The Blues is a Minefield by V Twin is the most thrilling, chaotic, brilliant and stupid rock’n’roll album a British band will release this year. It is completely unlike any other record made by a Scottish band for, oh, decades. And it won’t be anywhere near as successful as it should be.
There are two obvious reasons for this, neither of which is to do with the music itself. The first is that the band who made it is from Glasgow. "Scottish bands can’t do rock’n’roll," says V Twin’s singer, songwriter and principal spokesman Jason Macphail. "It’s not in our make-up."
We talk a lot about this in the two hours we spend together in a cafe in Glasgow. On his record Macphail is about as distant from modest, inoffensive Scottish singers such as Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, or Travis’s Fran Healy, as you can imagine. He is a young Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, having spasms. Around him guitars squeal and things explode. There is a ridiculous song called (brilliantly) V Twin City Rockers. In person, though, Macphail is a quietly spoken, self-effacing 29-year-old who rides a bicycle with a puppy in a basket above the handlebars. As much as I like him, I can’t help feeling let down.
He is aware of the problem. "There’s a certain amount of pantomime in rock’n’roll. It’s a ludicrous art form. You can’t do that in Glasgow cos you’ll get hammered for it." Part of him seems to aspire to it, though. When recording the album, Macphail says he was constantly asking himself, "Do you think people will laugh at us?" If the answer was no, he tried to make it sound more stupid. Much of The Blues is a Minefield was written on a holiday in New Orleans, while visiting his friend Alex Chilton of the band Big Star. Macphail’s best memory of the trip is meeting a man called Ernie K-Doe, who was briefly famous in 1961 with a hit single called Mother in Law and was, in person, the way Macphail is on record. "He’s amazing, a wild, crazy old man. He’s like a legend in the city. We went to his club. I remember Alex saying, don’t call him Ernie, he’s changed his name by deed poll to Emperor of the Universe." When Macphail tried to shake his hand, K-Doe said, ‘You wanna touch me?’ then ran on stage and howled, James Brown style, "I think you wanna touch me. Touch me!"
When he got back, Macphail decided K-Doe would sing Delinquency far better than him. But before he could ask, K-Doe died of liver failure. He was 65. That day K-Doe’s website announced: "The Emperor is dead. Long live the Emperor." This became the title of a V Twin song, a New Orleans funeral march. To be fair, Macphail doesn’t do badly in the Emperor’s absence. Delinquency sounds like someone’s home being trashed, which is slightly bizarre from a band you could confidently take home to your granny.
Macphail’s lack of rock star precociousness may simply be because he has been doing this for a long time. V Twin have been familiar faces on Glasgow’s thriving music scene for half a decade now. Guitarist Bob Kildea also plays with Belle and Sebastian and Macphail is a close friend of Teenage Fanclub, with whom the band will tour in January. V Twin were signed to Domino records years ago, after drawing big crowds in Glasgow (although this was because, Macphail explains, there were nine people in the band and all their friends came to shows; there are now a more manageable four: Macphail, Kildea, Dino Bardot and Michael McGaughrin).
V Twin then failed to deliver an album for more than three years, to the exasperation of their employers. "Eventually they got to the point where they just stopped asking. They didn’t find it a pleasant experience working with us, and vice versa." Why did it take so long? Perfectionism, apparently. "I’m quite precious about it. I want it to be right." Unusually for such a chaotic, spontaneous sounding album, "it was assembled painstakingly, put together on a computer in little blocks, like Lego". Then Macphail worried that it didn’t sound spontaneous enough, the way a rock’n’roll record should. "So we were like, ‘how do we put the mistakes back in?’ " And so on. The uniqueness of the album’s sound can be attributed to this process. It sounds like it took both five minutes and five years to make.
Unfortunately, relations between V Twin and Domino are now so strained, Macphail claims, that "they’d just like us to go away" - which is the second, more mundane, reason The Blues is a Minefield may not have the impact it should. For it to succeed, Macphail points out, "someone’s got to spend some money. They’re just not going to do that." And by the time someone else does, the album will be yesterday’s news.
It’s up to him too, though, which presents its own problems. There’s no doubting Macphail’s passion, commitment and knowledge of the industry - "I’ve been around a lot of people who have had success, so I know how it works," he points out. But when it comes to selling his debut album he is as jaded and self-conscious as a four album veteran. It’s partly that same stubborn Scottish refusal to blow your own trumpet that has prevented Belle and Sebastian ever becoming a mainstream success (which they could have done had they wanted to). But it may also be that the other quality a rock’n’roll star needs - the blind, arrogant naivet that leads you to do ridiculous things in the first place - left Macphail years ago. He often sounds more like a canny rock manager or a music journalist than an aspiring rock star. The day before we meet, he tells me, he and his band spent the afternoon with style magazine the Face, who were very keen for them to say depraved rock’n’roll things, even providing "sample" quotes - " ‘We sound like a thousand car crashes at the bottom of Mount Etna,’ that kind of thing" - that they could replicate. Most rock’n’roll bands promoting their debut album would happily play this game (read any copy of the NME for proof). Macphail found it a miserable experience. "It was like, you’re in a band. You’ll want to embarrass yourself. No, I don’t."
Would Ernie K-Doe have felt the same? I suspect not.
Here’s the thing, then. The Blues is a Minefield is terrific stuff, the sort of life-affirming, hedonistic nonsense you wish Scottish bands would make more often. The fact that they don’t, Macphail thinks, has a lot to do with the fact that "we’ve no tradition of African-American music - and that’s where rock’n’roll comes from. It’s all folk music, that’s my theory. So in a lot of ways, no one’s really done this before. Or they have, but in a different continent and in another time."
The question is, can V Twin live up to their record? I hope so, but they might need to start acting more like emperors.
The Blues is a Minefield is released on 28 October on Domino