Muscian James Grant talks to Rona Simpson about his success with 80s bands Friends Again and Love and Money, growing up in Castlemilk and his recent involvement with RIG Arts project ‘Heid O’ the Hill’ where he mentored musicians from Greenock.
It’s a well-documented fact that men from the west of Scotland don’t do feelings, so it is no surprise when I asked musician James Grant, one of Glasgow’s most respected songwriters, the [admittedly stupid] question of what the bands Friends Again and Love and Money ‘meant’ to him, that he came back with a rather exasperated sigh. “They were just bands I was in, I suppose”. But despite the shaky start, we went on to have a great chat. Here are the best bits…
Can you tell me about the formation of Friends Again and Love and Money? We were just in the right place at the right time. Glasgow was thriving in a musical sense. Bands like Altered Images and Orange Juice brought the A & R men up from London, and on the strength of a couple of songs we signed a publishing deal and then a record deal. I suppose this happened at a time – a pre-X-Factor time – when having a record deal seemed like an impossible dream.
That must have been hugely exciting?
It was, but just to temper that, we were on fifty quid a week. Yeah we were on the telly and all that kind of stuff, but I guess Friends Again were just a group of pals doing what we loved. And we worked really, really hard. We toured up and down the country in a transit with all the gear, setting it up ourselves. It was the best time ever, when all you had to worry about was your next pint!
And where did Love and Money fit in?
Love and Money came out of Friends Again. Sort of as a reaction to stuff that was happening in the music industry at the time. And also because I realised I wanted to be the front man and have more control. I was singing backing vocals for another band at the time called Hipsway and they told me I had a good voice. I had been writing more and more songs and they just didn’t really seem suitable for Friends Again.
I’ve seen quite a few comments under your videos on You Tube by people who say Love and Money were one of the most underrated band of the 80s. Do you agree with this sentiment?
Emm, I am quite happy with the way things turned out. I could always use the money that comes with being inordinately successful, but we were really, really lucky. I mean there were thousands of record companies around when we were signed. The music industry was cash rich. Dire Straits were on our label. One in three homes had a copy of a Dire Straits records! So you see, we were really indulged. We went to New York made an album for 8 months with Steely Dan’s producer. Things like that don’t tend to occur these days unless you have huge success immediately. Back then bands would sign to a record label and be allowed to develop. We made three albums with Phogram. We never repaid what they spent on us, but we were fortunate enough to travel the world and make videos all over the world. I guess it was pretty amazing really to work with some of the best producers and musicians in popular music.
These days there are only two or three big players: Warners, Sony, Universal and the rest are subsidiaries. In my day there were thousands and they had money to burn! The food bill during the 8 months we were in the US was forty-five grand! There is just is no modern equivalent. I mean you say were underrated, yeah perhaps, but we weren’t under-indulged. Also, Strange Kinda Love sold half a million copies worldwide, you know. It wasn’t too bad! I did have ambitions, but the ambitions I had were, I suppose, more artistic than anything else. I had a kind of vision of how I wanted to do things and it got more difficult to do that I suppose because the record company wanted to ‘cash in’. They wanted hits. But I was thinking on more aesthetic level really.
Do you still rock out?
Yeah! I played the Kelvingrove Bandstand last summer to 2000 punters with an 8-piece string section and a full band and I loved that, but I am limited to how often I can do that. Basically, I have a small fan base. I mean they are very loyal and they follow me everywhere, but it’s not practical with the size of audience to tour with a full band.
Can you tell me a little about the project with RIG Arts – ‘Heid O’ the Hill’?
Yes. I loved this project. I had a residency there. It was really all about Broomhill, in Greenock. The idea of the project was that we had to find some sort of musical expression for the place; something that defined it. The best way you can get to know a place is by talking to people. So I recorded people’s stories and I worked then with local musicians to interpret those stories musically. [You can listen to the music recorded here: www.rigarts.org]
This year we are extending the project. The musical form that was pertinent to that area was punk rock. There was a real scene back in the 70s. I fancied putting a gig on with The Cuban Heels, which were one of the biggest bands ever to come out of Greenock. So I’ve got them to reform. And we’re gonna do a show in May or June and have a few of the other bands playing as well, which is a really cool thing. It is about Greenock and it is a real, working class thing. This isn’t a tribute band and dinner. It was a genuine movement. I really like Broomhill. I get a really good vibe from the folk there. I’m from Castlemilk and like Greenock it has a reputation for being a really hard place, and yeah there are maybe elements of it… places that you wouldn’t really hang about, unless you want a kickin’ but that doesn’t mean it’s all bad. I’ve had really good experience being down there. Inverclyde has massive potential, musically and otherwise.
How important do you think songwriting and these types of creative enterprises are when it comes to regeneration of an area?
When I was pitching to community groups – asking for them to tell me their stories – I would tell them about growing up in Castlemilk. I’d say to them:
“Up ma close I could tell ye five stories. One would have you crying yer eyes oot, another would have you pishin’ yersel’, and one would probably get me arrested!”
People have stories and stories are important – especially with life moving so fast. Preserving these stories and making songs from them is a really positive experience. It relates BACK to the area. People identify. If you grow something out of an area, part of that area is in the thing you’ve grown. And I think that is really important.
There is a sculptor Allan Potter who also worked with RIG Arts. He has created sandstone benches and he took the sandstone from a demolished set of old flats from the area. I loved the idea.
That is a really cool idea. I am sorry to sidetrack here but I worked with a cellist. Her dad made rings and bracelets out of guns and ammunition. What a brilliant idea: turning something negative into something positive. It’s regeneration… growing new life from old.
Are you working on any projects at the moment?
Yeah, I am just writing. I have about 10 songs. I have a few shows lined up. I am doing one [tomorrow the 31st May] at Milngavie Folk Club and a few more in the pipeline over the summer. (Check out jamesgrantsongbook.com for details.)
How easy do you find the art of songwriting?
These days, not easy at all. When I am working with kids or other people I find it easy, but when I am working on my own stuff… I have written an awful lot and it’s a cyclical thing and you can lapse into self parody. It’s just finding fresh ways to do it. The luxury of waiting for some sort of magical inspiration is a myth. I think if you work hard enough, keep plugging away, you can break it down. I make that sound bleak. It’s actually more like sculpting. Chipping away until you find out what’s inside the rock and you’re never sure what it is but you have to have faith that it will be something.