Shetland was coming to terms with Braer disaster, John Major was Prime Minister and Meatloaf’s I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) was #1 when Shetland band Bongshang released their seminal debut album Crude on 19th November 1993.
We caught up with two members of the notably enigmatic band to find out the back story.
Bryan Peterson says: “We were all fans of each other’s playing when we formed in 1992. The much-missed Leonard [Scollay], was simply the best fiddler any of us had heard, and JJ made the banjo ‘cool’”.
JJ Jamieson recalls: “Kipper [Christopher Anderson] was a powerful yet subtle drummer, Neil [Preshaw] was a versatile and textural guitarist, and Bryan was a cheeky 15-year-old with a gift for funky basslines.”
There was already the beginnings of an acoustic revival in Scotland. Leonard was in Rock, Salt & Nails at the time and JJ was fresh from the Edinburgh acoustic scene having rubbed shoulders with the likes of Swamptrash and Critterhill Varmints. But Crude was considered to be ahead of its time and one of the first recordings of the Scottish Folk Funk or “Acid Croft” scene, pre-dating debut albums by the likes of Shooglenifty, Peatbog Fairies and Afro Celt Soundsystem.
JJ says: “The album was a snapshot of our live set. We didn’t think of recording an album as a process in itself, it was just a case of recording the tunes.”
“It was natural for Stevie [Hook] to engineer for us as he was a friend of the band and did our live sound. There wasn’t a recording studio in Shetland, but the Garrison Theatre had a reel-to-reel tape recorder that we were able to use between performances in the theatre.
“It was a very basic setup. Just us playing live on the stage then overdubbing some of the acoustic parts in the lighting booth. Kipper was a loud drummer so it was a challenge to get a good recording of the acoustic instruments with him hammering at.”
Bryan adds: “The technology was very primitive by today’s standards. We had an effects box to add a bit of reverb and echo and that was it. There was no chance to go back and edit anything when you’re recording to tape. You have to nail it.”
“We added a recording of Leonard’s favourite lawnmower and a recording of a prayer caller a friend of the band had made in Pakistan.”
“It didn’t take long. The whole process was probably finished in a couple of months”.
Were members of the band aware that they were producing something ground-breaking? JJ says: “We were aware what we were doing was different, but we weren’t doing it to be different. It just came naturally. And whether or not it would be popular with audiences wasn’t a concern. We practised a lot and only played one gig in Shetland before the album came out. We were just pleasing ourselves, experimenting and having a laugh.”
Bryan explains: “There was no formula. We all had different styles and influences. We listened to lots of music together and swapped a lot of albums between ourselves, so ideas were everywhere.”
“It was only when we read the reviews that we realised we’d done something of some significance”.
Unusually for the time, the band released Crude on their own label ‘Doovf’ and was the first independent CD to be produced in Shetland. It was also the best-selling album in Shetland in 1993, and the band sold many more nationally and while on tour around Europe.
The band was approached by a distributor who offered to help them market the album internationally.
Bryan recalls: “That didn’t go well. Despite having our album in shops around the world we didn’t get paid. To get out of the deal a couple of us had to pay a visit to the distributors’ office in Glasgow and make a few promises about negative consequences that may befall him.”
Bryan is cagey about how many sales have been clocked up: “not because it’s a secret. We just lost track, but it’s quite a few.”
The band used the proceeds to invest in their own recording equipment and produced two more studio albums, The Hurricane Jungle in 1996 and Vy-lo-fone in 1999. In 2013 all three Bongshang albums were remastered in Mareel by Iain Waddell and released on Spotify and iTunes.
Bongshang have been reclusive for the past 15 years or so, and instead of live performances prefer to release occasional videos.
When pressed on what we can expect next, the boys said “we write and record a lot of music. We enjoy the process. Releasing albums isn’t high on our agenda but we might share some recordings in future.”
The complete version of this article is available in November’s Shetland Life.