The interview: The Proclaimers
2015 will be one of The Proclaimers’ busiest years in decades, with more than 70 UK shows – including a date at Preston Guild Hall this Saturday. Craig McLean talks with the boys
Strikingly individual, twin brothers Craig and Charlie Reid have enjoyed huge success across the globe and in April released their 10th album.
Now, it seems, they’re focus is on the road. The 28 years since you released your debut album, This Is The Story, have you ever toured at home that much?
Charlie Reid: “We’ve never played more festivals. When we started there were about four or five major festivals, if that. There are still those, but there’s a massive number of middle-sized and boutique festivals. It’s very busy!”
Craig Reid: “I don’t think we’ve ever played more in Britain and Ireland. And certainly in terms of the number of people we’re playing to, it’s never been higher.”
A lot of artists won’t – or can’t – play smaller cities and towns up and down the UK. But The Proclaimers can.
Charlie: “We talked about this a years ago with our promoter. If you go to Scarborough, folk will turn up – but they won’t necessarily come and see you in Leeds.
“There’s an audience out there. You forget how many big and medium-sized towns there are in the UK – and some of them are quite spaced out. You play Lincoln, you’ll get a crowd. You go to Cornwall, you’ll get a crowd.
“There’s something about playing these towns. So this time we thought, let’s do Buxton, let’s do Lincoln…”
Craig: “We’re energised by playing these places. They connect you with people. We recently played Darlington for the first time, and we phoned our mum from the gig – she’d done her midwifery training there.
“There’s things to learn in every gig, every place, you play – especially places you haven’t been before. That keeps you on your toes. So this time, we’ll be in Crewe for the first time. You mix and match with places you have been before – like Kings Lynn and Preston – and that can’t help but keep it fresh for you.”
Charlie: “And there is a tradition of this. Look at Jimi Hendrix coming over for the first time in the late 60s – he played Liverpool, but he played Blackburn too!”
Craig: “The Beatles played Kircaldy!”
Charlie: “PJ Proby split his trousers in Cowdenbeath Town Hall! Although to be fair he did that everywhere. Interestingly, when he was finally arrested for it the arresting officer was Whisperin’ Bob Harris’s dad. True!”
Why do you think your music speaks to people in all these places?
Charlie: “We’re provincial and we’re proud of that. I love London, I love New York, but we’re not that kind of thing. We are small town. That’s what we are.”
Craig: “That resonates everywhere you go. But it’s also down to the fact we’ve been around for a long time.
“We’re persistent! And the main thing with us is not even the records. Yes, we’ve done ten albums and they’re the things that last, and we’ve had a handful of hits we’re well known for. But writing songs and playing live are the things for us – and we try and give our best every night.”
Charlie: “And we play out: we haven’t got our heads down, we don’t look at our shoes. We’re projecting, and engaging with the fans. And by doing so we draw people in. And on top of that there’s the singalong element…”
Going by your performance at T In The Park this summer, you’re as energised – not to mention popular – as ever. What do you put that down to?
Craig: “We still enjoy doing it, simple as that. We’re 53 now so we know it’s not going to go on forever. But when we hit the stage we’re as good as we ever were, maybe better.
“The recovery period between the gigs is harder, so you know eventually it will come to an end. But for now we want to keep going as hard and long as we can. When you get to our age, you can’t take long gaps between tours and albums. We need and want to, keep up that momentum.”
You could, presumably, retire. Money from the hits – from I’m Gonna Be and I’m On My Way (500 Miles), radio and jukebox staples around the world – must roll in every month. Why not sit back and enjoy the fruits of success?
Craig: “We still make music for the same reason we always did: so we can get up and play it to people. Yes, we’re known for those records, and will be long after we’re gone.
“But the live performance is the thing we enjoy. If you’re a performer you need that constant buzz and thrill night after night. And we want to deliver that to every audience that comes to see us.”
Charlie: “That’s a huge part of who we are as people. I actually have fears for what I would do if for some reason we couldn’t do this any more.”
Craig: “It is a calling, and we’re lucky we can still do it. And we were lucky we could do it in the first place, and we had a bit of talent. And the rest of it is work. And if you can do that for decades, that’s really lucky.”
Charlie: “Also, we’ve got kids. And our thing is, we’ve been lucky doing the thing we always wanted to do.
“So why would you give up when your kids are just getting started at work, as our kids are? It’s not about setting an example, it’s about saying: ‘Look, we’ve been lucky, and we’re still enjoying it…’”
Craig: “And by the way, I think that T In The Park gig this year was the greatest show we’ve ever done.”
Charlie: “I don’t know if I’d subscribe to that…”
Craig: “No, it was the loudest audience, the most intense experience… That was sensational!”
Charlie: “Hmm, I agree you can’t not respond to an audience that young and that passionate, and you can’t not look out and see yourself 30 years ago… But we’ll discuss this further later…”
Are songs from the new album, Let’s Hear It For The Dogs, working well on stage?
Craig: “They are. I think we’ve played all of them apart from maybe two. The ballad If I’m Still Around got a great response when we played it a lot over the summer.
“And What School? gets a good response. Generally when we do it, I’ve been explaining beforehand what it means. ‘What school did you go to?’ was a phrase that was used a lot in the past in Scotland, especially in the west coast. And basically it was asking what religion you were, Protestant or Catholic.
“So the song basically compares how dogs sniff each other out with the way people would verbally sniff each other out. And there are phrases like that, with double-meaning, all over the world. And that song gave us the album title.”
Do you preface Then Again – a song about some of the historic sexual scandals involving celebrities – with an explanation?
Charlie: “No, we don’t… But a lot of the fans do know what it’s about, and it’s not just about Jimmy Savile…
“The idea for the song came out of that very British thing: everybody’s been talking about these events. But very few have been brave enough to talk about it in song or any other form.”
Craig: “As a lyricist I don’t I feel I have to address these topics. But I think: ‘Nobody else is going to do this, so why don’t we?’ To us lyrics are more important than the music. We’re always looking for a lyric that’s unusual because it’s maybe about a subject that’s not been tackled very often. Or a subject that’s been looked loads of times in a different way.”
Charlie: “And it’s important to not feel intimidated into not doing it.”
Craig: “And we always said from the start that we like our songs to be understood. We’ve always tried to be clear about things. If we express ourselves clearly, people do connect with the songs.”
You’ve been starting the shows with Sky Takes The Soul, from This Is The Story. It’s also the first song in Sunshine On Leith, the hit film adapted from the successful stage play based on your songs. A lot of people would have only found out recently that that song was inspired by a news item you read about the Tamil Tigers. Did it bother you it took people so long to understand that?
Craig: “It doesn’t bother me. I hope people get the gist straight away. But if they don’t, it doesn’t matter. As long as they get the feeling of the song, that’s the main thing.”
Charlie: “And it’s a great show opener. It starts with just the one instrument, the guitar, just scraping way, and it kind of confronts the audience straight away – like the first incarnation of Dexy’s Midnight Runners did; they were a big influence on us.
“We hope it maybe takes you back a little bit. A lot of people who come might not know the song, or only know it from the film. Then we play Over And Done With second, which is funnier. But that first song is quite confrontational, and we like that.”
Let’s talk about some of the more unusual gigs. Appearing on Emmerdale, for example…
Charlie: “We got asked to do it and we were like, ‘of course!’ You’ve got to do that! If you got asked to do Corrie you’d have to do it…”
Craig: “And the key thing was we would actually be playing. If it had been a walk-on part with a bit of patter then maybe not…”
Charlie: “But the story on the show was that, like hundreds of other people across Britain, they’d launched a festival, in their little patch of Yorkshire. But why us? Maybe they though we were cheap!
“But we were happy to do it – although we might have baulked if they’d asked us to sing God Save The Queen.”
Craig: “And there are loads we’ve turned down. Question Time we’ve said no to several times. And Heartbeat…”
Charlie: “Shrewsbury Flower Show, we did that – again, something new and interesting! But if it’s something directly concerning the Royals we won’t do that. And you can print that.”
As longstanding Scottish nationalists, how do you feel about the new political landscape? The SNP dominant in Scotland, despite losing the independence referendum last year, Labour in disarray in the UK, Tories rampant…
Charlie: “I don’t think there’ll be another referendum for ten years.”
Craig: “I’d say five years.”
Charlie: “I’d also say that when the younger generation in Scotland grows up, there will be less feeling of Britishness. I also think when the present Queen departs, the level of deference towards Britain and her family will go down in Scotland. Charles is a nice enough fellow, but there’s no gravitas, and no loyalty to him.”
Does playing a song like your Scottish nationalist anthem Cap In Hand have added resonance these days?
Craig: “It has resonance. If we’d got independence we’d never have to play it again. It is a good tune, but you would have to consider whether you could play it if we voted Yes.”
Charlie: “But in terms of us finding inspiration for new songs, there’s never going to be a shortage of drama or stories if you’re politically or socially engaged.”
Did the success of the Sunshine On Leith film put wind in your sails?
Craig: “It did, because it reached a lot of new people, in cinemas and on DVD, all over the country – it wasn’t just Proclaimers fans who saw that. The numbers are astronomical.”
Charlie: “And that reach – reaching people – is what matters to us. Always has.”
Is the support of famous superfans – David Tennant and Matt Lucas – meaningful to you?
Craig: “It is. David got married to Life With You! They’re both talented men, who have massive audiences. And their audiences might not naturally like The Proclaimers. And that’s understandable. But when you get people like them, celebrities who are successful in artistic ventures, who dig you in the same way folk in the street do – that means a lot to us.”
Charlie: “But David or Matt liking us doesn’t mean any more to me than a taxi driver saying he likes us, or the guy that comes up to you at the Hibs match who’s a bricklayer from Leith. But it does encourage you!”
What were their roles in you doing the Comic Relief single in 2007?
Craig: “We opened the G8 concert at Murrayfield in Edinburgh, three-and-half-minutes, 500 Miles, bang bang bang, straight off, into the bar, fantastic. And Peter Kay, one of the compères, had seen it, and that’s what triggered him to do I’m Gonna Be as the Comic Relief single.”
Charlie: “He contacted Matt to be involved with the video and didn’t know Matt was a fan. Just random! And once we had Matt, we had to get David involved as well.”
All of which speaks of the ongoing vitality, and connection of The Proclaimers’ music – to vast numbers of people, from all places, all ages, all walks of life. Do you understand why that is?
Charlie: “In the end, all we’ll ever be is two guys who stand up with a guitar, sing a couple of songs, and go home. That’s what we do.
“If people join in, like at football or sporting event, we’re bringing people together. That’s all we ever wanted.”