Angus Lyon & Ruaridh Campbell - We want to see where we can take tunes
Album credits can forge strange liaisons. What, for example, might bring Mull Building Supplies and Astor Piazzolla, the late Argentinean genius of new tango, into the same orbit?
The answer is 18 Months Later by Angus Lyon and Ruaridh Campbell, which is currently grabbing both the traditional music and world music scenes by the ears.
It’s an album full of invention, energy, musicality, subtlety, great ideas and the sheer joy of making music, and sings out ‘stunning music alert’ from the first track.
Mary Ann Kennedy, presenter of BBC Radio Scotland’s Global Gathering and a singer and musician herself, has made it a personal cause celebre, chivvying colleagues in London to check it out and play it.
Promoter and festival programmer Billy Kelly, who introduced the sensational Cuban pianist Omar Sosa and French double bass phenomenon Renaud Garcia-Fons to Scottish audiences, gave 18 Months Later one listen and immediately booked Lyon & Campbell for Glasgow’s world music extravaganza, Big Big World in October.
In this writer’s humble opinion, it’s the album that Astor Piazzolla might have made had he been Scottish.
Piazzolla doesn’t actually get mentioned on the 18 Months Later cover; his enterprising spirit is tacit, though, on the brilliantly realised, epic variations on the traditional tune Drowsy Maggie that forms the album’s centrepiece, and in conversation, Lyon and Campbell concede that his influence has been "massive."
As for Mull Building Supplies, without them 18 Months Later might never have happened because this is a story about music borne of an old tradition being brought to listeners by means of twenty-first century technology. If only James Scott Skinner, whose lovely Bovaglie’s Plaid closes the album with a trumpet and flugelhorn chorale, had had a laptop.
Lyon and Campbell are slightly bemused by the response they’ve had to the album.
"My parents are the acid test for whether things are any good or not," says Lyon, an accordionist and pianist from Lamington, near Biggar, who came up through the Scottish country dance band scene. "And my dad wasn’t all that keen. He’d have a preferred it if we’d just stuck to playing jigs and reels, but that was exactly what we didn’t want to do. There’s any number of bands doing that, and doing it so well that we can’t possibly improve on it. So we wanted to take tunes and develop them, see where we could take them."
The genesis for a wealth of different arrangements – from the languid, jazzy Fender Rhodes feel of The Trains (Live from NYC) to the bodhran as tablas romp that is Connor’s Reel – was the pair’s meeting in dance band The Picts in 1999.
"I think I was still at school or had just left," says Aberfoyle-born Campbell, fiddler, violist and graduate of Strathclyde University’s BA Music course. "And we were playing at weekends to make some money. Then Angus put a band together to promote his Long Road CD in 2001 and we were touring Germany when we found that the bit that really excited us most was our duo spot. We just seemed to have a natural rapport. So we started working on that. I’d bring in things I’d written at uni and …"
Lyon finishes the sentence for him by joking that they were impossible to play. "But that kind of thinking," Lyon continues, "where you’re forced to play in a completely different way, has been really important to the way this music’s developed. There are no rules and we take ideas from wherever we find them."
Their first album, Simple Tricks, released by Scottish folk label KRL in 2003 was musically to their liking but didn’t exactly fly from the racks. So they decided to go DIY for 18 Months Later.
"We knew that if we tried to do it in Glasgow, we’d play something, have a beer and wind up having about half an hour’s work to show for the whole day," says Lyon. "So we booked the room at An Tobar Arts Centre on Mull for three days because we like the sound you get there and the people at the arts centre are so helpful."
Armed with their laptops and all the microphones, cables and instruments they needed, and with the incentive of having to justify paying for self-catering accommodation too, they arrived in Tobermory and set to work. Only for the soundcard, the crucial piece of technology for computer recording and the one item for which they had no back-up, to develop a click.
"It turned out it was knackered," explains Campbell in suitable layman’s terms. Mull doesn’t run to a shop that stocks state of the art recording equipment. So phone calls were made. Lots of them.
Sound Control in Glasgow agreed to supply a replacement soundcard if they could find someone to get it to Mull. Colin Train, whose brother Alan later added guitar parts, was located in Edinburgh with a car, half a tank of petrol and absolutely no means of funding the return trip. Money was then wired to his bank account so that he could pick up the soundcard in Glasgow and drive to the ferry terminal, whereupon Mull Building Supplies’ van driver agreed to deliver the soundcard to a frazzled Lyon, Campbell and bass player Duncan Lyall.
The recording went ahead with spectacular results, but their technological troubles weren’t over. Just after Lyon pressed "save" to consign the finished album to his hard drive, artwork by Campbell included, his laptop crashed. Fortunately, thanks to the wonders of the external hard drive, they were able to rescue the whole package.
"To lose it after all we’d been through with the soundcard, wouldn’t bear thinking about," says Lyon. "But I listen to the album now and I don’t think we could have improved on it sound-wise if we’d recorded it conventionally in a studio. After Mull, we went round to various people’s living rooms and added the guitar, tin whistle, bodhran and horns. You know, we arrive at Alan Train’s, have spaghetti hoops on toast and he’s put down exactly what we want within forty minutes. Then Duncan [Lyall, bassist] mixed it in his living room. The only time we went to a studio was to have the album mastered."
The next step now is to take the music from 18 Months Later out on the road. A band has been formed, with Lyall on bass and Colin Train, the hero of the replacement soundcard sharing the accordion and piano parts with Lyon, and rehearsals are under way.
Marketing themselves, both in terms of the album and as a live attraction, as they’ve found, is a steep learning curve, however. There’s also the small matter of keeping enough money to live on coming in while they run up phone bills calling venues, promoters and the like.
"We’re fortunate in that we do quite a lot of work for Yehudi Menuhin’s Live Music Now! Scheme," says Campbell, who could have gone into orchestral work after Strathclyde but preferred to follow his original passion for traditional music which saw him compete successfully in Mods and win the prestigious Glenfiddich Fiddle Championship in 2002.
Live Music Now! takes them into the community to play to people with learning difficulties and into hospices and hospitals.
"It’s very much one to one with the audience and it really helps you to learn how to communicate with people, explaining where your music comes from and the stories behind it. That’s really valuable training," says Campbell. "Although sometimes you might not get the reaction you hoped for."
The pair go on, with typical self-deprecation, to describe an incident where one patient was trying to get them to give up their chairs so that she could use them as crutches to help her make her escape from their concert.
The former Cat Stevens, Yusuf Islam has been more appreciative, inviting Lyon to play on his new album and occasional concerts on double bassist Danny Thompson’s recommendation.
If Lyon’s father has still to be won over by 18 Months Later, his mother has at least stopped asking when he’s going to get a proper job since Angus phoned her from a rehearsal with Yusuf Islam.
"We were doing an Adopt A Landmine concert and Paul McCartney was going to be there, too, so Yusuf Islam said he’d sing Let It Be. Except, he didn’t know all the words."
Lyon phoned home, got his mother to Google Let It Be and recite the words off the computer screen, after which she was treated to the man she knew as Cat Stevens singing the song down the line to her personally. So now she thinks Angus is doing okay?
"Actually, it might have backfired," says Lyon. "She thinks, because I’m hanging out with big stars, that suddenly I’m loaded. And nothing could be further from the truth."
18 Months Later by Angus Lyon & Ruaridh Campbell is available on Mirrlees Records, from record shops or direct from www.anguslyon.co.uk
From The Herald, July 24, 2006