James Yorkston has been recording and playing under his own name for over ten years. Recently he has started performing as part of the trio Yorkston / Thorne / Khan. We had the chance to ask him about how the band started, the state of modern music and also his connections with Ireland. You can find the results below…
Yorkston / Thorne / Khan – Workman’s Club – August 7th
If I was to guess your next career move, it certainly wouldn’t have been this! How did the band come about?
It was part of a TED Talks thing, it’d been sponsored by Dewars Whisky and they knew Suhail from India, so had flown him over. I was there as a solo dude. I’d turned up and sound-checked my vocal and guitar and I was just sitting backstage playing my instrument. There was no one else backstage with me until Suhail arrived. I welcomed him into the room and we began chatting. I asked him what he played and he took his sarangi out and began improvising along with me, it sounded great so we decided there and then that we would perform together that evening. Suhail and I did then did maybe half-a-dozen shows as a duo and they were amazing fun, very punk-rock, but we both felt there was space for someone else. The actual instrument wasn’t really an issue, it was more getting someone who had the suitable personality and similar open attitude to music. We toyed with a tabla player, a violinist, an accordion player, but finally we asked Jon Thorne. Jon happened to be a double bass player, but it was his extensive jazz improvising background that appealed to me. I wanted someone who wouldn’t cease up if Suhail and I went into an atonal rhythmic section, someone who would and could keep on playing and adding, leading at times. Jon had played with me for a few years beforehand and I knew his abilities. So, we called the act Yorkston Thorne Khan and we set the stage up with Jon plumb centre, encouraging him forwards, to use his undoubted bass skills as a lead instrument – he’s an equal third of the trio and he’s blossomed into his role. He also sings and brings his own songs along, it’s working very well.
Have you always enjoyed Indian music? When did you first see Suhail Yusuf Khan play?
Like most musicians, I grew out of only liking one specific genre or other pretty quickly and began to embrace whatever I was hearing that appealed to me. In my twenties I was exploring Cumbia, West African players, Malagasy sounds, throat singing, jazz, musique concrete, Bulgarian choirs, Squarepusher – whatever caught my ear. And in amongst all that of course was a fair bit of Indian music. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is the obvious one as he was such a huge name in the UK in the Nineties, but also that great album Ry Cooder made with the arch-top slide guitar maestro VM Bhatt, or the drones of Ustad Bismillah Khan, which reminded me of the uilleann pipes… However, India, as you know, is a vast place and my knowledge of its music is very, very minimal. The first time I ever saw Suhail play was in my dressing room. The first time I ever saw him do a gig was an hour later as he sat beside me on stage and we jammed our way through half a dozen traditional songs.
I saw you play at Body & Soul recently. Do you enjoy playing festival gigs, or do you prefer playing in front of your own audience?
We really enjoyed Body and Soul, but that was down to the audience and the staff – both were very welcoming. That was actually only our second outdoors festival show, I think, and it taught us a lot about which instruments and pick-ups we’d use for future outdoor festival shows. As an acoustic three piece, it can be hard to give any volume to a festival show, but I think we’ve sorted most of that out now with slight technical changes. Personally speaking, my favourite shows with YTK have been in small clubs though. Our most recent show, in Spain, was in front of maybe 100 people in a tiny room and we all loved every minute of it.
Do you listen to much current music? What new albums do you particularly like?
I do listen to current music, but my taste is for older, less knowingly sculptured sounds. So, I’d go with Seamus Ennis or Willie Clancy over a new piper who could play a dozen notes a second. I’d listen to Bess Cronin or John Strachan over an over-ornimated, college taught beautiful young thing. So the new music I hear tends to be from friends, then I can place it in context. I love Rozi Plain, Serafina Steer, David A Jaycock, but also Oumou Sangare, Squarepusher (still). Wild Beasts I like. I’ll always watch Martin Carthy or Dick Gaughan and have a soft spot for some of the great African acts who still do the rounds – Orchestra Baobab being one.
You seem to be friends with many Irish folk singers, such as Lisa O’Neill and Adrian Crowley. Have you any particular association with Ireland or is it just that the folk music scene is so small?
You know, I read this question before answering the previous one, or I would have mentioned Lisa O’Neill and Seamus Fogarty in that list for sure. I also love The Deadly Buzz album that Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh made. Adrian’s been a pal for years, he’s a great man to hang around with. I actually had a dream about him last night – in the dream he was playing me his new record and it was a Boogie-Woogie piano record he’d made with Jools Holland. Sounded pretty good, truth be told.
My association with Ireland is long. My father got stranded in West Cork in the mid sixties and ended up winning half a broken down old house in a poker game. He spent the next few decades slowly having it done up – running water, electricity, a roof, that sort of thing. Oh – and windows. So a lot of my child hood was spent down there in West Cork. As I became a teenager, I’d go down myself with my brothers or girlfriends and I pretty much went down there at least once a year until I signed a record deal and ended up travelling so much for a living that I kind of left Cork behind a bit. I still love it there though, still got pals there. I was there last year with Alasdair Roberts, Adrian Crowley and Rob Cotter of Analogue Cat recording studios (up Newry way). We did some shows in Skib and some singing in the bars. I showed Ali round a bit, the old shrines and stuff, down to Loch Ine, the tourist thing.
When can we expect some solo work from yourself?
Well, this year I had my second book published, a novel called Three Craws, and that’s gone down pretty well. We also had the Yorkston Thorne Khan album released, so there’s been plenty of JY activity. I also run a club up in Fife, Tae Sup wi’ a Fifer, which takes up a whole lot of my time… On top of that, YTK have recorded our second album and that’s due for a 2017 release, so I guess the next JY solo will be 2018, all being well. I’m happy with that though, there’s no hurry. I’ve released so many records, you know? The only issue is I’ve already written the next JY solo, so by the time it gets made it may end up as a double. Or a triple. Is that a threat? Maybe.