More about: Glasvegas
James Allan learned a great many things during the torturously drawn-out making of the fourth Glasvegas record. Chief among them was that as anxiety-inducing as it can be to field constant questions about a record’s progress, the moment you should really worry is when they stop being asked. “Another three years go by, and you think, 'fuck, if the management have lost interest, and my bandmates have lost interest, how can I expect anybody else to want to hear it?'”
He certainly never planned for a near-eight-year layoff. By the time the band’s third record, Later…When the TV Turns to Static, was released in September of 2013, they seemed as if they’d reached a place of serenity - by their own standards, anyway. Up to that point, Glasvegas had seemed to deal only in high drama. For better or worse, they always had a penchant for the spectacular; their origin story remains an eye-catching one, still told stirringly by the stark difference between their early singles - scratchy recordings of doo-wop-indebted pop songs - and the epic sweep of their self-titled debut album, which sounded like U2 scaling Phil Spector’s wall of sound at its most monolithic.
Glasvegas went platinum in the UK, denied a number one debut only by Metallica, and the group found themselves critical darlings, blogs and broadsheets alike in thrall to Allan’s visceral brand of social realism. In the midst of what was, in 2008, a broadly apolitical British indie rock scene, he painted unflinching portraits of infidelity, violence, bereavement, sectarianism, the prison system, loneliness and absentee fathers. Now, the record feels both ahead of its time and more relevant than ever; the album’s lead single, ‘Geraldine’, was a swooning paean to the country’s social workers, more than a decade before anybody clapped on their doorstep in recognition of the people that really form society’s backbone.
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California soon came calling; in retrospect, Glasvegas now look like they were among the last of a dying breed, a guitar band spending major label money on a luxury Santa Monica beach house to work on demos for a follow-up in just about as diametrically opposite an environment as possible to where their first album came together. There were big name producers (Flood) and celebrity acquaintances; Vinnie Jones tried to recruit Allan, who spent his twenties as a professional footballer in Scotland’s lower leagues, for the Hollywood United Sunday league team. The resulting record was suitably bombastic; EUPHORIC /// HEARTBREAK \\\ screamed extravagance, from the self-importance of the stylised title to its handbrake-off, unabashed leap towards the anthemic.
Allan carried the indulgence into the album’s promotional cycle, ditching his all-black outfits of old for gleaming, head-to-toe white, only his omnipresent dark glasses remaining. It augmented his burgeoning reputation for, depening on your outlook, behaviour that was either eccentric or plain erratic; the first album cycle saw him cancel the band’s Coachella slot at the last minute with the classic rock'n'roll euphemism ‘exhaustion’ - code for overindulgence, by his own later admission - and when Glasvegas was nominated for the Mercury Prize, he missed the ceremony, coming as it did in the midst of a unsettling, days-long disappearance.
The press remained onside, with EUPHORIC /// HEARTBREAK \\\ met warmly, but the public were less convinced; the album sold a tenth of what its predecessor shifted, and the band were promptly dropped by Columbia. A circling of the proverbial wagons ensued, and in 2013, Later… saw a return to more familiar territory, dealing as it did with the fragility of masculinity, viewed through various lenses - an ex-con readjusting to the outside world post-prison (the title track), custody battles (the stirring ‘I’d Rather Be Dead Than Be with You’) and the perverse escape offered to young men by the military (soaring closer ‘Finished Sympathy’).
Later… fell short of the top 40, but Glasvegas’ transition to cult outfit appeared complete - only for radio silence to ensue. “I just made a lot of hard work for myself, really,” says Allan over the phone from his home in Glasgow. He had set out to make the band’s fourth album all on his own; the writing, engineering and production would all be down to him.
“That was quite a steep difference. None of that stuff comes naturally to me. People maybe thought I was a perfectionist, or that I had writer’s block, and I don’t blame them, because those things have been true in the past. But it wasn’t that. It was just that I really wanted freedom, independence. I needed to know that I could do it.”
Driving Allan further down this past was a keen sense of how precarious the music industry presently is, even compared to the group’s chart pomp a decade or so ago. “I really wanted to know that whatever happens tomorrow - no matter if we run out of money, or we can’t get into a studio, or nobody’s listening any more - I could still make a record just for us, just for the band.” To his relief, his nearest and dearest backed him; his cousin Rab and his sister Denise, the group’s guitarist and manager respectively, as well as bassist Paul Donoghue. “I always have a ridiculously unrealistic idea of what I can get done in five minutes,” Allan explains. “There were times, making this album, where I felt guilty, because you feel like everybody else has their life on hold for you, and is waiting for you, and there’s part of you that wishes you could write a hit song just so that they could be successful. But that’s not what being a songwriter is. You can’t choose when to be real and genuine. It’s not a switch you can flick on or off. It’s not something that’s ever really in your own hands. You just have to operate on instinct, on gut feeling. And that’s what I did with this record. I didn’t really have any other option.”
The slow gestation was worth it. Godspeed is another towering epic in the mould of Glasvegas, melding scything social realism with the intensely personal as Allan expertly cuts to the core of addiction, prostitution, self-excoriation and, on the title track, the thorny issue of Scottish independence (“England, is this goodbye?”) The tracks themselves came together quickly; it was his insistence on total recording control that meant they took this long to make it out into the world, with the likes of ‘My Body Is a Glasshouse (A Thousand Stones Ago)’ aired live as far back as 2014. In the interim, there were mishaps, not least when Allan left a laptop with most of the songs in demo form on the Glasgow subway.
“I realised I was going in the wrong direction,” he laughs. “I was on my way to the airport. So, I jumped off, and then the train pulled away with the laptop on it. I went straight to the guy at the wee counter to ask for it back, and they couldn’t find it. This is five minutes later, and it’s five in the morning! There was one woman sitting opposite me, that was it. And already it’s gone. Some bastard’s got all my fucking songs! A lot of things like that happened along the way. When you record everything yourself, things break. In the past, when a mic or an amp would stop working, another one magically appeared. That was another thing to contend with, but I think we got through it without too many dramas.”
Allan conceived Godspeed as a very loose concept album; in his mind’s eye, he pictured all of the record’s stories taking place on the same night. It’s an idea that, far from being lost to the LP’s tumultuous development, actually grew stronger with time. “Gradually, that was something that became clearer and clearer,” he explains. “About half way through, I began to see them sort of gluing themselves together. If you think about something like American Graffiti, that’s what I was going for - I didn’t want to be so specific as to develop a story, or delve into characters. It was more about a feeling, a sense that the whole movie’s taking place on the same night. Things like that change over time, and you don’t have to buy into it when you listen to it - it’s just how I see it.”
The passage of time has done little to dull the incision of the gaze that Allan casts across societal issues in his lyrics. During an album launch show from St. Luke’s in Glasgow, as he prepared to play the song for the first time, he mentioned that ‘Cupid’s Dark Disco’ was initially so true to its title that his sister requested he change the words to make it less harrowing; he acquiesced, explaining that “if you say, 'fuck you, this is my song', you’re never going to get any honest feedback ever again.” It remains a grim listen, reflecting as it does several different shades of desperation, but when it comes to the wider political implications of his songs, Allan seems nonplussed.
“That’s not something I ever set out to do,” he says. “In my head, we were going to be like Oasis! I think it’d be easier to just be in Abba, you know? I’m not necessarily trying to deliberately shine a light on things that don’t get talked about. I didn’t write a song about a social worker for the sake of it. It’s just that I have to write about what I know and see, and I just can’t foresee a future for the band where, you know, I’m in Philadelphia or somewhere on a Tuesday night, and I’m singing about something that doesn’t mean anything to me. That’s like my idea of being trapped in a nightmare. The songs have to hold meaning for me.”
If Godspeed’s release puts the cap on Glasvegas’ comeback, it was their 2018 tour that set it in motion; they went up and down the UK playing their still-beloved and never-more-pertinent debut in its entirety to mark its tenth anniversary. EUPHORIC /// HEARTBREAK \\\, meanwhile, turned ten just two days before Godspeed dropped, and even if it doesn’t command the same place in the twenty-first century indie rock pantheon as Glasvegas, it remains dear to Allan himself.
“Listening back to it now is like opening up a jewellery box. Everything inside is precious to you in its own way. You have a different relationship to each one, but ultimately, there was a moment where you chose to go all the way with it, and at that moment, it’s yours forever. Those tracks are a part of my character and personality now. They reflect my view of the world in an artistic sense. And then, even as I say that, once they’re out in the world, they change. They can never quite be the same as when they were just yours. And that’s not a bad thing; I was just thinking, the other day, imagine if nobody had ever heard ‘My Girl’, for example? That song is so perfect. What would it be if nobody knew it? I think about that, and I just feel so lucky that anybody connects to what I’ve written.”
For a band that have always had such a sharp sense of their own aesthetic, it’s perhaps fitting that if anything brings Godspeed full circle, it’s the artwork. Bedecked with the same pink and green lettering that adorns the album that inspired Allan’s love of music in the first place - Elvis Presley’s 1956 self-titled - Godspeed’s cover depicts a striking scene from the streets of New York, as a blind boy, his father’s hand on his shoulder, reaches out to a man in a wheelchair, who tries to heal him. In the background, Allan watches on, stoically. “There’s desperation in the photo, but out of the desperation, there’s extreme faith. I think it’s faith that got us here, after all this time.”
Godspeed is available now via Go Wow. Glasvegas play thirteen UK dates from February 3, 2022.
More about: Glasvegas