Stevie Jones always thought Sound of Yell would be a cool name for a band. This was the case ever since he used to go on holiday with his parents to the Shetlands with his parents, where the Yell Sound is the strait of water running between the two largest islands, Yell and Mainland. As one of the most sought after musical collaborators in the country prepares to release Leapling, his second full-length record under the Sound of Yell name, his full eight-piece band show at the CCA in Glasgow tonight has clearly made his wish come true. This is the case despite what those unfamiliar with Scottish geography might presume the band sound like from the name alone.
“I suppose it suggests shouting,” says Jones, “but there’s a fragility there as well. As for the real Sound of Yell, I suppose it suggests a form of escape, and o I guess there’s a degree of nostalgia there as well.”
Leapling’s collection of acoustic guitar-led instrumentals and low-key songs mix strings, woodwind, percussion and voice in a way that expands the Sound of Yell palette introduced on the ensemble’s 2014 debut, Brocken Spectre.
“Sound of Yell began with a slightly dogmatic approach, says Jones, “in that everything had to be acoustic, without any amplified effects. I was more interested in organic and natural sounds.”
The result on Leapling is a playful mix of instinctive neo-folk and off-kilter melodies infused with a home-grown warmth that at times recalls some of the late Arthur Russell’s earliest instrumentals. There are shades too of some of the collaborations between composer Lindsay Cooper and singer/film-maker Sally Potter combined with the unforced purity of Bristolian pastoralists, Movietone.
“The big difference between this record and the first one is that the band has solidified,” says Jones of Leapling. “We’ve done loads of live shows, and I’ve written more for specific musicians. I think that’s made for a shift, so things have developed out of playing live. I suppose that makes for a more collective experience, and it feels more refined and intuitive. There’s a density to it that feels more painterly, with lots of different layers adding different things.”
This is done by a core group of long-time accomplices; drummer Alex Neilson of Alex Rex, singer and visual artist Victoria Morton, viola player Aby Vulliamy and bass flautist Georgie White. With Jones at the helm of a fluid left-field supergroup of sorts, the CCA show also features One Ensemble clarinettist Alex South, violinist Rafe Fitzpatrick and Belle and Sebastian guitarist Stevie Jackson in the line-up.
The title of the record comes both from the fact that 2020 is a leap year, as well as the considerable time since Brocken Spectre appeared, with only a 10” single, Light the Currents, composed for a performance at an exhibition of work by the late Katy Dove at Dundee Contemporary Arts, filling the gap. Leaving aside that it’s closer to six years than four, “It suggests a kind of playfulness to things. I’ve got a niece who’s a leapling as well. We tried to get the record to come out on February 29th, but the shops are adamant it has to come out on a Friday, so we’ve gone for the day before.”
Since first coming to prominence as a member of 1990s post-rock instrumentalists El Hombre Trajeado, a band that also featured RM Hubbert, Jones has become something of a zelig-like figure in Glasgow’s left-field music scenes. With El Hombre Trajeado having played alongside peers such as Arab Strap and The Delgados, Jones ended up joining the former, and has played in former Delgado Emma Pollock’s band.
Other collaborations have seen Jones work with pianist Bill Wells in tandem with Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat, as well as the assorted solo projects of both Moffat and Arab Strap guitarist Malcolm Middleton. Jones has also played with other fellow travellers including Alasdair Roberts, with many of his collaborators playing on Jones’ own records.
“I suppose I’ve always been involved in very collaborative projects, in which everyone has equal weight. They’re socialist projects. But I thought it would be interesting to challenge my working practices, my writing and arrangements, and become a band leader, and to bring in different musicians to bring those things alive. That’s not something I’d previously felt confident about, but having that different dynamic really helped that confidence. It’s why as well it’s so important to work on other people’s projects. The desire to have my own project stems from playing in other people’s groups.”
As well as Sound of Yell and his numerous collaborations, Jones has also worked as a musician and composer on theatre, dance and art projects. These include work with Grid Iron and Suspect Culture theatre companies, the National Theatre of Scotland, and at Perth Theatre on Lu Kemp’s production of Richard III. Jones has composed scores for films and projects by artists Sue Tompkins, Luke Fowler and Richard Youngs, as well as fellow Sound of Yell member Victoria Morton. Having produced records by El Hombre Trajeado, Jones has also overseen albums by Aby Vulliamy, The One Ensemble and artist Tony Swain’s National Bedtime project.
“Rather than drawing from purely musical references, I think working in other mediums, and being surrounded by all artists from different disciplines is really inspiring, and I guess there is a dramatic or cinematic quality to what Sound of Yell do. It’s like opening a brand new door.”
Sound of Yell play the CCA, Glasgow tonight with Sensory Illusions and Aidan Moffat (DJ). Leapling is released on February 28 on Chemikal Underground Records.
The Herald, February 15th 2020