Every city has its sound—Manhattan’s taxi commotion and Sydney ferries, or Cairo’s car horns and New Orleans’ trumpets in the streets—though try and define it too much and you’ll miss the music of the place. To be a good traveler, you really only have to listen.
I’ve been listening to Glasgow since the eighties—ever since I popped The Jesus And Mary Chain into my cassette player and turned it over and over again for a good six months. Pretty soon I was dreaming of Scotland—any band that makes you open an atlas is a good band.
Thirty years on, the greatest music (like The Twilight Sad) still comes from Glasgow, and I admit that so much of my love for this city lies in the tremendous music it has born. Thus I find myself at a table, in the Glasgow Botanical Gardens on a sunny Sunday afternoon, shooting questions at Francis Macdonald, drummer of Teenage Fanclub, and manager of Glasgow bands Camera Obscura, Attic Lights, and The Vaselines.
“Well, [Glasgow] is a big city—it’s the biggest city in Scotland and the fourth largest in the UK—so it’s a natural destination for students,” explains Francis. “Belle and Sebastian, or Camera Obscura, or The Commotions—these are bands that formed with University of Glasgow students who are not originally from Glasgow. People come go to Glasgow to study and then meet like-minded creatives.”
“I think if you like music from Glasgow, you go there,” he adds, “The next wave of music fans find each other and form bands.
“So, you’re saying that this is not just phase or some moment—it can continue?” I wonder.
“Yes. It’s cyclical thing—it can and will keep happening,” he confirms, and I am glad.
Francis pauses thoughtfully before continuing, “I suppose Glasgow is big but also manageable—it’s a nice size. You can navigate it and you can bump into people easily. Each generation influences the next, people are still coming here because they like Glasgow bands—so there’s a self-fulfilling thing going on.”
Francis mentions the band he plays with now, Teenage Fanclub, which at 24 years on, is still referenced as one of the most influential groups from Glasgow. What’s it like to be a part of such formative music?
“I don’t feel like I can sit here and say that I’m flattered because I wasn’t really involved in making these earlier records. I can probably talk about them in the third person—Teenage Fanclub influenced me. When I first met Douglas and Norman, I felt wet behind the ears because I hadn’t heard of the Velvet Underground and didn’t really understand what was going on. I had a lot of catching up to do.”
“But so many different bands around the world mention Teenage Fanclub specifically,” and they do. I’m amazed how many times I hear that reference from bands on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Yes,” Francis agrees. “Like Mogwai and Snow Patrol. I think often with musicians, professional jealousies can bubble over, so it’s refreshing that a band can seem unusually supported or thought fondly of by their peers. There was a period when Teenage Fanclub was compared to Dinosaur Junior, but when Bandwagonesque came out, every interview seemed to name check Big Star specifically. Norman has this theory that maybe if the band had been more successful, some of that would have fallen away, but the fact is, we were never really a threat [to the others].
“But there’s also a charm and a sense of humor in the music, something non-threatening about them. It’s melodic and positive, fun and new—it’s this attitude like, ‘why don’t we try this?’ It’s not reinventing the wheel, per se, just presenting it differently.”
“So, you would say that Glasgow has an eclectic taste?” I state the obvious.
“I think it’s a big city. You know—Daft Punk had their first single out on a Glasgow label. There’s a common thread and if you really want to, you can join the dots, but it wouldn’t be productive. I think you’d miss something. I think it’s interesting that Stuart from Mogwai can talk about Teenage Fanclub because I would never have guessed that. It’s unusual—not a given. Band members themselves have very different tastes. One listens to Northern soul, and I’m trying to catch up with classical music and minimalism, or Tracyanne loves Fleetwood Mac and a lot of eighties mainstream pop, you know, you think you’re not supposed to like that. Gavin’s mad for Manchester bands and New Order. So any band you choose, there’s a list of all these things going on.”
“Yes, one of the members of Camera Obscura mentioned how they were listening to a lot of Afro-pop,” I recall.
As a band manager, he claims no creative input—just says that he points out the tea kettle and shuts the door and “let’s them get to it.” But it’s obvious he has an ear for sound and I was keen to hear his take on the city’s newest voices.
“Well, I’m not great at seeing three different bands in one night—life is too short for me to do that now,” and he stares at me, knowingly. The night before, I went out to three different venues and heard three very different bands: a traditional Celtic folk band, a rather unique and moody alt rock trio, and a jumpy Scottish hip hop ensemble. So, not your typical Saturday night.
“But check out Aaron Wright,” he offers. “He lives in Edinburgh but comes to Glasgow to work—an amazing talent. He’s someone you should be aware of.
Naturally, a number of Edinburgh musicians (like Frightened Rabbit) end up playing and recording, or even living in Glasgow. It’s a bigger city, with more venues, and according to one guitarist I spoke with, has much better crowds.
Francis agrees, “I have a sister in Edinburgh who comes to Glasgow and says the shopkeepers talk to her and her children in a way they just don’t do over in Edinburgh.”
The friendliness of Glasgwegians is evident, even to a short-term visitor like me.
“There is a friendliness here—an old socialist “we’re in it together” thing,” and then Francis tells me about an upcoming Scottish film, made by Felipe Bustos Sierra. Nae Paseran tells the story of a nearby factory in East Kilbride, where in the 1970’s, workers blocked munitions intended for Chilean dictator Pinochet.
“So Felipe found these old workers—now pushing 80, and he interviewed them—just these guys in the west of Scotland, working men, doing the right thing, taking their stand, and nobody would know about this if he hadn’t shone a light on it.”
There’s no question that Glasgow’s history of labor and the post-industrial present are an imperative force behind the music, film, and art that comes out of this city. Francis worries that the digital age might be changing that culture.
“It’s almost as if this mentality of us being bred out of us. We are getting distracted with crap and gadgets. You know, there’s atrocities carried out in our names—but meanwhile, we’re concentrating on the latest operating system of iPhones. In less enlightened times, when information was harder to come by, these people were informed and they took a stance—everyone needs to see this film. There is a thing in Glasgow—there’s a reason why Tories don’t get MPs in Scotland.”
And this is the very reason Francis Macdonald loves his city. Glasgow is friendly, it’s real, and in many ways, it’s beautiful.
“I like the sense of humor, here—I like how people interact in a down-to-earth manner. I think the city has nice architecture. Glaswegians forget that because they don’t look up enough to notice it. It’s only been the last few years I’ve fully realized that this was going to always be my home—I’ve come to celebrate this city and am pleased with it.”
But Glasgow is not all smiles and laughs and nice architecture, and Francis knows this too well. The city’s reputation for hard lives and hard times dates back to the industrial revolution and the epic shipbuilding enterprise that dried up decades ago. Persistent high rates of unemployment, poor quality housing estates, and cultural alienation contribute to the lowest life expectancy in the United Kingdom and one the highest mortality rates in the European Union.
In a way, the city’s massive music culture may serve as a sort of self-administered urban therapy.
“Is that true?” I ask him, on a phone call following his live show on the basement stage of Glasgow club Stereo.
“Yes, it is,” he says, and tells me about his own life, growing up in Glasgow’s less-than glamorous East End, “You really see the bottom of the ladder in Britain. We used to be the second city of the empire—shipbuilding and all that, but now it’s just empty docks. It’s a tired city, and some of the stories we tell reflect on that. When I rap, it’s about my social surroundings.”
As Glasgow bands go, Hector Bizerk is a kind of amazing phenomenon, with Louie rhyming his meaningful lyrics in a pronounced Glaswegian flourish, while Audrey Tait punches her drums with such intense ferocity, she makes the amps jealous. As musical energy goes, Hector Bizerk is the utter opposite of the baroque pop of Belle and Sebastian—but both bands call this city home, and both bands put on an incomparable live show.
Louie says it’s all about the crowds in Glasgow, “There’s an honesty here. I think in London, or Paris or Milan or something, people think music is a bit more glamorous, so the music shows are more pretentious. You know? People are afraid to let themselves go in case a lock of hair falls out of place, but in Glasgow, people are more down to Earth and real. The crowd will give you something back. Rather than standing static and analyzing everything you’re doing, in Glasgow the crowd comes on that journey with you. Glasgow is an open city.”
Indeed. I experienced that openness firsthand in the thumping throngs and camaraderie and everyone singing along with Hector Bizerk, “Well I noticed that at your show,” I tell Louie, “The crowd knew all your lyrics and they were right there with you. It was like you were having a conversation.”
“We certainly have a relationship with the audience. Glasgow’s our home and maybe the people of Glasgow agree with what we’re saying and enjoy the music we’re making. Perhaps people feel that it’s reflective of their circumstances or their opinions, but it’s also quite overwhelming for us to play to an audience like that.”
This kind of modesty is constant among Glasgow’s musicians—nobody ever wants to blow their own horn too much. Louie adds, “We’re not out to get rich or famous—we just make music we enjoy and if other people enjoy it as well, then it’s an added bonus.”
So what’s his ultimate goal, then?
“Creative sustainability.” The chance to keep on making their music—in this case, a unique and very Scottish brand of hip hop.
“Well, we just make music—it’s for other people to pigeonhole us. Hip hop is a cornerstone of my life, but the band can offer more than that, so it’s like a microcosm of the rest of the musical community: there’s syncopated rhythms and elements of punk, ska, reggae and rock. I love new cultures and places that open your mind. That’s been a guiding star in my life growing up. It’s nice to be well-traveled, but in your mind, too.”
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Like the city of Glasgow, Hector Bizerk’s mass appeal may lie in the universal emotion of their music while at the same time, offering something that exists nowhere else.
“I think we’re bringing something that’s genuinely unique. I know every band feels that, but you saw us. We are not some two-bob band where we’re just repeating what others are doing. We are putting out different flavors—making our own recipe. It’s our own acquired taste, and other people are enjoying it.”
They are enjoying it—and I enjoyed it, too. As an avid listener to Glasgow bands, Hector Bizerk took me by surprise.
“We are definitely one of the most alternative bands in Britain,” Louie states plainly over the phone, then goes on to highlight the great diversity of Glasgow’s music scene.
“Anything you’re looking for, we have—traditional, classical, rock, blues, hiphop—you can find it in Glasgow.” Like Francis, Louie loves his city, even rapping this backhanded tribute to Glasgow: Sometimes you’re bringing out the very worst in me.
There’s a tangible pride among Glaswegians, and a definite solidarity among the many musicians that call this place home. “We have a plethora of talented, native people—architects, artists, bands—across the board,” explains Louie. “We always seem to have loads of stuff going on and all of this creative industry, so we seem to really prosper. But one of our greatest exports is our music—we take it elsewhere.”
Glasgow’s music has definitely gone global, from the city’s earliest immigrants into the present day—the night I was hopping from club to club in Glasgow, the city’s newest pop band Chvrches was performing in my very own city of Washington, DC.
A friend of mine from Twitter, Camera Obscura’s part-time trumpet player Nigel Baillie tried explaining this great Scottish paradox, “Scots travel—they can’t wait to get away and so they travel all over the world. But when they’re away, they miss Scotland and end up singing about it.”
Nigel and I both share a love for travel, and after years of back-and-forth messaging on Twitter, it was great to finally meet him in person in his own city. Like Francis and Louie, Nigel is reluctant to pin Glasgow’s music scene to one specific thing.
“There’s the rain, of course. And there is a kind of melancholic and depressive sensibility, I guess,” he muses, “We have all these artists, musicians, poets, and inventors—so I guess we’re always striving for this utopia. There’s something about the Scots wanting to get out and explore.”
An avid traveler, Nigel has toured the world on his own, and as a musician. He tells me stories of driving across America’s empty expanse with Camera Obscura, of hanging out in Oslo hotel rooms, and playing with Belle and Sebastian in London.
I have listened to Nigel’s music again and again, with his brassy background strains and there’s something magical about finally connecting an actual person and neighborhood to a handful of tracks on my iPod.
Because this city is more than a list of in bands versus old bands, or some specific spelled-out style—but it remains a megaphone of music, blaring loud and clear, from Glasgow record shops and dark basement clubs out into the likes of Sauchiehall Street. For a few nights in September, I was able to feel a part of it all, surrounded by the cool kids in this cool town, and now that I’ve gone, I won’t ever stop listening to Glasgow. Because this is the music I like, from a city I like, and sung by some of the best folk in Scotland.
And Nigel doesn’t think I’m exaggerating, either. He knows it better than I, and as he explains it to me, “Other than getting married and having kids, the most important thing I’ve done in my life is to be a part of this music, right here.”