Thanks so much to Robert Polson for the interview. A long time ago I wrote about them and Robert was kind enough to get in touch and send me a bunch of their early demos which were AMAZING (which you can listen to in their new SoundCloud page). These days Robert continues making music under Wat Mag but he was up for reminiscing the late 80s when he was in This Scarlet Train, the best band I’ve ever heard to come from Falkirk. The ever so mysterious band, one that I always wondered about on my book, the one that I would learn their Myspace back in the day was a fake one, not set up by the end, at last unveils some of their secrets. Here are also two (1, 2) photos Robert shared with me from the band. Hope you enjoy!
++ Hi Robert! Thanks so much for getting in touch. It’s really awesome that you are still making music under Water Magnesium! When did you start this project? And would you say are there any similarities between This Scarlet Train and this new project of yours?
Water Magnesium (Wat Mag) was formed about 3 or 4 years after This Scarlet Train. This Scarlet Train lasted about 2 years, during which I had effectively my life on hold,so there was a lot of ‘real life’ stuff to catch up on and I didn’t want to get involved in any kind of band scenario. Wat Mag was/is a sort of lo-fi,experimental recording project consisting of Jim Corbett and myself, using cheap keyboards,children’s toys,drum machines as well as guitars/ bass and effects recorded into a 4 track cassette machine. We don’t operate as a band, just come together on occasions, do stuff, then drift back to our separate lives. I made a very definite decision to avoid any connection with This Scarlet Train. I was very much tired of that sound, in fact aside from the most recent recordings, I rarely even played guitar on the Wat Mag stuff. The first track we recorded (Softly Ageing Eyes) was done off the cuff using a half broken Bontempi organ, a cheap Casio, some effects and a box of matches. it kind of set us up for taking different approaches to music making. There is an archive of WatMag stuff here- https://soundcloud.com/watmag
++ And in between these two projects of yours, were you involved with music?
Because Wat Mag works on a loose, sporadic basis it meant that I could get involved in other things. I used to enjoy just jamming with people,playing mainly bass. It was nice to play with different people and types of music rather than stuff I wrote or co wrote.
The last serious project I was involved in was The Tollbooth Sound Orchestra,, a collection of people with different musical backgrounds creating a kind of avant garde,free improv orchestra. We played gigs in Scotland and Ireland. Couple of pieces here if anyone is interested-https://soundcloud.com/noiseochestra.
I was also involved in putting together some sound installations,around this time, mainly doing analog electronics with both these projects.
I was becoming increasingly tired and bored of the whole music thing and after they finished I more or less put an end to making music.It felt right to have a total change.
++ You were also telling me that there’s a demo tape with far superior recordings of the tracks on the vinyl record. So I can’t stop wondering why didn’t you release those? And also, are there many more songs of yours on tapes that didn’t get the chance to be released?
Well, I could only say the earlier were superior, once they had been re-recorded. The earlier versions of Picture Frame/Still Rain were recorded as a 2 piece with a drum machine. After the drummer joined,the sound was so much dynamic and powerful, also since he was contributing to the album recording costs, it seemed re-recording them with the new line up was the right thing to do.,. As for other recordings? Well aside from the stuff I sent you, there isn’t really any surviving that I’m aware of and these would only consist of practice tapes.
++ Overall, which would you say was your favourite This Scarlet Train song? Why?
Probably Picture Frame. We did come up with loads of material really quickly, when we started,a lot of it was semi instrumental, with rather complex interplay between the guitar and bass. Picture Frame was quite simple, but still captured what we were trying to do. I came up with the riff one morning, still half asleep, We worked on the break bit together, and Stuarts vocal melody was quite catchy and kinda brought a more obvious pop element to our sound.
Also I remember walking into the control booth when we were recording the demo and first hearing it after the producer/engineer had worked his magic toys on it and being almost dumbstruck at how good it sounded. It first made me aware of how the studio could be used as a creative tool, this led me to buying a 4 track when the band split-I just wanted to make kinda homemade lo-fi records. Having a 4 track also allowed Water Magnesium to work in the way it did.
++ Tell me how did This Scarlet Train started as a band? How was the recruiting process? How did you know each other and what were you doing at the time?
I knew Stuart for some time, we both liked similar music and had been trying to get a band together on and off for ages. These attempts weren’t much more than some weak sounding jams. After a while we basically gave up and drifted apart. Then one day he phoned me out of the blue,he’d bought a bass and sounded pretty excited…Did I want to come for a jam? I can remember walking to his home,carrying my Rickenbacker, not particularly enthused with the idea, trying to figure out excuses,so I could leave early.
Stuart had been turned onto the Cocteau Twins/Joy Division/New Order by a friend and was feeling inspired . He’d traded his guitar in for a tasty looking old Rickenbacker 4001 bass. I was a bit bemused,I was listening to a lot of 60’s stuff at the time, having moved away from post punk,which was the first music I was into -‘Metal Box’ era PIL/Banshees/Birthday Party/Killing Joke etc. But I trusted him enough to give it a shot…. and it just worked from the off, Like a Year Zero moment, We abandoned our previous ideas, any conventional ways of playing the instruments and started coming up with lots of material very quickly. A drum machine was bought shortly after.This was about July/August 1986.
By December we’d played 3 gigs and recorded the Picture Frame/Still Rain demo using the drum machine, we put the demo for sale in the local record shop and a ‘Drummer Wanted’ ad in the local press referring to it. We had our first rehearsal/audition,as a 3 piece, just before Christmas of that year and started reworking the set in early January.
++ And were you involved with bands before? Where does the name of the band came from?
Stuart had played in several bands before, he was by large the most experienced and better player between us. I had briefly passed thru one them, playing bass in a dodgy punk band he was in.We didn’t really get on with another, for quite a while.
Initially the band was called ‘Shadowplay’- we’d been offered our first gig and had to come up with a name in an afternoon,so that the posters could be printed. Neither of us liked it,but stuck with it for the following gigs,not wanting to lose momentum. We used becoming a 3 piece as an excuse to change name. The name is totally meaningless, we just threw ideas about,riffed on words,associations etc and that’s what came out at the end.
I think if you use ‘Echo and the Bunnymen’ as a yardstick of silly names, then you can get away with just about anything, it you have enough front!
Funniest thing about it another local band, who we used to rehearse and gig with, immediately changed their name to ‘That Purple Bus’ in reference to us.
Oh, local papers announcement, when we split; ‘This Scarlet Train Have Crashed!!’
++ How did you end up signing to Night shift Records? What was the deal? How many copies were pressed?
Night shift were a local label,run by Brain Guthrie who managed Lowlife. To be honest, I’d never heard of either, till we spoke. We knew the Two Helens,who had released their album on Sharko 2 records, a subsidiary company, however I didn’t make any connection. I honestly don’t know how they heard us, it’s possible Brian was at our first gig, he did hear our first demo somehow and got in touch.We weren’t signed up in terms of having a written contract, I don’t think many bands of that level were. This had its advantages and disadvantages
The Cartel were an independent distribution company set up to give small labels a chance to compete with the majors in getting records in the shops. Fast Forward was the Scottish branch of it, based in Edinburgh.
The common deal for bands was this; The Cartel /FF would get their bills in every quarter. The band would pay for the recording expenses. The cost of manufacturing the record and sleeve were put on The Cartels ‘tab’. Once released, the band would have a 3 month period to try to sell as many records as possible, in an attempt to settle the bills when they arrived. If they succeeded-fine the process could start again. If they didn’t, then the band were in debt. I think there may have been a 1000 copies printed, but can’t remember for sure.
The whole system was open to abuse from all sides and the Cartel eventually went bankrupt. .
++ How do you remember the recording sessions at Planet Studios in Edinburgh? Any fun anecdotes you could share?
Well if anyone wants to hear Fimbria, click here
The original Picture Frame/Still Rain demos were done in Glasgow at Centre City Sounds studio. It was pretty small, inexpensive,but well enough equipped. the producer/engineer really liked our music and went the extra yard to get it sounding good. We were really pleased with it.
When the chance came to record an album,we had already settled on returning there. However the label insisted that we use Planet Studios in Edinburgh and hire (label mates) Lowlife producer Keith Mitchel work on it with us. Planet studios was bigger,better equipped and more expensive,which meant less time to complete it, We were assured that it would sound better and be more productive with him producing
It wasn’t, I remember the whole experience as being rushed, claustrophobic, unsatisfying and pretty boring. Lowlifes drummer invited himself to the studios. I am a firm believer that the interaction of personalities and the environment has a profound effect on creativity. The band worked fine together, but this didn’t.
Each night after recording Stuart and I would discuss the sessions,neither of us happy, trying to sort out problems and how to get our points across to the producer. Midway through the sessions we decided that we would be better using the tracks on the original demo, which we owned the master tape of. It would save time and they sounded a lot better than the re-recorded versions. We were told bluntly that it wasn’t going happen, it was technically impossible and then basically mocked a bit for even suggesting it. We were so taken aback,by his attitude that we didn’t pursue it…. But I could feel my eyes narrowing…
I kept on finding excuses to leave the studio, finding it claustrophobic and frustrating. Ended up looking in record shops, charity places, just wandering about, anything to avoid being in there. I’d get back in, have a look and listen, then just wanted to leave again.
I kept on thinking/hoping that maybe everything would come good at the mixing stage, but the final listening session had a pretty muted response.
When I did receive the finished record, I played it once, thought ‘Meh’ , filed it and don’t think I’ve made it all the way through it since. I didn’t actually own a copy for years. Wasn’t until my dad passed away and I was helping my mum move that I stumbled upon a batch.
I honestly think that if we had forced the issue, went to our preferred studio/producer and shut off everyone not connected with the process, we would have made a far superior, better produced, full length album. Regardless of what happened after that, at least we would have ended up with something that we were happy with.
So to answer your question; No I don’t have much in the way of amusing anecdotes, I’m afraid!
++ I’m wondering a bit about Falkirk. How was the scene back then? Where would you usually hang out? Were there any other good bands in town that you enjoyed?
My favourite band at that time was fronted by Jim Corbett, who I later went on to form Wat Mag with. They had a seemingly constant changes of lineup and name changes, including Inferiority Complex,Complex, the Invisible Sheep, That Purple Bus and others I’ve forgotten. We practiced and gigged with them a few times. It’s a pity nothing of theirs was ever recorded.
The Two Helens were quite big in the area, played Nuggets/garage rock, originals and a few covers,… Action women, Going All The Way, Silver Machine among others…. We also gigged with them in Falkirk and Edinburgh..They had released an album the year previous to us, which didn’t really capture the band at its best. There was also a 7″ single and then they split.Their singer/guitarist went on form a rockabilly band, who, IIRC supported us at least once.
I don’t remember there really being a scene as such. There was a bar that put on mid week gigs and a few other places for bands to play. There wasn’t any kind of focal point. I’m quite a boring person who prefers spending quiet time with friends than noisy, drunken nights out. There is a (out of date and rather tenuous,but detailed) website, documenting the Falkirk Music scene here, which will tell you more than I know or remember
++ What about gigs? Did you play live often? Any favourite gigs?
We were never a great live band. The material didn’t really translate to the stage that well. The early gigs using the drum machine were particularly awkward. Once we had a real drummer and I got a fuzz pedal the whole sound became more powerful and dynamic. Still not brilliant. Stuart was pretty much tied to the spot, doing the bass and vocals. He only started the singing out of necessity and even quite far on in the bands life, we were still on the lookout for a proper vocalist/front man. I never felt comfortable on stage, very much against my nature to be there and most gigs I was in a state of suspended terror. I think we did about 3 gigs using the drum machine and about 10-12 as a full band. Mainly in Falkirk and Edinburgh…Some were better than others, but nothing particularly stands out as a favourite
++ During those late 80s there were many great bands, guitar pop bands. Did you feel part of any sort of scene? Were you fans of any bands during that period?
I think we were kind of out of step with everybody. My musical tastes are pretty wide ranging and more often than not, I don’t play much attention to contemporary stuff
but some records/bands I dug during that period include- Throwing Muses debut, Pixies- Come on Pilgrim/ Surfer Rosa,… AR Kane,… Always liked the “Brix” era Fall records, esp “This Nation’s Saving Grace”,… Drag Racing E.P. by Big Stick,… Sonic Youth…,Salem 66…Birthday-the Sugar-cubes,.. Spacemen 3,..Big Black,…M.B.V, …Living All Over/ Bug- Dinosaur Jr…, Hook N Pull Gang,…UT …Blood Uncles…early Happy Mondays….I daresay there’s of loads others that I can’t recall at the mo…,
++ Was there any interest by other labels? Why didn’t you release more records?
We posted the first demo away to a few labels, but it was only a token effort. We were just so busy concentrating on getting ourselves together to even think about that side of things. The album was pretty much ignored, when it was released and I, for one, had no intention to moving to London, which at the time was pretty requisite’ I didn’t really think of Night Shift as a proper record company as such, it was one guy-Brian Guthrie- was acted almost as an agent between the band and the Cartel. I have a feeling that there were many other labels
who were pretty much the same.It is easy to appear to be bigger than you really are’
We were getting pushed into releasing a follow up record ;a 7 inch single,We went as far as recording 2 songs as a double B side (Here). However the band was ending it’s natural life span and there was no point in being further indebted to the label . The Two Helen’s had released a follow up 7* and had split quite soon afterwards, leaving it un-promoted. I don’t know if or how they resolved the financial debts with Night Shift but I was glad we split up before we were in a similar situation.
++ What about the music press, or the fanzines, how was your relationship with them?
Oh, there was a local fanzine n the go at the time, gave us a couple of fair lives reviews. Melody Maker (ling defunct UK national music paper) reviewed Fimbria and gave us a small bottom of the page feature/interview. Both were by Ian Gittins and probably done as a favour to Night Shift. I Think he was a fan of label mates Lowlife. Considering we had barely been going for a year when we made the record, it was pretty well going.
++ When and why did you split? What did you guys do after? Are you all still in touch?
Well, the album didn’t sell enough in the quarterly period to pay for its manufacture, so we were in debt to the Cartel via Night shift. We knew this was the chance we took before agreeing to doing it. What we weren’t prepared for, was to be so disappointed with the end result. There was a growing suspicion, that the reason we were pushed into using Night Shifts preferred studio/producer setup, was more for their benefit rather than the bands. Never the less, we had regular meetings with Guthrie, literally handing over bundles of pound notes to him. My memory starts to get a bit hazy after this,….We basically gigged quite a bit on the following months. After an unfortunate incident at a Edinburgh gig, we parted company with Stephen the drummer. We couldn’t get a new one. An old friend of ours offered to stand in, but he was unreliable. More often than not,we’d book and pay for a rehearsal hall only for him not to turn up. We started to stall and never really recovered. Night Shift were urging us to record a follow up 7″ single. I assume we were initially agreeable as we went to a cheap studio and recorded a couple of drummer- less tracks, that we worked on, at the drummer- less rehearsals. These were intended as a double B side. The fact I remember nothing about recording these, says a lot. If we had went ahead with the single, we would have had to raise the recording money and it would have put us more in debt. I don’t recall much zest for the idea.
Anyway to cut a long story short; The whole thing dragged for months on end. Nothing that was good or enjoyable about the band existed any more. Our lives were basically put on hold because of it, I still was staying with my folks and just couldn’t afford to leave, Our money was going on paying for a record we didn’t like and more would be going to pay for another we had little enthusiasm for. We needed a break from each other, it just wasn’t fun. We also just grew away the style and sound of the music we made.
I’m not good at ending things or breaking up, I tend just to let bad situations get worse as they drag on or try to come up with some pathetic ‘magic’ fix to sort them…probably down to insecurity or basic cowardliness.
Luckily Stuart is made of sterner stuff and pulled the plug on it. Think about Sept ’88.
After the band split,I felt a bit lost, like there was something missing. then I realised that the ‘hole’ was actually all the bands problems, which I had been wasting my energy on, trying to resolve..and they no longer existed..Such a feeling of relief! Fairly quickly, I left home,was in a relationship and was working. Sometimes after a bad situation ends,it’s good to have a nice,stable routine to help you recover. I sold my band equipment and was quite happy strumming Neil Young songs and stuff on an acoustic and occasionally recording a friend country blues renditions on my 4 track.Had I not later hooked up with Jim for Wat Mag, I might not have returned to making music at all.
Stuart wet to form and join various bands. We were drifting apart in This Scarlet Train and after splitting, lost complete contact for a couple of years. Eventually we did hook up socially for a while .Neither of us mentioned the band, maybe a bit embarrassed to have spent so much effort,into something that had no relevance any more.
++ Looking back in time what would you say was the highlight of the band?
The first six months were pretty amazing. the whole thing just seem to come together out of the blue. We were experimenting with different ways how the guitar and bass work together, loads of material came in short time. The first gig was 2nd billing at a local festival.Our third was packed with people and we made enough money to book a studio. We were very pleased with the recording and the demo indirectly led to us recruiting a drummer and a chance to record the Album. It all probably gave us a false sense of security that everything we did would turn out good.
++ Aside from music what other hobbies do you enjoy doing?
My first love was art, drawing mainly, which I had started before I even went to school. I had a crisis of confidence later on at high school, which stopped me trying to pursue it as some sort of career. Think as the band took over more and more of my time , I kinda drifted away from it and eventually gave up. After the sound installations I was involved in I just ended any more music making activities and drifted back into art.. Spent a couple of years doing art classes at local College, getting my ‘chops’ back. Then i set up a home studio, decided to paint.I take it at a quite leisurely pace, more interested in technique, than expressing myself or some idea. I feel much more at home doing this compared with music and wish I had went back to it a lot sooner .
I made a series of sorta short films/video art (sic) as an experiment in combining the art with ( mainly improvised) experimental music. I uploaded them recently on You tube. Anyone interested click HERE
++ Something that many people always ask themselves is how come Scotland produces so many great bands. Do you have any clue why this is?
No idea, I think maybe that there’s lots of small things combined in a certain way,that will never really be unravelled…..Possibly the weather plays a role. For the most part it’s cold and wet, people are indoors and if you’re bored and have a creative bent, then somethings gonna come out. Think the weather has some effect on the nations psychology as well….. There’s always been a rich tradition of folk music as well and ,although as a genre it’s pretty marginalised,, maybe the need to make music somehow runs through our DNA…. There was also a big maritime history, so a lot of outside ideas being assimilated, whether it’ was American rock’n’roll records in the 50’s or immigrants and travellers bringing in new ideas that are absorbed,…. Maybe it’s partly down to the need of expressing our individuality.
However a lot of these things could also apply to Ireland and indeed there are a lot of similarities and shared bloodlines between the two nations, however they haven’t produced the same amount of bands (or indeed inventions) as the Scots. So….as I said; I don’t really know.
++ One last question, because I actually like Scotland very much and always had a great time there, I’m wondering what’s your favourite Scottish dish (is there any Falkirk speciality?) and favourite Scottish beer? I should try next time I’m there of course.
I’m afraid I’m not too interested in food and drink myself. There were long traditions of both brewing and Whiskey distilling in Falkirk, both long gone. I heard talk of opening some sort of micro-distillery/ brewers in the old RoseBank distillery, but it’s been in discussion for a few years now’
I guess Scotland has a reputation for deep frying everything from confectionery to pizzas. there may or may not be in an element of truth in it. You’re more than likely to come across Indian,Chinese, Italian,French restaurants as much as anything more home grown.
++ Well, thanks again, anything else you’d like to add?
Just thanks for the interest and be sure pass thanks to the NYC DJs who’ve been playing it. When something gets released into the public domain, it takes a life of its own and it’s creator(s), have no say on where it goes, who hears it or how they’ll perceive or respond to it. I had pretty much forgotten about the record a long time ago. Every few years I’d give it a google, see where its journeyed to.
Nowadays it’s easy to click a (virtual) button and have a (virtual)piece of music delivered to the (increasingly virtual) memory of a handheld gadget-. not necessarily a bad thing- However a vinyl record is a relatively awkward, fragile object to move about,;It needs care and the fact that, decades later, the record has ended up in the clubs of NYC is quite a far out journey
This Scarlet Train – Picture Frame