"Pearl Jam used to hire out bars to drink with us": Idlewild's Roddy Woomble on how four punk rock kids from Scotland emerged from the wreckage of Britpop, gatecrashed the UK charts and got adopted as Pearl Jam's new favourite band

A band portrait of Idlewild in 2002
(Image credit: Patrick Ford/Redferns)

When Roddy Woomble looks back over Idlewild’s career, he sees a band constantly out of step with whatever is happening around them. With the hindsight of being in a band whose 30th anniversary is starting to come into view, the frontman thinks it’s probably done the Scottish rockers a favour. “It’s allowed us to do our own thing,” he says over Zoom. “It’s not been a consideration if it fits in with the current trend or what people are listening to, it exists in its own little place.”

Woomble is not the sort of person to go sticking on his own records at home but he made an exception recently for his band’s 1997 mini-album Captain, reissued last month as part of National Album Day. “When you listen to an old record like that, it’s a bit like looking at a photograph of yourself when you were younger – you recognise that as you but at the same time you feel completely different from that, it feels a lifetime ago,” he says. Woomble was 19 when Idlewild made Captain and now he’s in his mid-forties. His life has been documented and reflected in the music he’s made.

Idlewild have released eight records since then, each one turning the dial. In the beginning, they were a thrillingly chaotic, punky mess. Then the youthful snarling was gone and they were erudite indie-rock melodicists trying to make sense of life in their mid-twenties. Over the intervening years, there has been jangly college-rock, yearning anthems, contemplative, countrified and wearied songs, poppy, bombastic and hopeful songs. At their peak, Idlewild could seamlessly go from sounding arty and abstract to rolling out an indelible hook that you made you think, ‘Well, that’s going to go in the Top Ten’, sometimes in the same song.

Captain captured the group – then a four-piece consisting of Woomble, guitarist Rod Jones, bassist Bob Fairfoull and drummer Colin Newton – in the sort of raw state that can’t be replicated. “It’s not dated because it’s literally four people playing live in a small studio,” reckons Woomble. “There’s not many overdubs and it’s what the band sounded like live.” The band were so unschooled at the time, he recalls, that they were baffled when producer Paul Tipler asked them to do a second take.

They were quick learners, though, and they had to be – as 1997 turned into 1998, Idlewild were being tipped as one of the hottest new bands of the year. Captain had been recorded for Deceptive Records, the indie label founded by Steve Lamacq, but by the time it came out in January 1998 Idlewild had been snapped up by Food, a subsidiary of Parlophone and EMI. Studio chops could wait, the label decided, with the opinion that the best way for Idlewild to break through was by people seeing their exhilaratingly fierce live show. “The whole year was spent in a van,” Woomble recounts. “We did support tours, club tours, we played everywhere and that really is what got us our fanbase. It was cool because - I’m not slagging off these bands cos it’s wrong to do that - but they put us on tour with bands that, basically, we were better than. It reflected really good on us because we’d go on, be jumping around, falling off the stage and just being really chaotic, and then the Warm Jets would come on and stand still and sing their songs.”

Woomble thinks a crucial part of why they made a connection with fans in those early days is because they were pretty much the same age as their crowd. “We were only 18, 19 and our audience was 15-20, so there was a real union there between the band and the crowd,” he states.

Another reason might be that the musical landscape Idlewild emerged into was basically a scrapheap. Britpop was long over, and its main players had either creatively run out of puff (Oasis, Suede) or gone off in search of fresh territory to explore (Blur, Pulp). There was a dearth of new bands to get excited about because there was a dearth of exciting new bands. To hammer home this point, a swathe of young groups began turning to the acoustic guitar – never a good sign that something interesting is about to happen. 

And then, writhing about on a stage floor seeing what damage he could do to his larynx, was Roddy Woomble and Idlewild. “You can look at that two ways,” he says. “One, we had our own appeal, we were on the fringes and it made us unique, but on the other hand we missed out on jumping on bandwagons that bands have had a lot more success by being able to do. It was post-Britpop and everyone was bored with what was going on and were looking for something new, and it was before The White Stripes and The Strokes and all the American bands came over in 2001.”

Being out of whack became a running theme throughout Idlewild’s career. By the time a new wave of British groups were making guitar music popular again in the early-to-mid ‘00s, they had moved on. “That was when Warnings/Promises came out and we were making like 60s and 70s Laurel Canyon-inspired country-rock, so we were totally out of step with that too!” he laughs.

By that point, their label Food had been fully incorporated into the major label machinations of EMI, a change that wasn’t wholly positive for Idlewild. “Food was quite small,” Woomble remembers. “Even though it was part of EMI, it was run out of a small office in Camden so it felt like a family-based thing, you got to know all the people really well.”

Artistically, Idlewild were on fire at the turn of the millennium, their second album 100 Broken Windows fusing the barbed attitude of their early work with a deft appreciation for songcraft, but the world around them was changing rapidly and they began to feel like the runt of the litter. “We were label mates with Kylie Minogue, Radiohead, Blur, Coldplay and we were obviously at the bottom of that pile in terms of popularity,” Woomble says. “Even though we were doing quite well, we were still like, ‘Wait a minute, now we’re being judged against these bands’. Being on a label with these worldwide massive acts when you’re struggling to get an audience outside the UK and even in the UK you’re selling 100,000 records instead of 500,000 records, which then on a major label wasn’t much of a success. We always got a sense that maybe we didn’t belong there.”

Despite that, they kept getting better. Their third record The Remote Part introduced epic anthems into the mix and signalled a commercial breakthrough, going to Number Three in the UK Album Charts. From the outside, it appeared that Idlewild were on the crest of a wave but there were tough times to navigate inside the band. Rather than remembering the period as a triumphant victory lap, Woomble looks back on it as failing to seize their moment. “That record was really popular in the UK and there was a lot of expectation for us and then everything sort of fell apart. Our bass player [Bob Fairfoull] left and we were doing these big shows and we weren’t really that good. It really felt like we missed our opportunity, just being unprepared for that moment and also realising how quickly the spotlight moves on.”

By the time Idlewild returned with 2005’s Warnings/Promises, they felt a little like yesterday’s men, bands such as Franz Ferdinand and Kaiser Chiefs now hogging the limelight. It wasn’t all negative, though – in 2003, Idlewild were taken out on tour to support Pearl Jam in the US for a month and Woomble looks back on the experience with fond memories. “It was their bass player Jeff Ament, he was a big Idlewild fan and they always ask bands they like to tour with them, they’re famous for choosing good support bands and treating them well,” he says. “It was just great. They play to 25,000 a night in these really cool venues and they were just so nice, such lovely guys, and if the place wasn’t busy before we went on, Eddie Vedder would go out and sing a few songs on his own and he’d introduce us onstage so we’d always play to a big crowd. If they wanted to have a drink with you, they’d hire a bar, not in a flashy way, just a neighbourhood bar and they’d hire it out so we’d all go for a drink and they wouldn’t get bothered by millions of fans. Nothing but good memories from that. And also we got to watch them every night, and they’d change the setlist every night and play long sets and very fan focussed, it was great. It was a brilliant month.”

Ups and downs for any band who manage to stay together for almost 30 years is inevitable – the trick is learning how to navigate them. It’s been almost five years since the last Idlewild record, but Woomble is confident that if the band, who are now a six-piece, can all get in the same room to work on new material, it’ll come together quickly. “The pandemic took it out the band a bit because we all live in different places and we were so separated from each other for a few years,” he explains. “We did plan to follow up the last record relatively quickly but now it’s been four years since that came out, five years nearly. We’ll definitely do one at some point.”

Woomble thinks that the various line-up changes they’ve made over the years around him, guitarist Jones and drummer Newton are what’s helped them carve out a long career. “Whoever has come in has brought in different dynamics and influences and challenges so it’s never been the same band but kept the core the same.” The same, but different. Always out of step, existing in its own little place. Roddy Woomble wouldn’t have it any other way.

Niall Doherty

Niall Doherty is a writer and editor whose work can be found in Classic Rock, The Guardian, Music Week, FourFourTwo, on Apple Music and more. Formerly the Deputy Editor of Q magazine, he co-runs the music Substack letter The New Cue with fellow former Q colleagues Ted Kessler and Chris Catchpole. He is also Reviews Editor at Record Collector. Over the years, he's interviewed some of the world's biggest stars, including Elton John, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Robert Plant and more. Radiohead was only for eight minutes but he still counts it.