“The minute I start having an idea what I want from something, when it comes to something creative, that’s the minute I’ll decide to get a normal job.”
In a movie, Roddy Woomble would be the character the audience would identify with. He’s the one who read poetry as an adolescent—willingly—moving from the north of Scotland to the big city of Edinburgh at the age of 19 to take photographs and further his studies. Soon, he meets two other musicians—Rod Jones, guitar, and Colin Newton, drums—and, shortly thereafter, they form a band. Bob Fairfoull joins on bass and the quartet is, for the moment, complete. Our hero redirects his creative impulses into music, writing lyrics that read like poetry and capturing images with his words. He names the collaboration “Idlewild,” from the quiet meeting place in Anne of Green Gables.
When Idlewild begins to play, they’re considered a punk band. They don’t know the first thing about musical discipline or refinement. Never mind that he had a voice as smooth as butter; Woomble also knew how to yell. “We came from the school where it really didn’t matter if you couldn’t play and fucked up; that’s part of the concert,” he explains. He’s at home in Glasgow, right before the group embarks on its largest-ever U.S. headlining tour. “When we started playing, we were teenagers and very interested in punk rock and American indie bands, like Superchunk, Fugazi, Sugar, Hüsker Dü, and all that. But we were very young and we were still trying to find our feet, musically and politically.”
Though they made an instant splash in Great Britain with their first album, 1998’s Captain, it wasn’t until the following year’s release of 100 Broken Windows that Idlewild climbed onto U.S. shores. The album’s a true gem: edgy alt-rock with intelligent lyrics, catchy melodies, and enough guitar reverbs to keep the kids enthralled. “By the time of 100 Broken Windows, we’d actually managed to meld those punk rock/indie rock sensibilities with a real pop—just a British pop knowledge, like the Smiths and the Bunnymen,” explains Woomble. “Honestly, with that kind of Scottishness—the naiveté that comes with being young and growing up in Scotland—I think that’s why 100 Broken Windows was a record that resonates with people. In America, it’s still the one we get asked about the most.”
“And you’ll search for the quotes to make you seem complicated”
Maybe this is where the movie ends—it’s a happy ending of sorts, success in America. Isn’t that what all British bands dream about? But the story goes on, as all good stories do. Ever the literary enthusiast, Woomble strikes up a friendship with Edwin Morgan, Scotland’s poet laureate. “It’s kind of my thing outside the band, working with someone, trying different things,” Woomble explains. “It’s all about words. I realize now that, I’m 29 years old, and this is pretty much what I do: Words are basically what interest me.” He laughs at this simple statement. “And [Morgan] is a master of sentences and words and choosing words to describe things he feels. He’s very prolific in his old age. For me, it’s quite inspiring to have someone that I know like that.”
Their collaborations result in the penultimate track of 2002’s The Remote Part, “In Remote Part/Scottish Fiction,” in which the Idlewild song very naturally segues into Morgan’s recitation of a poem written for the band. While some critics herald The Remote Part for its brilliance and accessibility, others lambaste the group for being too literary for its own good. Fairfoull, tired of touring, leaves the band and is replaced by not one but two guitarists—touring guitarist Allan Stewart and bassist Gavin Fox. “It’s a different band now, really,” says Woomble. “Anyone seeing us on this tour will recognize that pretty quickly. It’s just so much tighter together, and we put ourselves across much more powerfully because of that. As players, everyone’s really gelled.”
“By this stage I feel like I really should know myself”
This year’s release of Warnings/Promises presents a more confident, self-aware—and self-accepting—Idlewild. While there are no alliances with poets this time—though more are forthcoming; says Woomble, “[Morgan’s] been writing words for us recently again, so we’re going to be doing more collaborations with him in the future”—the CD booklet does include a quote from one, Richard Brautigan: “It is an old story/somebody comes into this place/and lives/and then goes away forever.” A minimalist, Brautigan inspires strong feelings in readers, both positive and negative. Woomble clearly has nothing but admiration for the man.
“I think he’s probably one of the most beautiful poets ever,” he enthuses. “He uses so few words to carry so much weight. I’ve been a huge fan since I was a teenager, when I read a compendium of Brautigan’s short stories. I guess it’s a bit of a cliché, but it really did speak to me in a way that…I never thought of words being used like that. When words can make you feel a certain way, it’s quite powerful. It’s the closest thing to experience.
“I know it’s a bit pretentious and adds fuel to our pseudo-intellectual haters,” he continues, “but it’s one of my favorite poems of all time. I suppose, loosely, it’s tied into the themes of the record, all about ‘you have to find your own way.’”
Though the songs are, for the most part, mellower than on past albums, Warnings/Promises offers the thoughtful lyrics, instrumentation, and arrangements listeners have come to expect from Idlewild. This is a band capable of both soothing and provocation; the songs are perfectly melodic and measured, with lyrics you can chew on. Woomble’s voice—strong, significant, distinct, a bit nasal—is both recognizable and familiar. This time around, he’s less self-critical; whereas The Remote Part found him lamenting through song, “The more I say the more I keep confusing things, to make me feel complete,” three years on, he now admits, “Silence makes the loudest sound.”
“It’s taken me six months to realize [the album’s] basically been about me getting to know myself—which was last year of my life. And yeah,” he says thoughtfully, answering the unasked question, “I think it’s worked.
“I just have a real problem in knowing exactly what I want from music,” he continues. “I think, to be honest, that’s the thing that compels me to go on doing it. I think that the minute I start having an idea what I want from something, when it comes to something creative, I think that’s the minute that I’ll probably decide to get a normal job. Anything worthwhile, if you’re doing it creatively, has to be frustrating. It has to be full of questions and make you feel kind of lost sometimes.”
“If my words were clearer/then maybe I would know what I’m trying to say”
The final offering on Warnings/Promises seems almost foreboding. It’s directed at Idlewild’s detractors, with Woomble singing, “But I thought I was the only one who can say/goodnight,” then finishing the song with, “Goodnight/goodnight.” It sounds as if he’s bowing out, you tell him; he pauses as the words sink in, then asks incredulously, “Bowing out of music? For God’s sake, I hope that’s not true.” After a few fumbles, he explains, “Analytically, it’s all about the whole surrealness of standing in front of people and singing songs to them, and the fact that they don’t know you and they think they know you.”
He treads a line, alternately remarking on how much thought went into every single lyric and then finding it ridiculous that someone would want to critically analyze his words. “It’s not a piece of literature,” he scoffs. Still, the way he regards words as above all else is evident; consider this line, from “Blame It on Obvious Ways”: “I gamble my praises and fill the jukebox full of my favorite phrases.” You can’t help but try to ascertain the meaning of his words; he opens the door just a bit.
“Quite often, when a songwriter uses the word ‘you,’ he means himself,” he reveals. “Songwriting’s quite a dishonest thing; you can be anyone and say anything. But at the same time, I think all the records we’ve done have always been from the perspective of—they’re not negative or positive. They kind of throw up doubt, which I suppose that exists in anything.
“They’ve never been about specific things, specific relationships, specific people. People are referenced in them, obviously, because I look around me and write songs about what I see. Every song I’ve written always includes a line of conversation I’ve had.” At this, he stops, laughs at himself. “It’s just such a subconscious and self-conscious way of living your life.
“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of the past/it’s only the future that didn’t last”
Listening to this man across the long-distance wire, it strikes you that he’s someone with whom you’d enjoy chatting over a pint. He’s thoughtfully talkative without being too self-involved, polite and respectful without being overly friendly. Words are his medium; he speaks and writes carefully.
Admittedly, the feel-good ending to this movie came some time ago. But the story of Idlewild isn’t linear, nor is it designed for the Hollywood audience. The story of Idlewild is that, as Woomble mines his thoughts and the world around him, we get to come along for the ride. His self-exploration inspires our own; his music fills our ears and opens our eyes.
His story is our story, and we are still very much living it.
“You think your thoughts are the strangest place/that you’ve ever been”