Interview: Saint Jude’s Infirmary

In one of our most popular posts from last year, Saint Jude’s Infirmary clocked in at No.1 on our ‘Five Edinburgh Bands Sadly No More’ feature. “We’re still scratching our heads as to why Saint Jude’s Infirmary didn’t make it big,” wrote AAA content editor Gary Flockhart, “but perhaps you get what you ask for when you name your band after the patron saint of lost causes.” 

Or perhaps you don’t. You see, Saint Jude’s Infirmary have risen phoenix-like from the ashes and will play a comeback gig at Sneaky Pete’s this Friday (Nov 25).

For those unfamiliar with the band, The Fife-bred, Leith-based outfit seemed to have it all going for them as they prepared to release their second album, with Ian Rankin penning lyrics for one of the tracks and Jack Vettriano providing cover art.

The brooding five-piece had already started to make a name for themselves with their debut album, Happy Healthy Lucky Month – a mixture of sad, sweeping epics and rollicking bar-room romps which saw them hailed as ‘Scotland’s answer to The Velvet Underground’.

Sadly, Saint Jude’s second album, This Has Been The Death Of Us, turned out to be aptly-named, and the band split up shortly after its release.

And now they’re back. We caught up with Grant Campbell and Jamie Brown from the band for a chat ahead of Friday’s hotly-anticipated gig

You’re back together for a gig at Sneaky Pete’s – is it the full band?

Grant: Since we last played, Mark [Francis] has emigrated to Australia (it was that traumatic) and Cat [Myers] is now touring the globe with Honeyblood. Jamie, who goes back a long time with the band and used to co-manage the band, is playing drums and Elvis Valentine from Saint Jude’s contemporaries and mystical peers, the 55’s, replaces Mark. He is the closest match that we could achieve through a scientific approach that encompassed hand size, immoral rectitude and baritonal vocal timbre.

Both yourself and Mark are on record saying that the making of the last album was hellish – what was so bad about it?

Grant: People asked at the time about the title as if it were a self-fulfilling prophecy. The working title was ‘…and the Pox and the Hex ensued’. In truth, we didn’t need a producer – we needed a priest. It wasn’t difficult at all on an artistic or musical level, but everything else was just marching on Moscow in winter in plimsolls.

What have you all been up to in the years since the band split?

Grant: Sadly, real life began to encroach more and more. With respect to music, Alun [Thomas] went onto play with The Leg, Withered Hand and Et Tu Brute???, amongst other projects. Emma [Jane] collaborated with other artists including the Douglas Firs. Ashley [Campbell], Jamie and I played in Edinburgh School for the Deaf. I also played with The Young Spooks, and Naked, and currently play with Optic Nerve and Et Tu Brute??? Elvis helped produce/mix the first Naked record and since the 55’s he has been writing and recording songs for a myriad of solo projects with Numbers, and Deserters being the most recent of which.

The Edinburgh music scene has changed a lot since you were last together. Do you think things are better now, or worse?

Grant: I don’t think that there is any other major capital city in the world where bands succeed despite being from there rather than because they are there. Perhaps we should just embrace having a city that is a blank; that allows artists like Young Fathers and Law to emerge sui generis.

Is next week’s gig a one-off, or the start of a comeback?

Grant: If I should have learnt one thing from my time in Saint Jude’s, then it is never to tempt fate. Having said that, Saint Jude’s will return to recording the fourth record this January.

How many years has it been since St Jude’s Infirmary last played live?

Grant: Seven winters long? It is strange at the time you imagine that you have left some sort of mark, some imprint, to show for the flower of your youth, but coming before camera phones and the internet there isn’t all that much out there. Vanity aside, it makes me despair at all the good bands, bands much better than us, from that little space in time that will soon be forgotten. Between the death of print and the hegemony of the web there is a forgotten little space where so much great art is destined to remain lost forever as if within some unmarked grave.

How’s rehearsals been? Were you a little ring rusty?

Grant: I think in any band where there are relations or siblings there is a degree of telepathy, a shorthand of communication and a shared nature of experience that does make the process a lot easier. Initially. To make it flutter and to make nimble has taken a little work. At times it has felt, to use your analogy, a little like we were a boxer that used to struggle to make weight, that retires, goes off the rails a bit and is now trying to return to the ring for one last shot. Yet as with boxing allegories, the title doesn’t really matter, as long as we go down swinging like heart-breaking losers.

Jamie: Like re-opening a Russian novel, the structures are all still there; the heartbeat, the ephemera. You deeply inhale, and stride forward to scan the horizon for verdant meadows, and then you notice the pall. Amongst all the clatter and drum and strang, the shadows await mid-pounce. Our prayers remain consistent with one message, let us be fleet of foot and not dawdle.

Any surprises in there?

Grant: There should be three or four new songs in the set.

I think the third record which was written, and lost, would’ve surprised people – it was on the cusp of when we were within some euphoria of absolute misery and felt confident to move beyond the boundaries of taste or order that we’d imposed on ourselves.

What can we expect from the set?

Grant: Love, death and the alphabet.

An approximation of everything RD Laing fought so valiantly for.

Will the megaphone be making an appearance for Vampyres and All My Rowdy Friends Are Dead?

Grant: That was a great megaphone. I believe it was a Chinese one intended for crowd control, it came pre-programmed to play the opening bars of the theme to Titanic at shrilly inhuman levels which would surely disperse any illegal gathering.

If you had the chance to go back to the beginning and start SJI all over again, what would you do differently? Any regrets?

Grant: I’m not sure. If I’ve learnt anything it is that to succeed you need to be the kind of person that I certainly wasn’t at 17 and I would like to hope I remain not now.

I’m sanguine about it all. We were around at the terminal stage of the traditional record label and the pregnant pause before Myspace. If we had bobbed up a little bit earlier or later then we might have been plucked out as some of our contemporaries were. Yet would it have made any difference at all, other than we would’ve had records compromised by ourselves rather than by fate and circumstance?

For all their myriad faults, there remains something innately pure and inscrutable about the songs cast across those two records. Looking back, that was our youth, we dedicated it to the world, but the world just wasn’t listening. And if at times they were a little pretentious or wild-eyed or unfocused, then what young person isn’t. If the recording wasn’t always great or if we didn’t have the means or the technology to ever really mirror the music in our heads, then we always had those voices.

If there is anyone who still thinks fondly of the band it is because of those voices and the dreams that we were essaying. It’s like Nietzsche said – the voice of beauty speaks softly; it creeps only into the most fully awakened souls.

And finally… The Waverley Bar was a favourite with members of Saint Jude’s Infirmary… you must be gutted to see it gone?

Grant: I think bars like the Waverley should be preserved as living cultural artifacts. Why are theatres and opera houses subsidised and not bars? If you imagine how much artistic endeavour was forged in the crucible of that place then it deserves to be sustained as a cultural resource.  Part of me is filled with an immeasurable dread that it will be reopened as some clownish facsimile of its old self, as a horrifying artisan brewing pub or a dreadful twee gin palace.

 Yet maybe as sad as it seems, some things must die rather than be resurrected as travesties of their former selves.

Saint Jude’s Infirmary, plus guests (Hamish Hawk, Allen Ginsberg Trio) Sneaky Pete’s, Cowgate, Friday, 25 November, doors 7pm, £8, CLICK HERE FOR TICKETS


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