By John Curley
The Dundee, Scotland-based quartet The Cundeez first came to my attention this summer when I heard their moving song “Coloured Ribbons and Tarnished Brass” on a podcast hosted by the Scottish DJ Jim Gellatly. I contacted the band because I wanted to write about the song. I heard back from Gary Robertson, the band’s vocalist, and the resulting blog item about “Coloured Ribbons and Tarnished Brass” can be read here. (All of the proceeds from the sale of the “Coloured Ribbons and Tarnished Brass” single are being donated to the UK soldiers’ charity Troops Relief. The single can be purchased on iTunes in the USA and the UK.)
The Cundeez released their first full-length album, Cundee Radio, in October. The album consists mostly of original songs as well as a cover of the Madness classic “One Step Beyond.” And the band has released a Christmas single, “Xmas In The Schemes.” Proceeds from the single are being donated to the children’s charity Variety Club of Great Britain. Both the Cundee Radio album and the “Xmas In The Schemes” single are available for purchase on iTunes in the USA and the UK.
In addition to his musical endeavors, Robertson is also a poet and published author. And he won the BBC 2 reality show SAS: Are You Tough Enough? in 2001. Earlier this year, he was interviewed in a documentary for Manchester United’s TV station, MUTV, about the former Dundee United and Manchester United player Ralph Milne called When The Floodlights Fade.
I recently had the opportunity to conduct an e-mail Q&A with Robertson. The results follow:
Since we’re approaching Christmas, I should start off with asking you about The Cundeez’ Christmas single “Xmas In The Schemes.” I understand that you’re in a campaign to get the song to Number 1 in the charts for Christmas. What are the reasons behind the campaign and how did you get involved in it?
Gary Robertson: The Christmas song came about a few years back, possibly even before we formed, when Stevie (bass player) and I were working together in a factory. I was writing poetry and Steve had been in bands for years. We often talked of a collaboration so when we did form a band he said we should try and write a Christmas classic which recaptured the magical era from the 1970s when bands like Slade, Wizzard, and Mud were banging out their now timeless gems! I wrote most of the lyrics to it whilst on holiday in Spain in the August of 2008 under blazing sunshine then Stevie finished it off. We came up with a melody and catchy chorus and knew we had a cracking track. In the studio we were able to add bagpipes, and our studio man Graeme Watt added the bells and keyboards. My wife Sue, Kim Falconer, and my daughter also harmonize on the song. The campaign came about after I saw an advert by Ian Winfield online to get a proper Christmas song to the top of the UK charts this year, so I sent it and he instantly loved it. That was back in August. The idea was to try and topple the commercial engine which is The X-Factor. This is a reality game show which finds an artist and makes them into a star and in most cases guarantees the Christmas number 1. Last year, they were beaten by a now-legendary campaign which saw people power revolt and get Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing In The Name Of” to number 1—it was a masterstroke. This year, however, everyone and their grandmother have a campaign, so it’s gonna be very difficult to mobilize as one but we’ll give it our very best shot. It really is a festive stomper and is available to download from all good stores from Monday 13th December.
How does being from Dundee affect your music? And why do you sing some of the band’s songs in the Dundee dialect?
G.R.: Dundee is the place we call home and we love it! Through my poetry, I always believed in promoting the language and culture of our city and the band is just a continuation of that. The music really enhances the words!
When did you start writing songs?
G.R.: Again, the songwriting was really a continuation from the poetry. I think the two go hand-in-hand. What I have found though is, I have a lot more ideas musically which was never the case before. The early Cundeez songs were a mixture of originals and re-writes of old Punk classics by Sham 69, Buzzcocks, etc. and changed into songs for our soccer team—Dundee United. That was the beginning of all this in October 2007. We ended up doing loads of song for United but the original idea of working on our own material is mostly where we’re at, at the moment.
What music were you listening to when you were growing up?
G.R.: I’ve always loved music from as far back as I can remember. The early stuff I liked was the Glam Rock era such as The Sweet, Slade, Mud, Suzi Quatro, Bay City Rollers. The first record I ever bought was “Tragedy” by The Bee Gees (don’t tell anyone!). The music that really hit a chord, though, was the Punk music. Although I was only 10 or 11 years old, I remember hearing Sham 69’s “If The Kids Are United” on the TV program Top Of The Pops and thinking “That’ll do for me!” It just screamed of rebellion and aggression, and I loved it!
What was the first live gig you attended? Who was the artist and where and when did the gig take place? What kind of effect did it have on you?
G.R.: The first live gig I went to was Stiff Little Fingers in Dundee’s Caird Hall in December 1980. I was 13 years old and my parents didn’t want me to go as there were sometimes reports of aggro at the punk gigs. In the end, they let me go and it was awesome! I was very naïve and thought everyone just sat in their seats and listened to the music but when the bands came on stage, everyone rushed to the front and started going wild. The support band were called The Wall and they were very good as well. At this time, there was a lot of youth gang rivalry within the different areas of the city and it could be very dangerous at times. One lasting memory from the gig was going in and seeing about 30 members of the Lochee Fleet gang all decked out in skinhead wear—they looked very intimidating but thankfully no trouble erupted that night. The skinhead culture was huge and nothing really to do with neo-nazi stuff. It was all about the dress, music, and culture and I became a young skinhead myself.
Which artists would you cite as influences to you in your songwriting?
G.R.: I suppose with listening to Punk for many years there are numerous influences. But as far as my own writing, and that goes for the poetry too, would have to be Shane McGowan from The Pogues, Andy King from Flogging Molly, and John Cooper Clarke. Those three in particular. I love their play on words.
The Cundeez’ brilliant new track “Wannabe” sounds like it could’ve been recorded in 1977. Were you heavily into the punk and New Wave music of the late 1970s/early 1980s?
G.R.: Probably answered that already but definitely YES!
In addition to being a songwriter, you’re also a published author. Could you discuss the books you’ve written a bit?
G.R.: The first book I ever wrote was called 11 Days In A Hell Called Paradise and followed my training and eventual winning of the BBC 2 reality TV series called SAS: Are You Tough Enough? Where 29 members of the public were chosen after applying to attempt a condensed version of the British elite SAS Regiment’s infamous ‘Selection’ process! The book was self-financed and published by a non-established company. We got 1000 printed and made our money back so that was the start really. My next book was actually a double release by Luath Press in Edinburgh who are a proper publisher as such. Pure Dundee is a collection of most of my poetry all written in the local language/dialect. In the space of a week or two the second one was released called Gangs Of Dundee which charted the whole history of the city’s youth gangs going back to the Teddy Boys in the 1950s. Next was a different challenge. I changed publisher to Black and White (Edinburgh also) and worked jointly with local soccer legend Ralph Milne on his autobiography called What’s It All About Ralphie? My latest book was released this October by Black and White publishing called Skeem Life and is a humorous collection of my memories from the decade of the 1970s. I’ve also written a play which was very successful locally called The Berries. This was a hilarious account of picking strawberries and raspberries in the 1970s which we used to do for money and was received very well.
You’re known as a Dundee street poet. Did the poetry come before the songwriting?
G.R.: Yes, the poetry was there first and, actually, many of The Cundeez’ songs are adapted from the poems. I listened to the whole Gangster Rap scene during the early to mid-90s and I think that’s where I picked up the rhythm and timing for writing. I would say most definitely, it was a big influence as well.
According to the author information page of your book Gangs of Dundee, you and fellow Dundee resident Mark Thomson have a partnership called Tribal Tongues in which you perform poetry in the Dundee dialect. How long have you and Mark been involved in Tribal Tongues?
G.R.: Really since I started writing the poetry. I met Mark in a local Community Centre writing group and we just hit it off. He and a guy called Kev McCabe were already writing and performing their poetry and I loved how they brought their words to life. That was it, I was hooked on writing. We don’t do so much together now as we’re busy with our own things but we still catch up and discuss our writing amongst other things.
How did the Dundee United soccer team play a role in the formation of The Cundeez?
G.R.: Stevie, Tez, and myself are Dundee United fans and Alex (our guitarist) supports our great derby rivals Dundee FC. In most cities, this situation would be unthinkable but Alex takes it all in his stride although he does get some stick from both sides. Basically, we wanted to write a new song for the club as there hadn’t been one for many years. I wrote “Totally United” and we gave it a punk kind of melody and we never looked back. The fans loved it and we just kept on writing.
Earlier this year, you were interviewed in a documentary about former Dundee United and Manchester United player Ralph Milne that aired on MUTV, Manchester United’s TV station. How did that come about?
G.R.: Ralph Milne is and always will be a legend to Dundee United supporters. He played a massive part in the club winning their first and only Scottish Premier League title. It was a monumental achievement for a provincial club like ours and Ralph was an inspiration that season. He will forever be remembered for his outrageous goal against our bitter rivals Dundee FC on the final day of the season 14th May 1983. We won the game 2-1 and in doing so won the League. I was introduced into Ralph’s company after a football game in November 2008 in a local pub and we got chatting. He told me he’d love to write his life story and next thing we shook hands on it and worked over a period of 8 months. It was a very great honor for me to get to know a legend and a footballing hero.
In 2001, you were the winner on the BBC 2 reality series SAS: Are You Tough Enough? What was that experience like?
G.R.: As I’ve touched on earlier, it was and remains one of the best experiences of my life. I was taken to and beyond my physical and mental limits with the tests and I pulled through to win it. I will cherish those memories of pain forever haha! Seriously though, I loved every minute of it and I still keep in touch with the SAS Staff Sergeant Eddie Stone.
The author info page of Gangs of Dundee also states that you’re a fitness fanatic. Do you believe that fitness plays a role in your creative process in terms of keeping a clear head, etc.?
G.R.: I would say most definitely. I think keeping fit keeps the mind sharp and it also gives you a drive to succeed and overcome. These attributes are very important when taking on a writing project as it’s not all plain sailing and involves a hell of a lot of focus and discipline.
The Cundeez are an unsigned band. In this tough economy, the music business has hit a slump. Unsigned bands probably feel the pinch more than others because they don’t have record-label money behind them for publicity, tour support, etc. What advice would you give someone looking to start a band today?
G.R.: Personally, we have been very lucky to initially build up a large fan-base with the football stuff and we have remained self-sufficient doing all our own promoting and funding ourselves. Anything we get goes on expenses to support ourselves. In the current climate it is very tough for young, new bands trying to climb the ladder. I would say that the main thing is to have fun and in doing so create something magical. You really do have to enjoy it and not take yourselves too seriously and if something bigger happens, you just have to go with the flow and embrace it.
What is on the horizon in 2011 for The Cundeez?
G.R.: We’re looking to build on what has been a great year for us as a band and keep producing our unique brand of music. Alex has had to overcome serious illness recently which saw us having to cancel a few gigs. We just put everything on hold and as I write, Alex seems to be regaining his strength daily which is positive. We can’t wait to get working on some new material and get back to rehearsing for gigs. You just can’t beat performing live!
Finally, I would like to take this opportunity and thank you, John, for your continued support from over the pond! It really is very much appreciated and keeps the strong bond between Scotland, United Kingdom, and the USA alive and kicking!
To watch the video for “Xmas In The Schemes” by The Cundeez, click below:
To watch the video for “Coloured Ribbons and Tarnished Brass” by The Cundeez, click below:
To listen to “Wannabe” from The Cundeez’ Cundee Radio album, click below:
For more on The Cundeez, go to:
The Dundee Channel Web site has a video interview with Gary Robertson at http://www.dundeechannel.com/dundeepoet.html.