“Everything’s all a bit nice in a very insipid, not-nice way,” says Sam Smith with a sigh, surveying the metaphorical wasteland of popular culture at his feet.
“Watching Glastonbury, I found a lot of it was just enormously dull. I remember as a kid growing up a lot of the things I liked always had that bite to them, like Gang of Four or Ian Dury. He was a big influence, because he was very funny, but also very on the point with a lot of things he would say.”
Casual Sex are an old-fashioned kind of band. It’s mildly depressing to note, but even with the more intelligent and aesthetically focused of bands a writer might interview, it’s increasingly rare that their lyrical content will be one of the first things you find yourself excited to discuss. Most specialise in either rudimentary make-do rhyming poetry or oblique sloganeering that seems designed to complement the music rather than drive it forward.
So it’s a pleasure to have Smith, singer and songwriter with one of the most exciting bands in Glasgow right now, here to explain his own songs to us.
What’s National Unity about, first of all? The mind is drawn back to a fiery gig they played in the basement of Glasgow’s Nice ‘n’ Sleazy back in April, where he rushed in a disclaimer that “it’s not a right-wing song”. “I’m not getting into the Scottish debate,” he says, “but I always have a big problem with English nationalism. It seems to have a very ugly side which people try to mask as just being proud to be English, but it’s inevitably divisive. The song’s about all these people who say we shout pull together, who are the ones sticking the knife into things.”
What’s Your Daughter For? was another song he felt compelled to stick up for that night, admitting it was “sexistly titled” but urging us to focus on the more universal sentiment within. It is, he says, about an ex-girlfriend who was “actually an alright person but a real nightmare to go out with. I wanted to ask her parents, what have you created? What is this?”
What about We’re All Here Mainly For the Sex? “That’s just a direct observation,” he laughs. “I used to call it the eternal sausage party, the place you go to find the thing you’ll never get. It’s about being male and not being good at pulling.”
By now you should be getting a flavour of this. Casual Sex (a quartet also featuring guitarist Edward ‘Ed’ Wood, bassist Peter Masson and drummer Chris McCrory) create a sleazy, irresistible sound which fuses the post-punk of Gang of Four, Magazine and early Factory records with a hint of Bowie (see Stroh 80, their effervescent debut on Moshi Moshi, sometime home to Bloc Party, Hot Chip and Kate Nash) and the brusque lyrical precision of Dury or Jarvis Cocker.
Born on Orkney to teacher parents and raised from the age of seven in a small Sussex commuting town, the 36-year-old Smith went to art school in Brighton and came north to Glasgow nearly a decade ago with his girlfriend, who was moving up to become a doctor.
“I was at a loose end, I thought why not?” he recalls. “We’d been going out for three years, I thought I’d give it a go and I liked it.” A musician in school bands who made music on his own at home, he sent three demos to Glasgow label Chemikal Underground when he arrived: the one they liked was by “made-up band” Mother and the Addicts, who swiftly became a real band, releasing two albums on Chemikal before disbanding in 2007.
Since then Smith has been a co-director of renowned Glasgow analogue recording studio Green Door, which has given Casual Sex plenty of opportunity to hone their sound. “The idea was to have quite an efficient sort of music, to cut out the fat and be direct. Not all sweetness and light. I certainly was borrowing from the template of my personal tastes like the Pop Group and Public Image Limited, but also dub, where the central elements are the rhythms. I play my guitar more like a soul player, minimal and kind of punctuating.”
They already have interesting offers from the US and France, he says, and 11 or 12 songs recorded for an album, but the intention now with older heads on (“Mother and the Addicts’ measure of success was how rock we got”) is to build a following and not to leap headlong into things. By way of keeping momentum going, a new EP is due shortly on Moshi Moshi, and it leads on possibly their most encapsulating track, The Bastard Beat.
“In the current situation I think everyone, left or right, has been made to be scared of politics,” says Smith of the song’s political edge, and his response pretty much sums up the reason for this band’s existence. “I think people should start saying something, I think what’s happening is quite frightening. Music is a political thing and art is a political thing, you’re engaging with the public and I think it’s very important to do it on that level. A lot of bands you see now are little more than entertainment. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s a level of insipidness now that I find quite revolting.
“It makes me feel like, what is the f***ing point in this? What’s the point in getting up when you’re not somebody from the Sylvia Young academy that’s doing it off their own back and saying, ‘what I think is…’ Part of the reason for going into singing is to have a voice, not just to extend your adolescence so you’re cocaine-addled and drunk into your forties. Drunk rock ‘n’ roll. I think that’s a rather negative thing.”
Far better with sober Casual Sex any day. • Casual Sex play the Brunswick Stage at the Merchant City Festival, Glasgow, 26 July; Wickerman Festival, East Kirkcarswell, near Dumfries, 27 July; Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival, by Beauly, Inverness-shire, 3 August. facebook.com/casualsexmusic