Rock Salt & Nails had been on a nearly-non-stop world tour for four full years, with last year's Tønder Festival as the final stage before a long-awaited half year break. We spoke in Tønder with an exhausted Paul Johnston, just before he went home on holidays, about tiredness of touring, major label pressures and music traditions.
Meanwhile, Rock Salt & Nails are already busy again, touring with regained power, fresh material and a new album in Britain and the world...
The Rock Salt & Nails story started off with three young lads - Paul, bassist John Clark and a fiddler - taking Shetland tunes and the spirit of Shetland music, along with new evocative songs written by Paul around those old tunes. Paul remembers the pressures to find a band name. "We had a gig, and we needed a name for the paper, but we didn't know one. We were really struggling because it had to be in the paper for the next day at ten o'clock. We started reading things, just reading anything - newspapers, magazines, books, instructions for video recorders. It became really silly - we were nearly called the Swinging Cowboys. We were reading the back of a record sleeve, and the second track on the second side was called Rock Salt & Nails, written by a Canadian writer called Gordon Lightfoot. We all looked up and we went éthat's it!'"
In 1993 the band recorded their first album on the Scottish Iona label, "Waves", for me still one my favourite RSN albums. After a second album for Iona ("More & More"), they got a record deal with a major London company, Chrysalis, which changed the life of the band completely. The next two Rock Salt & Nails albums were recorded for Hit label, a new sublabel of Chrysalis. "They did a lot of good things for us", says Paul. "They got us twice on a support tour with Steeleye Span, they introduced us to our manager, they allowed us to work with producer Colum Malcolm. They got us on another level musically in Britain."
Still, looking back, Paul thinks a major label had been worse for the band. "I am not gonna be miserable about the record business. But it's very hard - they are a London company, and they play by London rules which are hard. When we were before with the record company up in Scotland, Iona, we were like stars; but as we went to a big record company in London, we were just like nobodies."
The sound of Rock Salt & Nails was also influenced by the label. "In a lot of ways, the producer and people - they tried to make us a Pop band. But you walk a very fine line, and we were always aware of that." Also, Paul mentions that when you sign major record contracts, there is a lot more pressure to write songs and new material. Naturally, if you tour the whole year, the quality of songs cannot really keep its high level. Nevertheless, the band is not unhappy about having recorded for a major company; "they did a lot of things for us, they introduced us to a lot of people and we owe them a lot." Hit label does not exist any more; it ran out when Chrysalis was sold to an American company. Rock Salt & Nails had been the only band at Hit label, "I think we were kind of an experiment. We did the two albums, and that's it."
RSN has celebrated a bit of a home coming last year, being once again well signed to their former Scottish label Iona. And also musically, this year has marked a bit of a new beginning for the band. Paul promises that those who liked the first RSN albums best will be pleasantly surprised with their new album, "Boxed". Produced by the Irish singer and producer Ron Kavana, Rock Salt & Nails move away from the pop edge of the music market. Having had half a year off to collect new material, the high quality is back again as well.
This time off was necessarily needed, as the band had done nothing else than touring since they played in Tønder 1994 until Tønder 1998. Paul says that those four years have been really good and quite amazing, working with good agents, and having a lot of work. Still, touring all the time is very hard and tiring for a band; and before their long-awaited break, Paul stated, "I am exhausted. You know it's been great, I have been around the bloody world, I have been anywhere. But four years is a long time to play music solid. You might have a month off - which is not time off, because you are concentrating on the next tour. The longest we have not played in that time was eight weeks; but we were setting up the tour, we were rehearsing, did new songs. When we were not touring, we were working on new album material, because in those four years we have played professionally,we have had four albums out."
The band has had five months to recover, until this March, to record a new album, but especially just to generate and get the energy back. Paul says this was important; "I think you can't go back doing the same stuff. People are expecting us to evolve, to achieve something different, and we need to be writing better songs, being better musicians. And you can't do that by sitting in a van or in airports. You must revive. It's important for us to have a couple of months just to have a life. - I like country music, and a lot of songs in country music are about life on the road. Well I don't wanna write songs like that - I want to write songs about life; so you need to have a life, that's very important."
Speaking about life in Shetland, we finally talk about the music scene on these remote islands. "Everybody makes a big fuss about the Shetland music scene, and how important it is; and yes, it is a very vibratory scene. But I think it's no better or no worse than anywhere else in Britain or anywhere in the world."
For Paul, the outstanding important about the Shetland scene is that there are a lot of very natural players, who don't play music in public, who are not professional, who are home players. "The music they play is so natural, so vibrant - that's the music of the Shetland islands. Everybody has a fiddle, everybody has a piano; somebody in the house will play the music for a dance. We have music nights - people just come and play music, not being taught to play music, just to have the music. To me that's the exciting thing. You have lots of good bands everywhere, but the standard of musicianship up in the Shetland Islands - not necessarily musicians playing in bands, just playing for themselves - it's just phenomenal." Paul's wee son Conor is already learning music at school. If kids, already with 7-8 years, want, they can try to play the fiddle, or also piano or drums or whatever they want - at primary school!
"And if you look back, you see Tom Anderson after the War, he went around selling insurances; and he started up the Shetland Young Heritage, because he was so worried that the music was dying out. And he got it back, he has built it up again. It used to be that you felt embarassed that you played the fiddle. Today it's happening, it's very trendy, it's very hip. The Shetlands have such brand of players, hundreds of bands and thousands of people playing music, not on record, and they are not touring."
Still, some of the Shetland music can be experienced also on tours throughout the world. Just go out to catch Rock Salt & Nails in their now once again refreshed lively spirit!
Latest published CD: "Boxed", further infos at the site of Iona Records
Further infos/contact at the site of Rock Salt & Nails.
Photos: A spotlight on RSN history: (1 & 5) Paul Johnston (right) with Dougie MacLean in Tønder 1998 (2) Paul Johnston 1994, in a late night session at the Isle of Bute Folk Festival (3) Rock Salt & Nails 1997 in Wolfenbüttel/Germany; featuring fiddler Leonard Scollay (4) Rock Salt & Nails 1995 in Wuppertal/Germany
All photos by The Mollis
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