Sunday, 2 May 2010

Indietracks interview #7: Ballboy

One of our highlights of the 2008 Indietracks festival was Ballboy’s heart-stopping show on the outdoor stage as the sun set on the Sunday night. It was so fantastic that we remember hot air balloons flying over the field trying to catch a glimpse, as well as Gareth from Los Campesinos! being so intent on catching the whole Ballboy set that he nearly ended up missing his own headline slot! We’re so pleased that they’re coming back to play at the festival again this year.

Ballboy are Gordon McIntyre (singing, guitar, words), Nick Reynolds (bass), Alexa Morrison (keyboards) and Gary Morgan (drums). The Edinburgh band formed in 1997 and signed to SL Recordings in 1999. They released a string of EPs, and tracks from these were collected on 2001’s Club Anthems.

Their ‘proper’ debut album, A Guide for the Daylight Hours, was released the following year. This was quickly followed in 2003 by the acoustic and often melancholy The Sash My Father Wore and Other Stories, virtually a solo record by Gordon. In 2004 Ballboy returned to full band mode with their third album, The Royal Theatre. It took a change of record label (to their own Pony Proof Records) and another four years before the fourth Ballboy album was released, entitled I Worked on the Ships.

The late great John Peel on BBC Radio One was a great fan of the band and he invited the band to record sessions for the show five times. Tracks from the band featured in the Festive Fifty for five consecutive years. 

Hi Gordon, you've just started working on the next Ballboy album. Any hints about what it'll be like?

It has taken me a long time to settle on how I'd like it to sound. I always have a lot of ideas about what I could and would like to do and it can be hard to narrow things down and find a sense of coherence, but then sometimes it just clicks for you. The session we did with They Shoot Music Don't They was just so enjoyable and fun that it settled something in me and so I think the album will be a quieter, more acoustic affair than some other Ballboy albums. Having said that, it will be a full band album. The last album - I worked on the ships - was (in my head) about boats in some way, shape or form. This one will be less about being at sea and more about being by the sea. The sound of it anyway - not necessarily lyrically. And if you can make any sense of that answer then I salute you.

In short - it'll kind of sound like lighthouses.

We gather you're living in the serenity of a former church by the sea now. Has this affected the new songs at all?

Well they will be better recorded because the new house is much quieter than the last one so there will be no traffic-noise drone in the background! I don't think the church aspect will have a huge impact, but the by the sea aspect definitely has. I just find it impossible not to think about things when I look at the sea

How do you go about making the album - do you let the group freestyle and experiment in the studio or are you dead strict with them?

It can be different for different albums. The process is roughly this. I write the basic song and we practise it and play around with it and keep the bits we like lose the rest. Sometimes I know exactly what I want before we start so I'm more prescriptive, but other times I only know what I want when we discover it. I'm fond of the phrase "I don't know where I'm going, but I know how to get there" which Alexa Ballboy dismisses (probably correctly) as nonsense, but it sums up how I make music better than any other words I know.

What's happenning next with Midsummer (the 'play with songs' written with David Grieg)? And do you have any plans for any more plays?

Midsummer has been a huge pleasure and a huge success for me. I am thrilled that it turned out so well and has done so well. Currently it is on a break. There are plans for it to run again later in the year, but I can't say where yet until dates and venues are confirmed. It has been translated into Portuguese, German and Korean and it looks like it has quite a bit of life in it yet. The Midsummer team are very keen to get together and work on another play with songs so it looks like that will happen at some point over the next couple of years depending on when everyone can fit it in.

I remember listening to your Peel sessions as a student. Any stories or memories from Peel mansions?

We played live at Peel Acres as part of his Christmas broadcast in 2003 (I think) with Laura Cantrell. I remember running back and forth through the house to alternately record session tracks (in the study at one end) and Christmas Carols (in the living room at the other). I remember how warmly we were treated and I remember being more nervous than at any other performance. Our final Peel session took place a couple of days after John died. It was at Maida Vale and it was a strange and melancholy experience. I still miss his voice and his openness.

There's a whopping 25 free songs to download on your website. Is the future going to be all free file-sharing and Spotify or are record labels and radio play still as important as when you started out in the mid/late 90s?

Really? That many? I'm going to have to sort that. I'll be single-handedly destroying Scotland's reputation for meanness! To be honest I'm really undecided about the whole Spotify debate. I think your guess is as good as mine. My ideal is that you provide some stuff for free and if people like it then they buy more from you. I have no idea what Spotify's business-model is and I think it's going to come under a lot more scrutiny in the near future. We are on it because it is an outlet that it seems like a good idea to be part of at the moment. I wouldn't rule out withdrawing from it in the future.

As for file-sharing/illegal downloads I think that, if you like a band, especially a small band then pay them a bit of money. Their downloadable eps and albums usually cost about the same as a couple of pints - you'd buy a band you like a couple of pints wouldn't you?

I still think record labels and radio play are redundant though, but my advice to bands would be to be careful who you sign to and ask questions about how they are run. We have our own label now as a direct result of being badly, badly let down by our previous label and it is the best thing for us by far. I think in the near future we will put out some other bands and that will be another new experience for us.

Aside from previous Indietracks appearances, what's the most interesting or unusual place you've played a gig in the past?

Our acoustic show at the Reid Hall in Edinburgh with hundreds of little candles and a string quartet backing us was pretty special. I also played an acoustic show on the front lawn of a Swedish band called Esther on a little gazebo-like stage with an audience sitting on sofas and chairs that had been brought outdoors. I also sang during the church service of the producer of our first two albums - which was pretty scary to be honest. Basically a church full of other Edinburgh musicians most of whom I had probably offended at some point when I was drunk.

Any plans to release the Ballboy documentary, 'Trying not to f--k it up'?

Yes! This has been a casualty of Midsummer doing so well and me moving house. I was aiming to have it out last Christmas, but I moved house in the middle of December and that was that. Keep an eye out in the future.

You're an Indietracks regular now, any favourite memories from our last few years?

2008 - The Heat!!! Darren Hayman in the church, Pete our cello player standing in the middle of the throng in his Rush t-shirt, bugging Stuart to let us play outside in the sunshine instead of inside the Hangar (The Wave Pictures started it!), seeing the Wave Pictures play, speaking to random Swedish indie-kids (who were sooo unimpressed with my fledgling Swedish), playing Leave the Earth as the sun went down, my friend Niki dancing....

2009 - The drive down playing Hit, Miss or Maybe and Band Name World Cup (winners Hong Kong in the 60s) with Indietracks bands, my useless stint on the merchandise stall (customers: "can you tell me x, y or z?" me: "nope, I pretty much don't have any idea about anything here, sorry"), getting drunk on steam trains with pretty girls, getting drunk on steam trains with pretty girls (it was so good I typed it twice), surprising my friend Niki with her best friend Arpitah, Emmy the Great!, playing in the church (one of my all-time favourite shows), ending up in places (ie the campsite) with no idea how I got there, Nickballboy standing in a puddle waiting to catch falling drunk girls (chivalry is not dead), the Specific Heats, the quiz where everyone beat my score of three, getting shushed in a tent for talking too loud (I was), Teenage Fanclub in the rain, dancing, drinking, drinking and dancing, and Alton Towers the next day.

Thanks Gordon! Here’s the They Shoot Music Don't They video of the band playing ‘I’m an indie pirate and I will skuttle ye’.


  1. Thanks for the great interview and video!
    Hope to see you again soon!
    Lots of love,
    ~Lila xx

  2. lovely stuff, got to get to derbyshire in july somehow...ballboy are fab!!!!!