The Living Tradition
- by P.J. Flaming Issue 26 April/May '98
Brechin is hip, even though he plays the accordion. With his long black
hair and matching leather jacket, he bridges the worlds between past and
present, looking more like a modern day Byron than a tweedy box player.
His hair and body flail around the stage, matched only in speed and frenzy
by his fingers on his Hohner junior keyboard. Sandy Brechin is wonderfully
different, making accordion jumping and alive, frantic and sexy.
"Actually, the accordion is an amazing contraceptive," Sandy explains, decrying the myth that there are groupies lining up at his door. "It has a terrible reputation for being uncool. Yet, it's really very versatile, acting as its own melody and accompaniment. I think maybe some of the things we are doing is changing the unfair rap accordion has had until now."
The 'we' Sandy alludes to include the various bands he is in as an original and founding member--Burach, Seelyhoo, Do Re Mi, Sandy Brechin Band and The Jimmy Shandrix Experience. Take your pick. All blend the best of traditional music and new strands of pop, jazz, cajun and any riffs that make it sing.
July 1 1997 was a big day, not just for Hong Kong and Canada (120th birthday), but for Sandy Brechin. It was the scheduled date of release for the new Greentrax label album "Born Tired" by Burach and Sandy's own label (Brechin All Records), "Out of his Tree", following the success of "Out of His Box".
The Polygram video featuring Do Re Mi for the song "Yodel in the Canyon of Love" was also released in July. Last year, Terry Wogan of Radio 2 put out a call for the EuroVision song contest. Through a phone vote, "Yodel in the Canyon of Love" got picked by the British public to go on to the final forum. It was then played on the National Lottery show in February. "Yodel", penned by Kenny MacDonald, manager of the Proclaimers, is his first, and very successful attempt at songwriting. Kerry Macdonald of Burach is featured on vocals. Unfortunately, "Yodel" was pipped at the post by Catrina and the Wave and came in second. Polygram picked up the song anyway, and made a video of it in Edinburgh this summer.
Yodel is doing well in the gay clubs right now, and was slated to be a summer hit all over Europe. So who says folk music is only for beardies and woollies? And why would someone like Sandy Brechin, who could have clearly made it in the pop world, choose to play traditional based music?
While most of his peers were listening to Echo and the Bunnymen, the Stranglers and the Cure in the early eighties, Sandy was listening to Silly Wizard featuring Phil and John Cunningham, Freeland Barbour, and Donald Shaw of Capercaillie. Sandy, now 28, grew up in Kirkliston, about half an hour north of Edinburgh. "I was a weird kid. A sad and lonely child, but I don't think it's because I played accordion that they didn't talk to me..though it could have been," Sandy says half seriously half mockingly, leaving just the shadow of doubt that he really was all those things.
Though attending Stewart's Melville private school in Edinburgh, he had a mate who played in the public school, Queensferry's ceilidh band. At 14, they let him play along with them, despite his hoity toity schooling, making it his first appearance in a ceilidh band. At 15, he won the junior championship for East Scotland in classical music. "I've never been much into competitions," Sandy shrugs, "I'd rather drink lots of beer and enjoy myself, but the technique one learns from classical music is pretty important." Studying under Phil Cunningham's teacher, Owen Andrew, couldn't have hurt either.
Sandy Brechin's personal style is reflected in his music, crossing borders of pop, traditional and classical. Onstage, Sandy plays a small learner's Hohner, allowing him to leap around the stage unemcumbered. In the style of Phil Cunningham, his fingers fly effortlessly along the keys. He also does some original composition. Not a bad package deal for any band, no wonder Sandy has several on the go. Offstage, though he looks pretty flash, he has a warm yet magnetic presence, blending charisma with rooted reality.
"Look, I'm playing the accordion. It's not brain surgery or anything. I'm not going to make or break anyone's life with my music." He does however, play the accordion with the skill and deftness of a great surgeon. Funny he should mention surgery. Sandy really wanted to be a veterinarian just like his dad. He didn't get accepted to vet school, but his music career took off in flying colours.
"Fate. Definitely fate. You know, I was always good at sciences in school. I always just assumed I'd be a vet. I played lots of sports. All very badly, and thought of my music just as a hobby and great fun. Now I wouldn't dream of doing anything else."
He "kind of got stuck in Edinburgh" after finishing up at university, because he was immediately put into the starting line up of both Burach and Seelyhoo in 1994. Both bands blend traditional music and style with outragaeously fast modern riffs and lyrics. Even the names for the bands blend traditional esoteric roots with suitable modern day connotations.
Seelyhoo is the old Scottish word for the caul found on a baby's head at birth. Sailors used to keep the caul for good luck against drowning. Seelyhoo, the band, makes constant reference to childhood in their music, while traditional music itself is in danger of drowning under the pressure of prefabricated modern music.
Burach is a Gaelic word meaning noisy bunch. Anyone who has heard Burach can attest to the accuracy of the name. The theme song of the new Burach album, Born Tired is the only slow tune on the album, written because it is really hard to get up in the morning when you are a musician who has been up until the wee hours.
In 1995, Burach won Scottish Folk Band of the Year award, and things have just spiralled from there. Starting his own label, Brechin All Records, keeps Sandy on the mobile phone as much as playing. "I'm in all these bands, doing a lot of administrative stuff for each, so I don't play as much music as people think. I play at gigs and recording more than practise."
This isn't to say that Sandy can't be seen far and wide across Scotland, the UK and the world. He's just returned from a tour in Norway with the Sandy Brechin Band, but he doesn't forget where the music comes from and encourages other young Scots to play. At the Gatehouse of Fleet in Dumfries and Galloway recently, he judged and awarded local accordionist Kenny Irving with the Jimmy Dougan Award for Original Traditional Tune Composition. "The standard of competition was so high, it was dangerous," Sandy said, doing more for recognition of local talent than umpteen unheard of judges would have. After racing around the country, he managed to tour Italy last spring.
"It really opens your eyes to how other cultures appreciate music. In Italy, they all sit quietly throughout the entire concert and then leap to their feet with wild applause screaming for more at the end. In Norway, they get drunk, come on the stage, dance the bearhug waltz, and pass out-right on stage!"
Tours are not without incident. "We borrowed John Wetherby's van on the last tour." John is a renowned Glasgow sound man, working for bands like Iron Horse, Battlefield Band and others. He has a special van fitted out for touring and recently installed a video and television in it. "Well, he no longer has either, thanks to a break-in in Paris, so we hope he isn't too mad at us."
Despite heavy touring, Sandy makes his occasional home in a "box" room in a friend's pad in Leith. If you happen to be at the Ensign Ewart Pub on a Sunday night, you might catch Sandy sitting in on his favourite session, along with other remarkable musicians from far and wide. "I think Edinburgh is the most vibrant music scene in Scotland. My first gig was at the West End Hotel in Edinburgh, way back, and I've just watched the scene grow over the years."
A home boy, he may be, but Sandy has style. I couldn't help wonder if he chose the pub to meet in, because his black leather jacket and white t-shirt match the black leather and chrome of the interior. Sandy is conscious of the importance of self-promotion, yet strikes a healthy balance between the self-effacing so common in traditional music and the over the top horn blowing of pop culture.
Chain smoking, talking on his mobile, or chatting over a beer, you can't help notice that the deep rich timber of his voice goes quite nicely with his Sean Connery brow and eyes. It really is hard to believe he plays the accordion. And so damn well. I suspect the accordion is more of an aphrodisiac for him these days than a contraceptive.
"Musicians don't have normal relationships. You can't. You're never there. You're in Italy or somewhere else," he says, echoing, no doubt, his last girlfriend's exact words. "Right now, I like my independence."
Anyway, it's getting late. Sandy has to go see the Cajun Daredevils play in Fife. We have to head down the road. My partner plays the box himself, and is proud to be in the company of Sandy Brechin, as a musician and composer. Leaving the carpark, we can see Sandy sitting in his banged up old Audi talking on his mobile. Again. Planning who knows what to go who knows where with who knows who.
This summer alone, he is off to Brittany, England, Edinburgh Festival, Dingwall and back in Norway in September. Sandy Brechin is everywhere. He's out of his box and he's out of his tree. You can't miss him. And you really shouldn't. Sandy Brechin is happening now. And tomorrow. He is the future of cool. Accordion never sounded or looked so good.
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