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Warnings/Promises Made Idlewild “A Band For Life”, Says Roddy Woomble
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Warnings/Promises Made Idlewild “A Band For Life”, Says Roddy Woomble

Setting Idlewild on a new creative path, ‘Warnings/Promises’ found the group ‘getting more expansive’, frontman Roddy Woomble tells Dig!

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By the time Idlewild recorded their fourth album, Warnings/Promises, in 2005, they’d established themselves as household names; reached the upper echelons of the UK album charts, where they shared space with the likes of Oasis and Red Hot Chili Peppers; and evolved from the early, angular, hardcore-punk-influenced recordings of their debut EP, Captain, to the more melodic, mature songwriting that characterised their third album, The Remote Part. But with labelmates such as Kylie Minogue and Coldplay to contend with, “There was pressure for the next record,” Idlewild frontman Roddy Woomble tells Dig! “‘The Remote Part’s got you to this point, now Warnings/Promises has got to get you into arenas, or make you properly popular’ – whatever that is.”

In the event, Warnings/Promises became significant in a different way for the group. “It established the idea of us being a collective of musicians rather than the kind of band that had to stay the same. We could morph into different things, which is more interesting,” Woomble says. “At that point, we knew we were a popular band, but Warnings/Promises made me realise that I was a life-long musician. This is what I did, and I could carry on doing it because I was good at it.”

Listen to ‘Warnings/Promises’ here.

“We were trying to work out a new way of being Idlewild”

In hindsight, Warnings/Promises’ predecessor, The Remote Part, kickstarted the series of events that led Woomble to this realisation. A pronounced move away from the sounds most people associated with Idlewild – fuzzed-up guitars, screamed abstract lyrics – it had revealed a softer, more introspective side of the group. “People saw the maturity and the development of ideas,” Woomble says. Under heightened expectations to follow through on that potential, Idlewild “were very focused on trying to make the next record as good as we could. But at the same time, we didn’t want to make The Remote Part 2. We wanted to do something different.” Their then label, Parlophone, supported their decision, but “wanted to be involved, hearing all the demos”, Woomble adds. “So there was a lot more scrutiny throughout that process, but we accepted that.”

Internally, too, Idlewild felt they had something to prove – not least because they had undergone significant personnel changes following the tour for The Remote Part.

“We had this great record in The Remote Part, but we were still a scrappy live band. We still existed in the past,” Woomble says. “And that didn’t really work when we were playing songs like American English or Live In A Hiding Place. We were getting these great festival slots, but just not being professional – we weren’t rising to the challenge.” Frustrated, Bob Fairfoull, the group’s bassist since 1997, left part way through the tour, resulting in “a challenging few months” during which the group’s then bass technician, Alex Grant, took over. “It was like a three-legged dog – we limped over the finishing line, rather than running over it,” Woomble says.

Installing touring guitarist Allan Stewart as a permanent band member and replacing the departed Fairfoull with bassist Gavin Fox expanded the four-piece to a five-piece, “So, effectively, Warnings/Promises was a new line-up,” Woomble says. “So that had something to prove, too. There was an extra element of: this new album’s not just the follow-up to The Remote Part. It’s the follow-up to our most successful record, with a new band that we’re trying to make the fans like. So there was a lot of internal pressure. Gavin and Allan felt like they were going to be judged unless the record was really, really good.”

“It was one of our most creative periods”

Looking to recapture the creative freedom the group had enjoyed during their most productive songwriting sessions for The Remote Part, for which they hired a cottage in the Scottish Highlands, Idlewild decamped to a house in Glenelg, in North West Scotland, where they worked on new material. “Any ideas that we came up with that were deemed too similar to things we’d already done were dismissed,” Woomble says. “And it was one of our most creative periods, because of that reason.” However, initial recording sessions in Tambourine Studios, in Malmö, Sweden, didn’t quite capture that feeling.

“A lot of the tunes had an almost Highland folk-song atmosphere to them, and I really wanted to record them somewhere cold,” Woomble explains of the decision to relocate. “I consider myself to be Northern European – I love Scandinavian literature and music, and dark nights and snow on the ground, and we’d never delved into recording our music in that kind of environment. I thought it might really influence it well.” After returning to the UK with five finished songs, however, Parlophone were “a bit underwhelmed by it all”, Woomble admits. “And we were basically back to square one, thinking, Right, OK. We need to start writing songs again… And we re-evaluated what we were doing.”

Another stint in the Highlands, however, found the new line-up clicking into place. “Everyone was coming up with ideas,” Woomble says. “Previously, it had really been Rod [Jones, guitarist] and I that generated most of the song ideas. Now Allan and Gavin would have a lot of different musical ideas and chord progressions and suggestions… Gavin was also a great singer, so we had three-part harmonies for the first time… So it was a different sound… and it became more of a collective than it had ever been. And because of that, we had to adapt. Rod, in particular, found it a bit hard because, at that point, he’d been the main guy, musically. He was still sort of the main guy, but we had lots of other really good musicians who were able to suggest things. So we were all trying to work out a new way of being Idlewild.”

Coming away with a fresh batch of 40 demos from which to pick the eventual Warnings/Promises material, an offer to record the album Los Angeles – over 5,500 miles and several climates away from Malmö – gave the group what they needed in order to finalise their new work.

“It’s much more of an American-sounding record”

A suggestion that Idlewild work with producer Tony Hoffer (Beck, Air) in LA “shone a whole different light on these ideas”, Woomble says. “Now we’d started to do these acoustic songs – just two guitars, maybe a keyboard – it gave Tony a blank canvas… And there were a lot more possibilities, because they could be turned into rock songs, like Love Steals Us From Loneliness, or they could remain more or less as they were, like Not Just Sometimes But Always, Welcome Home or Goodnight.”

Having already braved the weather in Malmö’s more unforgiving climate, the opportunity to spend two months in The Golden State didn’t hurt, either. “It was almost like a fantasy we were living,” Woomble says. “I realise LA is a very contrasting city. The extremes of wealth and poverty are disturbing – Brecht called it Heaven and Hell combined – but we were very privileged. We were experiencing the best of it.”

Ensconced in Hollywood’s legendary Sunset Sound Recorders, home to a mind-boggling musical lineage, including most of The Doors’ records, many of Prince’s landmark early works, and countless Hollywood musical soundtracks (“It’s like a museum of sound,” Woomble notes), the group set to work on finalising Warnings/Promises while another part of LA’s musical history seeped in.

“We were listening to a lot of music from the Lauren Canyon scene of the 60s and 70s, like Neil Young, Crazy Horse, Crosby, Stills And Nash, Little Feat – all that kind of stuff,” Woomble says. “So that was having a real influence on the sound, too. Because a lot of the ideas were acoustic-based, we thought, Let’s just add minimal things – acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, drums, three harmonies – like a lot of the 70s records. And Tony was really into the simplicity of it. I recorded using the old vintage gear they had at the studio, and that’s why the album has a completely different sound to The Remote Part, which is quite brash and has a very Scottish pop production of that era. Warnings/Promises is much more rootsy – it’s much more of an American-sounding record.”

“The lyrics are almost dialogue”

The results were songs such as Love Steals Us From Loneliness and I Want A Warning, which, with scuzzy guitar motifs cutting through a grungy melange, wear their Neil Young influences on their sleeves. Elsewhere, however, the likes of I Understand It and Not Just Sometimes But Always found the folkier leanings of the Warnings/Promises demos coming to the fore.

“The record was considered to be quite a stylistic change, because it wasn’t all about riffs or distortion pedals or big, anthemic choruses,” Woomble says. “Though there were some anthemic choruses, everything was treated in a slightly different way.” With the new line-up’s various influences also making themselves felt, moments such as the intro to The Space Between All Things hinted at the sort of sound Idlewild may have created had they taken Remain In Light-era Talking Heads as a jumping-off point.

“That was more Allan’s influence,” Woomble notes. “He’s really into what he would call ‘math rock’ – American bands, quite complicated, tricky guitar work, slightly off-kilter time changes and things like that. That came from him: Let’s try this as the introduction, and then we’ll change the time signature. He had different ideas like that.” The new guitarist’s influence was perfectly timed for a group in the throes of, as Woomble puts it, “opening our minds to different things”.

“We were always looking for the most interesting ways to work out songs,” Woomble explains. “We’d always start with a good melody in the chorus and a good melody in the verse: two distinct melodies that worked well together, so they almost felt like a first chorus and a second chorus. And then we’d think about how we were going to start the song – can we do something interesting with the introduction? Can we do something interesting with the outro? So the songs developed like that.”

As a lyricist, too, Woomble further honed his songwriting. Building upon the approach he took for The Remote Part, the singer now became more focused on “writing songs about things”.

“With The Remote Part, I started simplifying my ideas a bit and making the lyrics easier to sing along with and easier for people to relate to, without being too obvious or inauthentic, or saying things that I didn’t think were good,” he says. “And Warnings/Promises refined that even more.” Recording Idlewild’s new album right in the heart of the movie industry also inspired a different lyrical approach.

“I’m a big fan of films. I was a film student before I dropped out to be in a band, and I’ve always taken a lot of influence from dialogue in films and atmosphere in films,” he says. “What made me feel comfortable about writing songs was almost trying to write them as I imagined them as scenes in films, and the lyrics are almost dialogue. I’m not talking about storylines that start and end, but songs like Blame It On Obvious Ways or As If I Hadn’t Slept are definitely constructed like I’m imagining things as a script. And that ties in with being in Los Angeles, leaving the studio at night and driving down Sunset Boulevard, and just imagining all the amazing films that have been filmed there… It was really evocative for me.”

“A lot of people thought, This is a band for life”

Released on 7 March 2005, Warnings/Promises was, for some fans, as divisive as the album’s title: was this an ominous indication of an irreversible shift in Idlewild’s sound, or a declaration of intent from a band increasingly interested in reconfiguring themselves?

“It took a lot of people by surprise,” Woomble says. “A lot of Idlewild fans from the Hope Is Important or 100 Broken Windows era” – when the group were at their most aggressive-sounding – “didn’t like the direction the band were taking… But the irony is that we found a new fanbase. We got played on Radio 2, and new people were discovering us who were much older, so it was a successful record in that way. It opened us up to a lot of different people.”

Relishing the opportunity to present their new material – and their latest line-up – in a setting that reflected how they wrote the album’s songs, Idlewild also embarked on a short acoustic tour in order to promote Warnings/Promises. “It was amazing in the way that it gave us so much confidence,” Woomble says. “We played most of our new record and we reworked a lot of our old songs in that style. People seemed to love it, and it started us on a whole different chapter, thinking, We can be two different bands… We’ve moved into new territory that we can explore creatively.”

Having completely redefined what it meant to be Idlewild, Warnings/Promises now stands as a line drawn in the sand, separating the rock group of the past from the new entity which had broadened its horizons.

“In many ways it was the end of one part of Idlewild, but the start of a new one,” Woomble reflects. “And I think a lot of people mourned the end of it that way – they were thinking, God, they’re not going to make 100 Broken Windows again. But a lot of people thought, this band are going to go on for a long time, because all their records differ from each other, and they seem to be getting more and more expansive with their ideas. And I think a lot of people thought, This is a band for life.”

‘Warnings/Promises’ has just been released on vinyl.

Buy it at the Dig! store.

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