Stumbling Into This Backwards – Playground Tactics interview

Ahead of only their third ever gig at the Cool Cat Club on Saturday, Andy Wood profiles Playground Tactics

When we describe something or someone as being naïve we often mean it in a disparaging way, suggesting rather unkindly that they lack proper judgement or that they are gullible, falling for any old line. Yet, there’s another meaning that I think goes some way to describe the music of Playground Tactics. Musically and lyrically they have a simple but direct style, shunning artifice or cynicism. It’s a very refreshing sound, raw and immediate and utterly charming. Drawing on a lineage that, to my ears at least, includes the joyous pleasures of Jonathon Richman and the Modern Lovers (themselves originally hugely in thrall to the Velvet Underground), Charles Douglas, early Orange Juice, the lyrics are snatches of memories, feelings and small incidents that give a sense of the beauty in the everyday world.

The Orange Juice reference is important. When Edwyn Collins sang ‘Wordliness must keep apart from me’ on ‘Simply Thrilled Honey’, he was most definitely not suggesting a kind of twee refusal to grow up or simply sticking your head in the sand and ignoring the world, but instead, that, in music as well as life, it was important to remain open to fresh ways of looking and thinking, to look for possibilities rather than posing your way into an artistic and emotional cul-de-sac. It’s this approach I think that Playground Tactics take. They are pop optimists. With a gritty edge – which is just the way I like it.

Only two gigs old the first show was as a duo, with Euan on guitar/vocals and Ron on drums. It was rough as hell but still sounded full of ideas, tunes and possibilities. One rehearsal and bang, they were playing to an audience, connecting without forward planning or overly theorising things. One song, ostensibly about going to see Saint Etienne in Glasgow segued into a lift/tribute to the band as they incorporated ‘You’re In A Bad Way’ seamlessly into the last song. The performance was feisty and often threatened to collapse in on itself but just about held together. I really surprised myself by how much I enjoyed it but then that says more about me I guess.

The second gig at the end of June on a hot, sweaty Saturday night, saw them add a third member, bassist Rebecca. They still looked a bit nervous, a bit shocked to actually be standing on a stage in front of people but once they started playing I stopped feeling anxious for them. How could I, when they have such a cool set of songs. They never out stay their welcome, playing almost perfect short sets that leave you wanting more each time.

Playground Tactics, rough as you like but with a cheeky charm.

Prior to their appearance at The Cool Cat Club Euan discussed rock ‘n’ roll radio, influences and living in the moment.

Can you tell us a little bit of regarding who you are and how you came to be Playground Tactics?

Sure. I’m Euan, I play guitar and sing in the band alongside my friends Ron & Rebecca, who play drums and bass respectively. Ron and I are the rhythm section for the High Fevers – which we’ve been doing for a few months now – so that’s how we met, through Graeme & Marcus. I felt we’d developed a pretty good understanding and when the High Fevers had to pull out of a gig I asked if he fancied trying to play just the two of us with our own stuff. We got together on the Tuesday I think it was and rehearsed for about an hour before playing for 20 minutes on the Friday. It wasn’t as bad as we thought it might be, so I asked Becca if she would play bass for our next show which we got off the back of the first one really.

We work together in a cinema every Friday night and it can be pretty fun hanging out there. We do stupid stuff there together to pass the time; I wore my old Scout shirt, complete with badges and neckerchief, to work while Wes Anderson’s last film – Moonrise Kingdom – was showing, just to make her laugh really. We’d both been pretty excited about that film in particular. Anyway, I had jokingly asked if she’d join the band and she told me she actually used to play bass. Not long before that I’d made her a mix-tape wishing her luck for her degree show, so she knew what kind of music I liked.

I’ve always kind of thought being in a band is like being in a gang, and I thought about who I’d want to be in my gang. I thought if we didn’t sound good together the three of us might at least look cool.

The name suggests a kind of naivety and innocence but also a sense of simplicity and even aggression. Why did you choose the name Playground Tactics? Do you think the name sums the music up?

 It’s from the Jurassic 5 song ‘Concrete & Clay’ off of the Quality Control LP – which would later become ‘Concrete Schoolyard’ on the J5 album. We just needed a name for the show and I was listening to that and it just stood out I think.

It’s a good question though; I’ve never really asked myself why. I’m very sceptical of anyone who no longer embraces their naivety or sense of wonder, but at the same time I’d hate to ever be mistaken for being twee. I don’t like saccharin  I’d say that although our style might be rather naive or simple, it doesn’t mean we’re any less serious about what we do; we’ve still got something to say.

As this is only your third gig, what can someone expect from Playground Tactics on their first experience?

It sounds pretty lame, but I’m not really sure myself. The first two shows were so erratic. We only rehearsed for an hour before each of them and Becca said she hadn’t picked her bass up in years, so we’re still finding our feet I suppose. We kind of stumbled into this backwards; we had the shows booked before we put the set together, which was perhaps ill-advised but it gave us the impetus to actually do something.

How do you approach song writing? Do the lyrics come first or the music?

I’m not sure to be honest. I’m not entirely confident in saying any of the songs we’ve done so far are necessarily finished. Usually I find that the lyrics and music sort of fall into place really. I had quite a few melodies and things that kept surfacing whenever I’d be playing my bass in High Fevers rehearsal or on my guitar at home.

I never really used to pick it up that often for a while, but lately I’d found myself writing down a lot of phrases or sentences I found myself playing with in my head; events I’d seen around me I just wanted to remember really. I was walking to [my girlfriend] Ailsa’s late one night and I saw a fox on Blackness Avenue. That quickly became a song. There’s another one about us going to see Lightships support St Etienne and missing most of their show. Instead of dwelling on it, I detailed what else we done instead. I actually had a really nice time in spite of still not seeing most of their set.

Just whenever I feel I have something to say it happens really. Becca and I recently went to see Béla Tarr’s final film at our work and that’s something that’s really stuck with me, so that could always end up in there I guess. We were sat in the car park outside Generator Projects as well recently while helping a friend set up an installation for a performance art piece and I remember speaking about the sun shining off the concrete with her. That, or kicking a football about with Ron and Duncan – from Creeping Ivies – at like 4am on Ron’s last birthday. Stupid things like that quickly become throwaway lines. Things I want to remember.

[My friend] John pointed out the reason he liked it is because I was just talking about what was happening. I mean, at our first show, and even our second actually, I had written down lots of phrases and lines I intended to fit in to songs but I forgot to read them quickly before we went on so a lot of it I was making up or half-remembering and then after the show I’d find myself writing more down. All I know is that there is only really this moment, so I like to try and capture some of those. It never really feels forced, which I hope is a good thing. I’d like to think it’s a natural and sincere process. I don’t really think about it that much.

What are your influences, musical or otherwise?

 I have a lot of influences I guess. I could go on about them all day, but my favourites are those who I think really mean it. I guess that’s what I meant about wanting the song writing process to be natural and sincere. When I listen to music I tend to define whether I think it’s good or not by whether or not I think it’s sincere.

That’s why I was pretty made-up when I read we’d been described as having a rough take on the kind of territory explored by the Modern Lovers. I look at a guy like Jonathan Richman and he just blows me away every time he performs. It’s just pure heartfelt emotion he’s delivering in every line of these amazing songs. Guys like him.

I’ve been watching and listening to a lot of Bill Hicks lately as well. I like those kind of outlaws who just seem so honest when they perform, constantly questioning a lot of what is around them. One thing about being child-like or naïve is that you do perhaps question some things a lot of people take for granted, or look at things in a different way. Stan Brakhage spoke about imagining how many colours a baby – unaware of the concept of the colour green – might see in a field of grass. I quite liked the idea behind that, and I like listening to people who, to me, seem able to see through any insincerity or artificial pretence society may have presented them with and just speak honestly and openly from the heart. I know that when he was compared to Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks would say the one thing they had in common is that when he was on stage he was being Bill Hicks in so much as Lenny Bruce was being Lenny Bruce. I’d like to hope that’s the comparison people might draw between a band that I adore, like the Modern Lovers, and ourselves; that we’re both just being honest and sincere.

What current bands/artists do you like?

I went to see my friend Eilidh drum with Golden Grrrls last Wednesday, they’ve never disappointed when I’ve seen them and they really blew me away the other night. They’ve just put out a split 7″ with Sea Lions, which they’re touring together at the moment. I’m not sure if the tour is finished or not, but I know they have an album coming out on Night School soon & have already released a couple of 7″s there too. They released their own cassette album as well which is great summer listening. I had lent Becca my copy and she really liked it too so I picked up another one at the show. There are a few bands with that sort of sound on labels like Captured Tracks, Hozac, Slumberland and such that I quite like. I played the Lightships album to death when it came out too.

Apart from that, Graeme recently showed me how I can pick up American radio stations on my phone so that’s been a revelation; listening to WFMU, where they’ll play something familiar – but obscure by our broadcasting standards – such as Animal Collective or Electrelane then follow it with something completely out of the blue like Maggi Payne or Michael Nyman before playing Al Martino ‘Spanish Eyes’. It’s staggering hearing Guru Guru and Jandek over the airwaves. You can hear the records hiss and pop. All the DJs are so passionate too. This one guy, Glen Jones I think his name was, played Dennis Wilson’s Beach Boys song ‘Forever’ then played it again straight after except it was just the vocal track. The harmonies sounded breath-taking. It’s unreal comparing that kind of broadcasting to wave102 or even 6music.

I was listening to Liz Berg this morning and it was all amazing Modern Lovers kind of New York sleaze, even No-Wave Contortions or Teenage Jesus influenced stuff, mixed with that Dory Previn or Linda Ronstadt kind of country that I love. 3 hours of it. This one song ‘Anchors Away’ by Eleven Twenty-Nine I really liked was followed by another called ‘I See the Void’ by Sonny & the Sunsets which had that Silver Jews, early Arthur Russell country tinge to it. It’s just non-stop really. They tell you what label everything is on and how to track it down online as well. The station Graeme first showed me was WMLB, an Atlanta station he was recommended by one of the Black Lips. It plays a great variety too; I heard a Big Maybelle cover of ? & the Mysterians ’96 Tears’ on there the other day that I’d never heard before which just about knocked me off my feet. Domino records recently had a week or so of FM radio down in London that is archived online too I’m sure. Stephen & Katrina from the Pastels had an astonishing show on there, as did Lawrence from Felt. I went through a phase of listening to those shows and wishing radio here was that brilliant all the time, so now it’s surreal actually listening to something like WFMU live. It’s no wonder there’s so many good bands over there; now I understand what Jonathan Richman meant about having the radio on.

What would be your ideal Playground Tactics show?

I’d like to play on top of a mountain. I’m not sure which one yet.

Do you have any recordings planned?

There is nothing set in stone right now. As I’ve said, we’re still kind of finding our feet but I’m hoping to get around to it sooner rather than later. I had an 8-track that broke so once I get that replaced we’ll see what happens. It’s good being surrounded by creative people as well. I mean, Graeme can get a brilliant guitar sound, so hopefully he can contribute down the line. The two of us have recently been recording some basic stuff in his flat with me on drums. Not that long ago I bought Thee Oh Sees ‘Thee Hounds of Foggy Notion’ LP & I really like the idea of doing something like that as well. They recorded all the tracks live and outdoors – by the side of a road, in a forest or at the beach – and put them on a film that came with the LP. I really like the idea of capturing a moment like that.

If you could ask yourselves any question, what would it be?

I’d ask Ron and Becca if they still wanted to be in the band after reading me speak on their behalf. I feel terrible trying to explain myself, never mind trying to speak for someone else. Actually, I’d probably ask what our favourite colour was or something pathetic like that. I’m terrible at being interviewed, sorry. Mine is tartan; I’m not sure about the other guys though.

A live track from Playground Tactics:

Playground Tactics appear alongside Whigs & Rakes, The Bad Books and Hookers for Jesus on Saturday at the Cool Cat Club at Beat Generator Live in Dundee on Saturday (28th). Doors open at 8 pm and entry is £4.