Interview: The Proclaimers have miles still to walk

The Proclaimers. Picture: Neil Hanna
The Proclaimers. Picture: Neil Hanna
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The hardest working identical twins in rock are celebrating 25 years with a Very Best of release of 30 tracks. But Proclaimers Craig and Charlie Reid have plenty more to give

Charlie Reid is in disguise. He arrives at the band’s rehearsal studio in Haymarket sans specs. I’m chatting to the roadies and Stevie Christie, the Proclaimers’ keyboard player, when he appears and I’m aware a tall, sandy-haired guy has come in, but until he says ‘Hi, I’m Charlie’ I would have walked past him in the street. Something Charlie wouldn’t mind at all.

“Yeah, I usually wear contact lenses during the day. You get fewer people stopping to ask you about the football,” he says. “For promotion I stick the glasses on. It’s only fair.”

Craig arrives next, glasses in situ, recognisably a Proclaimer, and the world zooms back into focus. For the photographer, both don their facewear, as they do on stage, but during our interview Charlie doesn’t have his specs on and telling the identical twins apart is a doddle.

The band are just back from playing Glastonbury, and in the rehearsal studio to warm up for T in the Park, which they were due to open yesterday, kicking off the main stage programme.

“Aw yeah, it’s our favourite big gig,” says Charlie. “It’s fantastic, but it’ll be strange because we’re usually on half way through Saturday. This time it’s the opener, on the main stage at five.”

“At least the dressing rooms will be clean,” says Craig with a laugh.

T in the Park is certainly different to Glastonbury, where the boys played the acoustic tent for the first time. How was it? Did they hang out with the Stones?

“Nah. It was good – but we had to get out of there before the Stones played because we had another gig to get to,” says Charlie.

This is typical of the Proclaimers, exhibiting a work ethic that sees them hit the road again immediately rather than hang about being rockstarry, but they did watch Mick and the band later on the TV.

At this point the brothers have one of those back and forward exchanges that characterise relationships where both parties are completely at ease in each other’s company.

Craig: “I thought the Stones were quite good…”

Charlie: “I felt sadness because they were technically good…”

Craig: “I didn’t feel that…”

Charlie: “I thought it was good, but I feel something goes away after a long time and for them it went a long time ago…”

Craig: “I thought it was good that they get to an age and play like the people that inspired them, those elderly black blues players…”

Don’t these discussions ever descend into rancour, don’t they ever fight? “Not really,” says Charlie. “We always shared a room when we were young, were in the same class, had the same pals, shared a flat till we got married.”

What about musical differences? Have they ever felt like splitting up because one feels the need to take the guitar for a 20-minute solo meander, or because the other insists on a lyric that doesn’t ring true? No drug-fuelled egotism, no Jagger/Richards hissy fit spats?

“Nah. The only discussion is maybe about running order. If one of us doesn’t want to do something musically, we don’t do it. We sort it out,” says Craig.

Charlie is the elder twin by 30 minutes (respect to Mrs Reid – what must that half hour have been like?)

“Well, she’s never complained about it,” says Craig, down to earth, which obviously runs in the family. “She was a nurse, so …” Their mother is still alive, though their father died a few years back.

It was Mrs Reid who is responsible for a perhaps surprising interlude in the twins’ quintessentially Scottish Leith/Auchtermuchty upbringing, when a family holiday to Cornwall saw them leave their native land.

“We went there for a holiday when we were about eight, and our parents liked it so much, we went and lived there for two and a half years.

“Our mother got a job nursing there, and our dad was a joiner so he got work too. But our parents missed Scotland so we came back.”

Maybe it was these years “abroad” and the Labour-voting tendencies of their parents that keep the Proclaimers’ politics free from any tub-thumping nationalism despite their long-held desire for independence.

“For me and Charlie it’s not about patriotism or nationalism,” says Craig. “I’m not into flag waving and it’s not about identity. It’s about where the power lies and who wields it, and we believe independence would give a more equitable society.”

His brother takes up the thread, dismissing what they regard as the “just embarrassing” No campaign tactics.

“We have always been for Scottish independence,” says Charlie. “People seem to be very confident it is not going to happen but I think the last six months will be crucial. It’s going to be a lot closer than people think.

“For us, independence was never anything to do with the price of oil. It’s natural to want to run as much of your own affairs as you can. I look at countries like Denmark and Norway, small countries, much of them uninhabitable, which saw mass emigration too, but which are better able to fulfil the needs of their citizenry than us. It’s not how many millions you’ve got, but the gap between rich and poor in your society. It’s the level of helplessness that people feel that’s indicative, and we seem to have a high level of that in the UK at the moment.”

Helpless is not something you could accuse the twins of being. Their workmanlike approach to touring and recording – they have nine studio albums – is mirrored by their attitude to their health. Now 51, there are no burgeoning paunches, shaky nicotine-stained fingers or gizzardy throats in evidence.

“We train hard,” says Craig. “We do exercises in the gym and running, walking, swimming. Cardiovascular fitness is very important.”

“It’s because of the way we perform,” continues Charlie. “Singing for an hour and a half, for nights in a row, it’s quite full on. The last couple of years I’m a wee bit more tired after gigs. But you do four or five and are tired, then after ten or 12 you’re really into the groove. We want to be able to do this for a number of years yet – we’re not qualified to do anything else!”

The pair never seem to stop performing – in theatres, clubs, arenas the world over and on the big and small screen. They’ve been on Emmerdale, and their songs have featured in Shrek, The Simpsons and Family Guy. For last year’s album Like Comedy, massive fan Matt Lucas made his director’s debut on the video for the single Spinning Around in the Air, persuading the twins to embark on a career first, dragged up as elderly ladies. (“I woke up in a sweat at three in the morning the night before that,” says Craig.) If there’s a secret to all this success it lies perhaps in their ability to mix anthemic sing-alongs and oh so personal soul barers, to write autobiographical, observational songs that also have a universal and unifying quality, that have us bellowing them out on the football terraces, or wailing euphorically about our sorrow at last orders in the Port O’ Leith bar.

“It’s great if you write something people want to sing along to and to hear it being sung,” says Craig. “They become everyone else’s songs, not yours. You give them up.”

As for lyrics, Craig who writes the majority of them says: “The best songs are the simplest – Johnny Cash, Steve Earle.”

Simple sentiments perhaps, but big themes, like life and death, and things way more important than that as Bill Shankly once averred, like football, and what the Proclaimers regard as their best song, Sunshine on Leith, the song of the Hibs faithful and many who’ve never even heard of Easter Road.

“I’d say that is the one that communicates most with people, the one they identify with,” says Craig. It’s also a dead cert for their new album, The Very Best of The Proclaimers (25 years 1987 to 2012), a retrospective of 30 tracks picked by Craig and Charlie and out this month.

Surely we’ve all got all of their best tracks already, I venture, but the boys point out they’ve made five studio albums since the last Best Of so there’s a lot of material out there to choose from.

“We don’t have delusions that we’re going to sell lots of records but it’s good to put something like this together after a quarter century,” says Craig. “The last dozen years have been our most productive and we’ve done a lot since Sunshine on Leith. We thought it was time for an overview, a proper retrospective.”

Then there are those whose record collections have gone the way of their relationships, Sunshine on Leith and This is the Story lost in the great album divides when couples split up.

“Yes,” laughs Charlie, twice divorced and on his third marriage. “We should sell our records at Ikea because that’s where the divorced guys go to get their new furniture.”

Craig explains a new track, Not Cynical, that embodies their spirit of perseverance. “It’s about people our age or a bit older who have experienced plenty of knocks but don’t allow that to embitter them.”

Charlie joins in: “I’m as mystified as Craig by happy go lucky people, but we are not miserabilists. Watching what goes on with the human race, how politicians never learn from history, it’s hard to be cheerful all the time. When you see the terrible misfortune some people are given, it’s hard to believe there’s a just god.”

Craig continues: “You hear the same old lies and cheating going on in politics. That was the thing about Thatcher dying. She won. We’d just landed at Newark Airport for a show and were waiting to go through immigration and could see the screens with her face on. I resisted the temptation to punch the air, and I’m glad I did, but she won. I’m very glad I lived to see her demise but in the end there was nothing to celebrate.”

The Thatcher years left their mark on the Reid brothers and when they speak now of their drive and success, they hark back to their days in the early 1980s on the dole in Edinburgh.

“We know what it’s like not to have money and be at the mercy of other people,” says Craig. “I remember spending a whole day with Charlie at the DSS, queuing for housing benefit, crowded in like cattle and you had no say, no economic power. The fear of going back to that has helped gee us along whenever we’ve needed it.”

Nowadays they don’t have to worry about money. Exactly how much have they made?

“Enough to get by,” says Craig. “Enough not to worry about it, which a lot of people don’t have.”

His brother laughs and says, “After two divorces you never have that.”

If they’ve mellowed somewhat on Thatcher, what about football? Back in the day the Reids were figureheads of the Hands off Hibs campaign to repel a bid to merge the club with arch rivals Hearts.

Charlie declared he’d never go to Tynecastle, but these days if his team is playing there he has no problem. “I didn’t go to Tynecastle for years but that’s all over now. Hibs and Hearts quite clearly need each other. And it’s a tragedy that’s now unfolding. It’s not going to do anybody any good, Hearts or the league. Scottish football is often so bad that the only thing that gives it a frisson is local rivalry. I hope Hearts don’t go under.”

Just out of interest, since they’ve been singing about it for so many years, what’s the furthest they’ve ever walked? “About 16 miles,” says Charlie, deadpan. “For charity.”

The pair have been putting their walking skills to the test in the film of the musical inspired by their songs, Sunshine on Leith, now turned into a film directed by Dexter Fletcher. Starring Jane Horrocks and Peter Mullen it opens on 4 October and sees the pair with a walk-on part, leaving Nobles bar in Leith and crossing the road. “We’d never have asked to be in it but Dexter Fletcher asked us,” says Charlie. “With people like Peter Mullen and Jane Horrocks, it’s going to be good.”

As for the future, Charlie and Craig intend to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

“We just want to keep going and get better at what we do, write the killer song. The next album is always the best, the next song… the next season for Hibs [wry laughter]. So you keep going.”

They’d better keep going – with only 16 miles walked, by my reckoning that leaves another 484 to go.

The Very Best of The Proclaimers (25 Years 1987 to 2012) (EMI); Sunshine on Leith is released on 4 October.