“This Is Our Sound”: Dancing on Tables’ Robbie McSkimming On Creating ‘Colour In The Grey’

[Cover photo credit to @jenncurtisphotography]

Scottish Indie band Dancing on Tables recently released their debut full-length album via Enci Records, Colour in the Grey, building on previously released EPs and singles and some wide-ranging placements on TV and in ad campaigs. This new album is a different venture for many reasons. After hitting a great stride touring with Catfish and The Bottlemen and getting sold-out status on their own tour, the band were abruptly halted by Covid. With a tour on hold and songwriting for an album already on their mind, developing new ways of working actually cultivated developments in the band’s sound and led them to an album that helped define their core identity.

Bandmates Robbie McSkimming (lead vocals, keyboard ), Callum Thomas (lead vocals, guitar), Hamish Finlayson (guitar), Gregor Stobie (bass, backing vocals) and Reece Dobbin (drums) built the new album around the fruits of songwriting Zoom sessions with far-flung collaborating friends and this suggested sound developments for them, too. The results on Colour in the Grey are emotive, detailing internal states of mind, often sonically layering softer and harder edges, and have that extra dash of soul via vocal harmonies reminiscent of Power Pop traditions. The outcome is something the band feels they can truly stand behind, as Robbie McSkimming shared with us in the following interview.

Hannah Means-Shannon: I’ve picked up on the idea that this album has been a multi-year project for you, going back to before joining Enci Records.

Robbie McSkimming: This is the first proper collection of new music that we’ve done with them, and it’s been a long time coming.

HMS: You all had been writing and recording before the pandemic, right? How did you weather that time to keep moving forward?

RMcS: Yes, we had record a couple of songs with our Producer before we joined Enci Records. Those songs are still brand-new to people, but we actually recorded them two-and-a half years ago. We found that we still loved them, so they were included. It was a very frustrating time for us, though, going into lockdown because we’d just toured with Catfish and The Bottlemen, and then we had our own sold-out tour, which we managed to play only three dates of. But the timing all worked out for the album, because we had nothing else to do, so we sat and wrote on Zoom everyday, which became our little ritual.

HMS: I heard that you wrote quite a few songs that way together. That must have been a totally new way of working for you at the time.

RMcS: It really was. Callum, the other singer, and I write loads of stuff together, so we got used to it pretty quickly. But where it benefitted us was that we used to go on these writing trips out to Nashville and we’d pay however much, hundreds or thousands, to be there, but all of the sudden, instead of having to do all of this, we could just arrange a time with our friends, jump on, and write music with them. It actually opened up a world of opportunity to us, and we even met new writers. We felt that we used that to our advantage.

HMS: I’ve heard some cool stories lately about writers on songs collaborating over long distances with each other and coming up with new directions for their work. I’m glad that has been part of the Zoom session outcome for music people. Would you do that again, even now that people can travel again?

RMcS: Definitely. We’ve done a few since. It’s more of a novelty to do it now, but we’re always up for anything. If it saves money in the process, that’s also a bonus!

HMS: Do you think that working in this way changed the sound of your songs at all? Did you make new discoveries?

RMcS: I think, songwriting-wise, we probably learned a lot. We were still working part-time jobs before, just trying to make music work, then suddenly we were full-time songwriters, so we learned a lot. For the first time ever, we went into the recording process, we needed to pick songs, and that meant sitting down and working out what Dancing on Tables means. We’ve done EPs that were on the rockier side, and on the poppier side, and we’ve chucked in a few ballads. We’ve been testing the water.

This was the first time where we had shells of songs and demos and we needed to get a coherent body of work together. For me, it was a really rewarding experience. Now, when we listen to the album, I feel confident in saying, “That is exactly who we wanted to be.” I’m sure we’ll change and grow with other albums, but it was nice to finally be able to put a finger on it and say, “This is our sound”.

HMS: It’s possible these days for bands or artists never to have to make that decision, if they just continue releasing singles, which a lot of people do. But in that formative period, if you never have a unifying experience, you might not have a core to build on later.

RMcS: Yes. It felt like a proper “coming of age”, for want of a better phrase. When you put your debut full-length album out there, the word “debut” carries so much weight. We can now use that as building blocks going forward and we’re already writing a new album. We can tell we’re going in a slightly new direction and we’ll be going through the same process again.

HMS: For a lot of artists, selecting the album tracks also has bearing on the touring ahead and influences the character of the shows coming up.

RMcS: We’re quite lucky because we have the last six dates of our tour coming up, but there were also a few shows we were able to play before that. Those will be the first post-album shows, so we’re really excited to do it.

HMS: I noticed that you all had already been doing a lot with publishing, getting your songs placed on TV and in commercials. Was that something you have had to learn more about, how to represent yourselves as writers?

RMcS: Some of that originally came from our label having a kind of arm for doing deals. One campaign that we were on just won an award. For us, we’d been in music and we were asking, “Wait, what does a publisher do?” We were googling it and watching Youtube videos. The music industry is a far more complex beast than we realized. Luckily, we’ve found publishers who have worked really well with us. They are based in Nashville as well.

HMS: I feel like publishing music has been around for a long time, but at the same time, there’s a kind of new boom in terms of artists trying to figure this out. We’re living in an era where people are very rights-conscious and trying to keep rights to their creative material, which means more thinking about publishing.

RMcS: I’m far aware of it than I used to be. I always look at the writers now on Spotify and work out who’s working with who. It’s much more in the public eye now.

HMS: Looking at your new songs, I notice you have quite a few music videos that you’ve done. Do you like making videos?

RMcS: I absolutely love doing music videos. I may be the only one! Creatively, I really enjoy the challenge of it. We’ve worked with some really cool directors as well. I think when the music industry is still so content-driven, a good video is something you can build so many things around. We try to make it match up to tell a story of what the songs means to us and the story behind the songs rather than just a video of us playing.

HMS: From the ones that I’ve seen, you all seem to want to convey a lot of emotion and bring that across. That does bring an extra layer to things. Your songs often talk about internal states and the things that people go through, and conveying that visually takes it further.

RMcS: One of our single and videos is “So What” and the chorus line is “So what, I miss you just a little.” It’s about someone who has given up on somebody but realizes they shouldn’t have. But for the video, we were planning it, and the director said, “What if someone had had this realization on their way home at two in the morning from a night out?” That was cool. That instantly fit in with how we were seeing the song. Sometimes it takes ages and sometimes you have to go through fancy ways to get there, but with that one, it was simple and it was how we pictured the song.

HMS: That song is really interesting because there’s a lot of glorification now of seeming emotionally unavailable. And if someone isn’t like that, they are potentially uncool. But that song cuts across that. It’s very confessional. But the “so what” element shows that the person still has a hard time crossing that line.

RMcS: I think it’s the traditional, “Men shouldn’t show feelings,” kind of trope. The line in the chorus came from us talking about a love song in Nashville that we heard. It was very adoring and had a Country sound. We said, “What if, instead of that, it would be ‘I love you a bit’. Or ‘So what, I miss you?’” We sort of built it up from there.

HMS: Country music is the opposite of everything that I just said! It’s the opportunity to pour out all emotions and anger. This is probably natural to you, as a band, but I also appreciate that the song doesn’t tie things up neatly and present a resolution. I think it’s better to leave things open to explore.

RMcS: I thought that was the best way to do it. It trails off with “So what, I…So what, I…” That phrasing in the chorus kept things from taking a different direction. It’s kind of a chant. Less is more sometimes!

HMS: These songs are all pretty different, even though they may have relationship aspects. The song “Breathe” is slower, and the guitars are really bright. It’s almost meditative at times, but there’s still a struggle going on, thematically. That suggests that the world is not shiny and bright all the time.

RMcS: When we originally wrote “Breathe”, it was meant to be a slow ballad, but then we got into the practice room and we played it. Everyone loved it, but said, “It’s not us yet.” So we upped it and upped it and Hamish, our guitarist, kept bringing in more guitars.

HMS: That’s where the album’s title comes from too, isn’t it?

RMcS: Yes. The funny thing about that is about our Scottish accent. We decided that we’d call it Colour in the Grey, and on the night of releasing it, I said to our drummer, Reece, “It’s funny, isn’t it, that I don’t actually say the line in the song? I say, ‘colouring the grey’” Nobody else knew that. But I liked it, so now I say, “Colour in the grey” when we play it live! It’s an Easter egg on the album.

HMS: It’s the album secret. The true title. I think “High” is another song that has a nice blend up upbeat energy, but it’s not left purely as a pretty fantasy. Some of the lyrics hint at the idea that things may be different, or darker, someday.

RMcS: That’s the song on the album that we wrote with Liz Rose, who has worked with amazing artists. We had an original idea and she opened another level of depth, ideas behind it, and imagery. It’s a happy love song, and then it’s got that hint of insecurity throughout. That makes it more realistic. We’ll be debuting it soon live.

HMS: I can definitely see that one in a set as shifting the mood slightly at the right time.  

RMcS: The order of the sets is the next big debate!

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