Given that he engineered Meat is Murder and The Queen is Dead for The Smiths, produced their swansong album Strangeways Here Come, went on to work with Morrissey on his solo work, produced five and a half Blur albums, including Parklife, and has collaborated with The Pretenders, The Kaiser Chiefs, Suede, The Cranberries and New Order, you’d have to say that, on the whole, record producer Stephen Street’s CV is pretty decent.

To get to work with him, you imagine, can’t be easy, especially if you are a small Scottish indie band.

So, what I want to know, I tell Tam Killean, front man for Wojtek the Bear, is how his band got to work with the great man. Some impressive music business connections? A family acquaintance? A spot of blackmail, maybe?

“I sent him a really speculative email never expecting a reply and he replied within an hour and a half saying, ‘Yeah, I’d love to work with you guys. When are you free to talk?’”

An email? Ah, right. That simple? Killean doesn’t quite believe it himself.

“Once I managed to peel myself off the ceiling I spoke to him and we set off really quickly.

He was just so gracious and fantastic through the whole process.”

The result is a new album, Wojtek the Bear’s third, Shaking Hands with the NME, which feels both familiar and fresh at the same time. It reminded me, I tell Killean, of the first time I heard Cake, the debut album by The Trashcan Sinatras. It has the same sense of being part of a tradition whilst offering a new voice.

The Herald: Wojtek the BearWojtek the Bear (Image: free)

If anything, shaking hands … is maybe a little more grown-up. No surprise since some of the band are in the foothills of middle age, and rather more lush (much of which you can put down to the work of violinist Becky Cheminais).

Even at first listen, the title track and slowly, then all at once sound like worthy additions to the great Scottish songbook. All in all, the collaboration with Street is a success.

The how, we know. But what of the why? Why did Killean even send that email in the first place?

“We just thought we’ll try and do something to push ourselves and we came up with a wishlist if you like. And Stephen was pretty much at the top of that wishlist.

“He’s worked with some of our favourite artists and some of our favourite records of all time. We are massive Smiths fans, massive Blur and New Order fans.”

They also wanted to make the most of Cheminais’s talents and Street had worked with The Cranberries on songs like Dreams and Linger.

“That’s what was in my head,” Killean explains. “If he can make the strings on our record sound like that then straight away we’ve got a winner.”

The appeal of working with Street is kind of obvious. But what was it about Wojtek that attracted Street? The producer is happy to tell me.

“When Tam first got in contact with me he sent me a link to some of the demos that they had written for this record and I just really enjoyed the quality of the songwriting. It was as simple as that really,” Street says.

“I have been very fortunate to have worked with some great artists and writers over the last few years. There’s a certain standard as it were that I’m prepared to work with and I liked what I heard.

“For me Tam’s lyrics are really good. I didn’t realise how good they were until I sat down and listened to them much more closely when I was working with him in the recording process.”

Street’s involvement is also a marker for the rising reputation of Wojtek the Bear. Named after the ursine war hero of the Polish war effort commemorated in a sculpture in Edinburgh’s Princes Gardens, the band was formed in 2016 by Killean and guitarist Graham “Chuck” Norris. Killean and bass player Paul Kirkwood are originally from Wishaw and the rest of the band are made up of drummer Scott McCutcheon and the aforementioned Cheminais. “She is the only proper musician in the band. She went to the conservatoire in Glasgow,” Killean admits.


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Killean, who has just turned 41, has been in bands since he was a teenager, as has the rest of the band. It’s a sign of his durability and maybe even obstinacy that he’s still making music all these years later.

“For a while I didn’t, he admits. “I had a break, late twenties, early thirties, when I didn’t do anything for four or five years. I kind of got sick of it and really got downhearted. But I guess it’s the reason anyone does anything creative.

“We don’t see this as our career. In the landscape we now operate in none of us make enough money out of this to live on. This is something we do for enjoyment.” (By day Killean is Head of Advice for students at Glasgow University.) “Coming back to it is because of the itch you have inside yourself,” he continues. “If you don’t do it you feel like you’re selling yourself short or you’re missing out on something.

“When I’m involved in playing live or songwriting I just feel better. It’s definitely good for your mental health. It’s good for my mental health anyway. I instantly felt better when I started getting out there and doing it again.

“We’ve got an album launch in a couple of weeks and I’m really looking forward to that. I’ve a wee boy who’s two. The nights out I get are pretty limited so it’s a good excuse.”

Last June Street spent two weeks in Blantyre recording the album at the Chem16 studio. Part of the appeal, he says, was working with a new talent.

“That’s always been my forte. Whether it would have been helping to break the Kaiser Chiefs or The Ordinary Boys, or the Cranberries even. I’ve always been known for that. Every now and then I will work with an established star, Chrissie Hynde or someone like that. My forte really has always been discovering new things and helping them break. I still do that to this day. But that’s exciting. I like helping new talent along the way.”

That’s getting tougher, he admits.

“It’s much harder than it was back in the nineties, that’s for sure.”

Killean agrees. “I think to make a record as a traditional two guitars, bass, drums, band it’s …” He sighs before continuing.

“I’m trying not to give you a super-depressing answer but when you factor in the cost of living it is just incredibly difficult. Everything is more expensive, even basics like getting a rehearsal room. The prices of the rehearsal room we use even in the last couple of years, it’s gone up quite significantly. Stuff like that makes it really prohibitive. It feels almost a luxury when it should be accessible to everyone.

“Don’t get me wrong we were incredibly lucky we got support from our label Last Night From Glasgow and Creative Scotland to make the record and to work with Stephen. And to be brutally honest without that support we wouldn’t have been able to work with him.”

It’s probably easier, he adds, to sit in your room and make music out of beats and samples. But that’s not the case for the traditional band set-up. “It’s worrying as well over the last couple of years the Scottish Government hanging the axe over Creative Scotland’s funding and cutting it back and just general funding for the arts across the whole of the UK is not being prioritised in the way that it should. That’s a real worry going forwards.

“I don’t just say that from a selfish perspective because we managed to benefit, but the arts are vital - particularly music - for everyone; for enjoyment or for general culture.”

The Herald: The original Wojtek the Bear at Edinburgh ZooThe original Wojtek the Bear at Edinburgh Zoo (Image: free)

In a way the title track of the album is something of a yearning lament to the music industry that Street cut his teeth on back in the 1980s and 1990s. “Guess I’ll never see the Brit awards/at a table paid for by Polydor …” Killean sings before going on to namedrop Steve Lamacq and conjure up scurrilous tales about Pulp.

“When we were recording that Stephen actually said to us, ‘I feel it is my responsibility that you may get sued for this. So I’m hoping that Jarvis Cocker’s lawyer doesn’t come chapping.”

Last word to Street then. He just wants as many people to hear Shaking Hands with the NME as possible.

“I can’t wait to see what the world’s reaction is to this record. I’m very proud of it.

“I hope the band are, too. They should be.”

Shaking Hands with the NME is out on April 12. The band will play Glasgow University Debating Chamber on April 13 to launch the album, supported by The BMX Bandits and Annie Booth