Rank Your Records: Idlewild Rank Their Seven Records
They started off as Edinburgh's melodic art-punks and morphed into a band with real staying power. Now back from hiatus, we grilled Idlewild on their back catalogue.
Photo by Mihaela Bodlovic c/o The Skinny
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Back in February, Idlewild—vocalist Roddy Woomble, guitarist Rod Jones, drummer Colin Newton, bassist/guitarist Andrew Mitchell, and keyboard player Lucci Rossi—released their seventh full-length, Everything Ever Written. Having gone on hiatus in 2010, it finds the band on fine form, full of renewed energy and the same kind of fire that inspired the Scottish band when they formed in 1995. Ten years after last playing New York, Roddy and Rod are sitting in a small Greenwich Village café, trying to come up with a definitive order for ranking their discography and failing. While the pair’s thoughts on the records are similar, there’s nevertheless a discrepancy between how good they think they are when lined up against each other. They eventually agree to go with Roddy’s list, but the dilemma does demonstrate one thing for certain—while the band were never quite as successful as they deserved to be, their back catalogue is incredibly impressive, and they remain an imposing musical force to this day. It’s clear, too, when they talk about their albums, how much their music and its legacy still means to them—not to mention the effusive crowd they play to later that night.
7. HOPE IS IMPORTANT (1998)
Noisey: It’s surprising to see this at the bottom of your list, Roddy.
Roddy: It’s cruel for me to say that, because I realize so many of our fans love that record. That record hit a lot of people when they were 15, 16 and we became their favorite band. And last night, loads of people said they got Hope Is Important when they were a teenager, but it was one of those records that if you were an adult it meant nothing to you. We were teens, and it’s music for teens. And that’s why I have a problem with it now as an adult. If I’m going to be so subjective about my own work, I can’t really listen to it, because my voice… I sound like I’ve taken helium before recording the vocal. And musically, it’s really unsophisticated and quite raw, which is what was great about it at the time, but in retrospect I find it really difficult to listen to. So that would be my least favorite, but at the same time I completely acknowledge that it’s a fan favorite.
Do you recognize yourselves on that album?
Roddy: Not really. Only in that I know that’s me in the photograph, and I can sort of hear a few of my ideas still—I can recognize ideas that I would probably still have, but. By and large, it’s like looking at a photograph of when you’re on holiday when you’re 13.
But you don’t agree with this ranking, Rod?
Rod: It’s probably my second least favorite. It’s the rushed necessity of the record, I think, and it still feel a little bit like that.
Roddy: See I feel that way much more about Post-Electric Blues. But we’re going off-tangent here, so I’ll let Rod finish.
Rod: Hope Is Important is hard to listen to, and I can’t actually remember the last time that I did, I have to say. There are couple of moments on it, I suppose, and I have a fondness for it because it was a really exciting time for the band—it was the first time we were in a studio really, and the first time hitting the road.
Roddy: It’s got a nice album cover! I think that’s one thing it’s still really got in its favor. The music is essentially, as I said, quite raw and unsophisticated, poppy melodic punk rock, but what sets it apart is that it’s got this really melancholy, romantic photograph on the cover, and it’s called Hope Is Important, and I still think that puts the balance slightly off. It could have been called something like Let’s Rock! with like a live picture of us on the front.
6. MAKE ANOTHER WORLD (2007)
So this is at the bottom of the list for you, Rod. Why?
Rod: Pretty much for the same reasons that Roddy just outlined, but I feel like Make Another World is a bit worse. It was made very quickly and I think because we’d taken so long with Warnings/Promises, we felt like we needed to make a band in a room record. And it is that, but I think that maybe the songs aren’t that good.
Roddy: I think we made a mistake with that one, really. It was the first record that we’d made when we weren’t on Parlophone, but we’d signed quite a good deal with another label, so there was a bit of budget for it. I’d made a solo record the year before, My Secret Is My Silence. Rod was involved in that, too, but it was done very off the cuff and in a really loose way with a lot of folk musicians, and it has a really nice feel to it, and I think what we should have done was I shouldn’t have released that as a solo record and we should have used some of those songs and made a much more interesting and folkier record. Because that’s what Warnings/Promises was hinting at, but we sort of separated them and we made a sort of basic, slightly uninspired rock record instead of what we could have done, which was merge them and made a kind of opus. But we didn’t do that and I think Make Another World suffers, as Rod said. It’s got a couple of really great songs that we still play live, but as an album, there’s just not enough there to make it a really great record.
Rod: It was a compromise. It was trying to keep those things separate and keep everybody happy and we shouldn’t really do that.
Were you aware at the time that you were compromising?
Roddy: I knew Allan Stewart, who was playing in the band at the time, and Colin, and Rod to an extent, weren’t keen on following that path of country.
Rod: I thought that when we actually went that way with the band we had at the time, it didn’t really work. It felt like a bunch of people who couldn’t really play that style of music convincingly. So I didn’t really feel like doing that. I didn’t feel like that incarnation of Idlewild was ever going to be good at that kind of music.
Roddy: Whereas right now, we could do that if we wanted to.
Roddy: And we do!
But that then begs the question why did you decide to release it if you weren’t happy with it?
Roddy: Well, the label we were on, Sanctuary – they were really pumped about. They thought “No Emotion” was a hit—and it went Top 20—but they thought they could really work with this record and they loved the fact it was a rock record and were using these phrases like “back to their roots” and all this kind stuff. And again, it’s not knocked off. There is a lot of consideration that went into the artwork and the feel about it, but I wouldn’t rate it highly if we’re comparing it.
5. POST-ELECTRIC BLUES (2009)
You both agree that this is number five. Why?
Roddy: For many of the same reasons as Make Another World. The only reason I’m rating this above that is that I think the first three songs of Post-Electric Blues are three of our best tunes. I think it starts so well and then just goes like that a wee bit [motions a downhill movement with his hand]. But that’s partly to do with the timescale that we had to do it in. Quite often, with a lot of records, when you’ve written a really good song, it takes the pressure off a little bit and you think ‘Okay, we’ve still got four or five to write’ and they’re never as good. And Post-Electric Blues is very much like that.
Were you aware when you were writing this that you were going to take a break afterwards?Rod: No. To be honest, when we were actually making it – and we did it mainly in one chunk, which we hadn’t done in a while – it was good fun. At the time, I remember thinking ‘This has got an energy that we’ve been missing a bit.’ Even though Make Another World had been a rock record, I felt like it kind of lacked the intent or the urgency of the earlier records. This one, we start to sound like we’re enjoying ourselves. We weren’t worrying so much about what other people would think and we were trying a few different things out. So at the time I felt quite fondly about it and I thought ‘This is going to be good!’ but it’s just one of those things that the songs didn’t really stand the test of time. As Roddy said, the first three – and there’s a couple of other moments on the record – but there were a few songs that were ideas we’d had from previous records and we thought, ‘Actually, maybe that is good, we’ll put it on.’ And the danger of that is sometimes there’s a reason you didn’t put it on the previous record!
Roddy: There’s some great ingredients there. And we’re at that stage in our career, when we have a lot of music and records we’ve written, and we can take bits out and put them in other songs live. And we do that with a few bits from Post-Electric Blues that we play in other songs. I think it was a bit more inspired than Make Another World, and I think it would have been more so if we’d had more time. But it is a real product of the fact that we needed, as a working band, to tour every year pretty much, and if you have a record out, then you go on tour. That was another reason why we decided to step off that treadmill. When I listen to Post-Electric Blues, I do hear that there’s a really good band with a lot of ideas but it’s a band that needed to take a step away from it. But I do like it!
Rod: I certainly don’t think we’ve ever gone into a record and not enjoyed doing it when we were doing it, but certainly after the fact you realize that…well, we’ve made mistakes on every record. Listening back to the ones that are higher up the list, there are still things that I would have done differently, but at the time you’re a different person. You go with what’s happening at the time and that youthful exuberance that was in some of the earlier records that’ll be higher up the list – wisdom kind of overtakes that as you get older. And cynicism, which is a Scottish disease. But you don’t know that at the time. We’ve certainly never gone into the studio and thought ‘We just need to make a record – fuck this, let’s just get it over with.’ I mean there were moments, actually, on Warnings/Promises – and this is where Roddy and I will disagree – there were moments towards the end of record where I just wanted to finish that record, because it was a hard record to make. And it probably is better than I give it credit for, but it was a very difficult process and I find it hard to look at objectively.
4. CAPTAIN (1998)
Here’s another you’re in agreement with—your very first record. Technically a mini-album.
Rod: Yeah. We’d had those songs since we first formed the band. They’re songs that I recorded the guitar part on a cassette tape and posted through his letterbox and then he’d write some words. It’s so raw. It was our first real proper time in a studio. We were on Deceptive Records and they gave us some money and we came down to a really crap studio in London and shared a hotel – all four of us in the same room – and spent five days recording as many songs as we had.
Roddy: And it was done very live. I’m really happy that that exists – it’s like a portal of me when I’m like 19 years old. It’s an archive of myself. And that’s really what I was into. I loved playing fast, noisy music and we didn’t really listen to too much else at the time. We didn’t think we were going to do too many other records, so we put everything we had into that in terms of energy. And it still feels exciting to listen to.
Rod: I suppose there’s a fondness, which is probably not ranking your records to their merit. It was the first time we’d been in a studio – to us, five days in a shit studio in London seemed like we were going to Abbey Road. It was the easiest record to write because it was all of the songs you’ve got. And they still work. There’s a simplicity to them…
Roddy: And some good melodies. We came up with some good melodies. It was dressed up in this noisy, aggressive band, but when you take those melodies out of context, they’re nice melodies.
Rod: I’ve not got much more to say about it really.
So these were the songs you’d written before you were a professional band, in a way. It was just for fun.
Roddy: I remember walking back to the hotel from the studio and we’d just got a Chinese takeaway because Deceptive Records had just given us our first paycheck, and we were all like ‘Wow – we actually made money!’ So we went to get a Chinese takeaway and we were walking back to the hotel and we’d just singed a publishing deal, and there was a realization that week that we were going to make some money by doing music. So there was a proper euphoria there: we’re in London, recording these songs with a producer. Like Rod said, nowadays it looks like real tiny, small scale and really quite skanky, but it was fucking amazing!
3. THE REMOTE PART (2002)
So this is your number one, Rod. Talk to me.
Rod: For me, if I listen back to it now, it’s not the most creative record we’ve ever made, but it’s a record that everything kind of fired together at the right time. We’d just kind of learned how to play properly, how to use a studio properly and it had a completeness to it. It didn’t feel like there was any filler on the record. We kept going back and doing another session and another session, like ‘No, it’s not quite complete yet, let’s write another four songs.’ And I think because of that, I remember on the last day of mastering kicking off songs from the record that were pretty good songs, genuinely thinking "This is actually a really good song and probably the most expensive b-side we’ve ever recorded."
Roddy: There was a really high level of quality to it. We’d learned, through the process of 100 Broken Windows, that the record label were really serious about the band and they made a lot of comments about all our demos. They were really investing in the band and we took it quite seriously. We realized we’d been leaning towards writing anthemic songs and we felt that we could do that really well. It was a properly produced record and really well mixed – it’s a fully realized, modern commercial rock album. “You Held The World In Your Arms,” “American English” —all these songs are custom-built. We were listening to a lot of Bad Finger and Fleetwood Mac and it’s our attempt at that kind of thing. It’s just a real sin that it wasn’t more successful than it was.
How disappointed were you about that? I remember it being the album that was going to make you guys huge.
Rod: I remember thinking at the time that it was a huge success! [Laughs.]
Roddy: It was in the charts at number 3 and it’s the only record we’ve had that went Gold. It was like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Oasis and Idlewild, and that feels mental now!
Rod: Take any indie band, or even any major label band, and offer them that now and they’d bite your hand off. I think the problem was that the record label started to realize we were the classic indie cult band who had a really devoted and who’d sell out tours, but whose tours were never moving up from 2,000 capacity venues. The record went really high in the charts then disappeared quite quickly, and I think that set the precedent for Warnings/Promises and that’s why I think EMI eventually said ‘There’s no bad will, but we’ve decided to not renew your record deal.’ For some reason, the man on the street wasn’t connecting with Idlewild and I think the label realized that. It was more music fans and students who were into us, and not hairdressers – nothing against hairdressers, but you know what I mean!
Is it my mis-memory, or was there some kind of backlash from your fans about that record because you were slightly more mellow and you’d ‘lost your edge’?
Rod: There is with every record. Whereas Warnings/Promises made us new fans there was a backlash with that. I even seem to remember there was a bit of a backlash with 100 Broken Windows from some of the people who were listening to Captain. There’s always going to some little dweeb…
Roddy: We’re one of those bands who mean a lot to people and we’ve found when we’ve put records out that people would be scared that we’d start meaning more to someone else than they did.
I also remember, when it came out, it being the record that I wish R.E.M. had made. Because that was the point at which they really started to go downhill and I listened to The Remote Part and was like "You can still make great music like this."
Rod: I do feel like, where we maybe went one record over, they went a couple of records where they should have stopped. But they’re one of my favorite bands of all-time.
Roddy: We got a real endorsement from them, too. Around that time, there were a lot of people saying we were the new R.E.M., and we played quite high up the bill at T In The Park and R.E.M. were headlining, and Michael Stipe was watching us from the side of the stage, which was a bit of a thrill. And afterwards, he sat with us for ages and was just talking about how great he thought we were and he said that Idlewild were the greatest, or something like that, and we were all beside him, just like…
Rod: It’s the only photograph of the band where we’re all actually smiling!
2. 100 BROKEN WINDOWS (2000)
This is probably the fan favorite, and both of you have this in the number two slot. What does it mean to you now, looking back?
Rod: It’s probably the only one that’s gone up my order of preference the further away I’ve got from it. I think maybe because we did a tenth anniversary tour of it, I feel that we’d put that to bed. We didn’t feel beholden to it anymore. Coming back after that break I can listen to it with fresh ears. And there are some really good songs on it. And I think, like I think everything aligned for The Remote Part, something definitely happened during 100 Broken Windows where there was something in the ether.
Roddy: It’s got genuine mystery to it. You don’t really know why it works so well, but it does. We were still not amazing musicians, so we still had problems where we’d had really good ideas, so it’s like a band who are on their way somewhere but haven’t go there yet, but they’ve still got all these great songs and they’re not laboring over them too much. It’s very pure in that way. There’s a rawness to it. And the album artwork, it’s black and white and very oblique, and the lyrics reference weird things like post-modernism and crofting and all this kind of stuff. Obviously, it’s melodic music, but it’s got this sort of mystery to it and I think that really captivated people.
Rod: The strange thing about the record for me was at the time, and shortly after it, I assumed it had had the impact it had because it had been such a dramatic jump, and that was always going to be impossible to recreate, even from that to The Remote Part. Roddy was starting to sing more confidently, the lyrics were getting better, everything was on such an upwards curve. But bizarrely, even my friends’ kids who later listened to the band, that’s the record they gravitate to. So there’s obviously something there that I can’t quite comprehend what it is.
Roddy: And it’s a mystery to us as well as the listener.
There’s a wonderful adolescence to this record, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s still young, but it’s also like a third year university student. It’s still full of life and joy and excitement and wonder, but it’s also got that cerebral edge and that desire to be grown up.
Rod: It’s just clever enough, but not too clever!
Roddy: I’d agree with that totally. One reason why it’s not number one for me is that it still feels, as I said for Hope Is Important, a wee bit like I haven’t quite found my voice yet. But ultimately, I think the songs are strong enough for me to forgive myself.
1. WARNINGS/PROMISES (2005)
Rod—you said this was a difficult record to make. Why?
Rod: I think with the band that we have now, it would have been a much better record. I think we were trying to do something that a few of us were interested in, but we were doing it with the wrong band. It didn’t feel genuine to me. It was an interesting exploration, but not with the right band.
Roddy: See, Warnings/Promises is my favorite Idlewild record other than the new one. It was my favorite version of the band other than the new one and I think it’s what we were working toward from the very inception of the band. Because originally the band is inspired mainly by underground US indie rock from the ’80s and early ’90s like Hüsker Dü and Superchunk, but then we started to get away from that and discovered a lot of music from the west coast of America – Buffalo Springfield and Neil Young and The Byrds, all that kind of stuff. It really resonated with us and I feel like Warnings/Promises was a combination of those two influences but put through our own filter. And it was a great experience recording it. We wrote it up in the Highlands and we recorded it in Los Angeles over two months and I’ve got nothing but good memories about the whole thing. And I think lyrically, musically, it’s still interesting to me. I still like some of the words and I love the artwork. It’s the complete package, other than Everything Ever Written, which represents me now.
You obviously don’t agree with that, Rod.
Rod: A lot of what Roddy says I do agree with, but for me it got to a point musically a lot of the time where it was a real struggle. We had maybe too many song ideas and there quite a lot of compromising going on. It became quite an uncomfortable situation.
Roddy: I agree with that, but I think in a good way. Sometimes you do need that. If things are easy artistically, generally speaking they’re not going to be that good. But it was particularly difficult because Gavin [Fox] and Allan had just been brought into the band and they wanted to obviously play a part in the record. And to be honest, I think it was our age – we weren’t skilled enough with our communication skills at that point to fully let them do that.
Rod: And for me towards the end, it just became a little convoluted. I remember when we’d finished the record and were mixing it, I was still not a fan of the way it was. I remember just sitting in New York in a coffee shop after we’d finished mixing it and taking a sigh and being like ‘I’m really glad that’s finished.’ Partly in a proud way, but also partly just from relief.
Roddy: There’s that whole philosophy in art that you can never really finish a work of art – you just abandon it. And Warnings/Promises felt like it was finished to me. I felt like some of the other records had been abandoned, but it really felt quite complete. And it still does.
7. Make Another World
6. Hope Is Important
5. Post-Electric Blues
2. 100 Broken Windows
1. The Remote Part
Mischa Pearlman will be listening to Idlewild for the rest of the week and into the next. He's like, totally NOT on Twitter.