Louder Than War Interview: Roy Moller- Outsider Now!
“The idea of an album being a hallowed thing that you have to pass through some portal to make, that’s gone. Anyone can make an album.”
2014 finds Scottish outsider songwriter and poet Roy Moller – described by BBC 6 Music’s Marc Riley as “Scotland Best Kept Secret” – primed to detonate his cult status and break on through to the wider public consciousness. Maybe, as he says, anyone can make an album, but the wired trips of Moller’s new album One Domino are the product of his own singular visions and life experiences.
Based in the rugged coastal landscape of Dunbar, east of Edinburgh, Moller appears to have embraced the famous aphorism of the town’s most celebrated son, pioneering conservationist John Muir, and concluded that “Wild is Superior”. One Domino revels in freewheeling wit and intelligence, addictive melodies and gloriously spontaneous shards of guitar skronk.
Louder than War’s Gus Ironside spoke with Roy to find out more about his motivations. The wide ranging discussion took in quintessential Outsider subjects of disability, age and location, with numerous diversions and digressions via Dansette record players, Edinburgh post-punk, and the melting pot of music, poetry and writing in the Scottish East Coast’s underground arts scene. You can read Gus’s review of One Domino here.
What were your early musical influences?
I first really heard melodies and lyrics, comic songs and narrative songs on my Dad’s 78s, people like Phil Harris and Nellie Lutcher and also R&B records on the Brunswick label. This was on Dansette style record players; if you put the lid down you’d get this amazingly bass-enhanced sound.
I started buying 45s from the newsagent; having 3 or 4 singles, those singles felt like they were really yours, almost like the feeling of being back in the crib that you can occasionally get echoes of, and can never be replicated by CDs or digital.
Woolworth’s used to sell these double album compilations on Pickwick Records which a two inch scratch could obliterate, all these rockabilly sides: Billy Lee Riley, Little Junior Parker, Lonely Weekends by Charlie Rich – just mind-blowing records – the sound of it just blew me away. I was 14 when I got the Elvis Presley Sun collection; I thought it was an incredible body of work. That was a huge influence on me.
In 1980 I went into a head shop in Edinburgh to buy a bong and emerged instead with a copy of Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division. That was another key moment in my musical development.
Edinburgh was great for record shops. Ezy Ryder was where I bought Loaded for the first time; I still have my first copy. It had a studio underneath it where I cut my first demo in 82, which I unsuccessfully submitted to John Peel. I remember recording it quite well. The band name was The Rhino Disciples, with my friend Mark Smith, and we made one bona fide studio recording in the basement of Ezy Ryder.
That was the first recording I put my name to.
Were you into punk when it kicked off?
Yes and no. I was put off punk to a certain degree by some of the guys at school who were early adopters of punk but just in it for the shock value. That wasn’t what I was into. Rockabilly was my punk really; I used to get a biscuit tin and stick it onto a broom handle to try to get a rockabilly reverb on my first home recordings.
That sounds very Joe Meek!
Yeah, I was struck by that parallel later on; that was my touchstone, really. Then I heard Totally Wired on Peel and bought it the next day. The Fall brought rockabilly with a punk DIY element. I think Mark E Smith was very liberating, like when I first heard Ivor Cutler. There was something real and tangible about Totally Wired: “You don’t have to be weird to be wired” ….. ”I drank a jar of coffee and took some of these” ….. that kind of spontaneous stuff.
I took a long way round to write in that way, although I always thought that way. I started writing poetry quite young, but the songs…I couldn’t quite get there (that level of freedom) and I’m not sure why. I thought I had to chip away to get away from the self-consciousness. It’s that freedom that always attracted me to the records that became my favourites; it was quite a process to work myself free.
The freedom and just sexiness of it – the way it seemed to ooze – really caught my ear ..… Like a Rolling Stone and Spanish Stroll by Mink De Ville had the same effect on me. He introduced me to 96 Tears by ? & The Mysterions and loads of great stuff.
Your new album One Domino feels like you’ve really made the album you wanted to make
I was redoing lots of other stuff at the same time and I wasn’t sure what shape the songs would go in. I ran into Jeremy Thoms at a gig – Vic Godard and the Sexual Objects, doing the What’s the Matter Boy album. Jeremy wanted to expand the artists’ roster for his label, Stereogram Recordings, and asked if I would like to put out a release.
I wanted to use different songs that I really liked, that might not be the best crafted, but were ones that I most wanted to present to the world. The running order came together really quickly – 31 minutes from start to finish. I’m happy with One Domino as a user friendly slice of what I do and it represents where my head is.
The music on One Domino was all recorded in Glasgow with my Edinburgh head on already. It feels like a personal, mythical version of myself that sort of got lost in all my decades in Glasgow; slightly more angular, less harmonic. There’s a contradiction. I felt that somehow I was getting back to the boy that bought the rockabilly records out of Woolie’s when I made this album. One Domino feels like – in a Mike Yarwood way – “And this is me” ….. it’s got the most Roy Moller DNA.
Street Oblique is a fantastic choice of single, with almost a Latin feel to it, but a New York swagger…
The biggest influence on that song was I was given for my birthday, a few weeks before I recorded the song, The Glamour Chase, the biography of Billy Mackenzie. I’m one of the legions of vocalists who wishes he had Billy Mackenzie pipes. I could never get close to that, but when I was reading the book tuned into that sort of sensibility. I want to use some of that feeling, remembering when I’d watched him perform, and catch a wee bit of that vibe.
The night I recorded Street Oblique, I’d come back from working with some disabled musicians. I just switched on the recording gear and found a rhythm in the drum machine part of it – and I was off. It was pretty much written and recorded within an hour, including the guitar. I don’t know where that came from, a sort of inner Tom Verlaine, an angular freedom which seemed to happen that one time only. I’ve never sat down and tried to learn what I recorded that night.
When I was asked to provide a track with a lead off single it seemed the most natural because the rhumba rhythm lends to it a sort of Weimar/Cabaret vibe. If I’d tried to make it strictly motorik it wouldn’t have had the charm that having a slightly displaced Latin rhythm gives it.
You mention Tom Verlaine. I was thinking more Reed/Quine when I heard it, but Tom Verlaine came to mind when I heard Honey Berlin because you have that Verlaine baritone, but then you go into a Bowie-esque vocal.
(Singing) “I’m not the only one…” Yes, that was deliberately Bowie-esque, as was one of the guitar riffs in particular. Hopefully it’s redolent of the whole record where you could say there’s elements of pastiche but it’s kind of played through gritted teeth, in a good way. I was reading about the Factory and about Brigid Polk. Her real name is Brigid Berlin and her mother was called Honey Berlin, who was not in any way a funky, decadent person, despite her name which was quite deliciously suggestive and exotic. Yet in the context of the Factory she was quite a prudish individual. I was also thinking of Amanda Lear (enigmatically gendered model/singer and Dali muse). In the backdrop of the song I’m playing with gender ideas and I thought I’d have an air force sergeant from Lou Reed’s Berlin in there, smoking her pipe, which is quite Marlene Dietrich-ish.
One of my favourite songs is Vincent.
Vincent was pretty much a two chord song and I never thought much of it. It dates back to a party I was at in Glasgow in 1983. There was a guy there, an artist, who was announcing “See I’m Vincent, Vincent with two ears!”, unlike Van Gogh. When my son Peter heard the song, he said “Dad, that’s your best one so far”. That is the only validation you need; if it makes a 5 year old or 6 year old dance then it’s going on the album. There’s a little bit of virtual pedal steel, which would make it less incongruous to have the (country-tinged) song One Domino close the album. Sometimes I think the last song on an album should sound like Science Fiction/Double Feature (final song on TheRocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack), that’s why that’s the last song. I thought I’d call the album One Domino, ‘cos I could imagine it written down.
Redpath is another stand out, a beautiful song.
That’s about Anne Redpath (Edinburgh-based landscape artist). I was given the idea for it when I was at a low key gig in Glasgow where Stevie Jackson (Occasional Moller collaborator, solo artist and Belle and Sebastian guitarist) and I were playing ..… one of our party pieces is a song by Bob Neuwirth called Vincent Van Gogh – no relation to the song on the album – and a friend of mine, Nicola was there and she said “Why are there so many songs about male artists, but not female artists?”, so I sort of took the commission, really. Nicola suggested that I write a song about Eva Hesse, which I did the next day. That was one of the songs on the “great lost album” (recorded at same time as One Domino and not yet released) and there were some other people mentioned, including Anne Redpath. She was brought up in a Protestant background, went on travels to Europe and had her mind expanded by other people’s cultures including religious cultures.
There’s also the bit “See the magic art can do” at the end, which is totally heartfelt. It’s all about incongruity – it’s from the perspective of a Beatnik in 1965 who’s into Tuinal and finds solace in Redpath’s art! There was an Edinburgh bohemian hipster tradition. To me it makes sense/doesn’t make sense.
The album has some slow burners in there, but it holds together and is sort of playful and more direct ..… I quite like listening to it when I’m hoovering.
It’s noticeable that many musicians who are recording and performing great music in Glasgow and Edinburgh now are older than would have been considered acceptable in the past; what’s your take on this?
Well, I felt quite old when I had my first record released; I was in a band called Meth OD, I was playing guitar and I was 31. I thought I was quite old. Orange Juice had their first single out when Edwyn was 20 ..… all those years go by and you can’t even think in those terms anymore.
I’ve now realised that I wasn’t particularly late and it’s a trade off with the modern way of doing things – we’ve gained something and lost something. The idea of an album being a hallowed thing that you have to pass through some portal to make – that’s gone. Anyone can make an album, maybe not on vinyl. People on social media talk about their “album” coming out; anybody can self publish now and some of the special feeling about making an album has now gone.
The trade off of that is that anyone can make an album and you’re not going to be laughed at in your 40s, 50s, or 60s in the way people were before, when you could not work in this area with credibility at that age. I can’t imagine doing what I’m doing now in any other era. But still, something has been lost as you have to go through other channels. The glamour has been lost but the opportunities have become wide open. If I’d been trying to do this a decade and a half ago it would have been an uphill struggle. I’m more conscious of my age than the people who come to see me are.
I guess with poetry and writing, age has never been an issue; part of the rock ‘n’ roll myth is to do with youth, so I think when I was keeping going in my 30s was most difficult, there wasn’t really that culture of people willing to forge ahead. There’s never been a better time to be an older musician – you’re still trying to carve out a body of work, not a career because that’s gone ..… before I would have been very lucky to find a record company to back me. It’s made everything hobbyist, in a way.
The best thing that happened to me was through very traditional lines; I sent off a CD of my second solo album to Marc Riley in a Jiffy bag with an A4 information sheet. He eventually, in the John Peel tradition, opened it, mislaid it, eventually listened to it and then got in touch with me through social media. It was heartening to me that that was done in traditional means, just going on what he’d heard. I don’t think I’d have reached that sort of exposure just through social media, there are too many people playing that game.
One night I came back from a shift, entered the house though the kitchen and heard a familiar piece of music on the radio – I thought it was some kind of freak of physics that one of my songs was coming through the radio! Then Marc Riley announced “That was Byres Road Saturday, by Roy Moller”. I had finally made it onto BBC 6 Music! I went onto Facebook to tell the world and Jackie McKeown (The 1990s) told me Marc Riley had been asking for my phone number as he wanted me to do a session.
There’s such a minute number of people doing that (getting signed); it’s like that Kinks’ song, Celluloid Heroes- “up every close, everybody’s in show biz, everybody’s a star”. Some people can make that work for them .…. you read these articles where people say their video went viral and it got into the news ..… theoretically, everyone’s a star. But you’re risking compassion fatigue; it’s like trying to get people to come to your gig – 50 people come to the first one, 20 come to the next and then 3 of your mates come to the third one and where do you go from there?
It’s still hard for your archetypal young band to get people to come to gigs because going to a gig is not what it used to be. I love the idea of being on stage and mixing and matching your back catalogues of songs through the filter of what you’re doing now.
Another common strand to Outsider art and music is the issue of disability. Street Oblique appears to contain references and metaphors inspired by your personal experience of dyspraxia – is that the case? For example, the line “Baby, when I write, I hold my pen too tight”?
It’s true specifically and it’s also indicative of the tension that can come from battling something like that. I always knew that I was clumsy and there were things that marked me out as different. I didn’t know until I was 42 that there was an umbrella reason for this, Dyspraxia. I didn’t even know it existed for all that time – the life-time of Elvis! I couldn’t do certain things on guitar, such as fast strums. Certain noises would sound to me like a bomb going off – a balloon bursting, Peter shutting the door ..… someone with dyspraxia sometimes doesn’t have that shell of protection against loud noises. What you have to do is compensate with the other hemisphere.
Various things marked me out as different; my shoes laces not being tied and my shirt tail hanging out, hating jumping into the swimming pool at school. I was told I couldn’t go on a school outing to a ski slope as (due to my clumsiness) I’d be a danger to other kids! That, coupled with having a strange surname and being adopted. I remember being covered in gob one day at secondary school because I was adopted.
A lady in Edinburgh kept a Scottish dyspraxia website. We tried to promote dyspraxia but it was very difficult ….. it’s all a matter of degree in the end and there’s a difficulty in how to put across the problems of dyspraxia, because a common reaction is “If you can do all this, and you can do that, what are you drawing attention to? Why should we bother supporting you?”.
There’s definitely an Outsider aspect to the album and yet you collaborate with a lot of people.
Well, they don’t need me for the technical stuff; I come to things from a different angle – I’ve got an outsider artist mentality, but also collaborative, it’s the only way to get through.
Another classic Outsider leitmotif is location. You’ve recently relocated from Glasgow to Dunbar on Scotland’s East coast and reconnected with the Edinburgh Scene; has that had an influence on your work yet?
Neu! Reekie (Edinburgh club night) ripped the scales from my eyes; it’s a mixed arts format; for example, an animation at the beginning (anything is up for grabs), then some spoken word and then finishing with some music. It starts early and finishes early and it’s a very sustaining atmosphere.
Edinburgh tuned into the more abrasive elements of New York rock; I sense that energy in Edinburgh and I wish it could harness it; there’s a kind of spiky intelligence. The Scars (influential Edinburgh post-punk band) had that element. Scars’ frontman Robert King speaks several languages. There was a whole burgeoning scene in Edinburgh and where that all went, I have no idea.
I’d be the first to admit the Edinburgh live scene needs a shot in the arm but I played a couple of songs at a Lou Reed tribute at the Citrus Club recently, organised by Murray Ramone, and it could have been Stereo (hip Glasgow venue) – the crowd was up for it and the vibe was cracking – a great bona fide rock audience. There’s a chap called Lach, the New York anti-folk instigator, who’s been building up a scene at Henry’s Cellar Bar over the last couple of years with his anti-hoots. I play in his band when I can – about every five weeks – and I find him very inspiring. He calls Edinburgh “Eden, bro” and I’m reminded how Lou Reed, Richard Hell and Mark E Smith are on record enthusing about Edinburgh, and of Iggy Pop photographed next to Mons Meg (iconic giant cannon at Edinburgh Castle).
Why are we (ie people in general) obsessed with music?
It confirms things you’ve always thought and never been able put into words; it takes you places you would never visit without putting your body and mind in danger. My favourite music, the stuff that I come back to, is stuff that’s “street”, for want of a much better word – “in the gutter but looking at the stars” music. I get that from the Velvets and some periods of Dylan. That’s the continuum that I get through a lot of my favourite music. It gives me a feeling that I’m both sane and a misfit, in a way that I can handle…I’m one of many misfits. We all fit in in slightly different, misshapen ways. And I still get that, for all my experiences and all the times that I’ve invested certain beliefs in certain artists, maybe in my teenage years I’ve invested some of my own persona in other people and they’ve changed directions ….. I just know that for certain points, maybe it’s only for 3 minutes, just that connection for 3 minutes when you think it’s EXACTLY right.
Kevin Ayers’ Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes would be another example, Serge Gainsbourg’s Bonnie and Clyde, every note seems absolutely right. It’s that connection that makes you laugh out loud. Carried Away by Television is another one – “my thoughts dissolved as the light revolved” ..… that always makes me think of lying awake in my bed as a wee boy, watching the play of light outside. Madame George by Van Morrison is another. It’s about the re-affirmation that I’m not just having certain thoughts and feelings in isolation. It’s a switch you can turn on and it will either enhance a mood or create a mood. There’s no other medium for me that can do that.
‘One Domino’ is out now on Stereogram Recordings. You can buy a copy here.
Roy Moller’s website is here.
All words and images by Gus Ironside, whose Louder than War archive is here.