“What I am, and what I do, are the same thing”: An interview with The Proclaimers

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Twin brothers Charlie and Craig Reid have been making music as The Proclaimers for nearly 30 years; from the release of their first album in 1987 to the enduring sound of ‘500 Miles’, they have time and time again brought the heart, soul and sound of Scotland to fans the world over. Having recently released their tenth studio album Let’s Hear It For The Dogs, summer entailed a busy season including Glastonbury, V Festival and Scotland’s own T In The Park.

Before their gig at Milton Keynes Theatre this summer, ahead of their UK Tour commencing October 26th, Features Editor Camilla got the chance to chat to the brothers about everything from inspiration to personal favourites, and where the future leads to advice for budding musicians.

 

You start your big tour in October-November time, but you’ve been playing lots of festivals this summer, both big and small. Do you prefer doing festivals?

Charlie: I don’t think it matters, the only thing that matters is if the sound’s alright, if the audience is into it, if technically it’s going okay. If everybody plays well, that’s what matters. Next year we’ll be doing a couple of states in America, we’ll do Australia, hopefully Mid East, Far East, so it varies. Sometimes clubs, sometimes outdoor gigs, and it’s the same in the UK; it doesn’t bother us. It doesn’t really bother us where we go on the bill, on a festival, you know? We played Belladrum, we were top of it. A couple of weeks time we play V Fest and we’re the first thing on, we’ll do 30 minutes.

You said you took a bit of a break after everything with your last album, Like Comedy, but you still did festivals and things – did they not count?

Craig: Eh, we finished off Like Comedy, the last show was in the big place is Glasgow, The Hydro, in October 2013. Took a short break, and then I was writing, we wrote through the winter and the spring and we demo’d all the songs last July. Eeeh, and then we recorded it before last Christmas, so, we take and break and we don’t do shows, but, it takes us quite a long time to write a record; at least eight months, maybe nine, maybe ten months, so, after taking a short break we get back into that, and that’s that taken over time.
Charlie: One year out of three we won’t do any gigs because we’re putting a record together, recording it, hopefully. So what we did, we played 2013 and we didn’t play 2014; we’ll play this year, and next year.

Your albums, Let’s Hear It For The Dogs especially, are so diverse; not just in tone, but also in content. I mean, you’ve never shied away from doing the political or social commentary, but is that something that you actively try to include?

Charlie [left] and Craig [right] formed The Proclaimers in 1983, first touring with The Housemartins in 1986.

Craig: Ah, no, I don’t think it’s that; I always try to get a song that is – hopefully – is original. If you do it about a subject matter that you don’t think anyone else has tackled then it will be original. The words are more important to us than the music. So I think you’re looking for that, you’re looking for a first couple of lines that introduce, that sound different to anybody else.
Charlie: And it’s not about the subject matter –
Craig: The subject matter isn’t really the important thing. I think we enjoy doing records with varied subject matter, but if it came that you wrote a whole album over five months and it was all about one subject we’d put that out as well. But, as I say, if I’m looking for anything I’m to get a song that’s either an original subject matter, or it hasn’t been tackled before, or you take it from a different angle.
Charlie: We’re interested in current affairs, whether it’s politics or history or whatever like that, so
occasionally that’ll come out. But we’ve never sort of sat down and gone, “We’re gonna write a song like this,” let alone an album. I mean, the albums I liked most were varied. I know concept albums work for some people, or albums that’re all one theme; Craig’s right, if we had something and it was all pretty much on one theme that’s fine. But everything we’ve done’s, I hope, every album’s got a variety on it.

Do you have a personal favourite? An album you’re most proud of?

Charlie: I like Born Innocent, the one we did with Edwyn [Collins]; I like Sunshine on Leith; I like the first one, the acoustic record, and I really this this new one. I think that’s up there with the top favourite ones, for me.

Do you find that the songs that people most enjoy listening to, the ones that get requested, are the ones you enjoy playing the most?

Charlie: Not necessarily, but sometimes. I think ‘Sunshine on Leith’ among the folk – not among the general public, who just know one or two songs – but among the folk who actually come to the gigs consistently, that is the most popular one. I think that’s probably the best song we have and it’s one of the best to play, but, we do. We try and never play the same set twice. We vary it in maybe four, five, six different places, we rotate songs you know, so it keeps us interested. And there’s a lot of songs, because it’s ten albums we’re not playing something from every single album I don’t think, but we’re playing something from most of the records. And you obviously want to put new songs in, you know, but you don’t want to have just the same four or five new songs, you want to play at least eight, nine, ten new ones.

Is there anything that’s happening now, that you’re compelled to write about?

Craig: Naw, I think it generally comes out later on, you know. I’m not writing anything just now at all, but when it comes to this time next year when we’re finishing up, then after a break I’ll start. I might get ideas before that…

But then you’ll look back?

Craig: Aye, I’ll look back. I mean, I think politically what’s happened is interesting, but I’m not sure there’s an original song that I could do outta that. As I say, most of the time when I’m writing a song, nine times outta ten, I get the music first and then I don’t know what it’s gonna be about. And I get the first line or two lines, then I know what the song sounds like. But a couple on this new record it was phrases people used to me so I had the words first, I had the phrase first, and I built it round that. But most songs it the music, then the words.

You’ve been making music for 30 years now, and you still draw such huge crowds everywhere you go, you get people coming to gigs again and again. At the risk of sounding daft do you have a… a secret to your success?

Charlie: I think we’re different. I think we sound different; we certainly look different, very different! And certainly when we came out I think we sounded different, you know, distinct. I also think there’s varied subject matter in the songs, and I think the songs are uplifting. Not all of them, but some of them are. And some acts appear to have [laughs]no songs whatsoever that’re uplifting. So I think that contributes to some degree to longevity. There’s a bit of wit in the songs as well, and we certainly attack them. You know, we don’t short change them.
Craig: I think, also, there’s a thing where people’ll come backstage after gigs and that, time and time again, and they’ll say, oh we play some of your songs at family parties, or weddings, so it’s a lot of a communal thing. People sing the songs, groups of people sing them together, and so they want to come and hear us do it and sing along. I think there’s quite a lot of that in it as well.

Do you think things like festivals, and the Sunshine on Leith show and film, that they helpdraw new people in? That’ve only heard one or two songs?

Sunshine On Leith – a stage musical featuring The Proclaimers’ music – was given the Mamma Mia treatment with a 2013 film.

Sunshine On Leith – a stage musical featuring The Proclaimers’ music – was given the Mamma Mia treatment with a 2013 film.

Craig: Oh, easily.
Charlie: The musical definitely did, I mean, when we did it in Scotland it ran three separate times, I think, it was in theatres and it played to thousands of people. We couldn’t believe how many people got tickets to go and see the performance. But again there was a lot of, I wouldn’t say the Mamma Mia audience, but there was a lot of families went along, a lot of, you know, daughter, mother, grandmother type things. Or the whole family type thing. So there was that, and so when the film came out we thought, “I think it would do alright”. And it did pretty well. And because some people never go to concerts, but they go to the cinema, you catch some people. And some people either live in an area with no cinema, or they just don’t go out, you can go [mimes handing something]there’s a DVD. I think, as soon as they made the film, we were like, we knew we’d reach other people. It was really important for us to do that, for people that are not necessarily going out people, that’ll not necessarily even go to a cinema. They might just sit and home and something touches them. Sitting having a cup of tea watching a film, you know.

Do you ever still get nervous?

Craig: Yeah sometimes you can get, certainly if you haven’t toured for a while, I don’t know, the last break we had was 14 months. And if you haven’t, then the first ones are nervous, or something like… Well, actually, for T In The Park I wasn’t nervous. T In The Park I was nervous before, and then we went up ten minutes before we went on and the noise from the crowd was the loudest I’ve ever heard.
Charlie: [catching me nodding]You were at that one?
Craig: And it was just, it was just like I was like [looks around and claps], “What the fuck is this!?” It was just a case I knew to go on and I had to kind of check myself three or four songs in. Because you start getting taken along by the crowd, and you’ve got to not, you’ve got to be guiding the crowd; you don’t let the crowd guide you. And I think about three or four songs in I was kind of feeling that I was getting taken away so I kind of pulled myself back. Yeah, sometimes you get nervous.

Speaking of hits, when you were writing the ones that have gone on to be really successful, that they would be the ones?

Craig: Nooo-
Charlie: No, ‘Letter From America’ was written in ‘83.
Craig: ‘Letter From America’ was written in ’83 or ’84, and we got that and we knew it was a really good song and when we played it, it always got a response but you were playing it to, a dozen people, or twenty or thirty people. But we knew it was a good one. ‘I’m Gonna Be’, when we got it me and Charlie started playing it acoustically before we ever recorded it, and it got a good response again, and then when we recorded it it was like, that sounds really good, that’s definitely the first single, and if it gets play, it’ll be a hit. It’ll be some kind of hit. Some stuff, ‘I’m On My Way’, you don’t know. But ‘500 Miles’? There are very few songs like that, that last. It’s probably as big now as it was when it was a hit.
Charlie: Most acts, there are acts who have sold two, three, four, ten times the records we’ve sold – but they’ve never had a record as big as that. Maybe had a lot more hits, but none of them have endured. It just keeps coming back like a boomerang.

It was The Proclaimers’ second album, Sunshine on Leith, which held many of their most beloved and enduring hits.

It was The Proclaimers’ second album, Sunshine on Leith, which held many of their most beloved and enduring hits.

You’ve said before that you fear that song’s going to be more famous than you ever will!

[everyone laughs] Craig: Oh, it’s a lot more famous.
Charlie: We accepted that a long time ago!
Craig: That’s right, that’s alright then; it’s much more famous than us. It earns about… I’d love to see the figures, it earns at least seven or eight times what the rest of them combined gets. And it’s the only true, massive hit that we’ve had; it’s a huge record and it just keeps going on. People sing it all the time, karaoke and stuff like that. So, yeah, it’s way bigger than everything else we’ve done, all The Proclaimers combined, yeah; much better.

As we’re a student magazine, and you’re such veterans and legends of the music industry, is there any advice you’d give to young people who want to make music?

Craig: I would say, do it because you wanna do it.
Charlie: Yup.
Craig: The desire to do it I think’s more important than talent. I absolutely believe that. I think it’s good if you’ve got some talent, but you have to work at it; if you just do what you do, keep doing it, you will improve naturally. But I think the desire to do it is stronger than anything else. I would say don’t copy; everybody’s influenced, so everybody gets up and starts doing this because they’ve heard somebody else do it, you know, but try and tell your story in your way. Because most people don’t, and most people actually can’t; there’s even some big acts that, to my mind, aren’t that particularly distinctive. But if you get one who is they might not be the biggest act ever, but, people remember. That’d be it. And don’t, don’t follow what’s going around at the time. Don’t follow it.
Charlie: I did an interview with someone earlier on today, and they said, “What advice would you say to your, what advice would you give to your 23 year old self?” And looking back – your instincts were right. They were never once wrong, and everything you thought was crap was crap, and everything you thought was a trap was a trap. Whenever you thought, this is how we should do it, the instinct was correct. I think for most people following your instincts, being true to yourself and following your instincts, is the way to do it.

Are there any other predictable questions you get?

Charlie: What’s the like being twins.
Craig: [sigh]Yeah. We get a lot of that.
Charlie: We go well, yeah, we can observe what it was other people but we didn’t have any other brothers and sisters, to us it was the only dynamic we ever witnessed in the house, between Craig and I, so. Some twins seem to get on terribly, some twins get on really well, and most twins seem to get on okay?

I mean, now you’ve worked together for so long, how could you split what was being a twin versus just… working together!

Both: [laugh] Craig: [laughs]Yeah, working together, that’s hard to do.
Charlie: Yeah that’s, hah, that’s one interesting question. I don’t know. I think someone said, “What I am, and what I do, are the same thing”. That’s true for me, it’s, you know, the reason you get up. It’s what you are. Nothing about it feels odd, nothing about it feels like you shouldn’t be doing it, because the time will come when either one of us goes, I cannae do this any more, or I don’t feel it any more. That’s when they quit, you know, I think some people do go on too long. There comes a cut off point, I think. We’d be wise enough to know.

 

The Proclaimers‘ UK Tour starts October 16th 2015, while Let’s Hear It For The Dogs is available now.

 

 

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Features Editor 2015/16. Marine biology PhD student and mint chocolate lover. Sorry I give everything five stars, I just have a lot of love in my heart.

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