Musician RM Hubbert on drawing strength from grief

RM Hubbert. Picture: Chemikal Underground
RM Hubbert. Picture: Chemikal Underground
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It’s the last warm day of the summer and RM Hubbert – better known as Hubby to even his casual acquaintances – is walking on Troon beach with his adorable dog, and current album cover star, D Bone.

Exercise, fresh air and his canine companion are all effective ways of lifting his mood. So is talking about the dark matter which inspires his music – his chronic depression, the death of his parents – so we repair to a bench with a sea view, scoff our scrummy fish and chips, and let the tape roll.

The guitarist moved to the seaside town earlier this year, ostensibly to complete his new album. Both his parents originally hailed from Ayrshire, so it’s also a way to stay connected to their memory. He reckons he’ll stay. It’s not the only change of scene he envisages in the foreseeable future.

Hubbert is mulling over his next musical move, following the completion of the three albums he has dubbed “the ampersand trilogy”. His solo instrumental debut First & Last was released in 2011 to great acclaim. Its collaborative follow-up, Thirteen Lost & Found, conceived as a means of reconnecting with old friends from Glasgow’s close-knit music community, did even better, deservedly winning this year’s Scottish Album of the Year Award. Now Hubbert sees the forthcoming Breaks & Bone as a potential line in the sand.

“I’ve been doing this RM Hubbert thing for four, five years now and it’s always been a kind of therapy thing,” he says. “At the shows I talk about a lot of stuff and I started to think last year that it maybe wasn’t the healthiest thing to keep going on like this. It does help on a day-to-day basis but there will come a point when I need to be a bit more self-reliant and find another way to stabilise my mood.”

Hubbert had his first serious bout of depression in his mid-teens, then another in his late teens and early 20s, but he wasn’t diagnosed until his 30s when a series of personal tragedies rocked his world – but also led him to a musical breakthrough.

Back in the 1990s, Hubby was a familiar face on the Glasgow indie scene which spawned the likes of Mogwai, the Delgados and Bis. He ran the Kazoo Club at the 13th Note with one Alex Kapranos (who went on to produce Thirteen Lost & Found and plays in some band named after an Austrian archduke), started a label with some fellow musicians and played in a couple of groups, the latest of which, El Hombre Trajeado, ground to a halt eight years ago.

By this point, he was happily married and living on the south side of the city, having somewhat retreated from the scene he helped to create. But when his father was diagnosed with cancer, the black dog returned with a vengeance and he found the best way to cope was to throw himself fanatically into a new obsession. “It could easily have been windsurfing or anything else,” he says. “I just wanted something to take my mind off stuff that was going on. I remember hearing at some point that flamenco guitar was really difficult to learn. I had never played acoustic guitar before, so I arbitrarily decided to try.”

His father died soon after his diagnosis, and Hubbert went deeper into his latest compulsion, intensively practising technical exercises. Then his mother died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage, and Hubbert played on through mounting pain.

“I realised I hadn’t been communicating with anyone about how I was feeling. So I started making up tunes and thought I’d do a song a month to document what had been going on.”

Hubbert imposed two rules: he had to be able to play the piece of music unamplified with no assistance, meaning he had to learn how to incorporate beats and basslines into his playing, and he had to record his songs within 24 hours of writing and put them online. “It had to be an honest document,” he says.

“I decided on RM Hubbert as a name, kind of as a joke, because I figured that no-one would actually know it was me, even though it’s my real name.”

Much of this will be familiar fare to anyone who has attended one of his gigs, as Hubby is known for sharing his troubles – not in the form of any “woke up this morning”-style lyrics, as his work is largely instrumental, but in the stories he tells around the songs, explaining the background to his playing and the inspiration behind certain tracks.

For a while he would play house concerts for friends or friends of friends, only asking that his hosts feed him in return. Gradually, more and more people fell for his soothing, lyrical playing. “It’s that old cliché that it’s the project you do with no commercial intent whatsoever that is the one that people latch on to,” he remarks.

So has he felt the need to adapt his show now that he is reaching larger audiences? “No, no, it’s always about me!” he laughs. “But I do get a little bit conscious of telling those stories over and over and over again. Now, a lot of the time, it just works as a trigger to remember those people and better times. A lot of the saddest music I’ve written over the years actually triggers happy memories for me now. That’s the great thing about instrumental music – the meanings change over time, and also it’s much easier for an audience to imprint their own memories onto it.

“After shows a lot of people tell me about their mental illness problems and I’m not necessarily interested. That sounds horrible,” he adds hastily, “but I don’t do it as a way of reaching out to other people with mental illness, I do it because it is a very specific way of helping my own. It can be very intense because a lot of times they’ve never told anyone before and it’s great they are being open in talking about it. But I can be quite emotionally exhausted after a show so having a stream of people coming up to me … I just need a beer and my bed.”

Nevertheless, Hubbert is looking forward to touring Breaks & Bone while he ponders the next chapter. “My two greatest fears are being that guy in his late 30s with an acoustic guitar singing about his feelings or being the instrumental accompaniment to someone’s spaghetti bolognese,” he admits.

While we talk D Bone – Hubbert shares joint custody of the dog with his ex-wife – has has been snuffling about the dunes, barking at seagulls and assisting in the consumption of our fish suppers, unaware of the intrinsic role he plays in the RM Hubbert story.

“I probably spend the most time with him,” says Hubbert. “We haven’t always got on the best – I think he sees me as an overbearing father. But he’s a good wee guy and quite the muse. I have a song called Go Quickly – which is what we tell him when we want him to pee. There’s also a song on the new album called Go Slowly, but we won’t go there…”

• Breaks & Bone is released by Chemikal Underground on 27 September. RM Hubbert plays Electric Circus, Edinburgh, 26 September; Mad Hatters, Inverness, 27 September; The Tunnels, Aberdeen, 28 September and 
St Andrews in the Square, Glasgow, 29 September