Glasvegas in Shanghai

Glasvegas is a band whose sound is just too big to be ignored. To say they received some hype after their first album Glasvegas was released in 2008 would be putting it lightly. They received hype. The NME proclaimed, “There’s not enough hype in the world for Glasvegas.” Scotland’s Sunday Herald called their debut the best Scottish album ever. U2’s Bono said of their song “It’s My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry,” “[It’s] one of the best songs I’ve ever heard.” All of a sudden, Glasvegas, with one album, found itself the voice of a entire generation of working class British youths, their songs and sound representative of not only themselves but of Glasgow itself. So how does one follow up that?

“We don’t really want to be a big band really,” said guitarist Rab Allan. “We just want to play gigs.”

And that’s pretty much how they ended up in China. Glasvegas played Mao Livehouse last Thursday, their first gig in China, followed by a date at the CVM Festival in Beijing. As far as feelings go about their first time in China? “I couldn’t believe it,” said drummer Jonna Löfgren. “You know sometimes when you wake up for a split second and you don’t know where you are? I was like, ‘Am I in Italy? No, fuck! I’m in China! This is so cool!’”

“I love it,” added Rab. “It reminds me of LA for some reason. The palm trees. The palm trees and the heat.”

“I may be in danger of getting a suntan,” said singer James Allan.

By most accounts, their first gig in China was a success. Glasvegas is made up of James Allan, the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist; Rab Allan, lead guitar and vocals; Paul Donoghue, who plays the bass; and Jonna Löfgren, who joined the band a year and a half ago on drums. Their music is grand, lovably bombastic and anthem-esque. It encourages people to sing along, whether deliberately or not. James’ compositions and the band’s performance often create a superb wall of sound: big and dense and layered reverberation that echoes around the room. They create a sound that has rockabilly and doo-wop roots, like a modern day Dion & the Belmonts or Ronettes, but they’re retro without being old; big without being pretentious.

And then on a whole other level are the lyrics. Glasvegas sets itself apart from so many other modern indie bands by actually having something to say. They pack an emotional wallop into brutally honest lyrics about heartbreak, fear and dissatisfaction with society, without clichés. When they were hyped about being the voice of a working class generation, it wasn’t without reason. In addition, the lyrics are delivered through James’ emotional, earnest voice. At times he’s so serious it’s almost overwhelming, and you have to wonder what it’s like performing such expressively honest songs over and over.

“I think James can get really drained after shows because he puts so much in and he means what he sings,” said Rab. “He’s not just going through the motions every night. It’s quite exhausting, especially for him. I think that’s why with the second album he wanted to maybe not have it that personal, not have it that intimate because he found it quite hard in the first album doing that every night. He felt like it was a responsibility on him—that he had to go and deliver those songs in that manner.”

It’s true that Glasvegas’ second album Euphoric Heartbreak from 2011 isn’t as notable as the debut, at least at first listen. It’s better produced, but more complicated because of that. Some of the most beautiful moments on the second album come in the simplest songs but at times it’s missing the dichotomy of the first album that combined bigger-than-life songs with very deliberate, dark lyrics.

Said Rab: “With the first album anyway, when James wrote the songs and we played them, we were in a room smaller than this, so we never knew what kind of song they could be. We never thought anyone would actually like them so we didn’t try and make them to be a certain thing. We just did what we thought we would enjoy if we were listening to them. With the second album I guess maybe there was a little bit more of us trying to make it like the first one because of the expectations from other people. I guess with the second one, [the record label] thought we were going to be bigger than The Beatles. That was their kind of thing, not ours.”

“I still don’t expect people to know who we are!” he continues. “I thought we would have sold, like, twenty tickets for tonight.”

“Like when we went to Australia for the first time last summer,” said Jonna. “They were sold out shows and we’d never been there. It’s on the other side of the world! We were like, ‘How could this happen?’ It’s just so amazing.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt like a rock star. I’m just grateful people know who we are!” added Rab.

“I would never think that about me, you know what I mean? I’m just trying to be cool! But I’m not cool!” said Jonna.

Despite their modesty, Glavegas did play to a full and enthusiastic house at Mao. Even though a lot of the lyrics may be somber, their gigs are energetic, uplifting affairs. The audience singing is almost like another member of the band. At times James even pulled back from the microphone, allowing the audience full rights to the songs, and at one point, even pulled off his trademark dark glasses to peer at the crowd with a look on his face that showed he was nearly overwhelmed, as if he couldn’t believe that people actually knew the words to his songs.

When Glasvegas works, they’re spectacular. When they finished, the audience chanted so much they came out for a four song encore and people sang along unabashedly, sharing their songs with each other as much as they did with the band.

“Some people get quite emotional at the gigs and I think that that’s their thing—that they can connect with you,” Rab said later. “But we’re a tiny band—just tiny—compared to the whole grand scale of things. I still just take it for granted when we come somewhere like this.”

As for the rest of their time in China, the band had a few plans. “We thought China was going to be really different from what we’re used to,” said Jonna.
“I mean, for me, it was pretty different. I didn’t think it was going to be like this, but I think it’s great. We’ve got a day and a half off in Beijing, so we’re going to go the Forbidden City and we’re going to go shopping,” said Rab. “And we’re going to go and see the Great Wall. I want to get a toboggan back down. Have you done that?”

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