Interview: Jamie Sutherland on the new Broken Records album, What We Know

In December 2016, Edinburgh's Broken Records marked their tenth birthday as a band by returning to the scene of their first gig, Bannerman's bar on the city's Cowgate, not to play one of their classic early albums as seems to be the way nowadays, but to celebrate modestly and musically in the company of friends and family. According to frontman Jamie Sutherland, Broken Records don't have a classic early album anyway. 'Nobody makes their best records at the first or second shot,' he says. 'With the first album [2009's Until The Earth Begins to Part] we tried to knock it out the park straight away and be world beaters and, to a certain extent, people either bought into that or it really grated with them.'

Broken Records, with Jamie Sutherland, centre PIC: Solen Collet
Broken Records, with Jamie Sutherland, centre PIC: Solen Collet

For a time, Broken Records were (deservedly) touted as Scotland’s Arcade Fire. With their ambitious widescreen sound and a big band line-up making liberal use of strings and brass, they were the romantic, anthemic flipside of their west coast peers Frightened Rabbit’s self-flagellating indie folk.

Despite a deal with prestigious independent label 4AD, they failed to score commercial success to match the scale of their music and album number three, Weights and Pulleys, came out on their own J Sharp Records in 2014, after which there was a band hiatus for, to put it bluntly, baby-making.

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Between them, the members of Broken Records now have eight children. It is often at this point, when family responsibilities start to bite, that any musician not already making a healthy regular wage would be tempted to jack it in and get a proper job. Wisely, Broken Records never gave up those proper jobs in the first place.

“It’s not very sexy but we just try and look at it as realistically as possible – how do we keep it going, how do we make the best music we can make, how do we manage everyone’s responsibilities?” says Sutherland. “Ideas of any bigger success start to become superfluous because the success itself is just the fact that we still get to do it and enjoy each other’s company.”

Their big, bold new album What We Might Know addresses the emotional concerns of the thirtysomething. The intensity of the angsty young man has given way to the joys and challenges of watching children grow up and parents grow older. The accompanying blurb talks of “the howl of frustation at how and what you’re supposed to be in your 30s” but Sutherland says, “we tried to make something that felt a bit more natural and, heaven forbid, a bit more fun. We wanted to make a summer record that if you were in a car on a road trip anywhere you would turn it up and it would fit.

“Now when people want to go big, they throw in a ‘wo-oh’ chorus. I don’t want to do any of that stuff. I like the big gesture, I like the primary colours, that’s what I do as a songwriter. So if you’re into subtle electronica, we’re probably not the band for you.”

However, Sutherland can do you subtle electronica, or pounding post-rock, or intimate Americana in his capacity as music programmer at Summerhall, where he runs the regular gig night Nothing Ever Happens Here. Its wry name comes from a music doc on the American hardcore scene of the early 1980s, specifically from a piece of graffiti scrawled on a venue toilet wall.

“It sounded like a club night where Black Flag would turn up and play, and also it was a bit cheeky about people’s perceptions of what Edinburgh is about. Cos it’s not true.”

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Sutherland’s personal booking highlights include Nick Cave associates the Dirty Three and towering Texan trio Lift to Experience, who played a rare Scottish show during last year’s Fringe. But Summerhall is also a favoured venue for local bands’ album launch shows – including Broken Records’ own at the end of April.

“We’re trying to change the culture of going out in Edinburgh to watch live music,” says Sutherland. “The big bugbear for me is people complaining about the price of tickets. Edinburgh’s got a funny relationship with the perceived low arts and high arts. People are prepared to spend stupid money on the high arts because they feel intellectually validated by it, but tend to be sniffier about the low arts.”

As yet another Edinburgh venue, Leith Depot, shuts down to make way for the ubiquitous student housing, Summerhall continues to buck the trend for venue closures in the city and, thanks to its arcane sprawl, has also avoided the noise complaints which have been thoughtfully countered by the Music is Audible campaign group, comprising representatives from across Edinburgh’s music community.

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“No one in Edinburgh should feel like they are living in a mausoleum,” says Sutherland. “The city feels like it’s a thriving international capital city, and the music element has to represent that. We want to live in a vibrant multi-cultural society where people can express themselves in any way they can, and the council and the city should be behind that 100 per cent, not just in August when they can make money out of it.

“Edinburgh has so many positives,” he continues. “I find it an inspiring place because it’s so beautiful. Whereas we want to shoot off to Prague or Vienna, most of mainland Europe comes to Edinburgh to see world-class architecture and heritage. It’s a privilege to live here.”

Broken Records’ confidence in their environment comes across in What We Might Know, recalling in its passion another great Edinburgh band, The Waterboys, who remain fiercely traditional yet transcendent in their musical approach.

“I always like the idea of the craft of songwriting,” says Sutherland. “People are always so obsessed with the new and trying to subvert traditional songwriting, whereas I love traditional songwriting. No one is suggesting we’re the sound of young Britain today, what we’re trying to do is make a timeless record. We’re still chasing something and we don’t know what that is.”

What We Know is released on 30 March on J Sharp Records. Broken Records play Summerhall, Edinburgh on 26 April