When you approach people that have been working as musicians and who don’t count themselves among the lucky few atop the salary list, you’ll quickly become aware that the romantic cliché of creative work is nonsense. Mostly, it’s hard and frustrating work.
Craig Beaton, voice and guitarman of the legendary Scottish band AEREOGRAMME as well as the nothing less well-crafted but slightly less influential THE UNWINDING HOURS, can tell you one thing or two about that. He reported back with a new project called A MOTE OF DUST last fall and it’s fair to say that the self-titled debut album presented Craig B at his most stripped-down to date. Something that mainly has something to do with him moving to Sheffield lately, away from his usual network of friends and musicians in Glasgow. But it also shows a man more focused and at peace with his music than ever.
It’s been a long way for him though and it already could have ended with the death of AEREOGRAMME back in 2007. The pain of losing a gifted band like them due to the ongoing lack of commercial success has been huge for the fans – but maybe even worse for the band members themselves.
After AEREOGRAMME split up I actually didn’t know what to do. I had no idea. We put eight years into AEREOGRAMME, full-time. When I look back at it now I’m happy about the times we had. But back then we were really frustrated. And really angry. And really depressed about that it just hadn’t happened. It was a funny time – the internet was coming up, nobody actually knew what to do AND we were making difficult music. It ended up being destructive for us, which is a shame. I’m not bitter about it, it’s just what happened.
Craig Beaton is not bullshitting you when he says that. You still can sense the amount of disappointment and anger the whole AEREOGRAMME story involved, but you immediately buy that their time together has not been completely blurred out by bitterness. Beaton learned his lesson though and he did it the hard way. So, with his following projects, one thing was very clear to him: Music is important, but from there on, he’d build his creative life around his everyday life. Not the other way around.
We made a decision with THE UNWINDING HOURS straight away: We didn’t want to make the same mistakes that we did in AEREOGRAMME. We still wanted to make music because that’s what we love to do. But to be able to continue that we had to do it part-time. But part-time is not part-time passion, it’s not part-time creativity. You still put all your energy and love into it. It’s just not the only thing in my life now. It fits into a specific time and place. I enjoy doing different things instead of the one thing that everything depends on. It’s more relaxed, you know? More enjoyable.
You’re being pretty open about your personal struggles with living the life of a creative guy who’s barely ever made a living out of it. Your song ‘Cracks In The Mirror’ is about exactly that. Do you think you’ll ever be at peace with it?
Craig: ‘Yeah, I think, A MOTE OF DUST, and especially that song was a turning point for me. I’d been talking about giving up, I’d been talking about walking away from it, selling my guitar, all that kind of stuff. But when I wrote that song it was pretty clear I wasn’t finished yet. It’s a strange song because it’s basically me having a conversation with myself about giving up. But the fact that I wrote it meant that I wasn’t ready to give up.’
In general, the concept of A MOTE OF DUST is one that centers around perspective and relativity, condensed in the quote by CARL SAGAN that provided the name for it all.
Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. – Carl Sagan
Craig: ‘The whole idea behind A MOTE OF DUST is, that all the craziness of the world, all the stupid things that happen, all happen on this tiny planet in this vast universe. That just gives you an incredible perspective on life. And it’s got to do a lot with my songs: They’re very intimate and very serious. They’re intense. BUT: I really don’t take it as seriously as the songs suggest. It’s all about trying to find a balance between being completely insignificant – in this country, in this world, in this universe, come on, who are we? – but also trying to find meaning in that. I don’t claim to have answers, but I enjoy the questions.’
‘This is the kind of music I make, it’s what comes out. And I made absolute peace with that and how many people appeal to it.’
That new meaning Craig Beaton speaks of is also reflected in a newly found confidence in his music as well – in full realization of its strengths and weaknesses and the commercial limitations that come with them. While his former partners in crime, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty, went big with CHVRCHES, Beaton still works as a chef in a kitchen and simultaneously finishes his Master studies in Social Research Methods. But there’s not even a glimpse of envy in him, when he speaks about his pals’ success.
After we were touring ‘Afterlives’ we both (Iain and Craig, Ed.) knew what was happening was CHVRCHES. I mean, there are no guarantees, but already when I heard the demos, you could hear that it would be going well. And Iain IS doing well (smiles). I stay in his flat, when I travel up to Glasgow, and I KNOW how well they’re doing. But they’ve worked really hard for what they got and they deserve it, so I wouldn’t even want him to come back and sit in a van, travelling eight hours down the Autobahn, breaking down, not having the right tires…all that kind of shit. He’s way beyond that and it’s fine.
But when you look at what Iain achieved with CHVRCHES – did it ever cross your mind to maybe give in to make more mass compatible music?
Craig: ‘Absolutely, but I can’t! I would love to be able to do what he does. Him and Martin (Doherty, Ed.) always had this technical ability to adapt and change. I don’t. The music comes out of me a lot of time without me forcing it. Whenever I force something it’s not very good. It’s just not in me. Maybe in the future I’ll give it a shot – but I doubt it. This is the kind of music I make, it’s what comes out. And I made absolute peace with that and how many people appeal to it.’
‘Of course one should always aim for to be heard by as many people as possible and I would love A MOTE OF DUST to be heard by so many people! But I know what kind of music it is, so it won’t ever appeal to masses. It’s solitary music. This isn’t party music, you don’t get friends around and put on an A MOTE OF DUST album (laughing) – that would be weird. I myself have that solitary feeling when I listen to NEUROSIS. To me, NEUROSIS is me and NEUROSIS. I listen to it and I think about it and I kind of absorb it. And the idea of other people being there makes absolute no sense.’
‘Aside from not being able to do it myself, I really like listening to what is considered the big tunes of the moment. I think that, I hate to say it, but: TAYLOR SWIFT’s last album is really good. That stuff fascinates me! She’s not duff, you know? She works with some of the best producers money can buy and these guys are very smart about writing clever pop tunes. I would stand up for TAYLOR SWIFT! BEYONCÉ for example will usually just release one big tune and the rest of the album is, well, there’s nothing there, it’s all fallow. TAYLOR SWIFT’s album is very consistent, it’s really great tunes all the way through it.’
‘If you’re not angry you’re not paying attention. If you’re not upset with the world, you’re not listening.’
In a way, without hate, I wouldn’t be what I am – Aereogramme: Post-Tour/Pre-Judgement
UPHOLD THE PASSION
So, is it all settled and relaxed then these days in the life of Craig Beaton? The man who used to strangle himself with microphone cables, screaming his lungs out on stage, the man of strong opinions on politics and social issues, is now standing in the kitchen, listening to TAYLOR SWIFT? Doesn’t he miss the anger he was able to express with his former bands, especially nowadays?
Craig: ‘Yes and no. I stopped wanting to scream right around that last AEREOGRAMME album. Before that we were just hitting our heads off the wall, you know? But that’s self-destructive after a while. And as you get older, you’re not screaming at the clouds anymore, you focus. I still think there’s angry songs on A MOTE OF DUST. Anger has always played a part in my music, especially in the lyrics. If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention. If you’re not upset with the world, you’re not listening. It’s just that I didn’t feel the need to scream anymore.
‘But yes, sometimes it’s increasingly problematic for me to not say things. F.e.: I cannot stand our prime minister David Cameron, I utterly detest what the Tories stand for, I’m disgusted by what they do and their whole way of thinking. It repells me! Yet, if I was to write about that on Twitter or Facebook or whatever I feel like I would be preaching to the converted because I probably attract a left-leaning crowd anyway. I feel like the internet is like a little echo chamber there, you see? And also: Why would my opinion be any more important? Ask me a question on anything and I’ll give you an honest answer. But I have a slight issue with bringing it into music. I wish I could do it better, I wish I’d be more articulate about it.’
Since you made your first bitter experiences with the financial risk of it all, the situation for artists probably became even worse with the outcome that they get from streaming services f.e. How do you see that?
Craig: ‘There are definite benefits to the internet. But I would think that there used to be a middle ground that kind of shrunk with it as well. The problem is that now anybody can release their own music, especially online. Which means that there’s just so much white noise. So how do you find out who are the good people? And how do the artists compete? How the hell do you tell people that you’re the ones to listen to? You can have all the best intentions in the world, that you write the best music in the world. But it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t get attention.’
I am very clear about that A MOTE OF DUST wouldn’t be paid attention to if it wasn’t for the work I’d done in AEREOGRAMME and UNWINDING HOURS. It’s standing on those names, it gets promoted with those names! And I think it should. If it wouldn’t have those names behind it, I would just be another guy putting out a record.
Craig: ‘I always hear people argue: ‘Don’t worry, you don’t have to sell records, you’ll make your money on tour’. No, MUSE make their money on tour, because MUSE get paid millions. But the bands at the bottom still get shitty fees. The live shows are very expensive for us artists! And the recordings of an album still need to be kind of paid for. There’s just this huge disconnect between record-buying and live-shows which still hasn’t been properly addressed, I think.’
So, what would you advice younger artists who are now at the start of their career?
Craig: ‘Well, if I had a time machine and I went back to speak to myself, I wouldn’t have listened to me. Wouldn’t have listened to anybody. We were all so focused because we just felt this unbridled love for making music and playing live. Only as it went on, it got more and more frustrating and started to affect our lives. So if you’re to do it: By god, you have to love it! And you gonna give it your best shot. That, to be honest, will carry you to places. Just that drive to get in a van and to sleep on people’s floors. However, if it’s not working, be very serious with yourself and be very clear about how long you wanna stick it out. Maybe you don’t have to dedicate your whole life to it. You can still make music and you can still play shows – just don’t let it destroy your life. Don’t let it destroy your relationships. Making music shouldn’t be destructive.’
Speaking to Beaton, you can’t help but being impressed by his unyielded passion. It’s not like he would have compromised his art or grown jaded although his experiences throughout the last decades would have justified that. Instead, he just found an inspiring balance between humbleness and artistic hunger.
As he and his partner in A MOTE OF DUST, Graeme Smillie, enter the stage later on, his acoustic guitar fails and he’s forced to do the set with his electric and an unamped acoustic. You could almost see him gnashing his teeth about it. He’s shaking his head, constantly apologizing and decides to play even more AEREOGRAMME classics amidst the crowd, not from the stage. Afterwards he admits: ‘That was one of those moments of anger we spoke about’. He smiles. Craig B might be a part-time perfectionist these days – but he’s as happy with it as it gets.