Shooglenifty originated in the 1990s and slowly built a loyal fan base within the Celtic fusion scene. They’ve now released nine albums and have played all over the world. In 2016, their frontman Angus tragically passed away at the age of 49.
Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Don Coutts, the documentary titled Heading West: A Story About a Band Called Shooglenifty charts their highs and lows with heart and humour and has a genuine intimacy that could only be captured by a long-time peer of the group.
As part of last year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, fans, friends, and family filed into Edinburgh’s iconic Filmhouse for the film’s world premiere. The atmosphere was electric as everyone waited with bated breath to see the band’s journey on the big screen. The next day, I was fortunate enough to sit down with founding member and guitarist Malcolm Crosbie to chat about the film and his experience in the band…
First of all, Shooglenifty is a great name and I know from watching the film that it was you that coined it. How did that come about?
In the film, there’s a bit of early footage of us all sitting around a kitchen table talking about various names for the band. I’d come up with Shooglenifty but some of the guys thought it sounded too jokey, and that we’d need something a bit more serious…but we ended up keeping it because nobody came up with anything better! Its origins come from a tape I had from 1985 when I worked as a marquee erector for a summer, and I was supposed to be writing songs in the evenings. I gave every song on the tape a simple name to describe how they sounded, and a certain song had that sort of shoogly rhythm.
It must’ve been a bit of an emotional night seeing a big part of your life on the big screen?
Beforehand, I felt quite similar to how I feel before a gig! You can call it nervousness or excitement, but it was that feeling of being keyed up. I’d been through all the emotions of losing Angus in the past so I didn’t get too emotional in that sense, but by the end of it I did feel quite drained.
There’s a section of the film that looks at when the band got a residency at Edinburgh venue La Belle Angele and the attendance was doubling each week as the hype built around you. What was that experience like at the time? It must’ve felt so exciting to be part of something like that.
You should always feel like the band you’re in is the best band in the world. I’ve always felt like that anyway! We all felt like it was a great band at the time at least, so it was satisfying to see more and more people come to see us each week.
And it’s amazing to think that it was growing so fast through word of mouth, because this was before the type of marketing we have today…
I think, at the time, Edinburgh was crying out for something that was more earthy sounding, and more rootsy. If you’re Scottish and you hear a jig or a reel, it gets your emotions up, so people could feed off the adrenaline and come along for a really good time.
Touching upon the darker elements of the doc, there’s some talk on times when you were close to calling it a day as a band. I think your drummer James had said the spark was gone, but then you went back on tour and it came back. You’re one of the few that’ve been there since the beginning and never left – has there been times when you were ever close to leaving?
I remember calling a meeting one time as I felt that I couldn’t carry on with certain people in the band. I was persuaded to keep trying as, as it happens, those certain people left the band off their own volition. I didn’t like the abrasiveness that was in the band at the time but I’m glad I was convinced to stay…because the good times always outweigh the bad times, really!
And the film is quite a celebration of those good times as well as the sadness it has. What has been the best thing about being in Shooglenifty all these years?
Having a really good bunch of pals to hang out with all the time is one of the best things! Also, getting to travel the world and experience different cultures is great. Pretty soon, you realise that everyone across the world is the same in that we all have the same fears, and hopes, and emotions. We’re all human and everyone wants to have a happy time if they can!
And what have been your favourite places to play across the world?
Going to Rajasthan in India was really exciting, and you see bits of that in the film. It’s a very full-on experience with the colour and sound; very different from here. It’s an absolute racket wherever you go but it’s part of the whole experience and you just immerse yourself in it. We had a really good time in Cuba too which was a British Council thing. There was a time when our travel was funded by the Government and that took us to Mexico and to India for the first time but I think it was Gordon Brown that slashed the budget on that unfortunately…but we took advantage of it for a while! They were trying to promote Britishness abroad for a while so we were part of that. It’s been an ambition of mine to play in South America so I’m hoping we’ll do that one day.
With the actual production of the film, were you very conscious of the cameras? Did it ever feel intrusive or was it all natural?
It was very natural. Don Coutts is a pal and he’s been a fan of the band for a long time. He was really keen to make the film and he’s done a great job with it.
Were there any surprises for you whilst watching it?
The biggest surprise was to hear what other people had said in their interviews! I didn’t speak as much as others, but I think I generally like to keep things quite brief and I can be pretty quiet.
From knowing you outside of music and knowing your personality, I loved seeing this other side to your life and thought it was really interesting to see you touring around the world doing your thing. You had that cool aura of the quiet musician.
How has your experience been with Edinburgh International Film Festival screening this film?
It’s been really good and pretty exciting! When you’re putting a band together, you never expect a documentary to be made about you – maybe in your wildest dreams, so it’s great when something like this happens. I’d been looking forward to it for a while, and it’s a prestigious festival!
Heading West: A Story About A Band Called Shooglenifty is screening in selected cinemas. Go to shooglenifty.com for tickets and details.