As Greentrax Recordings this week announced the upcoming July release of the new Kyle Warren album, Relentless, we take another look at a Piping Today interview with Ian Green of Greentrax. In this article Chris MacKenzie speaks to Ian about how he first got involved recording pipers and pipe bands, and gets some interesting stories about Gordon Duncan and the best ever selling piping album in the Greentrax catalogue.
By CHRIS MacKENZIE
Piping Today #55, 2011.
Some may have seen the bold entry by the Haddington Pipe Band at the opening of the Greentrax 25th Anniversary Concert as a touch of tartan trimming, a little something to quicken the pulse and set the audience up for the acts to follow.
Yet not only were the latest addition to the Greentrax stable a welcome and rousing start to the show, their presence was entirely consistent with the celebrations of the night, for as well as being the home of Scottish folk for the last 25 years, Greentrax has also been the home of piping its all in many shapes and guises. To be fair, the borders between folk and piping have blurred so much that even making a distinction may be moot but there is no doubting that much of what has been new and ground breaking in the piping scene in the last 25 years has been issued with a CDTRAX prefix.
Not convinced? Well, when the roster includes Hamish Moore, Ceolbeg, Vale of Atholl Pipe Band, The Peatbog Faeries, Finlay MacDonald, Gary West, Allan MacDonald, Lorne MacDougall and Simon Fraser University Pipe Band then the argument almost makes itself. Throw in the fact that the label has nearly all of Gordon Duncan’s recorded output and the case is closed and the jury dismissed.
Of course, there would be no Greentrax without the energy, drive and sheer determination of Ian Green. I caught up with Ian to get his thoughts on why his label has so much piping and why so much of it has broken new ground.
The obvious question was why move into piping CDs? There were already companies specialising in piping recordings. It was a market where the format was staid and you worked your way up to a recording — first get a gold medal then wait a few years and you might be deemed worthy of a recording. Ian is typically frank on why Greentrax took the plunge into the piping scene. “Before any of our piping albums, I was focused on the folk scene with no thoughts of piping or the Scottish country dance scene. What made me review that policy was when I attended the world record fair event in Cannes in January each year and most of the distributors I saw were saying that it would be much more interesting for them if Greentrax covered the whole gamut of Scottish music rather than just folk music. That made me think maybe the label was too narrow.”
So while we in Scotland dissect our music into competitive piping, kitchen piping, pipe bands, Cape Breton style, smallpipes, Border pipes, big pipes, wee pipes, mouth blown, and bellows blown to name way too many, the rest of the world just lumps piping in with Scottish country dance music, folk music and the tartan shortbread brigade — and calls it Scottish. Perhaps no bad thing, because it lured Ian into the dark and murky waters of the piping scene.
Although Ian had Ceolbeg on the books with their pipe-led Scottish folk sound, the first pure piping CD came in the unlikely form of the Scottish Gas Caledonian Pipe Band under Pipe Major Gordon Campbell and their album Out of the Blue.
This unglamorous Grade 2 pipe band may seem an odd choice but as Ian pointed out: “I’d seen them at two or three festivals and they were there as a group of people just enjoying themselves and I’d seen them operating as a ceilidh band as well as a pipe band. The idea was they would do both ceilidh tracks and pipe band tracks on the one album. Some of the guys were quite experienced and had played with folk groups, so they did know what they were doing on the non-piping tracks — I just liked what they were doing.”
They produced a cracking album that in many ways was ahead of its time with the band mixing ceilidh sets among the pipe band sets and using additional accompaniment — all ideas that were to be taken up by some of the more glamorous names in the pipe band scene over the coming years. This is an album that still sounds as fresh today as it did back in 1993 and, given all that has happened in the pipe band scene in the intervening years, that tells you all you need to know about the quality of the CD.
If Out of the Blue is an unsung gem in the catalogue then the next pipe band album was to set a benchmark that many are still trying to match. In 1995, it was the turn of The MacNaughtons Vale of Atholl Pipe Band, under Pipe Major Ian Duncan, to play the pre-Worlds concert (this was in the days when it was still held in the Motherwell Civic Centre). The gig was a marathon affair of both solo and band piping that delighted from start to finish. As the band were able to draw on the compositional talents of not just Ian’s brother, Gordon, but Mary Ann Mackinnon (Steam Train to Mallaig) and R.S. MacDonald (Il Paco Grande, Good Drying, Last Tango in Harris), the concert was a delight, with innovative sets and arrangements that went down a storm with the audience, one of whom was Ian Green. “I was invited along to see the concert and at that time Ian Duncan hadn’t made any decision about where it would go — he just wanted the concert recorded and they were doing that off their own bat. I was invited along and was just blown away by what they did in that concert — they were different and adding on to the pipe band music.” So it was that one of the top five pipe band concerts of all time came to be on the Greentrax roster.
Of course, one of the stars of that night was the maestro himself, Gordon Duncan. However, the recording doesn’t feature any of the solo sets Gordon did as Ian pointed out: “As there was lots of good stuff from the Vale of Atholl concert, Gordon said, ‘Don’t put my solo stuff on, put the other solo pipers on’. That was typically Gordon, letting someone else take the limelight. I always remember from the concert when Gordon did his solo bit I looked round the hall and those in the audience who were pipers were just focused on his fingers.”
It is impossible to talk about innovation in piping in the last 25 years without mentioning the late and sorely missed Gordon Duncan. While Gordon and Greentrax became synonymous, it very nearly wasn’t the case. Ian explained: “I had heard Gordon playing but I was in the thick of other stuff and it was Hamish Moore who said ‘Ian you’ve got to record Gordon’. It was about this time that Hamish came out with the expression, ‘He is a national treasure’, which has been used many times now including the piece Hamish wrote for the album.
“It was Hamish that pushed me into it — in fact Gordon had signed a contract with another label, Klub (KRL), but hadn’t done anything with them yet. So I asked Gordon if I could see the contract and it appeared that the contract had expired without them ever having recorded anything. So I wrote to Gus MacDonald at Klub Records to tell him that I was going to record him. Gus phoned me and said you’re right, the contract has expired and if Gordon doesn’t want to do it with me then fair enough.”
So began a relationship that was to be a pivotal force in setting the direction of piping in the following years. Just for Seumas wasn’t Gordon’s first recording as he had recorded an LP, From The Heart, with Ian Sherwood and Hudson Swan for Celtic Music and a cassette for a tour of America he was doing with Dougie MacLean. However, it’s fair to say neither of these made it to a substantial audience. That was all to change with Just for Seumas. It was titled, of course, as a riposte to Seumas MacNeil, who had famously decried Gordon’s music at the 1993 Piping Times Knockout finale against Gordon Walker. As Ian put it: “Gordon just did that as a way of saying, ‘I’ll get you back’, and that track Just for Seumas has everything including the kitchen sink in it.
“The CD was recorded at Pier House Studios with Jim Sutherland as producer. It was pretty easy as Gordon had good strong ideas about what he wanted to do and Jim just added bits and pieces to it. To me it is the album of Gordon’s in many ways. After that he never really knew what he wanted to do — he would have ideas then they would drop then others would come in. I had the feeling when he came to make the second album, The Circular Breath, he hadn’t really settled on what he wanted to do so I’m not entirely sure he was happy with it. The third one, Thunderstruck, he was more content with that. Tony McManus produced it and played guitar on it and I think they got on very well. Gordon’s albums have sold well over the years and I’m certain that the first one is the one that has sold the most.”
It is perhaps a measure of Gordon that he could be discontent with albums that have thousands of fans worldwide and were a major force in changing the face of not just the Scottish piping scene, but the broader traditional/folk scene as well.
“Gordon was planning another recording at the time he died and we had already talked about it. His contract for three albums was up and I said to him, ‘You can go away and find somebody better if you fancy that.’ His reply was typically couthy — ‘What the **** would I want to leave you for? I’m definitely happy with you Greenie’. He always called me Greenie if he was in a bright and cheery mood and if he called me Boss I’d know from that and the tone in his voice that he was a bit down that day. He had actually put down one track — and it was going to be produced by Murray Blair — but the fourth album never got going. When Gordon died, I got together with Ian Duncan and he pointed me in the direction of some very good stuff that we could use for the Just For Gordon tribute album.
The album’s title was Ian Green’s idea — “Well, if he has called his other one Just for Seumas then this should be Just for Gordon.” The royalties from the Just for Gordon CD go to the Gordon Duncan Trust of which Ian Green is a patron. As Ian puts it: “The Trust is doing amazing work and the concerts are amazing. The first one in my eyes was the big one, as we were all still fairly emotional about what had happened, and the very end when they played a whole lot of Gordon’s tunes and flashed his face up on the screen I looked around and everyone was struggling, it was an extremely emotional night.”
It will probably come as a shock to some that Greentrax’s best-selling pipe band CD isn’t Scottish Gas, the Vale, Simon Fraser, Dysart and Dundonald, Drambuie Kirkliston or even New Zealand’s Manawatu pipe band — it is the The Pipes and Drums of the 1st Battalion The Black Watch and their Ladies from Hell CD.
“This wasn’t even my idea to record them but I’d built up quite a strong relationship with Steven Small, who is now Captain in charge of piping and drumming at the Edinburgh Barracks. We had met a few times and he said to me, ‘Would you like to record the Black Watch?’ and I said, ‘Absolutely’.
“The Black Watch album is our best-selling pipe band album — it has outsold the Vale and Scottish Gas. It sells all over the place and I think it’s not to do with the piping, it’s the brand of the Black Watch. The Museum of the Black Watch sell loads of it and it is the one our distributor in America sells most of. On the tour circuit in America they have outsold Oasis on occasions.”
This approach that the Black Watch take to their marketing is one that many of the other artists on the Greentrax roster would do well to emulate. It is a peculiar facet of many traditional musicians — and pipers fall into that category — that they seem particularly reluctant to promote their own material. One such album that suffered from that was the terrific eponymous album by Smalltalk. This album is an unheralded gem with delightful smallpipe playing from Iain MacInnes, unctuous vocals from Billy Ross and delicate fiddle and cittern playing from Stuart Morrison. It is an album that just grows on you with every listen and it’s one of the best folk albums of the last 20 years — yet it’s in very few CD cabinets. Ian said: “They didn’t go out and market that CD and as a result sales suffered quite badly which is a shame because it is a lovely album. The follow-up they made as a resuscitated Ossian sold better.”
Another album that falls squarely in the should have been promoted better category is the classy Pipeworks by Jimmy Young. This groundbreaking album had Jimmy on Northumbrian pipes, Iain MacInnes on Border pipes and Iain MacDonald on smallpipes. This CD sparkles with delightfully effervescent playing from three pipers who are clearly in great form and very comfortable with each other. In Ian’s words, “the mix of pipes hadn’t been done before — Jimmy’s a great piper, but again, he wasn’t here to promote it so it didn’t sell as well as it should have.” This CD is a must for any serious piping fan’s collection.
A band from which perhaps Smalltalk and Jimmy could have learned some marketing tricks from were Macumba. How did that unlikely mix of pipes and samba made the Greentrax listings? “I recorded them because my wife June and I went to the Tall Ships and Macumba were playing bagpipes up in the sails and they were capturing the imagination of the people with their mix of bagpipes and south American rhythms on drums,” said Ian. “We decided to take them on. We sent out, as we always do, masses of promotional albums all over the world and a presenter on a radio station in Austin, Texas, really took a shine to the album. The switchboard to the station was blocked for about three hours after the show with folk looking for information. He informed the local record store, Waterloo Records, and the owner immediately ordered 10 copies – that one shop went on to sell 1500 copies of the CD. I thought, ‘This is marvellous, we have a hit here’, but it didn’t sell nearly as well anywhere else in America. However, Macumba got some great gigs out of it like the World Cup in France.”
If Macumba represents one end of the piping spectrum then the Masters of Piobaireachd series featuring the Bobs of Balmoral — Robert B. Nicol and Robert U. Brown — has got to be the polar opposite. “I really didn’t want to take that on to be honest with you,” he admitted. “I really thought this was going to be a disaster, but Rab Wallace and Norman Matheson thought it was the best thing since sliced bread and they were very persuasive. So I made the first one and it sold way beyond my expectations, thousands more than the one or two hundred I was expecting, which I was astonished at. The rest have sold a little less but they are still selling well and I had to go cap in hand to the guys and say this is utterly amazing. The money goes into trust to help young pipers which is fantastic.” This is the essence of Ian’s approach — if you are enthusiastic about something then he is willing to listen and if it is “something different”, he might just put his money on the line for you.
This approach was evident when he met Hamish Moore and his infectious enthusiasm for the music of Cape Breton led Ian to back Hamish’s album Stepping on the Bridge. “I’m very proud of this album. Hamish wanted to do something different and I was particularly struck with the Cape Breton piano style, and I said, ‘Away you go and come back with a bloody good album’.”
This album with its focus on the rhythms of Cape Breton and its bold assertion that the style of some Cape Breton fiddlers is thought to be a fairly authentic 18th century Highland style caused a stir at the time, with some for it and some most decidedly not for it. That the CD went on to sell well was testament to the high-quality music and that seems to have trumped all, and the debates are now confined mainly to the musicologists. Indeed, it’s fair to say that the success of this album allowed the Cape Breton style to be seen as an adjunct to rather than a replacement of the style in Scotland. Hamish’s passion has continued with the Seudan project and the fabulous Seudan album recently released on Greentrax.
Hamish also inspired the Piper and the Maker CD as the concert featured pipers all playing pipes of assorted shapes and sizes made by Hamish. Recording pipers in concert is a notoriously tricky business and one that clearly gives Ian the occasional headache. “It’s very difficult to get pipers to be happy with something that’s done live — almost impossible really. There is one piper we have recorded live several times and nothing has been released despite people like Hamish saying it is fine, but he still won’t let it go out. Pipers are very concerned about how they played. When we recorded The Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society Recital they all wanted to be sent the material we were putting on the CD before it was released.”
It should be clear by now that what draws Ian to the music is something that little bit away from the ordinary. His comments on Someting Blew by Dougie Pincock illustrate this perfectly. “That’s another great album I am very proud of. It’s quite different from the normal and that’s what attracted me to it.”
This is a man who is prepared to put his company name and his reputation on the line for projects he believes in. After all, there can’t be too many record company owners who would put out two CDs focused on the link between piobaireachd and Gaelic song (the two highly acclaimed CDs by Allan MacDonald and Margaret Stewart). That Ian did speaks volumes for the belief he has in his own instincts and his desire to get music that deserves to be heard out to those who want to hear it.
The fly in the ointment is the global downturn in CD sales. Ian said: “CD sales are slumping worldwide — downloads are rising but not as fast as CDs are slumping and that makes it tough. We are on iTunes and it’s quite amazing, a fairly large percentage of our downloads are piping.”
That this article hasn’t even mentioned CDs by Lorne MacDougall, R.S. MacDonald, Daimh, Gary West, Pipedown, Slainte Mhath, Deaf Shepherd, Mark Saul, ScottishPower, Dysart and Dundonald, the recording of the PM Donald MacLeod competition in Stornoway, three grand concerts of Scottish Piping, and the concert of piobaireachd from the 1999 Edinburgh Festival is a clear indication of the depth of the piping offering from Greentrax.
The label’s piping catalogue is a window into the progression that has taken place in the piping scene over the last quarter of a century and while not all the key players are visible through that window — for example Fred Morrison, Robert Mathieson, Chris Armstrong — most are, and it is for us to be thankful for Ian, June and the gang’s continued support of those things that are “a little bit different”.