Van Life: Iain Sloan

Fretboard warrior, purveyor of all things six-string, and pedal steel supremo, Iain Sloan has been soundtracking the UK Americana scene for a number of years predominantly with The Wynntown Marshals, Scotland’s finest band, and latterly with the likes of indie folksters Blue Rose Code and the legendary Peter Bruntnell.   Americana-UK catches up with Sloan inbetween practice and school runs to chat through life on the road and have a rummage through the glove box.

So, last year seems to have been VERY busy for you? 
Well, 2017 has been an incredible year. Firstly, The Wynntown Marshals’ celebrated a decade together and released a retrospective album entitled “After All These Years”. This allowed us to mark our special anniversary in a celebratory way as well as offering us an opportunity to look back and reflect upon the last 10 years and what we’ve achieved and been through so far. In the process of compiling the tracklisting and sleevenotes, we got to thinking about all those great memories we’ve made, friendships we’ve formed, and road trips we’ve had in that time. We also recorded 3 new things for the album to force across the point that there’s still life left in us old dogs yet!

We put the album out in September and did a headline tour into October that took in chunks of Scotland that we’ve never been to before. And we simply HAD to go over to Germany to visit the loyal bunch of nutters that we have become very good friends with. Germany has definitely become our spiritual home in many ways, and we have worked hard to try to make an indent over there – often going over there a couple of times per year.

As the main guitar player in the band, I’m guessing you go all Satriani on their asses in the van and sit there aloof, silent, and listening to Mahler?  Or is it all trains, planes, buses and takewaways as a session man? 
Principally by virtue of being one of those relatively rare beasts in the UK – a pedal steel guitarist, I have been kept incredibly busy outwith my commitments to the Marshals over the last 12-18 months too. So, unlike many other subjects of your feature, my ‘Van Life’ is perhaps a little different. A lot of my road miles to ‘sessions’ or gigs are not necessarily in a van and, all too often, there is nobody in the passenger seat. In some ways, my time on the road is more akin to that of a solo artist I guess – travelling alone with my instrument, amp, and a wee bag of fx pedals and cables in the boot. The loneliness of the long-distance runner, and all that…

You have really become a ‘go-to’ man over the last few years. Tell me who you have been working with? 
Things really kicked off for me in a big way when, in March 2016, I answered a call from Ross Wilson (aka Blue Rose Code) inviting me to come along to record a live session with a 10-piece line-up he was putting together for a Quay Sessions appearance at BBC Scotland, presented by Edith Bowman. That went great and opened up the opportunity for me to join Ross on the amazing journey he’s been on over the last year-and-a-bit.

Also, 2017 has seen me hit the road for 3 separate little tours with the fantastic, Devon-based singer-songwriter Peter Bruntnell. I’ve been buying Peter’s records since “Camelot in Smithereens” came out back in 1997, and I learned to find my way around the pedal steel by trying to play along to Eric Heywood’s great parts on the follow-up LP, “Normal for Bridgwater”. We had bumped into each other several times over the years and, when he opened for American Music Club back in 2008, we started talking about doing some double-header shows with the Marshals. For some reason, that never came off, but we kept in touch. Then, when he was opening for Richmond Fontaine on their farewell tour in October 2016, Peter asked me to join him onstage to play a handful of songs together at the end of his set. That went down so well that, in the dressing room afterwards, Peter said “Hey, I’ve got this great double bassist called Danny Williams. Do you fancy going out and doing a bundle of shows together, as a trio?” Of course, I jumped at the chance. So, fast forward to March 2017 and the “Peter Bruntnell Trio” did a 5-night of headline shows across the length and breadth of Scotland. And we’ve done that length of tour together another couple of times – in July and again in November. Each time the audiences are growing in size and we keep adding another few songs to the set to keep things fresh. People kept asking us if we had any recordings available as they loved the alternative takes on Peter’s back catalogue that are now possible because we don’t have a drummer out on the road with us. So we convened in Danny’s house in Holmfirth a few months back, set up in his kitchen (which acted as a ‘live room’), and sent the audio down into his multi-track studio set-up in his basement, and we recorded 15 songs from the big list of songs from where we pull the live set each night. we are all really pleased with how the album came out, and the first pressing had sold out by the end of the fifth show, which shattered our expectations.

I’ve also recorded with a great Scottish singer-songwriter called Norrie McCulloch and my pedal steel accompanies the beautiful piano work of Teenage Fanclub’s Dave McGowan and Norrie’s gorgeous vocal on a track called “This Time” on Norrie’s most recent full-length album Bare Along The Branches.  If you haven’t already, go check Norrie’s music out. It’s pretty special.

After meeting them and singing together at Blue Rose Code’s ‘Homecoming’ 2016 headline show at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall, I was also asked to contribute pedal steel to “Wilderland” by the über-talented Zervas and Pepper in the springtime.  It’s a great record, and I’m honoured to have been asked to play with them.

Latterly, via a recommendation courtesy of Justin Currie’s guitarist/steeler Stuart Nisbet, I’ve also played a few shows with My Darling Clementine, aka Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish. As with everything I’ve done outside of Wynntown, this one was a real learning experience as I’ve not really been called upon to do play much of what I’d term ‘trad’ country playing on the steel, believe it or not. Plus the guitar work they need for their set requires me to veer from Mariachi to a real Steve Cropper-esque Memphis Soul kind of vibe. When I look back on the gigs, tours, and studio sessions I’ve been able to do – in the last 12-18 months especially – I really am very grateful for all the opportunities that have come my way.

I only bought a pedal steel around 12 or 13 years ago, meaning I took on the challenge of learning to play a brand new instrument at the age of 35 or thereabouts. And the pedal steel isn’t the logical choice if you want an easy (or financially lucrative) existence! Haha. So, you know, it’s a gift to be able to make music and I don’t take any of this for granted.

Ok, so let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Let’s get the CD player fired up! What we got??
Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life
Without a doubt, this is the best album I’ve bought in the last couple of years. I am really drawn to songwriters whose lyrics seem to come from the heart – like Mark Eitzel, Ross Wilson from Blue Rose Code, and Aimee Mann. For me, Courtney’s lyrics and stories really ring true. I’ve not driven to a show or session in 2017 without “Honest Life” by my side.

The Rails – There Are Other People In This World Not Just You
Although it has some great moments (the title track especially), The Rails’ debut “Fair Warning” never really got under my skin. That really disappointed me as I really respect Kami (Thompson) and James (Walbourne). However, their current album is in a whole different league for me. They seem to have deliberately steered away from the English folk traditions of their debut, written some great tunes about where they are in their lives right now, and focused on going for more of a live sound. For me, it’s a real joy to hear them harmonising and, especially, to hear James reunited with an electric guitar more than on the debut. His playing is, for the main part, beautifully understated and does exactly what the songs require. But, on those rare occasions where he lets rip (the solos on Late Surrender and Shame), his playing just elevates the album to a whole new level – reminiscent of some of his incredible playing on those early Peter Bruntnell records.

Propaganda – A Secret Wish
I was really into the whole synthpop movement in its early days and my vinyl collection is packed with singles and albums by Depeche Mode, OMD, Gary Numan, early Human League, and so on. Propaganda was a German band signed to Trevor Horn’s ZTT label and they put this album out in 1985. They were pretty dark with that real kinda sleazy, almost oppressive undertone more frequently associated with the torch songs of the Weimar Republic of the 1920s and ‘30s. Horn assembled his in-house production team and let them loose on this with their Fairlight synthesizers and Linn Drum machines! It sounds amazing and feels very ahead of its time with its use of sequencers, samplers and so on.  As with Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn”, this is just fantastic to listen to on the move. Especially when I think of the amount of material that I have to listen to in order to prep for sessions, my head can be full of Americana and mellow singer-songwriter tunes. So, it’s really important for me to have a musical place that I can go to that offers me some ‘respite’ from all those acoustic guitars, pedal steels, and songs about how shitty relationships can be from time to time. Haha.

Jim Bryson – The North Side Benches
Like his fellow Canadian John K Samson (formerly of The Weakerthans), Jim is a HUGELY underappreciated songwriter and there’s frequently albums by either of those guys on when I’m driving to a show. I have Keith (Benzie – Marshals’ frontman) to thank for introducing me to Jim’s music almost a decade ago. Everything he does is really good, but I have a real soft spot for this album, its predecessor (The Occasionals) and The Falcon Lake Incident,  which he recorded with The Weakerthans – all great records. Jim ploughs more of an ‘indie’ or college rock ‘furrow’ than an Americana vibe on this album, but it’s fantastic – perhaps reminiscent of the kind of thing that, had Evan Dando released it, would have topped the charts 25 years ago.

Jonathan Coulton – Solid State
Although he has around nine albums or something out, I’m ashamed to admit that Jonathan Coulton was an unknown entity to me until a few weeks ago. He opened for Aimee Mann on her most recent UK tour, by virtue of having co-written, sung, and played guitar on three songs on her “Mental Illness” album.  I found his set in Glasgow absolutely spellbinding. Although a couple of his tunes were deliberately humorous (something I usually don’t warm to), others were jam-packed full of the pathos, sadness and hopelessness that perpetrate Aimee’s tunes too. “Solid State” is, effectively, a concept album (eeek!) about the internet, technology, artificial intelligence, and what that might all ultimately mean for civilisation. He manages to pack some well-observed, intelligent, thought-provoking lyrics into tunes that veer from Postal Service-style electro to the kind of timeless powerpop beloved of the likes of Jason Falkner, Fountains of Wayne, and even ELO. It’s wonderfully put together and highly recommended and sounds great in the car stereo.

Miracle Glass Company   – MGC1
These guys are an incredible old school 3-piece from Edinburgh. I was on tour with Peter Bruntnell earlier this year and we saw these guys playing on the same festival bill as us. We were both spellbound. They blew us away. They are unashamedly ‘retro’ and remind me of classic bands like Cream, The Kinks, and Big Star, but with CSN&Y or Teenage Fanclub vocal harmonies. The album was produced by Owen Morris, who produced the first few Oasis albums and it’s great, although they are even better live. You’ll often see me proudly wearing my MGC shirt onstage too.

Tears For Fears – The Hurting
Another album I return to time and time again. I bought this album when it was first released back in 1983 and, as a 14-year-old, pretty uncool kid who was rubbish at sport, it really struck a chord with me as a lot of the songs are about the pain of growing up and not fitting in. Unfortunately in many ways, although it led to them being a very successful singles band, they were marketed as a ‘pop band’ with Curt Smith pushed to the front as the pretty boy. But there is something almost proggy going on across this album that often gets overlooked when people think of TFF. This LP is similar to Peter Gabriel’s earlier solo work. It’s pretty cerebral and very interesting lyrically. To me, they were one of the early pioneers who tried to combine pop music with lyrics that actually mean something.

Works Progress Administration – WPA
I was introduced to this album by former Marshals’ keyboardist, Richie Noble. WPA is, to all intents and purposes, a ‘supergroup’ featuring members of Nickel Creek, Elvis Costello and the Imposters, Toad The Wet Sprocket, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, as well as the pedal steel genius of A-list session man, Greg Leisz. The songs are fantastic and the playing – as you’d expect from an album featuring Leisz, the Watkins family, and Benmont Tench – is extraordinary. All of this wrapped up in a wonderful production from the legendary Jim Scott too! What’s not to like?

The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America
I believe that, in twenty or more years from now, this will be held aloft as a great example of its genre. I think this is almost the perfect American blue-collar rock album. Every song is a winner. No filler. No song overstays its welcome. Fantastic lyrics and stories and the production is raw and gritty. I know I’ll get pelters for this from certain quarters, but this is as good as any complete album that Springsteen has put out. Honestly, I believe it is THAT good. This one gets played every time the Marshals hit the road together. As does “Sirens” by our dear friends from Virginia, Sons of Bill. Just great road music.

Prides – The Way Back Up
Another one of my synthpop ‘diversions’, courtesy of some young lads from Glasgow. These guys just write some great pop tunes. There’s nothing complicated or overly deep. Just great melodies, well-crafted arrangements, brilliantly produced and sung with passion. I love this record. Again, so do my kids, which is good for a quiet life when I’m in the car and we’re looking for something to listen to that nobody will moan about!

You can keep track of Iain’s exploits with The Wynntown Marshals, Blue Rose Code, Peter Bruntnell, and several others over at his Facebook page here:

After All These Years by The Wynntown Marshals is out now on Blue Rose Records
The Water of Leith by Blue Rose Code is out now on Navigator Records
Live in the Firth by the Peter Bruntnell Trio is out now on Domestico Records

Iain Sloan picture courtesy of Michael Ozmond

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Iain Sloan

Thanks for taking the time (and for showing interest) in publishing this feature, Del. Much appreciated xo

Paul Kerr

That long list of records just goes to show that Mr. Sloan is first and foremost a music lover. A great read and really nice to have such a lovely guy featured here.