Dundee has a famous musical pedigree and the tradition continues, with exciting new sounds still coming from the City of Discovery, Lorraine Wilson reports.
Michael Marra once said that, if asked to suggest a slogan for the Welcome to Dundee signage, he would choose the short and bittersweet “Beneath the Underdog”.
From a musician’s point of view, he meant the talent per head of population in the city might be explained by the fact that, in Dundee, they had to try that bit harder.
Of course, there have been considerable successes over the years, but at every level there has been a culture of collaboration, a cross-generational exchange of energy and experience. This has resulted in musicians, Dundonian by birth or choice, playing from Wembley Arena to experimentation with music for dance companies.
Dundee seems to keep a hold on its musical successes. Gary Clark found his way home following years in London and LA, Billy Mackenzie was attached to his home city and the Sidlaws, and even though Ricky Ross has based himself in Glasgow for many years, the city maintains its pull, mostly to Tannadice.
Ricky now has another reason to come home to Broughty Ferry pretty regularly. That’s Gregor Philp, guitarist with Deacon Blue since 2008, but increasingly involved in the songwriting and the sound of the band.
Gregor first handled an acoustic guitar at the age of 10, when his dad gave him his first tour around the frets. “There was always music in the house,” says Gregor.
“My mum, who passed away last October, was a lovely piano player. My dad doesn’t play guitar any more, but he was a great storyteller in that folk music tradition.
“Mum’s influence was primarily classical, but they would also buy records by Joni Mitchell, which blew my tiny Broughty Ferry mind.”
Once AC/DC came along, acoustic was out and electric was in, although he soaked up everything, including jazz, country and funk. “In my head, I thought if I became good at playing different styles, I could maybe become a session guitarist, but I never spoke that out loud to anyone. I tried that in London when I was about 22, but it came to nothing.”
On his return, Gregor was welcomed into that supportive network of more experienced musicians. “There was Dougie Martin, who was always so encouraging to young players, and Stuart Ivins, who took me under his wing. I also had the joy of working with Michael Marra.”
He played with Keith Matheson in Big Blue 72, but it was meeting Kit Clark, who had returned to Dundee after Danny Wilson split, that things moved on. “That was Swiss Family Orbison, which also featured Keith. I was helped so much in my songwriting. So much that, when Swiss ended, I decided to concentrate on writing music for film and TV. I bought production equipment with a loan from my dad and became pretty self-sufficient.”
Gregor did that for 10 years working on projects as varied as Balamory and David Byrne’s soundtrack for Young Adam. During that time, he also met a young musician called Andrew Mitchell and in that interchange of experience and energy, Andrew convinced him to make an album, the project called Heavy Little Elephants. “His energy was, and still is, incredible.”
By 2008, the experience and admirers he had in the business led him into today’s “day job”.
“Ricky and I hit it off almost instantly,” says Gregor. “We were on the same page musically and he needed someone to help him in the studio – for Deacon Blue and other projects. That developed into writing together. He really doesn’t need to do that, but he is really generous in the way he works.
“I was in room when he recognised that a new song could be for Deacon Blue rather than someone else. There hadn’t been an album of new material for about 15 years… and now we’re on our fourth with City of Love.”
Despite the fact that Gregor has more co-writes with Ricky on the album than ever before, and shared production duties, as well as extensive touring last year in Australia and New Zealand, he made time to connect with his Dundee network and play on an album by Keith Matheson.
Keith admits that it was Gregor who gave him the necessary shake to get writing for his first solo album, KEKKER Greatest Hits 1 and 2.
“I was writing songs but he said to me ‘you need a project to write for’ so plan it . Do it.”
Keith came from Wick to Dundee in the early 1980s to join older brother Alan who was already in situ as a scriptwriter with DC Thomson comics.
“I fell in love with the city and was lucky enough to meet Breeks (Alastair Brodie of Groucho’s who died last year) who gave me a job in the shop, where I worked for 11 years.
“Seven of us lived in a massive house in Windsor Street and one of those seven was guitarist Lindsay Duncan, so we put together a band called Big Blue 72. Luckily, Jackie magazine was on the floor above where Alan worked, so we managed to get a lot of coverage.”
Again the cross-generational music scene kicked in and Keith managed to coax Donny Coutts, one of the city’s most respected drummers back behind his kit again. “So much was happening and I spent all my wages on going to watch bands or rehearsing.” Big Blue 72 was followed by a band called Marshall Curtis then Swiss Family Orbison.
After Swiss he moved away to do a degree and made a more conventional life in Edinburgh. “I was still playing guitar with The Pearlfishers for a while, but I couldn’t really commit to anything, having a day job and family. It was only when Kit suggested doing a few gigs with Swiss in 2016 that I really thought about it again. And that’s when Gregor gave me the talking to!”
Keith asked Swiss bandmates Dougie and Gregor to play alongside Ged Grimes and Andrew Mitchell. They recorded the album over a couple of days at Magic Box in Dundee and he says the band “brought so much to getting the best out of the songs.”
With their individual schedules, this is a band that will never play live together, but Keith is contemplating acoustic gigs. “I’ve never really put any feelers out to play with anybody in Edinburgh. I feel that all my musical life is still tied to Dundee.”
Deacon Blue City of Love is out now. KEKKER Greatest Hits 1 and 2 is available from Bandcamp and Groucho’s in Dundee.
Why Su Shaw gets her creative energy in Dundee
Another Wick-born artist found a musical path to Dundee, following a period when she also stepped away. Su Shaw who records as SHHE has been lauded for her debut album release on One Little Indian last year.
Su took a step back following a few years when she performed as Panda Su. “At that point I was living in Fife and working my way towards an album, but I wasn’t happy with what I was producing. I decided that the best thing to do would be to walk away.”
A catalyst to getting back was learning production. Su realised that much of her frustration came from not being able to relate to producers how she wanted her music to sound.
“I didn’t have the terminology or the knowledge. I had been working so could buy my first interface and studio setup. I started experimenting and the first song that I wrote, recorded, and produced was called Eyes Shut, which ended up being the first release as SHHE.”
By that time Su had moved to Dundee and found herself at the heart of a new creative community. “That seemingly small step across the Tay Bridge was quite life-changing. I ended up moving in with dancers from Scottish Dance Theatre, even though I had never seen a dance show at the Rep.”
Eyes Shut and those new flatmates proved to be fateful. Su had fallen in love with the space in the Westward printworks and collaborated with dancer Harry Clark to shoot a video there.
“I had been out to Iceland for a residency, and on my return I decided I was going to give music all my attention. A week later we put the video out and my friend Davie Miller from Finitribe posted it online.
“Someone from One Little Indian records saw it and got in touch that day saying that they wanted to talk to me. I went to see them in London the next week and signed.”
Su also namechecks Andrew Mitchell as something of an inspiration in the way that he has decided to go in a direction that might not be obvious but works for him. “The way he chooses to present his music and the venues he chooses. It’s so beautiful.”
The size of Dundee is regularly mentioned by creatives as “just big enough” to be able to realise projects, and also keep in touch with everything that’s happening through organisations like Creative Dundee.
“They also actively encouraging people to get involved. I am heading to Iceland on a project on the connection between sound and landscape. No matter where I go now, it’s genuinely great to know that I’ll be coming back to Dundee.”
SHHE is out now