snap, crackle and folk: the strangers almanac interview;

Dundee songwriter Gord Matheson, who makes music with multi-instrumentalist Avril Smart as The Strangers Almanac, has been on my radar for a couple of years now: and yes, it was all down to the name that he caught my eye. It’s been a while since a track from the band’s 2011 EP, Whale Watching for Beginners, made its way onto a monthly mix, so it’s good to hear from them again.

That single has been re-recorded for the band’s second album Those Tremendous Mountains, a collection of ten songs loosely connected to the themes of adventure, discovery and progression. There are breakup songs on there of course, but even a preliminary glance at the album’s Scott of the Antarctic-themed artwork should hint that this is no ordinary acoustic-folk miseryfest.

Gord and I recently chatted over email about the album, its themes and trying to schedule time for shows around juggling flaming clubs. No, really.

Who’s in the band, and how did you get together?
The band is essentially myself and my friend Avril Smart. We’re both from Fife originally and went to the same school, but didn’t meet until a few years after I’d left. We became pals, and she eventually started helping out whenever I did solo gigs – I’d been playing under the name The Strangers Almanac since about 2003. Our partnership evolved over the years and she does an excellent job at fleshing out my songs and giving them depth and warmth. She played several instruments on the album; violin, cello, trumpet, trombone, and bass. Live shows are usually just the two of us, during which she’ll play as many different instruments as we can carry to the gig.

Three words to describe your sound…
Snap, crackle and folk.

What influences you?
Musically I’ve always been influenced songs that try to tell a story or create a character. I’ve been a big fan of Randy Newman for years, and he does that better than anyone: no other songwriter has managed to speak in so many different voices on one album, and I don’t think he can be given enough plaudits for it. Mark Everett, aka E from Eels has long been a massive influence too – I think you can hear his influence in our songs, which is something I’m totally okay with.

Outwith music I’ve always been a bit of a science geek; Avril is actually about to graduate with a degree in Microbiology, so she’s a good person to be in a band with. She’s also a professional juggler, so when she’s not helping to create a synthetic bacterium that will help eliminate the risk of hospital acquired infections by killing the pathogen, she’s throwing flaming clubs and knives at her boyfriend. I don’t know how she finds the time!

There’s an obvious love of old-fashioned, albeit doomed, adventure on the album, which features a track dedicated to Captain Scott of the Antarctic – what was it you found so inspiring about his story?
It’s partly a Dundee thing I think, you’re constantly surrounded by reminders of him, but we’ve both always found his story fascinating. I like the fact that it was essentially the last frontier on Earth. Humanity had pretty much conquered the globe by the early 20th century, but Antarctica held out, and the men who tackled it are among the greatest adventurers we’ve ever had. The bulk of the album was actually recorded on the hundredth anniversary of Scott’s death, so it seemed only fitting to name the opening track after his last words. I liked the serendipity of this, so I extended the tribute to him into the album’s artwork.

The album’s title – Those Tremendous Mountains – is actually a nod to another couple of explorers. Lewis and Clark were the guys who first explored and charted much of the American Northwest, and I took that title from a book I read about them, which in turn was also taken from one of their diaries.

The album ends with adventure too, a track about the Voyager spacecraft, and it’s crazy to think there’s only 50-odd years between Scott’s death and the launch of those spacecraft. Despite that being in the 1970s, we’re still in touch with them, which is a remarkable achievement too.

In between these great leaps of endeavour there’s all the small, personal stories of various characters peppered through the album too, which I thought was quite a nice balance. Everyone has an ambition, and just because your ambition is, for example, to be at home with the love of your life at the end of a hard day, instead of trekking to the South Pole, that doesn’t make it any less important. These things, like so much else in life, are completely relative, and I think people often forget that.

What releases/shows do you have planned at the moment?
There’s not actually a huge amount planned at the moment. Avril is in the midst of exams and assessments at Uni, I’ve got exams coming up too, but once they’re all out of the way we’ll be free to spread our wings a bit in the summer. I’ve always wanted to record an album with a full band, something maybe a bit louder, so I’ll maybe see if I can put something like that together over the summer months.

And what are you listening to at the moment?
Our friend Ross Middlemiss, who recorded and mixed our album, has just released his own EP under the name Little Anchors, which Avril contributed strings to. He actually just released it today, and it is excellent. Aside from that I’ve been enjoying the new Eels album, but I don’t think they’ve ever put out a record that I’ve not loved.

Those Tremendous Mountains is out now on a pay-what-you-like basis on Bandcamp, along with previous Strangers Almanac releases. The Strangers Almanac also hang out on Facebook.