Interview: BMX Bandits
I’ve long dreamed of interviewing Duglas T. Stewart -and at last it has happened! A charming man, Duglas spoke to 17 Seconds about life in Scotland, just how many band members there have been over the last twenty one years and much else besides.
The band formed in Bellshill, near Glasgow, which was also where Cosmic Rough Riders were formed, and the Bandits have had links with many other scots acts, including the Soup Dragons, The Vaselines, Future Pilot AKA and Teenage Fanclub. Though they have never graced the Top 40 -at least, not at the time of writing, this band are much loved by those in the know. Kurt Cobain, who also was a massive fan of Bandits’ contemporaries The Vaselines, told a New York Radio station that if he could be in any other band it would be the Bandits and Oasis supported them on tour, as a favour to their then shared label head, Alan McGee.
Currently the bands line is: Duglas T Stewart ‘mostly singing’, Rachel Mackenzie -mostly singing, Stuart Kidd- mostly drums, singing and acoustic guitar, David Scott- lots of stuff including piano, guitars, singing and synths, Brian McEwan- mostly bass, Jamie Cameron- guitars, and Martin Kirwan- guitars.
So, how are you and what have you been up to lately?
Well the group have been much more active over the last 3 years than we’ve been for a while. in 2005 we made an e.p. with a Korean girl singer called YeonGene. That was the last BMX record to feature my long term writing partner Francis Macdonald. Francis had been in the group 18 years but it became obvious that Francis and I now wanted the group to be doing different things and Francis was so busy managing bands (including Camera Obscura) and playing drums for Teenage Fanclub that I asked him to leave. It was a painful decision but I think ultimately it has been the best thing for our friendship and for BMX Bandits. David Scott (also of the Pearlfishers) then officially joined the group and David & I produced an album for YeonGene of Burt Bacharach songs featuring BMX Bandits members and some ex-BMX Bandits including Norman Blake, Eugene Kelly & Stevie Jackson. We found our first ever lady bandit Rachel Mackenzie. We released an album called My Chain in 2006 and a single called ‘Doorways’, which was the first thing I wrote for Rachel to sing and we did gigsin Japan, Europe, New York and in the UK. In 2007 we’ve released another new album called Bee Stings.
Are you still based in Glasgow?
I live in a town about 12 miles outside Glasgow called Bellshill. I was born here and went to school here with Norman. The other BMX Bandits live in or near Glasgow.
A few years back, when I met you in Glasgow, you were working at the BBC. Did this have any impact on your writing?
It did because I fell in love with someone at work. I was married at the time and loved my wife and so I started writing songs as a place where I could express my love for this new person. We weren’t having an affair but becoming really close, enjoying each other and hanging out. She told me about how one of her front teeth was knocked out and I started imagining her as a street urchin in late Victorian London, pretending to be a boy but being a beautiful girl beneath the dirt and the disguise. I wrote a song called ‘A Missing Front Tooth’ [the opening track to My Chain] which was like an old music hall song to create a fantasy world where we could co-exist and be lovers. Then I wrote a song about why I needed/wanted to write that song. It started a chain of songs that told our story from me secretly wanting her, to her declaring her love for me, to me leaving my wife hoping for a new life, to her changing her mind and moving away. On one level it was very sad and I feel so bad about my ex-wife who was unbelievably understanding and supportive through everything but I also feel very privileged to have met someone who touched and inspired me so. I hope she’s doing well. When the album came out my ex-wife phoned me from Tokyo, where she was now living, to tell me she thought it was a very beautiful album and was very proud of me. She is a very special person. I eventually left the BBC, which was stupid on one level as it gave me financial security, but there was too many ghosts there for me.
The BMX Bandits started in the eighties. Overall do you think the music scene has changed for better or worse?
I still think there is lots of wonderful and inspiring new music being made but I think it’s maybe harder to find. It is difficult to sell many records now for artists who are doing something that doesn’t fit into a very narrow mainstream thing and so it becomes difficult to afford doing tours for smaller bands and finding money to record. The plus side is it is easier to make music at home but this doesn’t suit everybody’s thing. I think the rock festival culture is quite damaging for music. In the early 80s you’d get a new band, like The Smiths would come along and they’d be making lots of singles and maybe 2 albums in a year and it kept you excited, kept the momentum going but now a new band come along and they get caught up in this whole festival circuit and 3 years later they are doing the same set at the same festivals and the whole process of them growing creatively slows way down. Also you could start liking a band in your last year at high school and then they don’t release their next album until you are in your last year at Uni and then the next one when you are all grown up with a sensible job and a mortgage. It doesn’t make it as exciting or as vital feeling for the fans or for the musicians I reckon.
You’ve always been associated with the ‘Glasgow scene.’ Who, if anyone, do you consider to be BMX Bandits’ contemporaries?
In Glasgow it would be Teenage Fanclub, The Pastels (although they started a little earlier), Eugene Kelly, The Pearlfishers …there has been some cross over of members with all these acts. I feel a link to newer people like Belle & Sebastian and Emma Pollock as they used to come to our shows and we’d see them at the clubs we went to and in record shops. And now there is a younger generation of new groups that I still feel a connection with coming out of Glasgow.
How many people have been in the BMX Bandits over the years?
Rachel and I counted them all up and there have been 22 members in 22 years.
Do you think the word ‘indie’ means anything in 2007?
It’s become a marketing term for a product that is mostly not really alternative, challenging or adventurous in any way. I used to look at photos of all these boys in 90s boy bands and they’d all have the same haircuts and look like they went to the same clothes shops. You could get a copy of Smash Hits and cut out the heads, swap them round and it wouldn’t make any difference. They were totally interchangable and now that’s what it’s like with the bands the NME and Radio 1 are selling to us as “indie” or “alternative”…. interchangable pretty boys in skinny jeans with the same hairstyles making very conservative music for the masses. Just because your told something is alternative doesn’t mean it is. But there are still people making some incredible and creative music on their own terms but you are unlikely to find them in the NME.
Vinyl, CDs or mp3? And why?
Any….it’s the tracks that matter. I love the whole thing of looking at a beautiful 12 inch record sleeve and taking a shiney new piece of black vinyl out to play but what’s really important is that the music sounds exciting and alive and from the heart. A lot of my most exciting musical experiences when I was a teenager was hearing things coming out of a crappy old transistor radio we had and so if some kid is getting excited and inspired hearing something on their phone or ipod that’s great as long as it’s exciting and at times confusing them.
What do you like best about Scotland?
It’s where a lot of the people I love live.
And what do you like least about Scotland?
There’s a lot of bigotry and sectarian hatred.
A few years back, in 1993, BMX Bandits covered Teenage Fanclub’s song, ‘Kylie’s Got A Crush On Us.’ Did you ever hear anything from her?
We got a message that she liked the track. Our record company thought we were going to get her to be in the video for the song but it didn’t happen. I would have been happier if I’d heard she liked ‘Serious Drugs’ or something else that I wrote.
What would be your favourite albums of all time?
The Beach Boys Love You is possibly my number one. I love Pet Sounds, it was a musical revolution, but Love You has probably had a bigger influence on my music. I’ve met Brian Wilson a few times and was happy when he told me unprompted a couple of times that Love You is his favourite. Other big favourites for me are Gonna Take a Miracle by Laura Nyro & LaBelle, Computer World by Kraftwerk, Someday Man by Paul Williams, Histoire de Melody Nelson by Serge Gainsbourg and the soundtrack to A Fistful of Dynamite (Giu la Testa) by Ennio Morricone. There so many but those ones are pretty much always in my top ten. Recently Paul Williams’ soundtrack to Bugsy Malone has been a big favourite.
What’s your favourite work of art?
If it could be a song it would probably be a song called I Never Dreamed by The Cookies or maybe Past, Present and Future by The Shangri-las. If we’re talking about a painting something by Matisse, maybe La Musique from 1939 or Harmony in Red/La Desserte from 1908. Matisse helped me find an aesthetic that runs through pretty much everything I like and everything I do.
Have you ever received any bizarre heckles during a gig?
When we started we used to get a lot of verbal abuse and things thrown at us. In those days a lot of people still hated or were suspicious of anything seen as being alternative. Most of those heckles were just stupid but I remember one time playing in Norway and this guy shouted out “oh Jesus help me, I’m a freak and I’m loving it baby”. I don’t know if that was really a heckle but it was very loud and left me speechless.
Finally, would you ever do a stunt like the KLF and burn all your profits from the band?
If we ever made a profit then maybe we could consider it but I get the feeling it would be a very small bonfire.
Hell, that’s a damning reflection on the public. It’s never too late to get into BMX Bandits though…
Their seminal early single:
BMX Bandits -‘E102.’ mp3
And from their MySpace page:
BMX Bandits -‘The Audition LIVE.’ mp3
BMX Bandits -‘Love N Mercy.’ mp3
The album Bee Stings is out now, as is the download single ‘Take Me To Heaven’
BMX Bandits’ MySpace
An unofficial but lovingly compiled BMX Bandits site
BMX Bandits on Wikipedia