THEY’VE lately been their own tribute act but Big Country are back big time, with a new album, new members... and the classic sound. Bruce Watson tells Aidan Smith about starting over without frontman Stuart Adamson
BRUCE WATSON of Big Country lives in a perjink row of houses not far from Dunfermline’s football stadium, but I’m assuming he hasn’t always based himself in the town – that at the height of the band’s fame he perhaps retreated to some kind of “rockbroker belt”, because that’s what musicians do. Silly question – even sillier, in fact, than asking such a determinedly guitar band as Big Country if they’d ever considered making a disco album.
“I’ve aye been here,” he says, a bit irked. “In fact, when Sandra and I got together just after school we lived in the studenty flats at the other end of this street.” Sandra is Watson’s wife and she’s on the phone in a hall cluttered with flight cases for the start of a new tour as the 52-year-old, in paint-spattered DIY clobber, leads me to the summerhouse at the bottom of the garden. By the time we finish our chat it will be the middle of the afternoon when Watson’s son Jamie, 24, slouches into view. “That’s him just up,” laughs the old man.
There are three people who seem crucial to Big Country’s reinvigoration and Jamie is one of them. Twelve years ago, after the suicide of Stuart Adamson, Watson’s close friend and co-alchemist of the great guitars-like-bagpipes signature Big Country sound, our man had “gone back to civvy street”, albeit that his concept of a normal job is slightly different from yours and mine. Pre-band, he’d cleaned nuclear submarines at the Rosyth naval base; post-group, as a legionella controller for the dockyard, he reckoned he was finished with music. Then, returning from work one day he was told by young Jamie, junior axe slung over his shoulders: “Dad, I’ve just written your new hit single.” As father and son played together for fun, Watson started enjoying it again.
The surviving members of the group turned up at fan conventions to strum the hits on acoustics. There was a small reunion for the 25th anniversary, then a bigger one for the 30th. By that point Jamie had joined but there were no new songs and Big Country, it seemed, were to reconvene occasionally as a back-catalogue band. But, here to Watson’s surprise as much as anyone’s, is The Journey, the first studio album since Adamson’s death in December 2001, with lyrics written and sung by Mike Peters of the Alarm.
In the 1980s, the decade of Margaret Thatcher lest we forget, the Alarm were contemporaries of Big Country, shouting almost as loud from Wales. These hard-gigging, resolutely unpretentious bands were influenced by the cultural traditions of their homelands and had a fierce pride in where they came from. Watson recalls a phone conversation with Adamson when the latter gave his blessing to Peters replacing him: “Stuart was in Nashville and was telling me how he had a new life, that he’d got married again, that there was other music he wanted to make. He stressed how happy he was, although he probably wasn’t. Big Country were definitely at their lowest ebb, though, and he said: ‘If you guys ever want to go out out again, Mike’s the man. I won’t mind.’ ”
The third key contributor to the comeback album is Adamson himself. “The songs on The Journey are definitely about Stuart,” adds Watson. “They’re inspired by him and they’re dedicated to him. Mike hasn’t tried to step into Stuart’s shoes. We still leave centre-stage empty in tribute to him and always will. But Mike has researched the band and he’s thought quite deeply about Stuart. I’m knocked out with what he’s done.
“I’ve not discussed Mike’s lyrics with him and I won’t be because I never did it with Stuart and he always said his songs were open to interpretation. But I’m interpreting In a Broken Promise Land and Angels and Promises as being very much about Stuart, and lines like ‘No one should be left to walk through life alone/No one should have to carry such a heavy load’ are incredibly poignant for anyone who knew him like I did. That song is called Hurt, and as the chorus puts it, no one can hurt him now.”
Watson vividly remembers the first time he met Adamson, then of the Skids. “It was a wee hotel in Kinghorn called the Cuinzie Neuk. I went to see his band play, determined to get one of my own going. What a guitar player! Those scissorkicks! But what a lovely guy as well. Stuart had a brilliant sense of humour which he never put on show for the world at large.”
The first couple of years of Big Country were the most enjoyable. “When Stuart and I were chasing a record deal the train to London was aye full of squaddies. We’d play cards with these guys, and get through a mound of beer cans. Some of them were younger than us, and while all we were having to do was impress a bunch of suits, they were going off to the Falklands War. The next thing I knew, Stuart had written Fields of Fire about them. I was tremendously impressed by that and then he came up with In a Big Country. ‘Bloody hell,’ I said, ‘we’ve got our own theme tune!’ ” During the early success, Adamson played up to the image of the grumpy Scot, irritated by another tedious inquiry about the bagpipey guitars. “It was aye the English who asked,” adds Watson. “We just wanted the band to sound different. Not bluesy like everyone else, more local. So we played our guitars with lots of fluid melody and slapped on a ton of reverb.” But Adamson loathed fame. “He hated the rollercoaster, whereas I loved it. Probably the Brian Wilson approach – ‘Here’s the new songs, get someone to sing them’ - would have been best for him because he left the band so many times.”
Adamson was found dead in a hotel room in Hawaii. Watson again: “The last time we talked on the phone was six weeks before. ‘I love you,’ he said. ‘And I love you,’ I said. It’s hard for me to speak about Stuart because to me he wasn’t this rock star. For a lot of folk, he’s up in the clouds, looking down. To me, he was the mate who never lived any further than a mile away. I think about him every day and dream about him loads.”
So, with the band opening their latest tour the day after what would have been Adamson’s 55th birthday, what does he think their dear departed frontman would make of The Journey? “It’s the story of the band, which to me is like the greatest story ever told: the journey to get back home. I think we get there on this album and I reckon Stuart would like that.
“And I think he’d absolutely love the noisy guitars!”
• Big Country start their new tour at Glasgow’s ABC tomorrow and appear at Aberdeen’s Lemon Tree on Saturday. The Journey (Cherry Red) is out on Monday.