Glass meets the unlikely trio Yorkston Thorne Khan

YORKSTON Thorne Khan are the surnames of the unlikely trio who merge the sounds of Scottish folk with classical Indian music. The sarangi, guitar and double bass work as the foundation to their unique sound. I spoke to the band at Field Day to discuss their adventures as as band so far and why they don’t need a drummer.

James Yorkston, Jon Thorne and Suhail Yusuf Khan. Photo Credit Linda JacksonJames Yorkston, Jon Thorne and Suhail Yusuf Khan. Photograph: Linda Jackson

How did you three meet?
Suhail: Me and James met in Edinburgh in 2011, when we were both booked for a performance which was organised by a whiskey company, and they were various Scottish and a few international acts involved and we didn’t know we were going to play with each other. He was chilling in his green room and I walked inside, and he saw my instrument – it was one of those things where music became the universal language because it came before we learnt each other’s names, and we ended up playing a 90-minute set together.

The dynamic of three is quite unusual. How do you approach your writing process?
James: It’s really easy. Either one of us will bring something to the plate. Suhail brings a lot of Sufi things, or Jon will bring in his riffs or I’ll bring in complete songs or ideas, but it melds very well and I think a lot of it is to do with our playing. My playing is very rhythmic, but that gives Jon the freedom to do his dance and stuff with his double bass then Suhail’s sarangi soars on top, so sonically the three of them work together so well anyway that it’s like anything we do is magic.

You released one album and are working on your second now. Are there any reoccuring themes that come up in your music?
Suhail: Well, initially it was quite organic, and from my point of view it was more about learning what these two had to bring to the table. I acted like water, in the way that if you put it in a water bottle, you mould to the shape of the bottle. In Indian classical music, you’re trained as a soloist and an accompanist as well, so at times my role is bringing in a song and leading the vehicle where John and James behave as tyres, and sometimes I’ll do the same. It used to be all about reacting to each other but now I think we’ve grabbed a sound together.

Jon: I think what’s happened is that the three of us have evolved our own language. We’ve been playing for a year and we’ve got a feel of where each of us is coming from, and all of us are very open to improvising and being in the moment – just allowing things to progress and happen without things being rigid, so you’ve got the broad spectrum of musical experiences and within that we’ve grown a trust in each other’s styles. Out of that comes the music we make. It’s solidified. The great thing about it is, it’s never spontaneous. Our gigs are never the same twice. We go off on different tangents although there’s a central thread running through all of it. It has a lot of freedom and for us it’s exciting to explore and hopefully for an audience it’s exciting to explore. We’re never quite sure what’s going on half the time as well!

When do you record your second album?
Jon: Tomorrow, for two weeks in Ireland. Domino have sanctioned a second record which is great. We’re going to explore it in the studio some more and see what comes out. The great thing about it is it’s always spontaneous. Our gigs are never the same twice, because we go off in different tangents, although there’s a central thread running through all of it. It has a lot of freedom within it, so for us it’s exciting to explore, and hopefully for the audience as well, because we’re never quite sure what’s going on half the time as well.

How has it been touring so far?
Jon: Yeah, it’s been great! We’re working on the level you work on when you make interesting left-field music, so it’s not particularly comfortable or salubrious all of the time but it’s exciting every day to explore the music. We all get on really well, and there’s a lot of banter. We have a lot of fun.

You’ve toured England, but do you have any plans to tour India?
Suhail: Yes. It’s mainly going to be the metropolitan cities I’m assuming. We don’t have an itinerary yet but I think it’ll be Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai.

How have the audience been reacting?
Jon: Well, we’ve had incredibly positive reactions everywhere we’ve gone and I think it’s because it’s unchartered territory. It’s the first time in musical history that there’s been sarangi, double bass, guitar and vocals. It’s unusual, so people don’t know what to expect and they’re curious about it. A lot of the songs that Suhail is bringing in are devotional so it’s quite a deep spiritual experience.

Suhail: They’re poems, and some of them are written by Sufi poets like Baba Bulleh Shah, so most of these songs have a message, and these Sufi poets used music and a medium to convey their message, so they’ve got the depth and the devotion element to them. We’re having a great time exploring that, and the fact that Sufi music doesn’t have any rules or regulations means it’s very open.

How are people in India responding to the music?
Suhail: We haven’t played in India yet, but whoever from India has listened or seen a video, they’ve been quite wowed by it. I think India will like it because a project without drums, with Scottish guitar playing and double bass is new like Jon said. At times I have to come out of my usual character because I have to also behave like a rhythm player, but in my melodic zone.

James: I think we’re all out of our comfort zones to a degree and that’s what makes it great.

Jon: To counter-balance the devotional stuff, we do songs like Buzzer which is amount doing morse code on a mountain having a cold bum, so it’s kind of yin and yang.

James, you started off solo. Did you plan to do something like this?
James: No, no absolutely not but I’ve toured for years and years. I’ve toured for the last 15 years and made a living out of it which is wonderful, and you meet a lot of musicians backstage and at festivals and stuff and sometimes you end up jamming with them, sometimes you end up not, but with Suhail it’s the second time it’s gone on to being a brand new project.

I’ve released one album before as a collaboration with another act. We just musically fell in together and it was very satisfying and interesting and unusual so, I wasn’t looking for it but when it along it just seemed like such an obvious and great thing to do. Suhail and I really liked the idea of a trio and Suhail really liked this guy who played an alto saxophone, but I hate the saxophone so I thought “there’s no way we’re having that” so then we discussed maybe having a tabla, but we thought that may be too obviously Indian.

Have you played many outdoor festivals?
Jon: No, we haven’t. I think it could be a tough environment for music like this in a way, because in a way a lot of what we do is quite subtle and quiet, and you’re generally surrounded by some cacophonous.

Jon: This works well indoors. We’ve done a few churches and stuff like that where the sonic is really suited. There’s a lot of  space in our music and it’s good to utilise that. At the same time, doing a festival like this takes this kind of  music out to somewhere else and exposes it to people who  wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to it so that’s a great thing as well.

Suhail: Also at the same time the set also has quite loud dynamics, but the only thing it lacks is having a groove.

How do you keep it together without a drummer?
James: I just think there’s enough rhythm within all our fingers, within the double bass, within the guitar and within the sarigi. We don’t need a drummer.

Jon: It’s just more subtle

James: The double bass is the heartbeat of it really.

Suhail: I think eventually this kind of a set will pick up in outdoor festivals as well because right now people don’t know that a trio like this can also work outdoors. I think it’s a matter of time when we end up playing three or four more festivals.

Jon: This is new for us, so it’s going to be an exciting time.

What’s been the most memorable moment as a band so far?
James: There’s been so many special moments like when we had the standing ovation after playing in Brighton. But I mean all the shows have got great moments. There was a very memorable time where we were playing in Bath, and Jon had to leave the stage because he needed a wee. I mean, that was very memorable.

by Katrina Mirpuri

See Yorkston Thorne Khan on tour:

August 2, Cyprus Avenue, Cork

August 6, Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast

August 7, The Workman’s Club, Dublin

August 10, The Hub, Edinburgh

August 18-21, Green Man Festival, Brecon Beacons


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