I’d been to see some therapists, I realised that I had in fact been having periods of depression since my teens. I had always just presumed that other people were better at hiding their general disgust for life; it was quite a revelation to find that others didn’t see the world this way. A couple of years passed and my mother died very suddenly. I found that I could express myself a little better by writing music about these events and as I knew it would be a very personal thing, I wanted to write these pieces by myself. I decided to write a piece of music each month for a year to try and document what was going on. Those pieces ended up forming that record”

As a sufferer of recurring manic depression myself, this really resonates with me, and therefore I know it’s very simplistic to ask if that process has wiped the slate clear… but did that process wipe the slate clear for your work since?

“No, it doesn’t go away. Writing and playing helps manage it, that’s all. I’ve not had a prolonged period of bad depression for a while but it’s never too far away. I find that I’m pretty susceptible to it immediately after tours or stretches of recording. The key is to be aware that it’s coming. Took me years to be able to recognize it quickly enough.”

The current tour you are on has involved gigs with Emma Pollack, one of your guests on Thirteen Lost & Found. But there is another dynamic with that tour as she is also kind of one of your bosses (Pollack is one of the 4 people who formed Chemikal Underground, who have released both his albums so far). So I guess you have no choice of music in the van and are always the one sent out for coffee?

“Nah, I’ve known the good people of Chemikal Underground since before the label started so I know where all of the skeletons are hidden!… and vice versa, now that I think about it. Seriously though, they were the only label I was interested in working with. Good people.”

Getting back to the regular touring, how do you wile away the hours? Plenty of music listening and book reading?

“I don’t really listen to a lot of music these days to be honest. It takes my long enough to get through the albums just by people that I know! Saying that, I love the new records by The Twilight Sad, I Build Collapsible Mountains, Human Don’t Be Angry and Adam Stafford. Aidan Moffat introduced me to Nicola Roberts’ last solo record too. That’s my current favourite driving record. Podcast wise, Glasgow Podcart is excellent and sweary.”

And finally, so RM Hubbert and Ron Hubbard… how many comic geniuses have made that connection? … Hello?… Hello?… His phone must have run out of battery, only explanation.

  • RM Hubbert plays The Grand Social on July 26th
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