Chris Small is a musical polymath. If you didn’t know it going into one of his shows, you’d certainly know it leaving. Hailing from the Fair City of Perth, over the last few years he has established himself as one of central Scotland’s foremost young blues and rock musicians. As a solo singer-songwriter, leader of his own trio and frequent guest trombonist, Chris is usually a busy man performing up and down the country. But like the rest of us, he has had to temporarily adjust to life under lockdown. I spoke to him at his home in Perth via video call to discuss his new EP and these unusual times.
First of all, how are you doing given the current circumstances?
I’m not too bad at all actually. Lockdown is definitely presenting opportunities and challenges so it’s all about riding that balance just now. I’ve seen so many musicians collaborating and doing some really cool stuff and I’ve found that that in itself can actually kind of weirdly get you down. I’m kind of sitting there thinking, I should be doing that too but at the same time I just wanna sit and play xbox or you know – do something not musical. But overall things are pretty good and having all the time in the world is actually quite nice for a change.
You released your EP just as the pandemic kicked off in late February. Can you talk us through how you recorded it and who you worked with?
I had the initial idea to record it back in September last year. We had five songs that I’d been playing live with my trio and the first hurdle was taking our very “live” sound and make that into more of a “record” sound. Working out how and where to add more guitar, horns, keys or whatever. The process itself was to build up the songs and decide quite concretely on the sounds and the arrangements. I had my friends Ivan Sveda on drums and Dave Shaw on bass and the entire EP was recorded in my home studio, apart from the drums which we did in my fiancé’s parents house – mostly due to space constraints. The whole thing was super DIY. Horns were done by myself, keys by George Staniforth and Callum Moodie from Bohemian Monk Machine playing guitar on ‘Time’. I actually had the honour of Stuart Nisbet (The Proclaimers, Del Amitri) come and play guitar on the last track as well. He was really helpful with the songwriting stuff too. He’d be making suggestions and I’d be like, okay if he’s telling me to do it I should probably listen because he definitely knows his shit. In the end I played some extra keys and percussion as well as all the guitars and vocals, even some accordion actually. It was all mixed and mastered by John Harcus remotely. Ultimately we decided not to include one of the tracks because it was a bit too 60’s surf rock. Doing it mostly myself was definitely an education, but I don’t know if I would do quite so much on my own again.
How did you decide that now was the time to step outfront yourself as a bandleader?
Up until now I’ve always been a side guy. I’ve always been a drummer or trombone player for someone else and I felt I’d learnt so much in playing in these other bands that maybe it was time to try it. I knew that when I was younger I didn’t have it in me to lead yet and I think it’s important that you have a certain maturity to do it. To me there’s a big difference between some guys backing you, and you actually leading a band. A lot of the time it’s either a full band under a band name like Queen, or guys like George Ezra who write everything themselves but have other musicians onstage with them. They’re super well rehearsed, but to me he’s not leading the band. I’ve always wanted to be in a band that when we play live, we can go off and try new things. That’s what excites me when I see a band. There’s this ball of energy that gradually goes from the band to the audience and before you know it, everyone is in this great place that they don’t want to leave. The closest I’d got to that feeling was when I played horns in Bohemian Monk Machine. For my own project, I was aware of the amount of effort involved to get there which is why I guess I didn’t do it sooner, so eventually last year I formed the trio with Ivan and Dave and it’s just sort of grown from there.
Were you aiming for a particular sound or has it come quite naturally? A huge influence on me recently has been Sting. I love how well he incorporates different sounds and timbre into his music, but also the fact that The Police were a three-piece and I’m interested in the sort of musical relationship you can have between just three people. From there it was a case of impressing individually on the tracks whatever I’ve been into. On tracks like “Time” I tried to bring more of a jazz, syncopated quality, but also allowed myself to be open to the poppier side of things. In the case of “Roses” it was John Mayer that I looked to. But not doing everything how he would, because I’m still trying to work out what kind of musician I want to be and what sound I want to have. I was really using the EP as an opportunity to try out some different things. Each track has its own little niche and that was the most important thing for me – to be open to trying out different sounds. I don’t think I could’ve done a whole EP of similar stuff anyway. I’ve discovered so much music from people posting things on social media and realised that other people’s tastes are eclectic too, which made me not worry about having an EP of different sounding songs.
Are you doing anything different in lockdown musically speaking?
I’m trying to stay grounded with the lack of gigging and it’s just now that I’ve realised how much that the gigging is an integral part of me as a person. It doesn’t have to be the big important gigs either. But because there’s a lack of that, my psyche is struggling to get over it. So musically I’m just trying to find solace in the music that comforts me, which is something that I never used to do – really re-discovering just how much music can help you. Sometimes that means listening to sad music because you actually want to feel a bit sad, which is okay. But the problem then is that I’m listening to all this music that I haven’t heard in a long time which should then translate into me wanting to do more, but weirdly that didn’t happen. I did a couple of live stream gigs to see if that would scratch that itch but it wasn’t really ticking the same boxes. I do think that musically going forward I’m gonna try and push myself in a completely new direction instead of playing it safe. I’ve applied for some funding to do that because I obviously can’t rely on gigs right now, but if that comes in then it’ll be full steam ahead with that. It’s weird, I thought that when this whole thing happened that I’d become super productive and start doing lots of collaborations with people, increase my productivity, work on my trumpet playing, but it just hasn’t happened. This whole thing has just hit me way harder than I thought it would so it kind of has its ups and downs.
Has it felt odd to not be out performing and to have the pressure off? Or is it even off?
I love the challenge of a big gig. I love getting into a rehearsal and saying, “this is what we’re gonna work on”, and then pre-planning everything. I’ll even have chord sheets written ahead of time with full structures in bound folders and hand them out to everyone. That feeling of nailing it in the rehearsal and then visualising doing it live is such a buzz. So I really love the challenge and the hard work you need to put in to get even the rehearsals right. At the last gig we did before lockdown (as a four-piece with George Staniforth) we played Seven Days by Sting which is in 5/4, because for years I told myself that I could never sing and play that song at the same time. And the hard work we put in was amazing when it worked live – but without that challenge? It feels like there’s a bit of a vacuum. How do I push myself? Because I need to feel that same effort. It was simple before because I would write something really complicated and we’d work hard on it then gig it, but now none of that’s there. So it feels like more of an empty feeling rather than the pressure being off as such. I kind of need that sense of expectation. I don’t like taking my foot off the pedal because that’s what keeps me going.
You mentioned you’d broadcast a few facebook live gigs from your flat earlier in lockdown. Is that something you had to quickly work out the technicalities of? Or were you pretty well set up?
I’d tried some live stuff in the past and once I saw that that was the way things were going in lockdown I thought I should do it properly and build a little set and get some natural light and stuff. Kirsty, my fiancé was a big help with all that while I was getting set up. But then after doing the first gig from home I wasn’t quite getting what I wanted from it. There are bars and pubs doing properly produced shows online now with professional audio equipment, lighting, cameras etc. and I would love to have that. But even what they’re offering at the very top isn’t really what I do any of this for. I do it for the relationships between musicians onstage, the energy I was talking about and the risk taking. Like let’s rehearse this song up to a point then take a risk live because if it comes off then we’re just gonna feel amazing. Those little moments are what I do it for. Whereas once you finish a track on a live stream you don’t get anything physical back, absolutely nothing. Which is so alien when I’m trying to give out as much energy as I do when I usually play live – I mean, what are you supposed to do in that situation? So if it is gonna be the new norm then maybe I do need to get on that train if venues are going to offer opportunities for a new audience, which is great, but it’s the thought of playing on my own that’s the hardest to get over because it’s the thing I love the most. The whole point of music is other people, it’s about playing and creating with others. I’ll record a demo on my own to get things going, but that’s all it should be. After that it should be about the spark and spontaneity of people together in a room.
Do you think that whenever we come out the other side of all this that you’ll still be in the mindset where you left off ?
Unfortunately I think that the EP stuff and mindset will be finished. I had it in my head that I’d do a summer of gigs and promote the record with this new “live” sound – as a four-piece – and after that, when people heard my name, this sound would be the one they associate with it. But recently I’ve felt I’m not reaching far enough with my music. For a long time I’ve subconsciously been treating my music as an exercise of what other people want to hear. But once we come out of this and I can start to gig again, I think the new energy that’s been building up in the down time will be ready to go in a different direction. It’s a weird thing to admit so soon after the release of the EP, but being able to reflect on it in these circumstances, I think it’s important to be honest with yourself. There were little moments in the EP that were purely serving myself but they were few and far between. Now I think I should be focusing on them because those are the bits that I lose my shit over, and it’s still me. Just now is an opportunity for me to write the sort of horn lines that I really wanna hear, like Earth Wind and Fire shit. It’s taken something as big as this to make me see that. If all this hadn’t happened and I’d been able to tour with the four-piece, I don’t know if I’d have taken a step back and thought is this really what I want to be doing? It should be about what you want to do and not question too much what other people will think, because there’s an audience for everything and if the right people hear it, that should be enough.
“The whole point of music is other people, it’s about playing and creating with others”
If you could change one thing about the society we go back into, what would it be?
I’d like to think that people would see more of a value in musicians as artists. You’re always gonna get the guys that just do it for money or that go out and play Oasis, Paolo Nutini or Ed Sheeran all night and that’s cool. I would just like to see more understanding into how much goes into performing for some people. It’s sad to see some people not supporting their local music scene. Or when they do it’s for one band that they know and there’s no desire to open themselves up to new music. I’ve seen it lots of times in smaller places where local audiences can be really split with absolutely no crossover, and nights of certain music get put on which struggle because there’s only a small faction of support for that one scene. Places like The Jazz Bar in Edinburgh are great because there are nights I’ve gigged in there and thought shit, there’s a lot of people in here that I wouldn’t expect to see and funnily enough, they’re having a great time. I wish that would happen more in places like Perth, getting out of the mindset where people will be out every weekend, but only see a gig once every two months and only because they know the person, and God forbid there’s a fee on the door. I’d like to see society place a bit more value on the arts in general, to be more open to allow themselves to enjoy things and go to places they wouldn’t normally go to, physically and musically, because that’s where some of the best stuff happens and those are the nights that everyone remembers best.