An amalgamation of traditional Scottish folk music and anthemic indie rock, Washington Irving say that “music journalists have never known what to do with us”, most often comparing them to the likes of Frightened Rabbit and The Twilight Sad.
But what this Scottish band seem able to do so effortlessly is take the inherent sorrow of their nation’s folk culture and flip this on its head, inflecting it with joy and poignancy in equal measure. They are somehow upbeat in their morbid (and factually accurate) observations.
After releasing two EPs in 2013 – Palomides Vol I and Palomides Vol II – the band have “spent some time in the wilderness” and come back with a triumphant new single and their first full length album, which they recorded in New York.
New single ‘We Are All Going To Die’ is set for release on November 6, and their UK tour kicks off the day before in London, where they are playing alongside American indie-punks Titus Andronicus.
Washington Irving are: Joseph Black (Lead Vocals, Guitar), Martin Anfield (Guitar, Backing Vocals), Kieran Heather (Guitar, Bass, Backing Vocals), Rory MacDonald (Bass, Backing Vocals), Chris McGarry (Drums).
Siobhan Smith spoke to Joseph about the new single, their sound and the rather “intense question” of death.
How are things? What are you guys up to at the moment?
“Good thank you. We are all scattered around Scotland at the moment. I think Kieran is on tour, not sure what the other guys are doing. I’m hanging out at home doing some producing work and trying to go fishing as much as I can.
“Yesterday I went fishing all day with my friend Ross from Three Blind Wolves. I caught my first salmon for 14 years. Ross didn’t do so well. But last time we were out I caught nothing and he caught six trout so he can’t complain.”
You named your band after the American author who wrote Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Why?
“I named the band Washington Irving ten years ago. It was my high school name for the music that me and drummer Chris McGarry were making at the time and we kept it.”
You’re from Oban and Aberdeen. How do your Northern roots influence your music?
“I think when we started it had a big influence. We wanted to sound like where we were from. We formed properly in Glasgow though. We all saw Glasgow from an outsider’s point of view and I think that inspired us.”
Your new single is called ‘We Are All Going to Die.’ I love that. A truer line was never spoken. Why did you decide to go for a song about death?
“When I started writing this I had recently gone through a bereavement and our new stuff is all about that process. I had a lot of time and space to think about it whilst writing. The album records the process and shows the conclusions.”
It’s quite contradictory: a song about death with a triumphant and upbeat chorus line. Tell us about the thinking behind it.
“I think the song is only contradictory depending on what you think life and death is about. ‘We Are All Going to Die’ for me is a statement of solidarity with all humans. It makes me feel joyful and helps me see what’s important and meaningful in life.”
The effect of the backing singers is pretty spine-tingling…
“I think we had about 20 people! We got them to sing a lot on the record. But that was the first song. We didn’t know them at all at that point and they were strangers to each other. The first thing they sang was ‘We Are All Going to Die’. It’s an awesome ice-breaker. We got exactly what we wanted – joy and solidarity.”
Are you scared of dying? Or is this a way of accepting that it’s going to happen, and embracing it?!
“That is the most intense question anyone has ever emailed me.”
Sure. Moving on… You are touring the UK in November, are you looking forward to it?
You’re supporting Titus Andronicus. There’s also a literary reference there in the band name (Titus Andronicus is one of William Shakespeare’s tragedies). What’s the significance in this? Or is it coincidental?
“Yeah it’s a fun coincidence. It sounds like it could be some kind of literary performance. It won’t be!
“They are one of our favourite bands. What I find most incredible about them is they are able to tackle extremely difficult subject matters and completely achieve it. The Monitor is a punk concept album about The American Civil War. They absolutely nail it. Even more challenging is their most recent The Most Lamentable Tragedy, a rock opera about living with bi-polar. Most musicians don’t write about this stuff.”
You’ve said that the new album was written after a “period of unrest” and you ended up all in different parts of Scotland, where you were only able to communicate electronically. How did this happen? And did it affect your song writing, and the feeling of unity with the band?
“After we released Palomides we toured with Frightened Rabbit and did a lot of shows. We worked ourselves into the ground a bit. We came out of it pretty mentally exhausted and downbeat. There was also some big life moments for us and personal tragedies which seemed to occur simultaneously. In a band as tight-knit as ours, if one of us is having a really hard time we all experience it together.”
“I moved home to Dalmally where I’m from and started working in a café. I started building a small home studio and from there we began plotting our new record. We had a completely different approach this time. Before we wrote a single note we had planned what the album would be about and how we would achieve it. It’s a concept album with a strict focus and we channelled everything into it. The whole album is about the unrest we were all feeling. You’ll understand it more when you hear it!”
You recorded the album in New York with Kevin McMahon (known for his work with Titus Andronicus, Swans and Real Estate). How did this affect the finished product?
“We knew we wanted the recording process to match the level of care we put into the songs. We wanted to challenge ourselves, go out of our comfort zones. We wanted to sweat. The subject matter of this record is really intense. I think going to the US allowed us to really dwell on it. Working with Kevin was incredible. He was our first choice producer because of the level of commitment he had shown in some of the difficult records he’d made. We didn’t want someone who would just hit record. We wanted the subject matter of the songs to be squeezed out into every aspect of the recording.
“When I first met him he just stared at me for ages in the pub. He listened carefully to everything I had to say and just watched me. Afterwards he told me that he thought from our emails that I might be insane as most people who ask him to record their albums are.
“It’s a reputation he doesn’t know how he got. Kevin guided us through this album. His mentoring approach was the most important thing he brought to it.”
I have heard you described as a “Clashy Mumford” and the “Sex Pistols of Scottish folk”. What’s your take on these comparisons? How would you describe your sound?
“I think music journalists have never known what to do with us. Our first collection of EPs, Palomides, was dark and difficult. I think that’s where we were with our lives at that stage. It was very internal and I really didn’t mind if nobody had a clue what it was about or why we made it.
“This one is different. In this forthcoming album we have something very clear we want to say and we want everyone who hears it to get on board. We want to be heard this time.”
What’s the most punk rock thing you’ve ever done?
“We recently left a nightclub in Minsk at midnight to be driven over the Belarussian/Lithuanian border in the hours of darkness whilst some of us were screaming and drinking vodka. That’s true. Don’t know if it’s punk rock…”
Finally, what’s the music scene like in Oban? Any competition? Any recommendations for us?
“Yeah! Listen to Mike Nisbet. He has an album called Vagrant which I listen to all the time.”
‘We Are All Going To Die’ will be released on November 6. Listen to it here in the meantime.
Washington Irving play the following dates:
5 Nov: Village Underground, London
6 Nov: Thelka, Bristol
7 Nov Bleach, Brighton
8 Nov: Bullingdon, Oxford
10 Nov: Hare & Hounds, Birmingham
11 Nov: Deaf Institute, Manchester
12 Nov: Kazimer, Liverpool
13 Nov: Stereo, Glasgow
14 Nov: Beacons Metro Festical, Leeds
16 Nov: Bodega Social Club, Nottingham