The Odyshape Interview: Withered Hand
By Dan Weiss
A few months ago, Scotland’s Dan Willson, a/k/a Withered Hand, released his second album (and his first for twee stronghold Slumberland) New Gods to rave reviews, including several from this website. Following a folksy 2009 debut Good News, his creakily-sung, cleverly confessional folk tunes have been augmented by a who’s-who of Scottish indie-pop figures: Pam Berry (Black Tambourine), Chris Geddes (Belle & Sebastian), and singer-songwriter King Cresote. Odyshape spoke to him via Skype from his Edinburgh apartment about writing songs with the same cast of characters, as well as his curious references to heavy metal and male masturbation.
What things did you do on New Gods that you never imagined you’d be able to do when you first started performing?
Well, I guess working with some of those people is something I didn’t think I’d be able to do. Working with a producer that I have always wanted to work with.
Did the guests on the record approach you themselves because they were fans of Good News, or did you have to reach out to them?
The music scene here’s very small, so they were all aware of Good News, I think with the exception of Chris Geddes from Belle & Sebastian. He often plays session keyboards on Tony [producer Tony Googan]’s recording projects. But the other people are people I just knew from playing shows here, so it was very easy to get them to play you know? So they wanted to do it. It’s kind of different because the music scene is so small here that if you’re playing for any length of time, you meet people in the same genre of music. It’s hard to explain how small it is. If you do it for long enough, you just eventually meet all these people who you want to work with.
Was the name intended to be sort of an anagram of Good News or is that just a phenomenal coincidence?
It was a coincidence, a lucky one.
You also mention your song “Love Over Desire” again in “California,” so I thought there was a lot of thematic wordplay going on, with referencing your own stuff.
There is on the album, a lot of the songs are interwoven. But the title is just a lucky thing. It was decided before someone pointed it out to me, I wasn’t smart enough to think it up. [laughs] It just happened.
Are there any records or artists specifically that influenced you in referencing your own songs?
I think there probably are! I mean, I like it when that happens in people’s work. It kind of feels like they’re leaving you clues, how it all links together. I’m trying to think of people…I guess I kind of get that feeling from Jeff Mangum’s work sometimes. It feels like it’s all from the same part of his subconscious, or something. It’s definitely something I love when it happens.
Is there continuity between the people and stories in Withered Hand songs?
Yeah, there are because of a lot of it is, you know, fed from biographical detail. So yeah, the people are generally the same small pool of people that I know.
How much distance is there between the character you write and your actual self?
There’s none. There’s no difference [laughs]. A very little one. A hair’s breath. Either my whole life is turned into this character or there’s no difference.
A lot of New Gods seems to be about the trouble differentiating lust from love; are the experiences in these songs about things you’ve already resolved from the past, or are they attempts to untangle things happening to you in the present day?
I don’t think many people ever really resolve it, so I’d say a bit of both. To me it’s a fascinating conundrum, you know, as you go through life. I would say the moment you say you’ve resolved it, you’re either gonna become a monk or fall flat on your face again.
I know you don’t like being asked about like, the references to masturbation, but I wanted to ask if you feel that there’s a lack of male sexuality in other music, if it’s a conscious decision to talk about things most songwriters avoid?
I thought about this a little bit since Good News, which I wrote without really being very conscious that many people would hear or that I’d carry on to do more songwriting. But after the fact, I thought about the content of the songs, particularly when you’re asked to play them in context where you certainly feel aware of the content more. I think there is a lack…of honesty maybe! In the way people write about this stuff. For me, it feels like there’s a bit missing in some genres of songwriting, where there’s a kind of silence from heterosexual males, in a way which goes beyond stereotypes. It’s not something I consciously do, but I feel like it’s something that songwriting helps me with a bit. I think if something’s on your mind a lot, it would feel strange to address it in stereotypes, or dress it in something other than what it is. That’s not a good answer. I’m supposed to be an articulate person... [laughs]
No, that answer was actually really great!
I’m not aware of even many songs that reference masturbation! There’s a few punk songs that do. There’s only one song where it really gets noticed, in “Religious Songs.” People always notice that because you really can’t miss it. But other things, I think they’re very mundane but rarely voiced issues to do with love and contentment and lust. You know, the interface between you and other people.
Has your wife or anyone given you a reaction like, “Oh, this is a deep song about love…wait did you just say travel pussy?”
She knows all about what the songs are. More than I do; sometimes she will identify the meaning of a song more accurately than I at the time of writing it. The audience maybe sometimes at first will be like, ‘this is folk music, I know what this is,’ and then the lyrical content will confound them. But it’s not really done for this reason, it’s more an expression, just a way of getting stuff out. Sometimes I feel like I would rather be painting, but I’m not as good at it.
Is putting a horseshoe in a glove something people actually did? I never thought about it beyond seeing it in like, Bugs Bunny cartoons.
Yeah, me too. I don’t think they did it. They’d probably break their hand. I love the imagery of it though, you know? I felt like I lucked out when that started to develop in my mind. I used to love the feeble boxer in the Charlie Chaplin film, I think it’s called The Champ [actually, The Champion, 1915 - ed.]. Very realistic, and then with the horseshoe in his glove he’s powerful. But nothing’s really different, really. I don’t know, I think it’s an effective metaphor.
Oh yeah. Who are your dream collaborators that you’d love to work with someday?
Well, I’m quite interested in working with a guy called John Vanderslice. You know his stuff?
Yeah, he’s produced some of my favorite albums by the Mountain Goats.
Yeah, and I like his own songs. An album that he made called White Wilderness, I really recommend that one, it’s amazing. I think I could maybe get to work with him but he’s really far away. It probably seems like because of all the guests on the new album that it’s very obvious how to make that happen, but it’s still not obvious [laughs]. I’d like to make more songs with my friend Kenny, who plays under the name King Creosote. That’s probably more realistic, because we’re good friends and he lives not too far away. But I don’t really have like, a hit list or anything. The new album really got out of control…I guess I got less reluctant to ask people. I feel more confident than I did when I was first writing songs. And I guess people can always say no or not answer your emails or anything. In the course of playing shows in Scotland you meet these people anyway, so it’s not like I’m cold-calling.
You’ve said that the name Withered Hand was intended to sound like a metal band, and there’s that line from “Religious Songs” about death metal bands. Are you friends with a lot of metalheads that you’re trying to troll? What about that culture makes you interested in poking fun at it?
If it comes across as poking fun it’s probably…well. In the songs, I’m not consciously poking fun at metal, because as a youth it meant an awful lot to me. Hard rock and metal gave me a lifeline around the same time I stopped going to church and questioning lots of things. I’m more poking fun at myself. I find it interesting that even quite benign metal gets loaded up with bad associations. And it’s an interesting genre for me, because it’s not really represented in the mainstream, it’s perpetually on the outside, but massive. It’s fascinating. I’m not part of it—maybe I was at one time—but I like that kind of brotherhood of people who are into that kind of music. But there came a time in my life when I started to think, ‘I can’t listen to these lyrics anymore. It’s not doing anything for me at all.’
When I first started out, it was me with an acoustic guitar and I thought it would be funny if people thought it was something mean and noisy. I thought if you could get anywhere with a name like that, the music would have to be pretty good. I just wanted it to be a name that doesn’t fit what I do. But it doesn’t make much sense now, because I keep meeting people who say, ‘I never listened to your music because of that name!’ And it turns out that it’s something that they like.
I love hard rock but I can’t get my head around some of the sentiments in the lyrics. I love AC/DC but there was a time when I was about 16 where I started to think, there’s much more to life than this. So if it comes across as poking fun it’s not really. But I have some metal affinities. Like you’re wearing that My Bloody Valentine t-shirt; I wouldn’t have heard them if I hadn’t gotten into Sabbath and heavy metal, because I love the sound of droning guitars and stuff. That was my way of— like a lot of people I think— finding that, getting switched onto it. But it’s just not featured in my life now, that stuff.
I still listen sometimes to hard rock. I love the sound of the guitars and I love the forcefulness, but there’s only so much gargling dark sentiments into a microphone that I can handle, really. I kind of think the battle is against those feelings. You acknowledge that you have them, but then you try to do something against them. So that’s my take on it.