‘On the evidence of the 15 acts showcased here, the rest of us may have seriously neglected the talent currently thriving north of the border. That, or maybe they’re making some of their best music while everyone else is asleep.’ BBC review of Whatever Gets You Through The Night, the album.
Whatever Gets You Through The Night is one of the biggest artistic projects I’ve been involved in. It was put together by theatre director Cora Bissett, my band Swimmer One and the playwright David Greig – with support from dozens of leading Scottish writers, musicians, choreographers, filmmakers and others.
The project took various forms – a live show, which had a sold out run at the Arches in Glasgow in June 2012 and was revived at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh in August 2013 as part of the Made in Scotland programme; a compilation album, which Swimmer One produced and which is still on sale; a book, edited by me and designed by Studio LR in Edinburgh; and a film by regular Swimmer One collaborator Daniel Warren. In all of the above, the same pieces of music and writing came together to tell a story, but in each case the story was different. It was, in some ways, a recklessly ambitious idea – we were writing a book, creating a stage and film adaptation, and a soundtrack, all at the same time. But we pulled it off, I reckon. I’m very proud of it.
Whatever Gets You Through The Night began life as an idea by Cora to bring together the worlds of Scottish theatre and Scottish indie music, in an equal partnership. Not a piece of theatre with a live band, or a gig with theatrical elements, but something that was as much one thing as the other.
In a way, Cora and David had done this already, on a smaller scale, with Midsummer, a lost weekend comedy created in what was very much an equal collaboration with Gordon McIntyre from the Edinburgh band ballboy (to this day, audiences mistake bits David wrote for bits Gordon wrote, and vice versa). In a very different way, so had Swimmer One, with an experimental show at the Arches called We Just Make Music For Ourselves, in which we and the theatre company Highway Diner competed for attention for an hour. (Conclusion of experiment: Highway Diner were way more rock ‘n’ roll than we were.)
This, though, would be much bigger. Fresh from the success of her show Roadkill, which had just won every award it was eligible for at the Edinburgh Fringe, Cora had been invited by the Arches and Creative Scotland to come up with her “dream project”. As it happened, before Cora was a theatre director she had been an indie musician – you’ll find her name in the credits of albums by Mogwai, Arab Strap and others. Her band Darlingheart once supported Radiohead and Blur, but that’s another story. She had also sung on two early Swimmer One singles. Her dream project – partly inspired by Ballads of the Book, a Chemikal Underground album on which bands wrote songs with poets and novelists – was to create a big, ambitious show that brought together ten bands and ten theatre writers.
In search of collaborators and kindred spirits, she called David and me. We began by swapping reading lists and playlists, which was a lot of fun. We made a few rules. All choices had to be unanimous. We should avoid the obvious (musicians who had already worked in theatre, for example). And we should approach people we genuinely loved, rather than trying to be cool, or populist, or any ulterior motive in between. Then we began phoning and e-mailing people. To our delight, almost everyone we asked said yes.
What form the show would actually take was another question. At first we thought we’d pair them all up and create a kind of anthology show in ten chapters, before we realised how impractical it would be to have actors moving between ten sets of rehearsals, and how restrictive this might be anyway. Briefly we pondered just combining bands and actors instead, on the grounds that Scotland had lots of brilliant lyricists who could effectively act as storytellers. But that felt too much like just a gig. .
Initially – in homage to the film Paris Je T’Aime – Cora wanted it all to be set in Glasgow, but a lot of the people we wanted to work with weren’t from there, so that idea was abandoned (although I think I spotted bits of it in Cora’s show Glasgow Girls). Then we decided it should be a set of stories all taking place in different places across Scotland on one night, like Jim Jarmusch’s film Night on Earth.
For a while the show was called We All Feel Better In The Dark (after an old Pet Shop Boys B-side). Then it was 4am (this being, psychologically, the darkest hour for many people; too late to sleep, too early to rise – see Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis). We procrastinated for ages over the title Whatever Gets You Through The Night. None of us is a John Lennon fan, particularly. We worried that it was too obvious, too familiar. Still, it had a ring to it. A lot of the songs and stories our musicians and writers were sending us were about surviving the night as much as revelling in it. Ricky Ross’s The North Star was desperately sad. Rachel Sermanni’s Lonely Taxi, 2am was about stumbling home drunk, giddy but alone. Stef Smith’s story Loch Lomond – the show’s most poignant moment – was about an old man saying a final goodbye to his wife. All these characters were finding different ways to get through the night.
I remember my nervousness when all this material began rolling in. We had set our writers and musicians a deliberately loose brief – write something, anything, set between the hours of midnight and 4am. We got: a vivid, dense poem about insects; a short story about a flower seller in Aberdeen; a very dark mini-play about a man who pretends to be a werewolf; a funny song about chips and cheese; a song called Ultimate Heat Death of the Universe… The book and album would be straightforward enough, but how the hell would it all fit together in a live show?
And yet somehow – thanks to Cora’s brilliance as a director – it did. What we ended up with was not half-theatre, half-gig, but something else entirely – a collage of different experiments. Some scenes began with scripts, some grew out of actors or musicians improvising. Some scenes were like tiny plays, others were just a guitarist quietly playing against visuals by another key collaborator, artist Kim Beveridge. Beatboxer Bigg Taj and experimental folk musician Wounded Knee – an ingenious pairing by Cora – created a whole clubbing scene using only their voices. Withered Hand’s Dan Willson played a busker and a singing security guard. It was a bit like a circus. A bit like a cabaret. A bit like a party. A bit like a lullaby.
And now, sadly, it’s all over. There was some discussion of touring it, but ultimately it was an expensive, unwieldy show – and it seemed much easier just to tour the film, which is what we did, with different musicians performing afterwards at each venue. Later there was some discussion of somehow ‘franchising’ it internationally, but that fell by the wayside as we all moved on to other things, and I was never a fan of the idea anyway. What this particular group of people created together, in that moment, was quite special, and I worried that trying to recreate it in different circumstances would diminish that in some way. But it still exists – as an album, a film, and as a beautifully designed book, all of which we strongly felt needed to be works of art in their own right rather than an add-on to a live show. The film, for example, didn’t consist of footage from the show (although it does include a little of it, and a sequence filmed in rehearsal) but new sequences filmed by Daniel all across Scotland.
One of the joys of the project for me was in seeing how particular pieces of writing, or music, took on different meanings in these different contexts. In the show, for example, the moment dawn arrived was soundtracked by a song Laura had written with our friend Ben Seal called Once I Jumped I Was Fine. On the album, dawn is heralded by Withered Hand’s song Saint Elmo. And the order in which the songs appear on the album is completely different to the order in which they appeared in the show (a deliberate choice on my part).
The project also continues to exist, of course, as a set of fond memories. In my case: playing piano for Rachel Sermanni, with my wife perched on the stool beside me, singing harmonies, as we watched the audience watching a gorgeous aerial performance from Jen Paterson; performing with Ricky Ross of Deacon Blue, who was incredibly sweet and unassuming, in front of his whole family; performing my own song, The Palace of Light, with beautiful brass arrangements from the Second Hand Marching Band; playing a hilarious Eugene Kelly song called Chips and Cheese with Dan Willson from Withered Hand, and somehow turning it into a Broadway-style number with the whole cast doing hammy dance moves and a brass section marching through the audience; my one-year-old daughter joining the show for its Queen’s Hall run in 2013, and being carried on stage for a brief moment of mid-show cuteness and narrative poignancy which made many audience members well up every single night – the highlight of the evening, a few people said. While not on stage she roamed around backstage and Rachel Sermanni sang little songs to her.