Alan Davidson of Aberdeen, Scotland is the Kitchen Cynics. Alan has worked as an Art Teacher in a local school for more than 20 years. Born in 1956, he didn't start making music until he was in his late twenties. Over the years he has put out many tapes and CD-Rs, but official releases have come out on the Get Happy label of Germany, the Pink Lemon label (also Germany), Audiobot (Belgium) and the Secret Eye label (Rhode Island USA). Although Alan has released more than 20 LPs, 7"s, cassettes and CDs since 1990, The Kitchen Cynics had never played live until being invited to join Tom Rapp onstage in Boston at Terrastock 5 (2002). This was followed soon after by a radio sessson for WFMU, recorded at WNYC. Since then there have been several live performances, with acts such as PG Six, Black Forest/Black Sea, Alasdair Roberts, Thomas Truax, Schwervon, Amy Rigby and Sharron Kraus.
From the Secret Eye Records website
Photo credit: Andy Mulhern of 'Vocoustics'
Attracted to folk music from an early age, Alan Davidson is a prolific and talented songwriter whose work draws on his own experiences as well as the characters and history of Aberdeen. Full of charm, his albums are tender, bittersweet and packed with a dry wit, and together represent an astonishing collection of songs that deserve to be heard by a much wider audience. Key to his songs are sex, bicycles, the local graveyard, a love of Ivor Cutler, and an ear for a melody that can pluck your heartstrings, whilst the words resonate deep within.
Truly a unique talent; welcome to the world of The Kitchen Cynics.
Simon Lewis talked to Alan Davidson exclusively for Terrascope Online during the Autumn of 2005.
To get things started could you tell us some of your earliest musical memories, did you grow up in a musical family?
Not particularly...my father is tone-deaf, but my mother plays the piano (badly) a bit. I blame them, really! The music they played round the house was stuff like Johnny Cash, Andy Williams, Eddy Arnold, Jimmy Shand, The Andrews Sisters etc. When I was just into secondary school I began investigating my older sister's record collection, which I inherited when she left home, so I got into the Kinks, the Who, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones round about then. I got hooked on folk music when I was about 16, I think, and started going to the local folk club...I was lucky to see people like Lizzie Higgins, Anne Briggs, Martin Carthy etc
Listening to your earlier albums “time of sands” for example, they seem to be more unstructured and musically angry than your later work. Has there been a deliberate change of style or a natural progression.?
I think it's been a natural progression....probably just me mellowing out as I start decaying! I was inspired by a lot of punk things, although mostly the more tuneful end, like the Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex, Desperate Bicycles, Patrik Fitzgerald etc They really gave me the confidence to do my own stuff. Then I became obsessed (still am!) by the Television Personalities....I liked the sloppy approach, but with great tunes, and the mix of nostalgia with post-punk.
You started recording and releasing your music relatively recently, what prompted the decision to do this.?
Probably because I was surprised to find that a few people actually liked what I was doing. The first label to put anything out was Bi-Joopiter, the cassette label, then Achim & Marcus Buss of Roman Cabbage did an ep and a couple of vinyl albums (later reissued on Get Happy). This gave me the confidence to self-release tapes, then CD-Rs. I'm unable to stop, really, and am almost finished another album's worth. I must also thank the Ptolemaic Terrascope for being the first people to actually review anything I'd done....it was fantastic- a dream come true for me.
Given the frequency of new material I would assume that song writing is a quick process for you. Do you use everything you write or are there half finished songs lying about the place.?
Mostly I use everything, although sometimes, in hindsight I wish I hadn't included some songs on tapes or CDs I've occasionally recycled a basic track, to improve it, by altering the words and melody line.
Your latest album “Master of the Fuzzy Fadeout” seems to me to be your most complete and intimate recording. It also coincides with a move to digital recording; do you feel the digital recorder helped you achieve the results you wanted? (Since this interview Alan has released a new CDR, the excellent “Hoodie Craw")
I quite liked the lo-fi hissy quality of my old 4-track cassette portastudio, but I mistakenly "upgraded" to an ex-studio 8-track reel to reel, which only had 5 or 6 tracks working, unless it warmed up for a couple of hours, then there was a window of about 3 hours when they all worked, before some started dropping out again. It didn't make for spontaneity, and I became very frustrated with it, so getting the digital recorder second-hand meant I could nip up to my loft and record whenever the mood hit me, and I think the songs benefited because of this. Another help was the fact that I'd started playing live, and trying out songs a few times before I recorded them.
The last few albums have featured guest appearance from various musicians such as Jesse Poe, Philip Johnson - and myself of course. Is this something you would like to continue with, and is there anyone in particular you would like to play with?
I quite enjoy having input from someone else....I'm pretty relaxed in Philip's company, and he always enhances the songs massively. Locally I also record with the other 2 members of my occasional live band, Duncan Hart (cello) and Mike Napier (guitar), with whom I have a rapport. Recording with Jesse Poe was very different, because we did it all quickly one morning out at Delicate AWOL's studio, just before Will Oldham and Alasdair Roberts arrived for week's recording. We hit it off instantly, and the song ("Songs of Spring") is one of my favourites for doing live. Jesse re-recorded it with Tanakh, and their version is gorgeous. I'd like to do more recording by post. A couple of years ago Tom Rapp asked me if I fancied the process with him, but I didn't think I was up to the task, and chickened out. However I found the Phoenix Cube/Kitchen Cynics collaborations a lot of fun, so I'm up for more. Josephine Foster recently asked if I'd like to record with her, and I was honoured to say yes. If I was given free reign in choosing someone to record with then the Espers, In Gowan Ring, Black Forest/Black Sea and PG Six would all be at the top of the list, but there are lots of other folks I'd enjoy writing songs with/for. In a couple of months I should be part of Damo Suzuki's Network for his next Aberdeen gig.
You also tend to record a couple of cover versions for each album, how do you decide on the songs you are going to cover?
Usually because I've become obsessed with a particular song, and have played it to death, before offending its corpse by attempting my own version. Sometimes I've heard a new version by someone which has sent me back to the original, eg Espers doing "Black is the colour", or In Gowan Ring, Nick Castro and Wendy Watson doing "Gently Johnny". I'm just about to record versions of Donovan's "Lord of the Reedy River", which Philip and I do live, and the Strawbs song "Josephine for better or for worse", which I've loved for 3 decades now, but did live for the first time recently supporting Josephine Foster. I do covers of a few Ivor Cutler songs live....I love his music a lot.
Photo credit: Andy Mulhern of 'Vocoustics'
When I first met you a couple of years ago live gigs were few and far between , now you seem to be gigging on a regular basis. What prompted the move towards more live work. Also, can you share some of your favourite gigs, and some of the artists you have supported.?
The only reason I'm playing live is drink!!! I got somewhat inebriated at Terrastock 5 in Boston, where Tom Rapp kindly asked me to sing a verse of "Another Time" with him. Later, the Iditarod said they were coming to Aberdeen in a few months, with Sharron Kraus and Ali Roberts, and did I fancy supporting them. Now this was after quite a few pints, so I said yes straight away! The morning after I realised I'd never played live, so once I got home I started doing open-mikes to build up a bit of confidence, It was through these that I met Philip, and he encouraged me by saying he'd be happy to join me on stage. With Duncan and Mike we've supported people like the Incredible String Band, Terry Reid. Malcolm Middleton, Amy Rigby and Charlemagne......all great fun!! Solo I've really enjoyed doing shows with Major Matt Mason USA, Thomas Truax and the aforementioned Josephine Foster, with Mi and L'au. These have all been in Aberdeen, and the only gigs I've done outwith my home town have been Nozstock a couple of years ago, the first Nick Drake Tribute weekend in Tanworth-In-Arden, 2 radio shows with the wonderful Irene Trudel in New York and one at Cake Shop in New York with PG Six and Mike Wexler.....a wonderful moment for me. I've been lucky in that Mike & Jenny Tyers and Graeme Duncan of 'Interesting Music Promotions' like what I do, and often ask me to support exciting touring acts.
You recently produced a 5 song CD for the artist William Schaff, could you tell us a bit more about the project; what is it about his work that appeals to you?
I met Will when he was drumming with the Iditarod, and liked him instantly. I was thrilled when he drew the cover for my album on Secret Eye ("Parallel Dog Days"), as I liked his work with Godspeed You Black Emperor, Songs Ohia etc It's very intense, dark work with startling images which can make the viewer uneasy. I mentioned to Jeffrey of BF/BS that I'd love to have some of Will's original work, and he suggested a swap. Will agreed, so I did a limited edition of 50 CD-Rs with songs inspired by Will's work, and sent these to him in exchange for an original piece. I have re-done a couple of the songs in different versions for the next album.
What does the future hold for the kitchen cynics, any projects in the pipeline that we should know about?
I've just gone part-time at my work, so I can record for a couple of days a week... I'd like to be a bit more craftsman-like about my songs, hopefully without losing their immediacy. I've also been playing as part of Mike Napier's free-folk ensemble 'Mickle Mass', and might try to get a label interested in our live recordings.
Where did you get the name "the Kitchen Cynics" from, it always makes me smile!
It's probably very dated now..... it grew out of an old recording outfit I had called 'The Unusual Kitchen Features', named after a display of plastic lobsters in a local shop. Being a fan (more like a master really - Ed.) of bad puns I adapted it for solo recordings as a play on Kitchen Sink. Simon Allen (of Barl Fire Recordings) suggested in a review that I had a Mike Leigh 'Kitchen-sink drama' feel to my songs, which was very flattering!
pictured below: Alan Davidson with Sky Saxon (!)
You seem to play a lot of different instruments, especially on later albums, any particular favourites, and any that you would like to own.
I really like the dulcimer, and find it pleasurable to play. Lately I've been using a psaltery live, with mixed results. I finally got hold of a ukelin (a cross between a zither and a psaltery, as played by PG Six, but can only coax fairly unpleasant sounds out of it so far). I'd quite like to try out one of the simpler indian stringed instruments. Philip Johnston had a sitar, which he used with me live quite often, but he has now sold it, and I was too worried I'd damage it to give it a go, but something like a tambura would be interesting, I think.
Could you tell us some of the music that you are enjoying at the moment?
Currently I'm listening to a lot of COB, Famous Jug Band, and old recordings Alan Lomax did of an Aberdeenshire singer called John Strachan. As for newer music, then Espers, Be'irth's Birch Book, Mi and L'au, Islaja, Josephine Foster, Jeffrey Lewis, the new Eno album, Sufjan Stevens and Gravenhurst are getting played a lot, but like most Terrascope readers I listen to a wide spread of music...I was going through a heavy Jake Thackray phase recently, and spent most of today listening to Thelonious Monk.
Finally, anything else you'd like to add?
Yes, there's a live Kitchen Cynics album called 'Tunnels' coming out any day now on Barl Fire records, plus Daniel Patrick Quinn has been recording Mickel Mass for future release on his Suilven label.
Cool, we'll be looking forward to hearing those then!
© terrascope.online, October 2005. Edited by Phil McMullen. With gracious thanks to Alan for all his tremendous support and friendship down the years, and to Simon Lewis for sorting out this long overdue interview.
Contact Alan Davidson at 346 Holburn Street, Aberdeen, AB10 7GX, UK
Kitchen Cynics fan-club website: