“Crime writers are frustrated rock stars so we tend to write about music a lot. I’m drawn to the dark, the theatrical, the proggy – and Scottish music. Writing On The Wall were one of the first Scots bands I liked, lots of 70s Hammond, then Alex Harvey and now Mogwai, Errors, Remember Remember and Boards Of Canada. This is the music I listen to as I write – music for thinking, to shut out the world.
I grew up in a little town in Fife with no record shop. We’d go to Bruce’s in Kirkcaldy, a great, grungey shop. I sent my mum in once to buy me a Jimi Hendrix album when I was about 11 and she felt like she had to have a bath after, it was full of long hairs smelling of patchouli.
Sounds would be my music paper of choice because you got a free poster. I would sit very proudly in my bedroom with posters of bands I’d yet to hear like Deep Purple, Wishbone Ash and Alice Cooper. Then my mate Robert Findlay had access to really transgressive stuff like early Zappa – Absolutely Free’s my favourite Zappa album to this day – also Zeppelin, and Aqualung.
There were no gigs in my town and when I did start going it was a big deal. I’d have to stay over with friends in another town, and we’d get the 10pm train back from Edinburgh so we’d always miss the encore.
My parents hardly ever listened to music so I had free range. I had a little Sanyo cassette deck and I’d make them listen to Stranded, Goats Head Soup, Close To The Edge and Billion Dollar Babies while we we played Scrabble. Four tapes. Poor buggers. One of my first singles was Silver Machine.
I still follow Hawkwind – I’ve just seen Hawklords on this tour – but I only saw them once at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. It wasn’t great. There was Brock, Calvert and someone on keyboards, lots of technical problems and a very strange affair. It was a shame, I’d love somebody to find footage of them in their heyday and put out a proper concert film on DVD. Space Ritual is the great album, I must have it on at least four different formats.
I saw Alex Harvey doing Next on Old Grey Whistle Test with a string trio playing in rubber masks. It was pretty intimidating and heavy. ‘I swear on the wet head of my first case of gonorrhea’ – Pardon? I had to buy it. Harvey tapped into this time of mid-70s gangs, skinheads, spray paint. He was an extension of the stuff we’d got into with A Clockwork Orange. It made you look hard if you were into Alex Harvey. I had the black and white stripy t-shirt and Doc Martens, hanging around street corners listening to him. This wasn’t the Ian that sat at home writing poetry and song lyrics. That was just part of my personality, but I wasn’t gonna get beaten up or bullied cos I had this Alex Harvey thing going on.
A lot of bands I discovered back then I do still listen to like Hawkwind and Caravan. I went through an ELP/Genesis/Yes phase, but I also listened to Quo and Eddie And The Hot Rods. In the end I came back to these bands – well, not Genesis. That’s the thing about this – vinyl, beautiful packaging plus a poster, stickers, or a free single inside.
Once I came to Edinburgh Uni for an open day and went home clutching carrier bags of Roger Dean books, at ridiculous expense. I did end up here at Uni, and there were lots of gigs, lots of record shops and a student grant to spend on records!
My first year I had a summer job in a chicken factory and that gave me enough money to buy a hi-fi. This meant you wanted nicely produced prog albums to show off your stereo – Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here. Then I graduated, moved to London and got a job on Hi-Fi Review. It folded not long after I left – I’m not sure if the two are connected. We championed vinyl, but that was a problem as advertisers were focusing on CD players. Whenever we did an audio test, vinyl won. We got a lot of advertising from Linn who made that turntable [points to a deck on the other side of the room] and Naim. That’s where I got my Hi-Fi separates from, between 1986 and 1990, and they all still work beautifully.
Then I lost touch with everything for six years. The wife said if I wanted to be a full-time writer we had to move to rural France. There were no gigs, record shops, no music press and I couldn’t speak French. I listened to all my old albums a lot. And wrote! Music is built into my character Rebus. Early on he listens to classical music and jazz. I didn’t – I thought that’s what loner existential cops would listen to. Then I thought, ‘Why not make it easy on myself, give him my collection?’. A blue-collar guy from my village but a bit older, so he hasn’t bought an album since 1975. But his sidekick Siobhan also likes music so she introduces him to stuff like Mogwai that he doesn’t get. In one book there’s a nice wee joke where she says, ‘Did you like that Mogwai album I gave you?’, and he says, ‘Yeah, really good lyrics’. There are no lyrics, so he’s not listened to it.
Throbbing Gristle, Swans and Coil are all in my collection too, and songs affect my writing – if I want to write a car chase I’ll put on Jesus And Mary Chain. But I can’t put Coil in Rebus. I like the artistic cross-fertilisation of being in a small place, like me writing Mogwai’s latest press release or going in the studio with St Jude’s Infirmary.
In one book Rebus is sitting up late at night listening to a Jackie Leven album. Jackie’s a confrontational rockist turned folk troubadour. He was born around the same time as myself , and is also from Fife like other creative types such as Iain Banks, John Burnside, Val McDermid, David Mach and Jack Vettriano… it’s strange. Maybe there’s some cruel genetic experiment in progress in this tiny weird bit of Scotland. Anyway, Jackie was on a plane reading that book and he went, ‘Bloody hell, there’s my name!’ so he got in touch via my publisher.
We collaborated for Celtic Connections in Glasgow in 2005, on a 40-minute short story with songs based on his lyrics of masculinity, Scottishness, all that stuff. It went down a storm and became Jackie Leven Said. For a while I could go into HMV and actually see it in the chart racks. I don’t think that’ll never happen again, ha ha!”