Jackie McKeown enthusiastic front man with Glasgow’s 1990s talks effortlessly about their sophomore effort Kicks which is being booted about, delving into the rigours of recording under Bernard Butler, sharing vocals duties, girlfriends and carrying the most inappropriate hand luggage in Germany.
While most critics (including Webcuts’ own) have criticised Kicks for merely providing more of the same as their debut Cookies, I have to respectfully ask — what have they been smoking? Kicks is the sound of a band expanding and experimenting while never losing sight of its initial good time rock ‘n’ roll goal. While tracks like “Vondelpark” and “I Don’t Even Know What That Is” stick to the 1990s formula fairly closely the delegation of lead vocals to drummer Michael McGaughrin and bassist Dino Bardot and shared songwriting duties has added variety and depth rarely seen in most rock albums.
We last spoke to McKeown in 2007, but this time we resist, mostly, the impulse to broach the topic of his previous band The Yummy Fur.
Kicks is a very upbeat record and sounds like it was fun to record. Were any of the songs more fun to record than others?
(Laughs). That’s an interesting question. I don’t remember any of the songs being amazingly fun to record. I remember quite a tense atmosphere in the studio. Even though we were quite calm and really up for doing it we had a few problems occasionally with the producer and so sometimes it was little bit strained in the studio. But it didn’t affect the music and in fact made the music better.
That’s interesting because you once again employed the services of Bernard Butler to produce. I assumed there was a healthy relationship from the first record.
There was a good relationship and that good relationship still exists. I think we work well with each other in the studio. The first time it was just like there was no other way to make the record, it was only every going to made that way, everybody was on the same page. But with the second record, because we it didn’t have that Stonesy, New York vibe we were really obsessed with on the first album, it wasn’t immediately obvious how to record the songs or know what to do with them. So a lot of disagreements came up. Each song was quite self contained and there were so many elements you could mess around with which led to many different versions. It was kind of weird, but I think it was good because you would keep the best ideas of everybody.
What qualities did Bernard bring to the recording process?
He is very good at taking songs apart, in a good way. Bands always think they’ve got the last say on a song and they’ve got it perfect but a producer, a good one, can do things that make the song much better. He very good at focusing in and doing edits and stuff and it works. Once he’s got an idea he’s very good at pursuing it. Unfortunately if you’re not quite thinking the same idea that he wants to pursue you can get in trouble.
So you ganged up on him a few times?
No he ganged up on us!
The most obvious difference between Kicks and Cookies is that there is a demarcation when it comes to lead vocals. Was it a conscious decision that you would sing lead on six, Michael four and Dino two?
When we were doing the first record, actually when we were writing the first batch of songs, it was always this thing that me and Michael would sing together, it wasn’t like there was a “singer”. Obviously with me playing guitar it was a little easier for me to sing than him. So two times out of three I’d end up singing the lead vocal and on the album Michael ended up with two lead vocals and I had ten, although a lot of the time Michael and myself would sing together. Jamie never sang, he never wanted to, and we could respect that but Dino already was a singer [in Stinky Munchkins — Ed] so suddenly it cracked open a little bit.
It was interesting because then you could say to people: “we’re trying to write an album”. Rather than pen millions of songs and divide them up amongst the three members we thought why don’t each of us write a couple of songs for ourselves, and on a bunch of others we collaborated. It made the writing process more interesting for us.
Did the person who wrote the lyrics generally take care of the lead vocals?
No. Dino wrote “Sparks” but it was decided that I was going to sing it. It’s about me and my ex-girlfriend, who’s my best friend. Everybody used to talk about me and her and we got a really bad reputation and were known for being trouble. I still think Dino could sing it better actually but for some reason everybody wanted me to do it. I don’t know why exactly, politics maybe. I think with Dino singing it sounded great but really different from 1990s.
Was Dino being a vocalist at the back of your mind when you offered him a place in 1990s?
No it wasn’t. Dino joined really quickly, he joined a day or so after Jamie left the band, just because I knew he was great guitar player and assumed he’d be able to play bass. As it turned out he was great bass player as well. It was only half way through the tour we discovered he could sing back up on all these songs.
You mentioned in our previous interview that the band after The Yummy Fur (The Girls) was one you didn’t want to sing in you could just play guitar. Could the same thing happen with 1990s now it contains two other talented vocalists?
That’s a good question but no. I love playing guitar and that’s my main fun on stage and in the studio. But if I’m on stage I really like being connected to singing. Most things I can’t sing but the few that I can sing, that I’m good at, I usually have to do it myself as there’s a certain kind of song you trust yourself to do more. I really like singing it’s good fun. I like guitar playing more but I don’t see myself giving up singing and just play guitar.
The first song on the album “Vondelpark” (a park in Amsterdam) has a pretty distinct narrative, is it autobiographic?
Yes it’s extremely autobiographic. That’s the saddest song on the album. And it’s the one that’s the most heartfelt. It’s about having such fun then such massive regret.
That song and “The Box” were in your live set for quite a while before you recorded them. Did they go through many changes from live to studio?
“Vondelpark” did. It started as a kind of jam, that sounded like a really slow Can track then there was a real stoner version and Michael came up with the “uh-uh-oh, ah uh uh uh oh”, and then we speed it up and tried to make it sound like The Modern Lovers’ “She Cracked”. In the studio version we thought it would be nice to make a Krautrock pop song so we taped some of the strings on the Jaguar guitar I play with gaffer tape. It made a weird ringing/chiming noise.
How did the Baader-Meinhof references in “Kickstrasse” come about? [Strasse is German for “street” — Ed]
I met my girlfriend one crazy night in a Spanish city where we were both playing gigs. It was really mad, but we only saw each other for one night so after a month we agreed to meet up in Berlin. When I got off the train in Berlin and got to the centre, in Mitte, I realised that the bag I brought with me had an imprint of the RAF/Baader-Meinhof logo. It’s a bit like being in Belfast with an IRA bag. But I didn’t want to turn it around so I just went “fuck it” and met up with my girlfriend and we fell in love and everything was amazing.
We were feeling each other up in the streets of East and West Berlin with this RAF bag. According to Mikey from Art Brut if you display that logo in Germany the police can come up and tell you to stop wearing it, it’s almost an offence.
But it’s mainly about being excited about a girlfriend and a new love and the feeling that everything seems explosive.
Did you ever think the line “Come crash your plane into my building” might be controversial?
I didn’t think of it until we were recording it. We were discussing it and I realised it might be controversial but it wasn’t intended to be. Plus my girlfriend’s star sign is Sagittarius (9th month) and mine is Aquarius (11th) — 9/11.
Former Long Blonde Kate Jackson contributes backing vocals on that track. It’s rumoured that she’s recording a solo album with Bernard Butler, will you return the favour?
I would love to. I have spoken to Kate a few times about this; we were supposed to write a song together years ago. I would love to play guitar with her but I don’t know if Bernard would let me.
Finally any plans to soak up the rays in Australia any time soon?
We’re trying to get somebody to sort it out just now. It’s a priority. We had so much fun in Australia and really, really liked it. I didn’t think I was going to like it but it was amazing. So yeah.