Not By Design – Spare Snare interview

Dundee’s Spare Snare have just released a deluxe 3CD boxset containing all their recordings for the BBC and to mark the occasion I had a lengthy chat with mainman Jan Burnett a few weeks ago.

The boxset acts as a career spanning ‘best of’ for the band from early sessions for John Peel through to more recent sessions in support of the Steve Albini recorded ‘Sounds’. As well as Peel, the Snare have done sessions for broadcasting luminaries such as Marc Riley, Vic Galloway and, er, Aled Jones.

Perhaps not surprisingly the set majors on the band’s early days as represented by the first Peel session and a live performance for Radio Scotland’s Beat Patrol. But it’s also a good way of illustrating that they have continued to be creative throughout their career with later tracks such as ‘I Am God’ and ‘Hope You Never Go’ every bit as good as the earlier material.

Thinking back to the band’s earliest days, Jan reckons that the Snare filled something of a vacuum in Dundee scene.

“When we actually started playing as a band, it was five years after Danny Wilson, ten years after the Associates. There was nothing else going on, other than a wee bit of a hub around a couple of bars, the Westport, Bar and McGonagalls where 2 or three bands started doing stuff.”

After self releasing several singles, the Peel session was the band’s first big break as Jan recalls.

“It’s like one of these kind of notches on your list of things you want to do. You want to make a record tick, get reviews, tick, get a Peel session, tick.”

That session was the start of a six-year relationship with the Peel show with a two further sessions (in 1998 and 2001), something that Jan is justifiably proud of.

“To actually get 3 sessions looking back at, that’s kind of unusual. There’s not a huge amount of bands that have done more than a couple.”

Spare Snare live at T in the Park, 1995 (Picture – Graham Anderson)

Recording sessions for Radio Scotland in parallel to the Peel recordings, the band was quickly building up a substantive body of work for the state broadcaster, something that has continued to recent years. Jan has always had a keen sense of documenting the band’s legacy and these sessions inevitably featured in his thoughts.

“There was always a plan in my head to release these recordings at some point. So I was keen to always do different tracks for sessions over the years.”

If the release of a boxset was a long-held ambition, there was a specific spark which made the release feasible as Jan explains.

“A year past August, I found out that PPL and the Association of Independent Music did a deal with BBC where you can get BBC tracks for free as long as you’re a member of both. I am and it costs something like £190 per year so instead of going to the BBC and it costing me, let’s say 5 grand for five years, I got the tracks for nothing.”

Having reduced the admin necessary (and costs), Jan faced surprising hurdle – to source the actual recordings.

“Collating the tracks was a bit of a struggle ’cause the BBC didn’t have everything. But thankfully I had recordings of most things.”

That detective work out of the way, the remaining task was to bring the boxset into being.

“Doing a 3 disk box with a book is not cheap but you’ve got to do it right ’cause, let’s face it, nobody else will do it. There’s no point in doing it half-heartedly but I’m really chuffed the way it’s come out.”

As we move slowly into 2021, there’s a good number of the Snare’s contemporaries who have proven durable over the decades and continue to make great music.

“Yeah, I think looking back now, there probably was a bit of a scene in terms of a certain age group of folks. Snow Patrol formed in Dundee when they were at uni and I remember Gary coming to our gigs. And I remember Roddy Woomble coming to our gigs for a little while. But at the time, I didn’t feel like any part of anything.

“We were maybe just a little bit early in terms of the cool gang. But actually, in retrospect, I’m probably happy to just be where we are, you know ’cause we might not exist if there was that kind of pressure with labels and having to sell records.”

Despite feeling out on their own, the band started to discover there were some kindred spirits out there.

“Our first kind of proper tour after doing the States was a co-headline tour with the Delgados, a week and a half of dates mainly down South. One night we’d headline, the second night the Delgados would headline. That was a good learning curve and was quite an education for both bands.

“But it was only after that we kind of realized there was some bands with similar kind of ideas in the west and around the country. So we kind of became part of that lo-fi thing, not by design just by default really.”

Spare Snare – live in October 2019

In those days there was still a national infrastructure that would allow bands to climb the ladder from independent beginnings through national radio and the music press. Whilst it may not have seemed like it at the time the mid 90s and Brit Pop were probably the last heyday of that structure.

But Jan reckons that the Snare didn’t really benefit from that, the support of Peel excepted.

“No, no, very little. We got the odd bit, the odd single review and I think we probably get a little bit of kudos for doing everything ourselves, the sleeves and all that kind of stuff. So you get a wee bit of attention because of that.

“Other than Peel, Beat Patrol as for me was the one show on a national station that played us. Your local stations, Radio, T Clyde, etc., they wouldn’t really play us.”  

The gradual demise of a structure which stretched back to the Sixties has allowed the Snare to see the whole business side of the industry change.

“I’m kind of seeing it from the outside. Apart from when we had the single on Deceptive and they had their own PR, I’ve never used a promo person, and that’s purely down to finance. I’ve done it all myself so I think I can see how it’s changed from afar.

“Actually, the model has changed to a lot more how I’ve always done it. So I’m now competing against everyone else doing it the same way, which is kind of odd.”

Their longevity has guaranteed Spare Snare a degree of respect which is probably most notable when they re-visit their past, whether it be for the Albini record or for the BBC boxset.

However, opportunities to present themselves to a new audience do sometimes appear for the band. Bizarrely one of these arose when the band wangled the chance to cover ‘Amazing Grace’ for Aled Jones although Jan admits that opportunity didn’t increase their fanbase!

“I don’t think the listeners really liked it, but I’m quietly chuffed about that! (laughs)”

A more promising opportunity arrived a couple of years ago, giving the band a taste of something they’d like to do more of when the live scene returns to something closer to normality.

“We were invited down to do Rockaway Beach which was fantastic. It was an audience where very few people actually knew us and so you’ve got a whole kind of different crowd of all ages.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever been to that festival, but it’s a bit like All Tomorrow’s Parties ’cause it’s at a Butlins. So I was trying to work out ‘Is this going to be good?’

“But once we were there it totally made sense ’cause you’ve got folks who can’t go to festivals in fields because of mobility issues or whatever reason but are still totally into the music.

“It totally gave us a whole different audience, and we know for a fact we turned people to us as a guy at the end came up and said ‘You’re the only band this weekend I don’t want to fight’.

“I’ll take that as a win!”

‘The Complete BBC Radio Sessions 1995-2018’ is available now from all good retailers and the band’s Bandcamp page.

Jan’s detailed memories of the actual BBC sessions are covered a companion piece I did for is this music?