Bill Wells

The jazz virtuoso explains his indie bent, reveals what's lacking in mediocre electronica & snubs the Glasgow jazz scene

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 10 Jan 2014
  • min read
‘I’m really interested in records that are sonically unique and music that doesn’t sound like anything else,’ says virtuoso multi-instrumentalist and arranger Bill Wells.

Although his foundations lie in jazz, Bill is an extraordinary specimen who’s as comfortable crafting complex time signatures as he is stitching himself into the loose knit of Glasgow’s indie community.

The award-winning visionary - who’s often dubbed ‘Falkirk’s answer to Sun Ra’, having spent his formative years in the sleepy Scottish town - is an expert alchemist who’s not afraid to unravel the science of music.

Over 20 years he has blossomed into one of Glasgow’s most lauded musical heroes, generously sharing his talents around a gang of likeminded musicians including Belle and Sebastian's Isobel Campbell, The Pastels, Arab Strap, Aidan Moffat and Future Pilot AKA.

More recently he’s turned out some spellbinding records with Japanese acts Tenniscoats and Maher Shalal Hash Baz, and produced some of his finest work with German electronic pioneers Stefan Schneider, Barbara Morgenstern and trombonist Annie Whitehead.

When the opportunity came up to chat to Bill about his prolific output and his life in Glasgow, it was hard to know where to begin.

What follows is a transcribe of our conversation, which covers his unique perspective at the very heart of Glasgow’s music scene.

He explains his admiration for Aphex Twin, reveals why real emotion in electronica is crucial, and talks openly about being snubbed by the Glasgow jazz community.

You’ve collaborated with so many people from the Glasgow indie community over the years – do you see any common threads running through the city’s musicians?
I spent a lot of time learning about music and music theory. I was always interested in being an arranger but the only way you could do that was to be able to write music. I think most of the people I work with don’t know about that so it’s interesting that they see things on another level.

It was noticeable when I first started because I’d been in the jazz scene. And one of the things that always annoyed me about all those guys was that they tend to look at things in terms of how difficult they are to play. They often judge things on a technical level. On the indie side they throw that all out. Instead they go for the emotional side, which is obviously what it’s all about anyway. They have an ability to centre in on something and understand exactly what is making it work. They can cut to the chase.

How did you first hook up with Aidan Moffat?
When I first started working with Aidan it took us a wee while to get going – I don’t know if you read anywhere that it took us eight years to do that record? In a way it did take that long because we started working together eight years before the record was finished. But we didn’t really know we were making it for a long time. When we started it was just a one-off song, If You Keep Me In Your Heart. I just had a vague idea for a chord sequence and I didn’t even know it was going to be a song or anything.

I’d worked with [Aidan’s band] Arab Strap on their Monday at the Hug & Pint album and that was good because I was a big fan. I was really flattered that they asked me to be involved. Even though we were both from Falkirk we didn’t really talk to each other until we moved to Glasgow and even then it took us a while because we were in different crowds.

A lot is said about what you bring to these collaborations, but what do you get out of them?
It’s great to work with people that come at things from a different angle, like Aidan. Also The Pastels, Future Pilot, Isobel (Campbell) and a lot of my Japanese guys as well. They’re less concerned with the technicalities and are going for the feeling.

Also, collaborations are always interesting because people listen to different types of music so you start to explore that more. I deliberately wanted to do something with Stefan Schneider and Barbara Morgenstern because they were involved in electronic music.

Was that a weird world for you?
I’m really interested in records that are sonically unique and music that doesn’t sound like anything else. Electronic music is all about that. I like to embrace it to a certain extent.

There’s an awful lot of electronic music out there but to be honest, there’s not a lot that makes me feel anything, y’know? [Stefan Schneider’s] To Rococo Rot stuff does - it’s got an emotional level to it that a lot of electronic music doesn’t have. I think that’s to do with the thought behind it and also how particular they are about sounds. It’s very easy to buy a synthesiser and use the preset sounds but I’ve never been that keen on doing that. The fact that Aphex Twin actually made his own instruments immediately made his music so distinctive and on a different level to anyone else.

It’s going back to that standard of sound you were talking about…
Definitely. If you look at sound, it’s not the most important thing but it’s certainly a real priority in electronic music. You accept what an acoustic instrument sounds like – a piano is going to sound more or less the same each time. But when you start doing electronic music the whole thing opens out and there aren’t any norms to refer to.

Taking all these experiences into account, how has the way you make music changed since you first started out?
The whole computer thing has changed things, and being able to record things at home. I started doing my own mixing and recording more recently. The last few things I’ve done I’ve basically recorded in my kitchen. And I wasn’t even sure I could do it to a level that I would be happy with. It’s taken quite a while. It saves some money but also it gives you so much more control.

Even if you’ve got an engineer you really get on with it can be so frustrating to get it right. Sometimes all you want to do is get to the faders yourself! If you’ve got that much control and accessibility it means you can do it all the time. Although it can get really overwhelming because you get really obsessed and there’s nothing to stop you sitting there working all night going over and over something!

Is it harder to know when something’s finished if you’re constantly tinkering?
Definitely. You just keep on. I’ve had that experience where you feel like you’re nearly at the end of a record but that last part can go on for ages because you get obsessed the small details of it.

Which no one else could probably even hear…
But ultimately the small details do matter because even if people don’t notice them particularly, they will notice that it’s just a little bit better, y’know?

You said once in an interview that you felt snubbed by the Glasgow jazz community. Why do you think that was and is it still the case?
It’s not a very big scene so there’s not a lot to be snubbed from I suppose, but I still managed it! Part of me thinks I must be doing something right – which sounds a bit rude! The Glasgow Jazz Festival is really so dull. You don’t feel there’s anything very interesting happening in it. Well, I don’t. Oh dear, I don’t think I’ll ever be in it again now!

I thought I was doing OK in that kind of crowd and was building my way up from really crappy pub gigs. I was getting there and it just came to a point… I won an award one year for a gig with Harry Beckett the trumpeter, who was one of my heroes and one of the greatest trumpet players ever – he played with Mingus and was a totally distinctive voice. The year after I got that award I went back to them and they wouldn’t let me in.

It coincided with me meeting up with the Glasgow indie scene so I made a move towards that. I still occasionally work with those sorts of people, like Annie Whitehead, who’s one of the greatest trombone players on the planet. I’m not waiting for the call or anything… But I mean… I founded the National Jazz Trio of Scotland! Which is admittedly more of a pop band than a jazz band, but it’s not entirely a joke…

Glasgow has been seen as fiercely independent since the old Postcard Records days. Why do you think the town is so self sufficient?
Well, there’s definitely a significant amount of support from Creative Scotland and the Scottish Arts Council and other similar organisations. These days they are right behind the indie scene. It’s something that’s changed a lot since I first started out. Back then it was very difficult to get funding for anything that wasn’t classical or opera or jazz.

Is there a piece of work you’re most proud of?
Probably the [sheet music] book I did – which is the least commercially success thing I’ve ever done! I had so much music and I thought it was as good a way to release it as any. It was a reply to the jazz scene – I called it The Lonesome Real Book – a play on the title of [jazz bible] The Real Book.

I put in pieces that were accessible enough that you could play them at a gig, although they tend more towards the jazz side of things. Every piece is on one page and they are all basically just chords and melodies. I couldn’t get a record label interested in it so I ended up self-publishing it. It took ages and I included a CD-R of the melodies. I got Annabel who used to be in The Pastels, to draw the cover.

Here are three of our top Bill Wells picks: