After a trip to SXSW and with a new album on the way I catch up with Woodenbox’s Ali Downer and Jordan Sloan about their time Stateside and what to expect in the future.
When I caught up with Mariachi folk sextet Woodenbox earlier in the year they were a picture of stress and elation as they prepared for the biggest experience as a band in going over to South by Southwest.
The Texas based festival has grown since 1987 to become what is essentially the cornerstone of “making it” as a band worldwide.
In Scotland the recognition of getting funding from Creative Scotland and playing their Scottish showcase, a massive pull for two nights in Austin, is now a much bigger deal than the likes of playing T in the Park.
If a band get picked to play by Creative Scotland at SXSW they’re indentified to have international appeal, and with the current trend in popularity of Scottish music Stateside, with the rises of Frightened Rabbit and We Were Promised Jetpacks among others, it’s understandable the way these guys were feeling.
Five months down the line, it’s a memory, a starter, it’s helped strengthen the band and has them looking optimistically towards the future, albeit in a grown up, realistic way.
“It was just like the best holiday you could ever hope for,” states seemingly ever-cheerful frontman Ali Downer, “it was a bit of a test if you could be a band… and we passed”.
It seems the whole event, while guitarist/vocalist Jordan Croan admits “seems so long ago”, has impacted the band significantly, before they went there were serious questions of whether they’d be playing to anyone but after getting a feel for it they’re eager to go back.
“We’d apply for South by Southwest again, make it a centre point because it’s a massive thing just to go there, you’re going to get an audience and you meet all these people, next time we could step up a little bit and get a higher slot on the Scottish showcase,” says Downer.
Sloan is equally as optimistic about going back, but feels they would do it differently now they know the ropes.
“Because you’ve been there you know the deal, it goes on for so long and there’s so much going on, some of the gigs we did, although they were all great, you could have thought it wasn’t really that worthwhile as there was no one really there because there’s just so much going on.
“If you pack it into one or two days and then you go and you do your own thing and go on tour with the band that you’ve already met and get out of Austin, because as good as it is, if you concentrate it and you do as many gigs as you can in two or three days you can get out and dodge the rest.”
Woodenbox had already made friends with Texas residents The O’s, who had previous came over and toured Scotland with them, so while they were over there they took the opportunity to tour around Texas with their new buddies, an experience which the guys definitely want to do again.
Downer recollects, “petrol is so cheap there, venues are better, people are well up for coming out even if they don’t know who you are.
“Once you’ve got the initial VISA and flights, it’s way easier than it is here, so yeah we’ll make America a big high point.”
And with a new album on the way it provides the ideal opportunity to go back, but it is that new album that is the pressing thing on the band’s mind just now.
Glasgow indie label Electric Honey, who helped the rise of Belle and Sebastian, Snow Patrol and Biffy Clyro among others, are due to put out the new record in February after releasing Woodenbox’s debut effort Home & the Wildhunt a few years back.
The band is well aware that there’s been a long wait between the two releases, so put out EP The Vanishing Act recently with their own cash, the band feel this acts as a nice taster for the album.
“Our fan base wanted to hear the album because we’ve said, “oh the album’s finished”, so we just felt like we just had to put something out there” says Downer.
It feels different too, the same wonderfully toe-tapping folk vibe is there but the EP seems to carry an extra punch, the horns seem to play a more prominent role and there’s a real uplifting feel to it.
The band admit they’re not putting a huge push on the EP but as Sloan stresses “it’s not just a little version of the album, it’s just a couple of tracks and then the rest you can only get on that little EP”.
Downer reveals that they’ll be back in the studio in October to finish off a few more tracks with producer Paul Savage at Chem19, a luxury that they didn’t have for their debut release.
Speaking about the new album Sloan states, “it’ll maybe have more of a groove,” before Downer takes over.
“The first one we recorded ourselves and was kind of like I had a bunch of songs and we were bringing a band in to play it live, we didn’t expect it to carry on so long, so we kind of became a band who wrote together and this album is our band’s album.
“There’s more horns and they’ve made their own parts instead of trying to find a way to squeeze parts in, and then there’s songs from Jordan songs from me and then the harmonies are what we want to do.
“It’s more of a band vibe, because of what we’ve learned for the last four years.”
It’s been something that they’ve taken care, time and money to do but the impression you get from these guys is they feel it’s all been worth it.
“I didn’t realise that the last one was going to stick around for so long, it’s been a wee bit of a lesson”, states Downer.
“People are still buying it now and at gigs they’re still into it, I didn’t think it’d have that shelf life, so it’s made us that bit more aware of that we have this period of time to put some songs together that we should be proud of, it’s a wee chapter of your life that we’re going to look back on.
“For me I feel really pumped up about it because we spent a lot of time… and money, when you go in and record that amount of songs if you have to chuck another five grand at that to finish it you do.”
The band know there is very little chance of getting that money back but as Sloan states: “It doesn’t matter, if you do it’s a bonus, when it’s done we’ll always be able to hold that and be proud of it, and that’s why all the time’s been worth it.”
In terms of title for the new record, the guys don’t seem quite sure, their last release, Home & the Wildhunt, Downer admits he was happy with but “on the same day The Tallest Man On Earth released an album called Wildhunt and he’s a bit more popular than us”.
In the past bassist Fraser McKirdy has came up with the titles, but although they reveal a few names they’ve been toying with there’s nothing set in stone.
“Whatever we pick someone else is going to cherry pick it,” said Sloan.
But if this new album signals the start of a new chapter in Woodenbox’s career as a band, SXSW must be the end of the beginning and I was eager to hear more stories from the biggest step these guys have made as a band.
It doesn’t take much pushing too as they happily gush about the people they met while over there, the family who put them up to new fans they won over.
“We pretty much landed on our feet,” Sloan states of the family they were staying with.
“They were so nice and up for it, whenever we met another band they were telling us stories of some really religious couple that they were stuck with who were trying to get them back by 12, and we were having the time of our lives.”
Looking back on it they seem blown away by the whole experience, and it seems the Scottish showcase was the centre piece of it all.
“They love Scottish music out there and it’s a credit to Creative Scotland, the night was rammed,” says Sloan.
“You’ve got bigger acts like Django Django and Jetpacks, and there was a huge queue outside for them, but it was even busy for us, who were going over there and thinking no one would know who we were.
“Obviously, people go out of their way to find out who is playing, but Creative Scotland have got a thing going on there, they’re quite renowned for putting on good gigs.”
Downer clearly feels the same and comments: “We were on first and it was heaving, what was surprising for us was the amount of people who knew who we were, I just expected the Scottish contingency to support you but there were American people who were well up for going to see you.”
“We did a wee radio interview over there and the girl said they’d all heard two of our songs before and asked, “When are you guys doing some more stuff?” And we were like “how do you know who we are?””
The tour they did proved a success too, “every gig we did we sold all of our merch, so we either impressed or they’re thinking these guys need fed” muses Downer.
While over there they managed to play some quite unique and wonderful venues.
About a soup kitchen Downer comments: “For SXSW they get bands in from all over the world to play for these guys who don’t give a shit about music, who’re just there for the grub, but there were some funny guys, it actually turned out quite good.”
Sloan recollecting this event is also eager to throw in his own stories from the trip.
“It was really funny, the guy with the harmonica was hilarious, he was getting right into it.
“It wasn’t so much a weird gig but when we played in Dallas there was that guy who goes along to that venue pretty much every night and he has this keyboard, a normal sized keyboard, and if he likes you he puts the keyboard up in the air and turns to the crowd and shows it.
“For us he definitely wasn’t just sat with his keyboard looking glum by the end he as waving it, so it seemed we got a good response.”
Once the stories start flowing both of them are eager to throw in more, Downer tells me about a gig they did unofficially at SXSW in a converted shed venue on the outskirts of Austin called Road House Rag.
“We met these guys who have a wee recording studio but they’re like 60s throwback guys, so this was way out of city and he opens the front doors of this shed and it’s like a wee gig venue as well, he’s put like a portatoilet in the corner, some lights and wee bar and the woman had a wee vintage clothes shop.
“She hated the way we looked because we had our keys and our phones in our pockets and she said “you guys look ridiculous, Mick Jagger would never have his wallet in his pocket when he played” and then she took us into the little clothes shop and we ended up buying loads of stuff.
“He recorded all the stuff that night and it was great, there was maybe 10 people there not knowing what to do.
“There was a guy who saw our Scottish showcase there being all ‘sweet guys this is awesome’ but the night before there was like 250 people there.
“It felt nice because we saw him on the last day we were there, we just bumped into him and it felt like he was our pal after that.”
SXSW is such a big festival you would expect to have the opportunity to seek out and see hot new talents that haven’t quite made it to Scotland yet but being in band things are a bit different, with as many interviews and gigs to do as possible seeing other acts drops down the priorities, but Sloan states that even if you wanted to see certain acts it’s not quite that easy.
“Unless you were properly there as a fan and you checked out when a certain band are playing you wouldn’t see anything”
Downer adds: “You’ve got to be organised, it’s madness, if you try to go to a little gig where there’s a bit of a buzz there’s no chance.
“We saw Tom Morello, everything shuts down at 1am and he came out onto the street and was playing his acoustic and the crowd just went crazy, it’s a mental place to be.”
Sloan clearly agrees with his bandmate on this point, further stressing that when they were to go back to SXSW it’ll be a condensed visit.
“It’s mental, especially on the weekend because people like Tom Morello and Jack White just show up, so everyone just flocks to them.
“If you’re not well known and play on the weekend you’ve got no chance.”
For now though the task is simple – get the album finished and tonight sees them play their last Glasgow gig for a while.
Downer states they’re going to try and get to other places in Scotland away from the two big cities, giving them a rest until they are ready to unleash the new album and lugging drummer, Nick Dudman’s enormous drum kit can be more cost effective.
“He’s taken over, it’s drum solos everywhere!” quips Sloan.
Downer comments: “This year feels like a wee full stop after to what we’ve been doing and the stuff we’ve been making for the new album feels like a new page.
“This gig is a good one to do because in October we’re going to finish the album and it’ll be the last thing before Christmas.
“We’ll do a Christmas gig for sure, a wee acoustic guy, last year we did Brel, this year we’ll get another small, free entry gig.
“It’s nice at Christmas and then the new year hopefully the album comes out, goes to number one.”
“Beat Adele in the singles charts, that kind of stuff,” adds Sloan.
Tonight’s gig also coincides with freshers’ week but the band isn’t expecting too many freshers to show up.
“Freshers don’t get fucked up anymore they meet each other on Facebook!” quips Downer.
“They wanted us to play on the back of a truck today at Glasgow uni but it got canned because the police came along and noise pollution and all.
“Anyway, the first night of freshers week I was cycling home from work and this fresher dude jumped out in front of me and giving it all this, and I was like: “Hey, If I plough into you know I’ll probably rupture your kidney and it’ll kill you and I’ll have to go to jail forever and you’ll be dead,” and they just get younger every year and we get grumpier.”
Still, freshers not turning up shouldn’t worry these guys, Woodenbox have come a long way; yes they’re still working fulltime, whether feeding people at Tut’s, playing weddings or being paid for sleep as Sloan admits to, but they’re doing what they want to do, they’re putting out ever engaging music and consistently pulling a crowd and having fun too.
As we chat it’s clear these guys are comfortable with and enjoy what they do, Downer leaves me with a realistic yet positive comment which seems to sum up what it should be to be in a band: “Obviously, being a band full time is the dream, but it’s difficult these days, if you don’t give it everything now then what’s the point.
“As long as you’re progressing and you feel like you’re all going towards the same goal together then you know that you’re a band.”