Johnny Lynch, The Pictish Trail
Nationalist politics and indie music have always had a lot in common. A susceptibility to utopian populism, an inflated vision of one’s own importance and sense of personal victimhood, and the belief that struggling to make rent gives one a grasp of macroeconomic theory. These are all hallmarks of both the skinny mop-haired kid dancing badly at a gig and the beer-bellied asshole shouting at Asians outside a mosque.
The final great similarity between nationalism and indie music is the way talking about each of them can sometimes turn normally decent, openhearted people into raging ideologues. Reading the comments (from both sides) of many articles on Scottish independence often resembles nothing so much as listening to two indie geeks yell at each other about which one has the more obscure Jesus and Mary Chain bootleg. That kind of discourse has gotten people laid exactly never, and the sooner it’s left behind the better.
Scotland as a nation has always punched well above its weight when it comes to quality guitar music. That a country with a population about the size of Brooklyn and Queens has produced luminaries from Arab Strap to Belle & Sebastian, not to mention the Bay City Rollers, must be a testament to some sort of national genius.
Now, as Scotland faces its own national reckoning, it seemed only natural to ask the indie musician community—the key demographic in any advanced society—how they felt about the upcoming Independence Referendum.
Dave Mclean of Django Django
Django Django. Image via Wikimedia
VICE: What kind of political ideals would you like to see an independent Scotland embodying—and do you think it’s realistic to expect them to be achieved?
Dave Mclean: In my mind politics should be run on the basis of care and respect. Greed is our biggest enemy. It stops things from being done properly at every level. I'm not even going to say that it's socialism. It's not an ism. It's probably not even "politics" as we know it. It's a new way of thinking: a new system and a new construct. I think it's clear that the systems we have in place need to be changed in order to transcend this "greed-is-good," "profit-at-all-cost" mentality.
I think that a fairer, better society can be achieved, but it's going to take time. I think I can sense a sea change, and it's perhaps down to people educating themselves through the internet. We no longer have to be kept in the dark by the mainstream media and fed the government line. We're more aware, and it's harder to pull the ol' wool.
More than any of the other artists I’m talking to, Django Django’s music is based on a strikingly eclectic range of influences—from dance and hip-hop all the way through indie and rock 'n’ roll. Is there a tension between being so cosmopolitan in your artistic tastes and yet supporting national separation politically?
No—in a word. My record collection spans a vast amount of styles from all over the world, and they all seep into our sound. But globalization is the biggest threat to the cultures that gave birth to these musical movements. I don't even live in Scotland now, and some people have accused me of hypocrisy for supporting independence in a country that I've left.
The thing is, I chose to live in London right now. I might choose to live in Istanbul or Berlin or Bamako in the future. But I'll only ever be from one place, and that's Scotland. So why can't we run our own affairs and be the ones who attract others from Istanbul, Berlin, or Bamako, or anywhere else, to come and work with us and enjoy our country and our culture?
I want us to be partners with other nations, not trying to control them through banks or bombing. National pride and national culture should be something you are proud of, not guilty of.
How do you think an independence for Scotland would affect its artistic community?
I've been asked this before, and I'm really not sure that it will actually. I think that if you are a creative person you'll always find a way. I've never personally been that interested in the world of funding—"can I have ten grand to do this and that?" If you're broke, use what's at your disposal—you'll make better art. Use an old four track to record, paint on an old cardboard box.
Don't get me wrong; it's important that the arts are given serious priority by the government through both funding and education. The Conservative party would probably close down every publicly funded arts space in the UK if they could. They really don't seem to understand how important the arts are for our society, and that's something I think we can focus on in our new country.
Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai
VICE: Mogwai are often regarded as a very Glasgow band—at least in London they are—how do you think independence would change Glasgow as a city?
Stuart Braithwaite: I hope that Glasgow would prosper in an independent Scotland. It's a great city, but it's blighted with far too much poverty and a lack of prospects for far too many, especially considering the wealth in Scotland.
In this debate are you more drawn to questions of Scotland’s economic future, or issues of Scottish identity and "what it means to be Scottish"?
My main reasons are democracy and peace. I feel that Scotland has been badly represented for most of my life as we've had to suffer Tory governments that we didn't vote for. I also want Scotland to be a nuclear-free country and want Trident moved and hopefully decommissioned after a yes vote.
How do you feel the debate around the referendum has affected Scotland as a country, and the Scots as a people?
I think it's energized the whole nation and engaged people in politics who have until now been completely disenfranchized.
Mogwai is often the go-to music for filmmakers trying to create scenes of post-apocalyptic desolation. If Alex Salmond were to lead Scotland into turmoil and ruin, would it console you that it would probably be Mogwai being played over newsreels of broken-down tower blocks and burned-out cars?
I'll crack the jokes!
Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit
Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit
VICE: As oil supplies dwindle over the next few decades, do you see introspective-yet-euphoric indie music becoming Scotland’s greatest export? Or, more broadly, how will independence impact Scotland’s cultural relations with the rest of the world?
Scott Hutchison: I think anthemic misery indie is already Scotland's greatest export. Scotland's strong creative identity is yet another good reason why we should be independent. To further increase that sense of pride in our own output—that would be a wonderful feeling for the country.
You guys are from Selkirk in the Scottish Borders. How do you think people there will feel if they suddenly find themselves living on an international border, having to show their passports to nip over to England?
They'll probably just go north instead. Seriously, though, I don't think that a division of British people is the issue here. I love many aspects of England and will always feel like part of a bigger country in a social sense, but we have to be able to make our own decisions based on the needs of those who live in Scotland.
One of the major issues people have been arguing over is what currency an independent Scotland might use—the Better Together side claiming Scotland would not be able to retain the pound, and the Yes Campaign saying they’re bluffing—how do you see this playing out?
I think the Better Together campaign has often been one of fear and negativity, aimed at creating a sense that Scotland is currently shoving two fingers up at the rest of UK, and the currency issue is part of that. The Bank of England has said very little on the matter, and so far it has been a case of empty speculation. As far as the euro thing goes, bars in London don't accept Scottish notes anyway, so what's the fucking difference?
Alex Salmond has promised that an independent Scotland would keep the Queen as head of state—isn’t the point of all this to get rid of over-privileged English people, or is she all right because she’s actually German?
I haven't really thought about the auld Queen in all of this. I'm sure she's a nice old lady.
Ian Turnbull of Broken Records
VICE: You guys describe yourselves as undecided. What do you think are the best arguments made by each side?
Ian Turnbull: Yeah, the clock is ticking! The hardest thing about the whole referendum campaign has been the lack of completely convincing arguments from either side. To some extent both the yes and no camps have been guilty of, at best, exaggeration and misinformation, and, at worst, outright lies and scaremongering.
What do you sense the general vibe is amongst the music community in Scotland?
The music community, and the arts in general, do seem to be largely tending towards a yes vote. I think creative people are more likely to be open to new ideas, prepared to take risks, or want to affect positive social change, so it’s not really surprising.
Do you feel the debate around independence has encouraged a sense of unity amongst Scots, or have the disagreements and arguments sown more divisions?
Overall the debate seems to have been fairly civilized, but I think only time will tell how divisive it’s been. The level of engagement and expected voter turnout are massively high, so with everyone having such strong opinions on it, tempers are bound to fray. Whichever way it goes, about half the country are not going to get the decision they want.
There was a very popular pro-independence member of the Scottish Parliament called Margo MacDonald who sadly died earlier this year. She was also concerned about the referendum becoming divisive, and so she urged people to recognize that you are dealing with opponents, not enemies. Not with ogres, but with fellow human beings with whom you can disagree, but must do so without malice.
Kenny Anderson of King Creosote
VICE: You’ve just been involved in an album/film project as part of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow called From Scotland With Love? A sense of Scottishness is obviously fairly important to you—how has that influenced your work and the way you feel about it?
Kenny Anderson: A sense of belonging is hugely important to me. I still live in the area I grew up in, as do the majority of my family and close friends, so I suppose this gives me the confidence to keep going with music. However, I do feel like I'm part of a musical community that is spread across the whole of the UK, as well as having close collaborators in Canada and the US.
My sense of Scottishness varies with the company I'm in, and it has changed over the years. I'm increasingly dismayed at many of the decisions made in Scotland, and in my circle of friends we used to joke about emigrating to become "professional Scots" abroad. But that was when we still had a sense of humor, and "abroad" meant a journey over seawater at the very least.
A few months back, you gave an interview in which you did not demonstrate absolute 100 percent commitment to the yes campaign, resulting in quite a vicious shitstorm being directed at you on social media. How did this make you feel? Do you feel that an open and respectful debate is possible on this issue?
I felt like the referee who scored a goal in the football game between the True Blues and the Dirty Yellows, and for a short while I was booed and cheered in equal measure by both teams' supporters. Made it easier to sign for the True Blues right enough.
One of my favorite records is your Inner Crail to Outer Space. Was this not an early call for an independent Scottish space exploration program? If the first alien contact with humanity happened in Scotland, what do you think they’d report back about the human race?
At the time it was a cry to be rescued by a kindly alien tourist, I think. I left them a cigar shaped parking space right at the door and everything. "Don't worry—these guys will only be a thorn in the side of the Galactic Federation for three centuries max."
Johnny Lynch of the Pictish Trail
VICE: All right, so your name’s the Pictish Trail—Picts were the famously fierce inhabitants of ancient Scotland—if Scotland does go independent you’re not going to start raiding towns in the North of England again, are you? And if you were, which would you burn first?
Johnny Lynch:Haha! I think we’re more likely to invade if we don’t get independence. I get the feeling that some places in the North of England might welcome a gentle invasion, though, as none of us up here are being particularly well represented by Westminster. Personally, I’d like us all to be invaded by Iceland—we could all use the health kick, and a good sauna.
You live on the Isle of Eigg. The inhabitants of Eigg recently bought the island itself as a trust. Can you talk us through that—what do you think the experience of Eigg can teach the rest of Scotland as it approaches questions of autonomy and independence?
Eigg is the perfect microcosmic model for independence, and its story is a true testament of human resilience. You can never underestimate the strength of mankind’s survival instinct. Eigg was a neglected island that was previously owned and inherited by a number of absent landlords, who had scant regard for its inhabitants. The islanders formed a trust, and set up a nationwide appeal to raise funds in order to “buy out” the island—which they did in 1997.
Since that time, Eigg has become the first island of its size to go completely off grid, setting up its own 24-hour power supply from renewable resources. It has a burgeoning tourist industry, and continues to attract a steady flow of new, young, aspirational families to live there—with a pioneering supportive scheme in place for those looking to build a home from scratch. It’s an island whose success is completely down to the determination of its population. I think the biggest lesson that Eigg can offer is that, even in these capitalist times, it’s possible to be a functional, and indeed successful, socialist entity—it just takes bravery, a bit of self-belief, and persistence.
You live on an island of 83 people (as of the 2011 census)—you’re obviously a man who can deal with remoteness. But do you not worry that an independent Scotland would lose some of the international connection the UK offers?
We’re not creating borders. We’re just taking positive steps to govern ourselves. If anything, independence would give Scotland a stronger international identity. All these threats about “You can’t have the pound,” “You can’t have access to the BBC,” it’s like, um, excuse me, but we were a partnership, and those things belong to us too. They are not wholly owned by Westminster. Sometimes, though, it’s best just to walk away. Scotland will inevitably take a wee while to find its feet—but I’ve no doubt we’ll be fine after a few years.
In the event of future hostilities between England and Scotland, is Scotland not vulnerable to an English embargo on Buckfast (brewed in Devon)—would this not be devastating to Scottish cultural life?
You forget that Scotland is home to Irn Bru—the most delicious of all the beverages—and we’ve kept the recipe a secret for generations. I reckon, if push came to shove, we’d be able to work out the Buckfast recipe. We’ve drunk enough of it!
So there you have it. In this completely random unscientific survey of some random unscientific people, independence is clearly the popular option. If you believe that being good at hitting bits of wood and metal in order to make noise gives one a deep understanding of political economy, then you should totally go out and vote yes.
It’s certainly true that Scotland has had more than its fair share of tough breaks throughout its history, from the Battle of Culloden, to the Highland Clearances, to having its national heroes portrayed in film by alcoholic Australian bigots—but facing the choice to be governed by David Cameron or Alex Salmond is surely the cruellest joke yet.
But however the Scots choose to answer the "Should I stay or should I go?" question on the September 18, as long as they maintain their knack for churning out melancholy but catchy, literate but tender, epic but understated indie rock, the rest of us may be permitted to ask along with Belle & Sebastian, "Is it wicked not to care?"
JS Rafaeli is the Author of Live at the Brixton Academy with Simon Parkes, available on Amazon.