‘Death has occupied my thoughts since I was a child…’

Daniel WylieThe last time Say It With Garage Flowers spoke to Glasgow singer-songwriter, Daniel Wylie, the former frontman of late ’90s / early noughties, Alan McGee-endorsed jangle-poppers, Cosmic Rough Riders, he was going into the studio to record his 2017 album Scenery For Dreamers, which showcased his love of heavy Neil Young and Crazy Horse-like electric guitars and the chiming Rickenbacker sound of The Byrds.

This year, he’s releasing a new record, Atoms and Energy, which is much more stripped-down than its predecessor. Neil Young is still an obvious influence, but it’s the Young of After The Goldrush and Only Love Can Break Your Heart, rather than Cortez The Killer.

“I wanted to make a completely different album from [2015’s] Chrome Cassettes and Scenery For Dreamers. Both of those had a similar approach and vibe to them and I felt it was time for a change,” he says.

“I wanted to write a classic ‘70s acoustic record, lyrically based around what was currently occupying my thoughts, and musically like my favourite ‘70s Neil Young, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Cat Stevens and James Taylor records. That was the plan and I think we pulled it off pretty well.”

Q&A

When and how was Atoms and Energy written and recorded?

Daniel Wylie: I always write my song ideas on an acoustic guitar. I write almost daily, and when it’s time to make an album, I go through hundreds of those ideas and try to choose 10 that have great melodies – some kind of lyrical spark that I can work from and that fit well together as a collection of songs.

Initially, the plan was to go in and record 10 acoustic songs over two days. Just two guitars, one lead vocal and one harmony, with a little bit of percussion, piano and harmonica on a couple of the songs. However, once I got into the studio [La Chunky in Glasgow]  and started recording, my co-producer Johnny Smillie, suggested that some songs deserved a bigger setting, so the record evolved into something else.

Who did you work with on the album?

DW: Neil Sturgeon, Johnny Smillie and Stu Kidd are guest musicians. They are all great writers and artists in their own right and having them on board makes it easy work. They fully understand what I’m looking for and they’re just great players and good people.

Did Covid-19 mess up your plans for the record? How did you cope with lockdown? 

DW: Covid-19 totally messed with recording. However, lockdown turned out to be a blessing and a curse. Basically, I had to stop recording the album. My good pal Neil Sturgeon, had recorded his acoustic guitar parts, Stu Kidd had recorded his percussion parts and I’d recorded the vocals.  Eventually, Johnny Smillie began to work on some arrangements for me, in an attempt to get the record finished, which turned out to be a real blessing. Otherwise, it’s likely the record would still be sitting unfinished.

‘I was really ill for a while, with a dodgy heart. How do you conceive a plan for dying?’

Johnny would go in alone, do some work on arrangements, send them over to me and I’d relay back my likes and dislikes and any changes I wanted made. There’s a spontaneity about being in the studio, like instant ideas get put into action, so some of that is missing.

There’s also the fact that you suddenly have too much time on your hands to over-analyse stuff. There’s a madness to it all. Cabin fever played its part in the final outcome.

The record often feels melancholy, reflective and nostalgic. All the songs are either about relationships or death, aren’t they? Is it a kind of concept album? If you don’t mind me asking, have you had a tough time of it during the past few years?

DW: I almost called the album Relationship Songs. I can’t deny that I’m getting older and I was really ill for a while, with a dodgy heart. How do you conceive a plan for dying? I just thought it was time for reflection on relationships with people, time and events that shaped my life. A little bit of sadness for the things I got wrong along the way, and my thoughts on important people and events that brought me to where I am as a person and as an artist.

‘Alan McGee and Poptones found me the audience that has allowed me to continue to make music’

Dealing with the death of my mum five years ago from cancer, and, career-wise, being in the right place at the right time to get signed by Alan McGee, and also the negative side of that, which is being surrounded by the wrong people.

Another positive was the association with McGee and [his label] Poptones, which found me the audience that has allowed me to continue to make music. It’s really an album about what life has given to you and what it hasn’t.

The first song, The Bruises and the Blood, deals with a dark subject matter – domestic violence. It’s quite a shocking and unnerving start to the album – although, in typical Daniel Wylie style you’ve managed to mix a dark and powerful lyric with a great pop tune and some Beach Boys-style harmonies / vocal arrangements. What can you tell me about that song?

DW: When we were young, my wife and I lived in a flat in Castlemilk housing estate in Glasgow, and our upstairs neighbours were always fighting. It was terrible. He would beat her up and throw her out on the landing, naked. We’d take her in and call the cops on him, but nothing was ever done and at that time, she was scared to leave him, as she had nowhere else to go.

I kind of had that in my head when I was writing the song. On the outside, their relationship looked normal, and that’s what they presented to the world, but behind closed doors, it was an atmosphere of bullying, control and violence against the woman. Thankfully, I know that she escaped the situation and moved on to a better relationship. The melody is at odds with the lyrics, in the same way as their presentation to the world was at odds with what was really going on in their relationship.

What about the song Heaven’s Waiting Room? It deals with childhood friends, moving on and getting older…

DW: That song is referencing how quickly our childhoods pass and how much we cram into those formative, carefree years, and how many of our clearest and fondest memories are attached to those times…before we’re forced to grow up. For those who believe in something after death, Earth is basically heaven’s waiting room. We’re all sitting on this planet waiting and wondering what’s next.

Are you a nostalgic person?

DW: Yes. The older I get, the more I look back, and the more I look back, the more I realise how lucky I’ve been to have lived through so many historical moments, great inventions, avoiding wars on my doorstep, all the great scientific, technical and medical advances, films, art… and especially music. To have walked this planet in the same lifespan as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, R.E.M… How lucky is that?

How old are you? Do you worry about death and old age? Those themes crop up on the album a few times…

DW: I was born on January 2, 1959, so I’m 62. Death has occupied my thoughts since I was a child. It used to scare me, but as I get older, the inevitability of death is something I’ve come to terms with. I’ve noticed how younger generations come through and you no longer have anything much in common with them. Who wants to be here alone when all your friends have gone? There’s a line in my song Value Of Life, from the album, Enjoy The Melodic Sunshine: “while other people sleep, I lie awake and wonder why I’m here.” That was me singing about me worrying about death as a child, in my bed at night.

 

God is Nowhere, from the new album, is a song for atheists everywhere, isn’t it? You’re not a believer then? I love the fuzzy electric guitar sound on it it turns a sweet-sounding song into something more subversive. Was that the idea?

DW: I wrote it when I was angry. The lyric: “I said a begging prayer for your healing, but you still died,” is about my mother’s death. I’m not a believer in organised religion. I was brought up Catholic, but I knew I didn’t believe in all that, so I abandoned it. I do believe in a spiritual existence after death though, so I suppose I’m more of an agnostic rather than a complete atheist.

The song only has two chords. I tried to keep it to one chord, but the temptation to change got the better of me. I had the idea to try and make it sound like those late ‘60s/ early ‘70s Santana records, with Latin percussion and fuzz guitar. Johnny Smillie played the fuzz guitar, using a plectrum given to him by Carlos Santana, after a live show in which he used the plectrum to play with during the gig. How awesome is that?

Our Love Will Never Die is one of the more positive songs on the album, isn’t? It’s beautiful – a simple, honest love song. Did you write it for your wife? It reminds me of vintage Neil Young, circa his After The Goldrush album – it’s very like Only Love Can Break Your Heart. Was that intentional?

DW: I have no problem admitting my wife is the greatest person I’ve ever known and, yes, it was written for her. When I wrote the song, I had to double-check the Neil Young song to make sure I hadn’t ripped him off. When Johnny Smillie heard my home demo, he did the same, but after doing that, he told me it just sounded like me. There was never any intention to write a Neil Young song. I think because I’m such a fan of certain people, their influence will occasionally shine through.

‘I do believe in a spiritual existence after death, so I suppose I’m more of an agnostic, rather than a complete atheist’

In a just world, Our Love Will Never Die would be the soundtrack to lots of wedding first dances, wouldn’t it?

DW: One of my earlier songs, That Was The Day, has proved to be a favourite wedding song for a bunch of couples over the years. Funnily enough, it was also written for my wife. So, yeah, I’d be happy if Our Love Will Never Die became a wedding staple.

In total contrast, Ruth The Truth is a dark and sinister song lyrically, that’s tangled up in a web of lies. Musically, I think it has echoes of early R.E.M. What inspired it?

DW: I have a history of throwing out songs with girls’ names in the title. This is just the latest. It’s a story about how stupid men are when it comes to a beautiful lady – the shallowness of men who think with their dicks and whose brains are in their balls. The album needed a little pop tune, and I chose this song because of its catchy chorus.

‘I’d be happy if Our Love Will Never Die became a wedding staple’

One of my favourite songs on the album is the last one, Saddle Up The Horses. It deals with childhood memories – playing cowboys. What can you tell me about it?

DW: Children are dreamers. I had the cowboy hat, the gun belt, the gun – the children’s cowboy outfit – and as a child, I was a big fan of westerns. Back then, little boys of that age would play cowboys and Indians. I think the song captures that childhood innocence – to the point where you can’t fathom how dangerous a gun is.

Atoms and Energy - Daniel Wylie

Did you have a happy childhood? The pictures on the album artwork are of you as a kid…

DW: I had a pretty happy childhood. My dad took the album sleeve photo when I was around 12 years old. I didn’t realise how poor we were at the time, but you can see the poverty in that photograph.

Despite being poor, my parents did their best to make sure we knew our way around all the local parks and museums. We had an occasional holiday down the Ayrshire coast to Saltcoats or Troon, and, most importantly for me, our home was filled with great music. My parents had amazing taste in music – it was an education in itself.

What are your plans for the rest of the year? Will be you making another album? How about a return to big guitars?

DW: I hope to begin recording again later in the year. I’ve chosen 10 songs for my next album and finished writing them last week. It’ll be a full-band album with hooky choruses, loud guitars and harmonies. It might be called Shane, after one of my all-time favourite cowboy films. I even have the photo for the sleeve picked out.

Have you written many new songs during lockdown?

DW: Honestly, hundreds. I have 12 albums’ worth of really good tunes.I need a big lottery win, so I can afford to record them all. Do you happen to have the winning numbers?

I’m lucky – I can pick up a guitar, strum a few chords and a tune will be there in my head. I don’t know how or why it happens, but I’m not complaining. I genuinely think it’s just a gift I’ve been given, but it’s not to be questioned or analysed. Life and death inspires me, so does other people’s music, and the weather and nature.

You’ve been working with English singer-songwriter Ian M Bailey. Earlier this year, he released a great EP of songs you’d co-written together, called Shots of Sun. Do you have more songs with him coming out? How did you hook up?

DW: Yes – as well as writing a whole bunch of new songs for myself, I’ve co-written 12 songs with Ian. Last year, he sent me a couple of his videos of songs he’d written during the initial lockdown period. I thought they were excellent and told him so.

He suggested we maybe write a song together and I had so many songs half-written that I knew I wasn’t going to be able to use, so I sent him four and he liked them all – a song turned into an EP. Ian added his parts to complete the songs and we were both so pleased with the results that we decided to keep going and do an album.

I send him unfinished songs, sometimes a good chorus with no verse, or a verse and a chorus with no bridge, and sometimes he’ll write the chorus, and he adds his bits and then he records them himself. He’s a producer and one-man band. We’ll likely keep the songwriting thing going.

I’ve also been co-writing with other people. There’s a double A-side single I’ve written with Amanda Louise Thompson for her band The Big Believe. That’s more guitar pop-oriented, like an indie Blondie or something, and will be released before the end of 2021.

What music – new and old – are you enjoying at the moment?

DW: Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams;  Will Stratton – The Changing Wilderness;  Khruangbin & Leon Bridges – Texas Sun EP; Ray LaMontagne – Monovision; Fleet Foxes – Shore; The Milk And Honey Band – Songs From Truleigh Hill; The Chills – Scatterbrain; The Coral – Coral Island, and The Beatles – Esher Demos.

‘I do understand the convenience of streaming. Financially, though, something has to change. People need to eat’

The last time we spoke, you were anti-streaming – you told me you liked vinyl and CDs. Is that still the case?

DW: I love CDs and I love vinyl. I need the artwork with the music. I still don’t have Spotify, but I do understand the convenience of streaming. Financially, though, something has to change. People need to eat and need to be able to focus on creating the great music that the world loves. It costs money to do that.

Atoms And Energy is being released by Last Night From Glasgow records – they got their name from a line in the ABBA song Super Trouper. It’s on various formats. Green, yellow and black vinyl, CD and, eventually, the usual digital outlets.

At the end of this year, you’re reissuing the 2001 Cosmic Rough Riders compilation, Enjoy The Melodic Sunshine, on vinyl. It’s a compilation of material from your first two, self-funded, Cosmic Rough Riders albums, Deliverance and Panorama, plus a few other songs, and it was put out by Alan McGee’s Poptones label. What’s prompted the rerelease? It was a lot of people’s introduction to your music, wasn’t it?

DW: Ian Smith, from Last Night From Glasgow, asked me if I’d be up for reissuing it. I felt the time was right, so I said yes. There’s been a lot of interest in a vinyl reissue, so that’s what’s happening, and I’ve added I Call Her Name, to the end of side one. It’s from the same sessions and I always regretted not putting it on the original album. Enjoy The Melodic Sunshine sold over 100,000 copies when it was first released, but only 1,000 vinyl copies were pressed and they’ve been changing hands for silly money.

How do you feel about those songs now? What’s it like revisiting them?

DW: I had to listen to the master a couple of weeks ago – it’s the first time in years that I’ve heard it from start to finish, uninterrupted.

I really enjoyed listening to it again. It brought back some great memories of recording it with Stephen Fleming. I wrote the songs, but we did everything else as a team. We put everything we had into making sure it was as good as it could be and to my ears, it still sounds great. I’m so proud of it and how it changed my life. So now it’s coming out on some nice coloured vinyl: blue, orange, white, and black.

Do you have any regrets about Cosmic Rough Riders? Do you wish you’d been bigger?

DW: My main regret is using a band name and not just using my own name from the start. That way there would have been no confusion as to whose music it was. But, hey, I did come up with a great name that was worth using.

‘The celebrity thing freaks me out. Sometimes you have to get off the rollercoaster, before it kills you’

If Cosmic Rough Riders had been a bigger band, it would probably have changed my life too – or at least more than I was willing to give or accept. I was already becoming unrecognisable to myself. One time, I came home after a tour and my wife asked me to wash up some dishes. I said to her: “I don’t do dishes”. It sounds funny, but it was an indication that I was losing myself. When you have massive exposure on a show like Top of the Pops, things change. People treat you differently. It’s not like you suddenly have super powers or become a gifted brain surgeon who saves lives, but the celebrity thing freaks me out. Five minutes of it was enough for me. It’s always been about the music for me and I prefer being normal. Sometimes you have to get off the rollercoaster, before it kills you.

Finally, it’s 2021. Do we need a revolution in the summertime?

DW: Hah! People don’t get that song. It was written about a day I spent with some college friends in Glasgow’s Queen’s Park. The weather was super-sunny and the army had set up some kind of recruiting show in the park. I was thinking: ‘join the army? Or sit in the park, in the sunshine, with some beer, and watch our beautiful Scottish girls’. Stuff that for a revolution!

Atoms and Energy by Daniel Wylie’s Cosmic Rough Riders is available to pre-order on vinyl and CD from Last Night From Glasgow here. The physical albums will be officially released on July 2, but pre-orders will ship this month.

You can pre-order the reisssue of Enjoy The Melodic Sunshine on vinyl here.