Roddy Woomble on the 20th anniversary of “The Remote Part” | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, July 5th, 2022  

Idlewild’s Roddy Woomble on the 20th anniversary of “The Remote Part”

“We were a proper gang of introverted, bookish guys who wrote rock songs, and The Remote Part was the pinnacle of that.”

Jun 15, 2022 Photography by Donald Milne Web Exclusive
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It’s a story as old as time. Or as old as the music industry, at least. Major label pumps money into band destined for big things, but then it doesn’t quite work out as planned.

Yet 20 years after the release of The Remote Part, Idlewild‘s fans still revere the band’s third album which marked the peak of the band’s commercial, and possibly critical, success.

The Scottish indie-rock stalwarts will mark the anniversary by playing the record live in its entirety at a handful of shows scheduled for later this year. A vinyl reissue is also now available for pre-order.

Under the Radar caught up with singer Roddy Woomble, on a day off from touring his latest solo record Lo! Soul, to reminisce about The Remote Part, look ahead to the anniversary shows and ask what’s next for the band.

Andy Robbins (Under the Radar): Can you give some context to where Idlewild were as a band by the time it came to writing and recording The Remote Part.

Roddy Woomble: It was quite a strange time, ultimately. Obviously Idlewild were introduced to the general public with the record Captain (mini-album released in January 1998), and then later that year Hope Is Important, having played lots and lots around the UK, just in a van. Because of that we gained a reputation as a really fun live band. Chaotic and noisy and the audience would go wild. But at the same time the records weren’t really taken that seriously. They were seen almost as flyers for the shows.

We realized that we had an ability to write good melodies. I was really interested in harmonies and melodies and lyrics, writing interesting words, and we started to develop a kind of talent between us to compose quite catchy songs. We wanted to get away from that chaotic side of the band quite early on, almost when we were touring Hope Is Important. We realized we needed to develop the band, otherwise we were going to be written off by people.

100 Broken Windows (the band’s second album, released in April 2000) was a big record and started to solidify people’s ideas of “Hang on a minute, this is not just a night out for students. This is actually quite an interesting band developing.” It came out in the UK and went top 20, we were on television and things like that, and people started to become more aware of Idlewild.

Then that record got picked up by college radio in America, and we ended up spending quite a bit of time touring that album in America.

By no means were we a big popular band, but we could sell out a decent place in New York and Los Angeles and there was a real buzz about the band.

It was all about this next record we were going to make, which obviously was The Remote Part. But it was “How do we start doing that?” because we wanted to be more popular and write songs that would get played on the radio more. We realized we needed to tone it down a bit in terms of distortion and take away a bit of the punk rock/indie rock thing that the band were known for. But we couldn’t lose that completely, because that’s why we had our fans. That’s what people liked. It was about how we combine a bit of mainstream ambition, but at the same time with the essence of the band.

It’s one thing to say you’re going to do that, but how easy was it to do?

It took us a long time to get to that point. We wrote a bunch of songs after we stopped touring 100 Broken Windows in the UK and Europe, and we went into the studio in January 2001 with Stephen Street.

Parlophone, which was the label we were on, had obviously had a lot of success with Stephen, who had produced Morrissey as well as The Smiths and Blur. Stephen is a really lovely man, a great producer and he’s produced some of my favorite albums. We spent two weeks in the studio and recorded five songs. We presented them to the record label and they didn’t fire anyone up. Nobody was getting excited. Subsequently some of those songs became b-sides. That’s why the b-sides for The Remote Part were so good, because they were produced by Stephen Street!

After recording with Stephen Street, you went to New York and worked with Lenny Kaye. The experience of working with him had a significant impact on the band. Even though the recordings never made it onto the finished record, you still credit him in the record’s sleeve notes for his inspiration and direction.

At that point 100 Broken Windows was only just coming out in America, because it had been delayed, so we ended up spending three months touring over there and put the idea of recording a record on hold a bit.

We knew that nobody was that enamored with what we’d done with Stephen, but when we were in America we hooked up with Lenny Kaye, who was the guitarist in the Patti Smith Group and who had also produced a lot of great records over the years. He was like an encyclopedia of music.

We spent a week in the studio in New York with him and that’s where we recorded the first version of “American English”, as well as a couple of other songs.

Although the sessions with Lenny didn’t really work out in that of none of the songs made the record, it was really valuable as a learning experience. He’s such a wise man, and such a cool guy. Through him we learned a lot about music and being in a band. It was simple things such as someone is always going to like what you do, and someone else is not going to like it. It was these simple lessons that you have to learn when you are doing anything creative. It was from Lenny that I learned how difficult it is to do anything creative, and that you are always going to have self-doubt.

It was then I started to think, let’s make this record about something, about when you are young and getting older and how you have to really understand yourself before you can go forward in life.

That’s the theme of the record. It’s isolationist in a way, but it is a record that moves forward through life, and it was Lenny that gave us a lot of those ideas.

Did you feel the pressure to follow 100 Broken Windows, especially when it was doing well in the States and knowing that your initial attempts weren’t as well received as you’d hoped?

That was sort of always the Idlewild story, because we were always underachievers. We were on the same label as Kylie Minogue, Radiohead and Coldplay, so we were always the band that was doing the worst. Even though we were doing well and we’d sell 100,000 records, that was nothing compared to the other people on the label.

It was kind of the last era of record sales. You just did everything you could to get people out to buy the record. You’d do everything you could to promote it.

We had a really great A&R man, Matthew. We didn’t really have much contact with the label. It would go through him. He was always really positive about us and we were kept away from that side of it.

You finished writing the album in a cottage in Inchnadamph, in the Highlands of Scotland. What was that like?

We were supposed to go back to America to tour, but Rod (Jones, Idlewild guitarist) had sadly injured himself and he wasn’t allowed to fly for four weeks. We had to cancel the tour, which was a bit of a nightmare at the time, but from that we thought “How can we be positive?” So, we decided to go and finish our album, get away from Edinburgh. It was a really good thing for the band.

That’s where the soul of the record was born. We wrote “You Held The World In Your Arms”, “A Modern Way Of Letting Go” and “The Remote Part”…we wrote the majority of the record there, and rearranged songs that we’d written already.

As soon as we got up there, we were having a good time together and bonding as a band. We were having bonfires, going on walks and just hanging about with that sense of space that surrounds you in the Highlands. That’s why it’s called The Remote Part, just because of that experience.


Did you feel as a band you now had the confidence to go away and hone your craft like you did, rather than just deciding to play something faster or louder if it wasn’t particularly working?

We were starting to be taken seriously, and that was a big thing. We were young, and when you are young you are quite vulnerable to criticism. All of us were introverted by nature, but being in a band is like being in a gang. It feels a bit more absurd when you get older, but at that point it was perfect for Idlewild. We were a proper gang of introverted, bookish guys who wrote rock songs, and The Remote Part was the pinnacle of that really. It had bits of punk rock, and bits of indie rock, but it also had its more mainstream melodies and production.

When we eventually came down from the Highlands and went to record with Dave Eringa, who had done 100 Broken Windows, it all fell into place. It was a long process to get there but, when we did get there, the record was recorded fairly quickly. It suddenly started to sound really cohesive, really together. All the songs related to each other and it had a universal theme running through it. We started to feel like we’d made a really great record that was a combination of all the things we were and all the things we could be.

We were 24 and 25, none of us had partners or houses or anything. We were just living in rental flats or rooms. We were always on tour or writing or recording. It was an exciting journey that we were on. At that point it was great because we all just lived for the band, and you can tell that with the music which was getting better and better over those first three records. It was a really powerful moment in my life and one that we all shared that together.

Having former Scottish poet laureate, Edwin Morgan, reading one of his poems wasn’t necessarily what you’d expect from a group of 20-somethings making a rock record. Yet his appearance on the closing track “In Remote Part/Scottish Fiction” is one of the most memorable moments of the whole album. How did that come about?

That’s why it’s an interesting record, I think. Essentially it was a really popular rock album of the early noughties, yet it’s got associations with Lenny Kaye and the New York underground in the 1970s and it’s got Edwin Morgan who was the Scottish poet laureate from the 1950s. It’s got a lot of ideas on it.

I just got to know Edwin because I was a fan. We used to write each other letters. He was fascinated that I was some young guy in a rock band and I was fascinated that he was an 85-year-old poet. I just asked him if he’d be interested in writing something and reading it and we’d try putting music to it. It wasn’t necessarily for the album.

He wrote this poem, “Scottish Fiction”, and I went round to his flat in Glasgow and recorded him reciting it.

When we were up in Inchnadamph, in the Highlands, we tried it with a lot of different backing tracks. The idea originally was that it was going to open the album, with a lot of instrumentation underneath it, be quite mellow and then rise into the first song. That was our original intention because the album was originally going to be called “Scottish Fiction” and Edwin’s poem was going to introduce it.

But then when we got to the Highlands we wrote the song “In Remote Part”, and we started having this idea that it was going to end with this big My Bloody Valentine style feedback crescendo. When we started working on that, I was like, “Let’s try Edwin’s words on that. They might get lost, but let’s see if they work.” And it just worked really well.

Was there ever any doubt about whether you would put the recording of Edwin on the album?

We were definitely going to put it on there because it was so unique and Edwin Morgan was so highly regarded, and such an interesting man. He was so keen to collaborate that none of us wanted to waste that.

Again, that’s why the record works, because it’s a record of its circumstances and all of the things that have led up to that. Of all the years playing up to that, all the ideas that have come before and the circumstances with Stephen Street and Lenny Kaye. Edwin Morgan is just a part of that, all arriving on this one record that suddenly connects with people, and that’s The Remote Part.

You recorded the album in some fairly legendary studios, including Rockfield, Sawmills and RAK. What was that experience like?

We’d originally started with Stephen Street at Great Linford Manor (recording studio near Milton Keynes). That was a good experience, but the songs didn’t really gel together. Then in New York we recorded at The Magic Shop with Lenny Kaye, and that’s a really cool place. David Bowie did a lot of his stuff there.

Then Rockfield was principally where we did most of the record. We did a couple of weeks at Sawmills too, and then it was all mixed in RAK.

Those studios are amazing. We were at RAK when Mickie Most was still alive. He owned the studio at the time and had produced a load of the seventies glam bands. One of his best mates was Roger Moore, so sometimes Roger Moore would be hanging about. It was quite strange, and we were staying in the apartment there, which still looked like a real seventies pad.

That’s the thing about music. It opens the door to all these strange experiences and we were always up for that.

The album peaked at number three on the UK album chart when it was released, and eventually went gold in the UK. “You Held The World In Your Arms” and “American English” were both A-listed on Radio 1. Were Parlophone happy with the record and how it was performing?

Yeah, they were. I remember when we finished it, we had a listening party at RAK, which we’d never done before. The label invited lots of people from the press and media and laid on canapes and wine. They had a PA set up and played the record really loudly through it. We were all really nervous, shuffling in and out, smoking fags outside, because it wasn’t really our sort of thing. I do remember seeing people’s reaction though, and I don’t think anyone thought we were going to make a record like that. Everyone was really impressed with it and I remember that sense of pride of “We’ve actually made something that is impressing people just on its first listen.”

We are very Scottish though, in the way that we’re not ones for compliments or bigging ourselves up, but there was a feeling that we’d done something that was a really good piece of work. It really held together, and it was tuneful and it was memorable. Even the artwork. Everything worked together. It felt quite a cohesive thing. But it wasn’t until other people started to hear it that we realised it could actually be quite popular.

Despite the initial success of the record, the band went through a period of turbulence when Bob (Fairfoull, the band’s bassist) left and Gavin Fox joined (before he too left at the end of 2005, although he will be returning for the anniversary shows later this year). Did the label still have confidence in you to capitalize and build on the success of the album?

We were a bit messy still. Bob was still a big part of Idlewild at that point and is still a good friend, so I’m not going to say anything bad about him. But, at the same time, it might have been better if Gavin had joined the band before we started touring that record, because we got much better as a live band halfway through the campaign, whereas at the start when we were first playing the songs and doing TV shows and all that, we really weren’t that good at playing them yet.

But in retrospect it was what it was and that’s part of the story of the record.

We were still on a steady trajectory though. Hope Is Important had come out, 100 Broken Windows had done much better and we were selling out gigs. Then The Remote Part did much, much better than that, so of course they were thinking that if they put their effort into the band the next one will do even more.

They put everything into Warnings/Promises (the band’s follow-up to The Remote Part) which was great from our point of view. By that point though the spotlight had started to move off Idlewild and onto Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs and those bands.

But I don’t think about that too much anymore because I realize that it is interesting to take a trajectory like that. More so than if you’re massively popular for one single or one album and then you have to play that on repeat forever. Idlewild never suffered from that, and as a solo artist myself I don’t suffer from that. I can make a different sounding record, but people are still interested.

Last year you released a book about the history of the band, called In The Beginning There Were Answers. In it you write about supporting Pearl Jam while touring The Remote Part, and seeing their fans embracing and singing their songs back to them. You sounded like you’d resigned yourself to that never happening to Idlewild. Yet that is exactly what will happen during The Remote Part shows.

We were never filling arenas with groups of guys drinking beer and singing along. We were too shy to be that kind of band. We were too awkward to be massively popular. I wasn’t a frontman. I’m shy and introverted and would stand to the side and wouldn’t say much. I couldn’t unite people in an arena, I didn’t have that ability.

The Remote Part was a popular record, but it certainly wasn’t a massive album like a Coldplay record or something like that. For us it was a huge record, it was number three in the charts and went gold, but none of our other records did that, so it wasn’t like we sustained this.

I think Idlewild hit a lot of people in the UK at that pivotal time in terms of being aged about 15 to 20. I look at the records I discovered when I was between those ages, like Nevermind, or Slanted and Enchanted or The Queen Is Dead, that just mean something to me. It’s difficult to explain, but it doesn’t need to be explained because it’s music and that’s the wonderful thing about it. You just feel it. You don’t need to know why it makes you feel that way. That’s the magic of it.

I guess The Remote Part, and maybe even 100 Broken Windows to a larger extent…those records mean a lot to people who were at that age. Those people are now 35 plus, so it is an interesting thing to go back because you are playing music that has been a soundtrack to a really particular and powerful moment in someone’s life and you are celebrating it together.

So I think as long as it wasn’t all you did for the rest of your life, just playing your classic records, then it’s a really cool thing to do.

Did the record company ever try to mould you into becoming an ‘arena band’?

No, I think they realized that was part of the appeal of the band. They’d got a frontman that’s really shy, but was playing really loud and energetic music, so I think they thought that was unusual. All of us were quite unlikely rockstars, for want of a better word.

I was brought up on people like Morrissey, Kurt Cobain and Michael Stipe. They’re not obvious frontmen either and I very much felt an affinity with them. They were my kind of people because I could relate to them. I think Idlewild were a similar band, even though our music was heavier. Well, not heavier than Nirvana, but heavier than R.E.M. and The Smiths. When 100 Broken Windows started to get a lot of play in America, that’s what we were labelled as – the punk rock Smiths, because it was literate guitar pop music, but a lot heavier.

You’ve always had that literate element to your music, even in the early days. By the time you reached The Remote Part though, Idlewild’s sound had definitely grown up and become more melodic than chaotic.

We just became better musicians. If you’re playing music all the time, you just become much, much better. We were all self-taught. No one knew what we were doing when we started, which was part of the appeal. Cut to The Remote Part and we were all fairly good at what we were doing. We were able to express ourselves better.

You’ve played full album shows before. Do you enjoy playing these types of gigs?

Although I’m generally not a massive fan of going back and just playing an album constantly, I appreciate them as a music fan. I’ve been to a few, like seeing Sonic Youth play Daydream Nation. It’s a totally different show because it is a celebration of that one particular record which means a particular thing to the crowd that are in front of you.

We played some 25th anniversary shows last year, which turned out to be about the 27th anniversary by the time we got to play them, and we got everyone who’d been in the band in the past involved. Then Connect Festival in Scotland approached us about performing The Remote Part. We played at the first Connect Festival in 2007 and they’re bringing it back. It’s a really good festival and we thought it’s The Remote Part’s 20th anniversary, so yeah, let’s do it. Because of that we’ve arranged a few other shows we’re going to be doing as well. We celebrated the record’s 15th anniversary previously, when we were going to do one night in Glasgow, but it sold out so quickly we added a second night. Then we ended up doing a London show as well. This time around we thought, because we’re doing the show at Connect, people will want to see us play that record so we thought we’d do a few more shows.

One of the shows you are due to play is at Ullapool Village Hall, on the west coast of the Highlands, not far from the cottage where much of The Remote Part was written. That show sold out almost immediately.

We thought that it will be really nice to go up there and play the songs as close as we can get to where we wrote them. It feels like a conclusion of sorts. I don’t mean to the band. We put out Interview Music in 2019 and toured it, and there was the idea of making some more music, but the pandemic just put a stop to that because we all live in different places. We eventually got back together to play the 25th anniversary shows, but there are no plans to make anything new so The Remote Part shows will be the conclusion of something, I think.

The band has had its ups and downs over the years and some records have sold more than others, and individually I’ve been making records for 16 years now. But if it’s your vocation you just have to keep going on with it, and that is meaningful in itself. You don’t split up with friends that you’ve spent so much time with though. It’s something we’d never close the door on because it’s so important to our lives.

Idlewild will play The Remote Part shows at:
August 2022

3 – Galway, Roisin Dubh
4 – Dublin, The Button Factory
5 – Belfast, Empire Music Hall
28 – Edinburgh, Connect Festival

September 2022

3 – Ullapool, Village Hall

November 2022

19 – Stourbridge, Town Hall
20 – Manchester, New Century

December 2022

17 – London, O2 Forum Kentish Town

www.idlewild.co.uk

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