Art pop provocateurs, The Grand Gestures have been delighting and bewildering listeners for the past eighteen years and now they release their new introduction album Low Lights which includes new edits plus the tracks taken from their past five albums which they feel best represent them.

Led by Jan Burnett, the Scottish subversives are more of a collective than a band, with a long list of contributors which include RM Hubbert, Celie Byrne, Emma Pollock (The Delagados), Bdy_Prts (Sparrow and The Workshop), Grahame Skinner (Hipsway) plus more.

Poet and comedian, Phill Jupitus’ career has long been intertwined with music, having been a radio DJ, a team captain on hilarious BBC pop quiz Never Mind The Buzzcocks, and even fronting The Blockheads after the demise of Ian Dury.

Jupitus is a fan of The Grand Gestures and contributes his surrealist spoken word track ‘The Sailor Of Bari’, which is the first of sixteen tracks that really show off their willingness to experiment, tapping into trip hop and foreboding minimalist electronica, often with sinister overtones and a sense of claustrophobia – yet somehow beautiful because of it.

If you are looking to get into The Grand Gestures, or even if you’re a diehard fan, Low Lights is an essential record. FMS spoke to Phill Jupitus and Jan Burnett about the new introduction album, how they went about creating such idiosyncratic tracks and a bit of post-election politics.

Why release this introduction now and just what is the difference between ‘an introduction’ and a ‘best of’?

Jan: “I suppose there wouldn’t be an introduction without a catalogue to introduce. The debut album was the start of a plan to do three regular albums, then a Christmas album and a Remix album. I then killed The Grand Gestures off. The opportunity to do a track with Phill (Jupitus) came along, I was chuffed to find out he was a fan, and so his track is the new track on this full CDs worth of music as an introduction to the catalogue.  I didn’t want to describe it as a ‘best of’, as there are no doubt people’s favourites that aren’t on this release.” 

Phill; when did you first hear of The Grand Gestures?

“Celie Byrne told me about them when I first met her. They just came up in conversation.”

What is your favourite track by them?

Phill: “That is kind of mood dependent to be honest. I love Sanjeev’s Chris De Burgh cut and of course Celie’s ‘Living By The Seaside’ because I do. I like the fact that they take a source piece and give it its own identity and sound. I can’t think of another group who do what The Grand Gestures do.”

How would you describe the work and importance of The Grand Gestures?

Phill: “I like the idea that Jan tracks down cultural figures to work with the band. It makes it less of a gang and more like an art co-operative.”

Jan; how do you go about recruiting the other collaborators?

“For the folk I didn’t already know I approached most via social media, particularly Facebook.  Messenger is my friend. There were also a few artists who approached me and asked if they could do a track. Surprisingly straightforward.”

How do you work out the logistics of getting together to write and record the music or do you allow a lot of creative freedom to express themselves however they like?

Jan: “I do all the music at home, give the track to the collaborator, they work out their melody and lyrics. Most came to my house, I record their vocal in my small bathroom, and then serve up a curry. I’ll later chop away, edit and mix. We go 50/50 with the writing credit. It gets more fiddly, logistics wise, to do it live, which is why there have only been four or five live outings, though I’d love to do more.”

Where did inspiration for ‘The Sailor Of Bari’ come from?

Phill: “It’s based on a true story of me being in a bookshop called Lovejoys at the corner of Charing Cross Road and Old Compton Street in London. It was a shop that had remaindered cheap stock books on the ground floor, but sold porn in the basement. I was in there one day and there was a very striking Somali lad behind the counter. I just found myself wondering how he got there. What his story was. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. To such an extent that an hour later I decided to go back to the shop and ask him. But when I went back, he’d gone. I made another couple of visits, but I never saw him again. So, I made his story up. His name. Where he came from. All of it.”

Apart from Kate Tempest, Sleaford Mods and Patrick Jones, there seems to be relatively few poets or spoken word records that are making real waves on the alternative airwaves – never mind the mainstream. Why do you think this is, and do you think that hip hop has perhaps redirected the youth since the ‘80s?

Phill: “How many spoken word artists were recording in the ‘70s or ‘80s? I think it’s always been a niche form. There are a bunch of people doing some good work. Collectives like Bang Said The Gun and Tongue Fu. The scene is quite vibrant to me. There are still poets working who I was gigging with in the ‘80s as well as a wealth of new ones. The slam scene pushed new writers forward. The Foyle Young Poet awards always feature some absolutely extraordinary work by young writers. Clarkey’s [John Cooper Clarke] still gigging. LBK [Linton Kwesi Johnson] is still gigging. I still perform regularly. I think poetry to a mainstream audience is a bit too much like homework. I get more people coming up about my poetry than the stand up. I think it’s an art form for language fans.”

Do you think the era of social media is eroding language in favour of the image or is it enabling cultures to collide and mutating the written word into something exciting and new?

Phill: “Eroding is a strong word. Global communication and the internet are forcing an accelerated evolution. I think the ubiquity of the internet means that you have to have a much more refined filter to locate what you like. And more time. And the desire. I think it’s a great communication and distribution tool. But that profligacy comes at a cost, which is the erosion of manners. The fact that fucking numbskulls can say anything has impacted social discourse, journalism, society. It’s a hideously level playing field but nobody seems to care about how low that level is. People exist in bubbles of approval. The amount of emotional oversharing online is worrying, but that is evolution. I’ve had my time. Deleted Facebook and Twitter last year and am actively trying to be a bit more old fashioned. (I don’t say old school because I’m not an early ‘90s American rapper.) I am fully aware of the irony of emailing these answers to you.”

Are there any of tracks featured on Low Lights that you feel really define The Grand Gestures?

Jan: “They are all my children, but I do have an extra soft spot for ‘There’s No Place Like Home’ with Jill O’Sullivan. Probably because it was one of the first tracks I did as The Grand Gestures with someone I didn’t know, personally, at the time. There is an element of wanting to get out of my comfort zone and work with people I don’t know, and this is a great example of that. My Dad also plays a mean guitar part on that track too.

“Something else that came out of the project was the additional collaborations I didn’t expect, such as film making. A brilliant film was made for ‘There’s No Place Like Home’ by Calamity Horse, and was actually made in secret. I didn’t know anything about it until it landed.”

Which albums are you are particularly proud of?

Jan: “Again, they are all my babies. Happy Holidays worked out very much as planned. The darkest bleakest seasonal album you are likely to hear. A few of those tracks from that appear on Low Lights. I’d like to release Happy Holidays on vinyl one year, I reckon it would suit that format.” 

Phill; what was it like singing with The Blockheads on their 30th anniversary?

“Mad. Real fun. Like the most high-end karaoke you can find. I only did it because the lads asked. They stopped asking.”

Phill; you were involved with Red Wedge in the ‘80s. Can you see parallels between that and Momentum today? What do you make of Corbyn’s electoral bid and the current political landscape?

“It’s a mess. And it will get worse. I try to avoid politics onstage these days as my response goes to rage. But it always creeps in. I thought Corbyn was alright. Man’s a politician. What did they want? A messiah? Labour’s policies were solid. All that whining about paying more tax. If I get to keep my health service, that’s fine. Pay your way. But much more powerful people with newspapers and tv stations and radio stations and swarms of dribbling yes men and women decided otherwise. It’s not much fun to watch a country you love going at itself like a self-harming teen listening to My Chemical Romance.

Low Lights, is out digitally now, and on CD via Chute Records on 14 February. Pre-order HERE.

Photo: Graeme Ogston

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