01 May 2009

Kings Of Indie

Written by Published in Music Interviews

When I first met King Creosote, aka Kenny Anderson, in 2003, his catalogue already stretched to 29 albums. Nevertheless, the King was particularly pleased about the release of his 30th, Kenny & Beth’s Musakal Boat Rides, released on Domino Records. ‘It’s my debut as a real CD,’ he beamed across his pint as he readied himself for the evening’s gig at Cecil Sharpe House, London’s folk music temple. This real CD contained an idiosyncratic and gripping mélange of accordion, toy instruments, guitar, dreamy vocals, unusual wit and Funkadelic samples. Impressed not only by his music but also by the King’s refreshingly unpretentious musings, I visited his website and discovered The Fence Collective. I immediately subscribed to the house magazine, The Fencezine, and ordered a pile of CDRs. The offer was irresistible. From perhaps a dozen new albums you could choose a handful, and it cost no more than one and a half full-price albums at the nearest glitzy lifestyle emporium.

And it wasn’t just King Creosote’s albums. Five years after its inception, news of Kenny Anderson’s homespun recordlabel had spread. More and more of his friends, and then the friends’ friends, had begged to be allowed into the club:bands like The Supergun, Go Rimbaud(whose album was called Songs inBad Taste), HMS Ginafore (The RacketThey Made), The Pictish Trail and PopDylan. Not to mention the beautifully chaotic compilations that regularly arrived with The Fencezine. Allthese CDRs came in the same ‘corporate’ cardboard sleeve, with band names and song titles stuck on the back with Sellotape. One exceptional gem is the King Creosote album Psalm Clerk, which hasa homemade cardboard cover with an elaborate 3D effect that must have taken hours to design and glue together.


Kenny Anderson isn’t the moaning and complaining type. Instead of wallowing in frustration, he prefers to act. At university he spent every free minute fiddling around with a ramshackle array of instruments and antique recording equipment, all he could afford. His first proper band, The Skuobhie Dubh Orchestra, (featuring a certain K. T. Tunstall) played folk and bluegrass – not a commercially promising move, considering that the rest of the world was gorging itself on grunge and techno. Despite recording a couple of charming records, The Dubhs and their backwoods sound remained a well kept secret and, in 1995, they split up. Anderson ‘retired’, he says, to Anstruther, a fishing village straight out of the tourist brochure on the East coast of Scotland. ‘I thought to myself, if no one’s interested in this music except me, then I might as well make the records myself that I’m not hearing or that I’m not able to afford to buy.’


After months of saving every penny, he bought a digital EIGHT-trackrecording desk. After another few months’ saving he added a DATplayer, and at last a CDR-player with a CD-burning facility. He began to sell the resulting CDRs in batches of five at the local record shop, where he also found employment. Every CD carried a stamp with the Fence logo. ‘I love the word “fence”,’ says Anderson. ‘It denotes a boundary, it has connotations of smuggling, of stolen goods and dodgy things. It’s both a border and the challenge to cross it.’ Soon Kenny’s two brothers Ian (aka Pip Dylan) and Gordon (aka early Beta Band member Lone Pigeon, now with The Aliens), too, began to avail themselves of Kenny’s simple infrastructure. ‘After a Lone Pigeon single had made a bit of a splash in the UK, the telephone began to ring more and more often.


The resulting conversations all went the same way. “Is Fence a real record label?” the caller would want to know. “No, not at all,” I would reply. “Excellent. We’ve made an album, can you put it out?” “Do it yourselves, there’s nothing to it, all you have to do is burn it!” “Yes, but we’d like it to say ‘Fence’ on the cover.” That’s how the conversation would go. People gravitated to Fence because they didn’t want record deals. They didn’t want any of the stuff that goes along with that. Also, they didn’t want to be famous or even known – that’s why many have these ridiculous pseudonyms.’


Five years after my first encounter with Kenny Anderson, King Creosote has released an album on Domino Records, Flicking the Vs. This time, the circumstances are very different. K. T. Tunstall has turned into a bona fide star, often mentioning the musical greenhouse of Anstruther in her interviews. Folkish singer/ songwriter James Yorkston, too, has built a strong reputation. It was thanks to Yorkston that King Creosote became friends with Domino, perhaps the most interesting as well as successful of the presentday indie labels. Yorkston and Anderson knew each other from their schooldays. After a dreadlocks-and-piercing phase, Yorkston, too, drifted towards folk and the Fence Collective (although he still sent demo tapes to conventional companies). When Domino offered him a contract, he introduced the label’s founder, Laurence Bell, to Kenny Anderson. ‘Laurence saw that we had a real collective,’ Anderson remembers. ‘He realised there was a real danger of bigger labels poaching our best. He said, “You have a really good thing here. There’s a real power to your collective. How are you going to prevent it falling apart?” I replied, “I don’t know. Everyone’s free to come and go wherever they want. I haven’t signed anybody. They’re here because they want to be here.”’ As a result of the conversation, Bell came up with a plan whereby Domino would help Fence establish itself and deal with the bureaucratic side of music publishing. Also, every once in a while, Domino would give a King Creosote album a real CD release.


In fact, for his previous two albums King Creosote even managed to straddle the divide between the ultimate indie, Fence, and the very corporate Warner Brothers, via their pseudo-indie label 679Records. The first album released under that banner, the gorgeous KCRules, was recorded with Country &Western electronica group The Earlies;the similarly wonderful second,Bombshell, with London producer Jon Hopkins. Both albums proved that Anderson’s songs are more than goodenough for their charms to survive,even under the glare of a state-of-theartproduction. However, the detourto the major label caused a certainfraction of Fence fans to throw up their arms in horror: ‘People were incensed,’ confides Anderson. “’How can you, the King of indie, betray uslike this?” they asked. But I hadn’tchanged! I still released CDRs. I stillrecorded an album, They Flock LikeVulcans to See Old Jupiter Eyes on his Home Craters, with HMS Ginafore,and I still went on tour. All I wanted to do was to find out what it was like to work in a proper studio and have a nice budget to work with!’


Until now, the downloading culture has not damaged the Fenceidyll. However, Anderson isacutely aware of the dangers. ‘Wehurt knowing that somebody has copied our music,’ he admits.‘But because Fence is still sucha small concern and everybodyknows everybody, it’s reallyfrowned upon, and there’s amoral obligation not do it withFence Records. But that onlyworks within the pack. We can’treally do anything to preventsomeone else doing it. He’d behaving a hard time, though,if he thought of coming to aHomegame and bragging aboutit.’ Homegame is another fineFence invention. Five years ago it took place for the first time: an assemblage of Fence groups performing in a mini-Fence festival infront of 60 people in an Anstruther pub. The latest Homegame tookplace last April, attracting 800 fans. A couple of camping sites hadto be opened up specially. The Fence Collective is doing everythingit can to make a purchase of their wares more attractive than a freedownload. Much care goes into producing unusual artwork and special box sets. Another loyalty-building exercise is giving away a special edition seven-inch single with each ticket for the regular Fence Club in Edinburgh. Some Fence CDRs have become collectors’ items, attracting high bids on e-bay. ‘It’s getting to the point that people are desperate to find old out-of-stock King Creosote CDRs,’ explains Anderson. ‘Now there is pressure on to maybe make another run of these CDs. But we’re trying to encourage people to buy the things that are around now. We need to sell our current batch of artists. We need to sell the things we’ve spent money on now, not things that didn’t cost us that much back then and we struggled for years anyway to sell! We had Sampler 3 kicking around for months, and we couldn’t give it away. Now it’s on e-bay! We’re fighting it tooth and nail, every step of the way.’


Anderson recently upped sticks and moved one village farther up thecoast, but Fence is still very much atwo-man operation, with Kenny and Johnny Lynch (aka Fence recording artist Pictish Trail) running the office.As luck would have it, the latest Pictish Trail album started causinga few ripples in the USA, necessitating a one-month tour just as Homegame, as well as the release of the King Creosote album,was approaching. ‘I’m not writing as many songs now as I used to,’ Anderson says. ‘I don’t have the time. The irony of the band getting busier and doing bigger tours is that I spend all my time on budgeting and accounting. So now I’ve got to condense it better. I’ve got to store ideas up. For example, a lot of this new album came outof driving up and down the M6 last summer without a radio or a CDplayer. I had time to think about new songs and store them up in my mind. When I do get time to record, it’s like a holiday for me. I’vegot to book time out to do it, pretty much. The period when I did most recordings was when the record shop went under and I foundmyself completely out of work. I was doing two or three songs a dayand recording them and mixing them down. In that way, recordingan album every two weeks isn’t really working hard. Music has always been my hobby, and now it’s my job. I love recording songs. I love hearing them when they’re finished. I love slotting them intoan album, and I love putting the artwork on it. Those are the thingsI’m born to do.’

King Creosote, Flick the Vs is released on Domino records



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