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‘The Remote Part’: Roddy Woomble Talks Idlewild’s “Defining” Album
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‘The Remote Part’: Roddy Woomble Talks Idlewild’s “Defining” Album

A landmark release for Idlewild, ‘The Remote Part’ remains ‘the record that allowed us to do all this’, frontman Roddy Woomble tells Dig!

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In the summer of 2002, Idlewild seemed to be everywhere. Having secured a solid fanbase two years earlier with their 100 Broken Windows album, their follow-up, The Remote Part, brought everyone else on board. Its lead single, You Held The World In Your Arms, took the group into the UK Top 10 for the first time, peaked at No.4 in their homeland of Scotland, was used in UK TV coverage of the World Cup and Wimbledon, and later pitched up in the FIFA 2003 video-game soundtrack. The Remote Part itself went to No.3 in the albums chart, nestling beneath Red Hot Chili Peppers’ By The Way and Oasis’ Heathen Chemistry – a feat which Idlewild’s frontman, Roddy Woomble, tells Dig! is “still a wee bit absurd, to think about it”.

And yet, Woomble says, “Simply speaking, The Remote Part is the most popular, commercially successful record that Idlewild ever made. None of our other records achieved that level of popularity. So it’s the defining record for the group.”

Listen to ‘The Remote Part’ here.

“People saw the maturity and the development of ideas”

Having first received notice four years earlier, thanks to the post-hardcore abstractions of their debut release, the Captain EP, Idlewild were reconsidering what the band could be when they began writing songs for The Remote Part.

100 Broken Windows was our breakthrough record… When that came out people were quite surprised,” Woomble recalls. The band, whose early live shows had been famously described by NME as “the sound of a flight of stairs falling down a slight of stairs”, were now being taken “seriously, really, for the first time. People saw the maturity and the development of ideas.

“We knew that we’d gone up a couple of notches in terms of what our records could translate,” Woomble continues. “We were on television and our gigs were selling out. We were thinking, Wait a minute, we’re making a connection with people. We can do this. We can make a record that’s even more palatable for the mainstream.”

“We were learning our strengths”

Rolling straight from touring in support of 100 Broken Windows to recording a batch of new songs written while on the road, Idlewild initially fell short of the goal they had set themselves. After entering the studio with producer Stephen Street, the group realised their new songs “were not strong enough”, Woomble admits.

“They were good but they required a lot from him,” Woomble says today. “Stephen Street’s produced some of my favourite records, particularly Smiths and Morrissey records, and it was a learning experience to know that, basically, there’s only so much he can do… It was a wake-up call for us, thinking, We need to write better songs.”

While the band regrouped, 100 Broken Windows belatedly hit the shelves in the US, almost a year to the day after its release in the UK. When Spin magazine named it “the No.1 album you didn’t hear in 2000”, kickstarting a whole new round of appreciation for the record, Idlewild were forced to put their new material aside and set off on a two-month US tour. While there, they booked studio time with Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye, who, sitting in the producer’s chair, further helped the group hone their approach, and took a pencil to Woomble’s latest lyrics, encouraging the singer to refine them.

“We were learning from all these people we were working with, and learning from our mistakes and learning what our strengths were,” Woomble says. “When we got back from America, we went up to the Highlands, and that’s when we started properly writing songs.”

“You’re on a journey with the band”

Settling in a cottage in Inchnadamph, in the county of Sutherland, in the north of Scotland, Idlewild wrote The Remote Part’s defining songs, You Held The World In Your Arms, A Modern Way Of Letting Go and In Remote Part among them. “I knew it was going to be a really worthwhile thing – good for the soul and good for creativity,” Woomble says of the retreat. With the drums set up in one room, the group’s amps in another, and a communal area for eating and socialising, “It was exactly what we wanted it to be. It helped restore camaraderie between the band – because touring can sometimes rip that apart. After that, we had all the songs for the record.”

Moving further away from the US hardcore influences that had characterised their early work, some of the new material carried traces of British indie-rock, as if The Smiths had embraced fuzz effects and guitar solos. “Around 100 Broken Windows, we were called ‘the punk-rock Smiths’ by quite a few publications,” Woomble says. “And that was a compliment to me, because that was the two forms of music I loved, combined: the lyrical ideas of Morrissey, and his melodies, but with much more of a punk-rock edge… There’s always been an element of that to Idlewild. It’s not just about distortion pedals. There was always a jangly, melodic sense to the band.”

Matched to an anthemic, widescreen chorus and Woomble’s reflections on the passage of time, You Held The World In Your Arms, placed as The Remote Part’s opener, was the perfect calling card for the album. It also benefitted from the group’s eventual return to working with producer Dave Eringa, who’d helmed 100 Broken Windows. “We’d had these good experiences with Stephen Street and Lenny Kaye, but Dave was the person we felt comfortable with and who, I think, also knew the band the best,” Woomble says.

One of Eringa’s crucial suggestions for You Held The World In Your Arms also helped serve notice of Idlewild’s evolution. “The string section was originally my guitar,” Woomble notes. “I didn’t like rock bands with string sections. I thought it was an easy way to add emotion. But he convinced me that would be a good idea. And it was. It makes the melody soar.” Eringa also suggested that they start the song with the chorus melody, “So when the snare hit comes in, and then the strings, straight away you’re on a journey with the band.”

But Woomble, too, was on a journey of his own, “getting more comfortable with myself as a lyricist as well as a vocalist”.

“We had really good songs, and I didn’t want to mess them up”

“On the early records, it was more about me screaming along with riffs and occasionally having a line that people remember,” Woomble says. With 100 Broken Windows, however, he realised he “had a real ability to write memorable things that were also quite vague… which people can think about and get something out of… And I knew with The Remote Part that we had a lot of really, really good songs, and I didn’t want to mess them up by making them purposely vague.”

Inspired by Leaves Of Grass, a collection of poems originally published in the mid-1800s by the US poet Walt Whitman, Woomble’s lyrics began to take on a more personal, soul-searching hue.

“A lot of Whitman’s poetry is about celebrating the universe as you are part of it,” Woomble explains. Released as The Remote Part’s second single, American English was Woomble’s “attempt at a song about that same idea – about looking in the mirror and singing the song back to yourself. Being in the moment and appreciating that moment.” Introspective yet universal, with a chorus that found Idlewild at their most yearning, “It’s also about authenticity, about finding your own truth,” the singer adds. “It took us a while to get right, musically. It’s got elements of U2 and Fleetwood Mac – it’s the closest we’ve come to a big hit.”

Closer to home, Woomble – who used to sport a badge bearing the slogan “Support Your Local Poet” (“I thought it was tongue-in-cheek and fun but also quite true. I used to wear it all the time, but I lost it” ) – struck up a friendship with Glasgow’s then Poet Laureate, the 81-year-old Edwin Morgan. Their correspondence, largely carried out through letters, led to Morgan writing an original piece for the band. Woven in to the end of In Remote Part, the poem, called Scottish Fiction, brought the album to a suitably dramatic close.

“Originally, we were going to open the record with it,” Woomble reveals. “We tried it out with a lot of different types of music, but we couldn’t find the right thing.” Towards the end of the recording sessions, Woomble wondered what Morgan’s recitation – which Woomble had recorded in the poet’s flat, Morgan intoning lines such as “The new black death with reactors aglow/You think your security/Can keep you in purity/You will not shake us off/Above or below” – would sound like over the wall of noise that the gentle, acoustic In Remote Part exploded into at the 1.58 mark.

“It built to this big, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth-style thing, and I said, ‘Let’s try to put Edwin’s voice over that,’” Woomble recalls. “It worked straight away. And it also worked well juxtaposed against the acoustic start of the song, which was basically written from a point of view of watching the world go by in a passing place” – laybys that allow cars to pass each other on single-lane roads – “in the Scottish Highlands. I like the idea of it: you’re pulling away and letting things go by, and then Edwin comes in at the end with these almost apocalyptic ideas about the future.”

“People read the landscape into that record a lot”

Released on 15 July 2002, The Remote Part’s soaring choruses and Woomble’s lyrical explorations of the promise of possibilities was perfect for a summer in which the new millennium was still finding its feet. As the likes of Travis and Coldplay defined a strain of emotive, post-Britpop rock, The Remote Part, like its title suggests, found Idlewild masters of a world all their own.

“People read the landscape into that record a lot,” Woomble acknowledges. “Certainly, I’ve been inspired by the Scottish landscape and islands all through my life – the sense of space and the ideas that come out of that, and the sense of feel. I find it an inspiring place in terms of the way it allows you to think of ideas. But it’s not as if Rod [Jones, guitarist] was staring into the Highland mist and coming up with guitar parts, or wanting it to sound more like a bagpipe.”

Rather, for Woomble, the album’s cover – a still from the 1978 film My Way Home, the closing instalment of an autobiographical trilogy by Scottish filmmaker Bill Douglas – more clearly defines The Remote Part’s mood: “He’s kind of an orphan and he’s kind of lost, and the way he’s staring… He’s rooted to the spot. He’s on Earth, he’s sitting at a desk, but his mind is completely somewhere else. It’s like he’s dreaming, but he’s dreaming with his eyes wide open. It’s like the remote part we find ourselves in sometimes, when our mind is drifting off.”

“It’s the record that allowed us to do all this”

For many, The Remote Part marks the point where Idlewild took root in the public consciousness. “To a large extent, when you say ‘Idlewild’, a lot of people will still associate those songs with the band,” Woomble acknowledges. A trio of 15th-anniversay shows – two in Glasgow, one in London – solidified that association and gave Idlewild the opportunity to play songs they didn’t usually play live, among them Out Of Routine, one of a handful of heavier The Remote Part songs which the group wrote as “a reference point to the records we’d made before”, but which, Woomble admits, “We didn’t play live much because it was too difficult. It really came together in the studio, so the harmonies and a lot of the parts were almost too complicated for us to play on stage.”

The shows also sowed the seeds for the group’s 25th-anniversary gigs, originally scheduled to coincide with the publication of Woomble’s archival book, In The Beginning There Were Answers: 25 Years Of Idlewild, but which, following the outbreak of COVID-19, were postponed until summer 2022. “People love that sense of occasion,” Woomble says. “When you’re doing an anniversary gig, or celebrating something, that really brings people together… It’s good for the collective spirit of the band and the fanbase – everyone can come together and celebrate.”

Considering The Remote Part’s impact on Idlewild, whose career is now well into its third decade, and which spans in an array of albums that have continually redrawn the band’s boundaries, Woomble says, “Fans would probably go for 100 Broken Windows as the one that they like most, but I would say The Remote Part is pretty much the Idlewild album. I’m not saying it’s my favourite. I think we’ve produced some excellent work over the years. And the next record we make, whenever that will be, will be really interesting, too, and have a new story about it. But there’s no getting away from the fact that The Remote Part is the record that allowed us to do all this.”

‘The Remote Part’ has been reissued on vinyl. Buy it here.

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