Acoustic Band, Heavy Metal Energy
PLUS Potted History (Courtesy the artist's site, 2005).
PLUS Park Records bio (2006)
It began with a tune in a pub in the Shetland capital of Lerwick in 1990 and since then Rock Salt & Nails have travelled the world, capturing audiences of all persuasions and ages with their exuberant, party-like live performances and proficient blend of bluegrass, pop, rock and reels.
Back in the very beginning Paul Johnston, RS&N's guitarist, singer, songwriter and irrepressible frontman was an architect from the mainland. Captivated in particular by the swing guitar style of the legendary Peerie Willie Johnston, which has now become indigenous to the islands, and by the islanders' infectiously positive attitude to music in general, he relocated his drawing board to the offices of Shetlands Council by day and, by night, set about drawing up a different kind of plan.
Rock Salt & Nails was born. Taking their name from a Gordon Lightfoot song, their first appearance at Shetland Folk Festival, where the audiences are famously discerning, in 1992, blew the place apart. Word quickly spread beyond Shetland. The band released its first album, Waves, on Iona Records in 1993 and followed that up two years later with More and More.
A move to Chrysalis Records' subsidiary Hit and the production talents of Calum Malcolm, veteran producer of Blue Nile, Runrig and Wet Wet Wet, brought 4621 in 1996. Stand Your Ground followed in 1998 and now a return to Iona Records has produced Boxed, recorded under the direction of London-based guitarist Ron Kavana and of all their records the one that best captures the feel of RS&N's live performances.
Johnston dislikes the music industry's need to pigeon hole everything. His aim has always been to take RS&N to as big an audience as possible (and judging from his wired onstage enthusiasm, to make absolutely certain that every one of them enjoys themselves), and he sees RS&N as a huge melting pot of musical styles co-existing happily.
"Over the years in the band's various line-ups we've had country fans, Texas Swing fans and funk fans, and I'm into heavy metal and bluegrass," he says. "We try to listen to and accommodate everyone's ideas. People in the industry have a problem with that. They say, You're not trendy enough for the NME and not folky enough for the folk people, and we just say, Tough, this is what we do, now let's just get out there and let people hear it."
And that's exactly what they've always done, touring all over the UK and Europe, visiting Germany, Spain, Holland, Belgium, Norway and Denmark, heading into Turkey and Azerbaijan, and taking in the length and breadth of North and South America from Winnipeg to San Francisco, Santiago and Valparaiso.
In between times they get back to Shetland to keep in touch with their island roots and to recharge the batteries for the next foray into their very own brand of live gigging mayhem. With twin fiddles now joining Johnston's dynamic guitar playing and wholehearted singing in the front line, the Rock Salt & Nails party manifesto and their dedication to turning on the heat with rootsy and rockin', essentially acoustic music have never been stronger.
"I don't mean to sound arrogant and I'm not saying our music is better than anybody else's," says Johnston. "But I know from having 12,000 people in Winnipeg who have never heard of us before dancing to us that this is exciting music. It's dynamic. It's all to do with your skill and ability to play, but with acoustic music you can have all the energy of a heavy metal band."
Potted History (Courtesy of the Artist’s site, 2003).
Like generations of seafarers from their beloved Shetland, Rock Salt and Nails have successfully travelled the world, growing, learning but never losing touch with their island roots.
Since 1992, when the band formed as a musical excuse to party, and then took the famously-critical audiences of the Shetland Folk Festival by storm, the geographical range of their touring has been astounding. From concert halls throughout the United Kingdom, Spain and Belgium they have triumphed at festivals in Germany, Holland and Scandinavia, and roamed through North and South America, from Winnipeg through San Francisco to Santiago and Valparaiso...always the returning to recharge in their gale-lashed northern islands.
It is the unique mixture presented by Rock Salt and Nails over five albums and countless concerts, which constantly wins over audiences of astonishing diversity. Praise for their sheer technical brilliance is universal, but it is that dexterity which has given them the ability to adapt their set to suit any audience or venue. From dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists swooning at a Shetland slow air or finely judged reel, to hardened teenage party goers knocked sideways by the energy and ferocity the group are capable of, RS&N leave audiences screaming for more wherever they play.
The secret is in the mix: Paul Johnston's dynamic skills as guitarist, frontman, and songwriter merged with the new twin-fiddle line featured on the new album `Boxed.' Released by the band's original record company Iona, and produced by legendary London guitar wizard Ron Kavana, it marks a return to a live feel, and is a natural follow-on from the four previous CDs. `Waves' (1993) 'More and More' (1995), on lona and their two recording for Chrysalis subsidiary Hit, `4621' (1996) and `Stand Your Ground' (1998) both produced by Blue Nile, Runrig and Wet Wet Wet stalwart Calum Malcolm.
1999 alone has seen RS&N in the UK, Spain, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Turkey and Azerbaijan. Full-time and utterly committed to their music, the band are looking to a new millennium of new territories, new musical adventures and new converts to the Rock Salt and Nails cause.
Rock Salt & Nails biography (Courtesy of Park Records site, 2006)
There’s a myth that abounds in the music industry that, if you want to get noticed by those that matter, you have to go to them and at the very least locate yourself in a major city. No-one, it seemed, told this to Paul Johnston who not only relocated from Edinburgh to the Shetlands but then went onto become part of Rock Salt & Nails, a band who have built up an enviable profile around the world. So much for that myth then.
The view from outside is that, despite their remoteness, the Shetlanders are very knowledgeable about their music. Paul agrees that this is the case but is more a product of their location. “It’s a huge part of life… there’s nothing else to do. I don’t know whether I’ve changed because I’m a bit older but it’s maybe not as vibrant as it was. There are definitely still people having tunes in their houses. When I first came up here it was very natural, it was just something that you did. People don’t see music as a career – it’s a passion but it’s not something that they want to take anywhere else other than their house”.
Is the culture different to that of the mainland? Very much so, it would appear. “This isn’t Scotland. We’re much more akin to Scandinavia. You don’t wear the kilt here, Gaelic isn’t spoken. People ask me where our nearest railway station is and I say Bergen. We’re nine hours by ferry from Norway and fourteen from Aberdeen. Bergen’s our nearest McDonalds”. There are also marked differences in the music too. “It’s much more driven, quite aggressive, quite rhythmic. It’s maybe not so lyrical as the Scottish or Irish music. Some people think it’s quite rough. There’s lots of ringing strings, which is like the way they play in Scandinavian countries”.
Does Paul think that their location has made Rock Salt & Nails tougher as a band? “I think so. I find that a lot of people find reasons not to start a band. Living in Shetland is a great excuse to start a band. We’ve always had to struggle and fight a little bit, not least to get off the island. Recording the last album was a bloody nightmare. We had a studio down in the Borders booked and the week we were due to travel it was the worst storms they’ve had in the last 75 years. We never moved. We got the last flight out of Shetland, we were all holding hands at the back. All the gear was on the boat and that didn’t go for another two weeks”.
“We want it more”, he continues. “When we started, we played every weekend – the British Legion, country clubs, boating clubs, hotels, everywhere. Then you have to try and move on. The first time we ever went away south was when we played a week residency at the Edinburgh Festival. It was like a wolf pit”.
Despite these barriers, the band has been together in one form or another for over twelve years now and has gone onto international acclaim. Not that they ever had any sort of master plan. “We just played what we liked, we didn’t really have an idea or a sound. I always liked the Shetland music, I liked that driving quality and I saw it as being different from Scotland or England or Ireland. I thought, let’s try and write that into songs and we experimented, failed miserably, but we tried really hard to do it. I think our enthusiasm and the fact that audiences responded to that inspired us to do more”.
What has been an undeniable factor in their success however, has been their Celtic roots - a useful calling card around the world. Mention this to Paul and, while he agrees, he heads off on one of his many tangents. “Ireland is so comfortable with it’s own culture. I think the Scots are so bloody aggressive. I’m so not nationalist. I’m very proud of my culture but vive le difference. I can’t be bothered with Nazism, I hate it. The Irish have got it sussed, they don’t feel they need to prove anything. The Scots are still looking for a version of Riverdance, whereas because the Irish are so relaxed about it it’s been able to transfer onto that big stage”.
Surely the result though has been the creation of Ireland Inc., a globally exported and falsely romantic view of the country. Does he think that the people he meets on his travels have a similarly misty eyed view of his own homeland? “The first thing I have to explain is that we’re not from Scotland, that we’re more akin to the Danish countries. The only reason that I’m the front man of the band is that they wouldn’t understand a bloody word that the rest of the Shetlanders in the band are saying. I’m not joking. That’s been interesting for people. I think that some of the audiences in England are a wee bit scared of Scottish music but they eventually understand that we’re a little bit different. We definitely followed on that whole Celtic wave thing but I don’t think we’re overly Celtic. Traditional Shetland tunes are more akin to bluegrass music rather than the Scottish stuff. I never got hung up on it, we just do it.”
Is there anywhere that he’s been that has reminded him of the Shetlands? He laughs. “Everybody slags off the Belgians but I love them. They’ve got no hang ups and they like beer. That kind of reminds me of home. What they consider folk is my way of thinking – Nirvana were a folk band from Seattle”. Every step of their travels have had a distinct influence on them as musicians too. “If you live on an island you tend to be a bit of a sponge when something new comes along. When we go to festivals we’re always listening, taking it in. Not just the music but the place, the culture, the people and the attitudes”.
As the music industry continues to embrace more and more technological developments, has it become harder to find people who understand how to make a traditional sounding record? “ Yeah…at the end of the day I’m sure that the band are not considered to be master musicians but we do give a shit, we sit down and strive to play to the best that we can. We’ve worked with a lot of people and we’ve honed them down. Callum (Malcolm – producer of Midnight Rain) works in classical music and the jazz scene and these are guys who give a shit about their instruments and what they’re doing. I think he’s cottoned onto that with us. He’s also got a really good pop ethos which is useful.”
Nothing wrong with a good four minute pop song then? “Well I don’t think so.” The band are fairly unique in that they mainly record original songs and tunes, albeit given a traditional feel. “As I said, I consider Nirvana to be a folk band. I’ve tried to take older songs and make them something new but it’s quite hard. The likes of Steeleye can take a sixteenth century English song and rock it to f**k and it’s good but I’m not good enough to do that. I don’t mind singing other people’s songs if I can relate to them. I try with the songs to tell folk what I’m going through or the band is going through”.
Despite their success, their travels and the acclaim, it is the band’s island base that will always be at their heart. “It’s the only way,” says Paul. “We don’t live in the heart of Shetland, we’re out in the sticks. Next week I’m going to play at the school Christmas party and it’s important to do that. One minute you’re talking to Richard Thompson and the next you’re having a tune with the blacksmith down the road. Music’s music and it shouldn’t really matter who’s playing it.”
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