Having worked behind the scenes at Xfm, Susan Hay is now relishing being in front of a microphone, and trying out just-about every Xfm timeslot for size. Well, that’s when she’s not either shopping for bargains, or gig-going into the wee small hours, fueled only by DietCoke, chips and boundless enthusiasm for grimy rock venues.
“Has that happened before?” exclaims Susan Hay. And then – for the first time in 45 minutes – silence.
What’s happened is that the recorder has run out of tape, and switched itself off after a solid three-quarters of an hour of chat from Xfm’s lively Weekend Breakfast presenter. Rewind, then, to just before the start of the tape where Susan is distributing a bag of toy harmonicas among her colleagues. Such generosity isn’t unusual, but shouldn’t be overstated, as said presents have come from the local Pound Shop.
“I love a bargain!” she laughs, as we go on the record. She’s also picked up what appear to be a whole string of neon bangles. “You get a 12 pack in the pound shop,” she reveals. “OK, guaranteed they’ll only last a night.” But ideal for that special gig? Yes, the other things she really loves is music – whether live shows, presenting on the radio, or records.
If you’ve listened to her show – any of her shows – then you’ll know that they’re a lively mix of chat and music. Or chat about music, and usually about whatever gig she’s been at night before. “If it’s Friday or Saturday night and it’s Tuts I’ll be done by 11.30, but have to be strict about getting home.”
However, she crams in the maximum gig-going she can. “I like to double up gigs – so if it’s at the ABC it’ll be done by 10.30, so it’s over to Tuts.”
Like the rest of the Xfm Scotland team, she’s doing her hobby for a living, which is pretty much how – and why – she got started in radio. “I started in Traffic, scheduling adverts, and at the time I was happy enough, but it was totally ‘foot in the door’ for me, I always wanted to work in radio because I adore music and always have, and not really one genre. She names the Mamas and Papas, Marvin Gaye, the Beatles, and Richard Hawley as examples of this, but she has developed a reputation among the Xfm staff as ‘Most likely to be at a gig’.
Which led to, well, where she is today. “I moved to sponsorship and promotions which was great, but from that Stuart (Barrie, Jim Gellatly’s producer) had said ‘we need to make more of the fact you’re at a gig every night’, so I’d phone in gig reviews to Jim’s show – the first one was Babyshambles – and it started from there.”
And nothing, it seems will get in the way of a gig. “I was watching the football the other night and got a call: ‘Want to come and see The Pipettes?’ So that was me off… though to be honest I’ve got no interest in football!” Which is a rarity among the Xfm crew. “I’ve tried, I was watching a game with my dad and he was trying to teach me but I was just ‘When when did the referees start wearing blue, it’s a bit camp!'”.
So although Susan is a Paisley girl, she won’t mind that the crown of the town’s most famous son has been snatched from Frank McAvennie, by young Paolo Nutini.
“I went to school with Paolo,” she reveals. And he wasn’t be allowed to forget it, in a pre-T in the Park interview. “The first question was ‘can you just confirm we went to school together?’ He’s younger, he’s 19, I’m 23 – sorry, 24!” she laughs at her Freudian slip. “But he’s got an incredible voice, plus he’s a really nice guy.
Festivals like T are now work for Susan, with her, it seems, first in the queue for any rock star interviews that are needing done. “It was brilliant,” she grins,”Scott (Shaw) would appear in in is red boiler suit – he always wears that, means he doesnt have to queue for the toilets – anyway, Scott would be saying ‘that’s Editors waiting for you’.” The stuff of dreams, indeed. One of the benefits of working at a festival for someone who’d always gone along as a punter. That and the ‘proper’ toilets in the hospitality area. The recent Indian Summer festival was a smaller affair, with no ‘us and them’ setup – and that included the loos! “At least you could see the stage, so I was watching Hot Chip from the queue – as Jim Gellatly said, that was the kind of festival we’d put together – Dananananaykroyd in the wee tent, Guillemots on the main stage.” Indeed, another festival recently enjoyed by Susan – and Xfm chums – was one which colleague Fraser Thompson helped organise – Going Underground. High points included riding the Glasgow Underground from venue to venue, Dominik Diamond’s band The AMs, who, Susan tells us, are getting better all the time, Gordon Macintyre of Ballboy covering East 17’s Stay Another Day’ – “am I about to admit that’s a good song?” and no concept of ‘passouts’, meaning that being ‘forced’ to eat from the ever-present festival hot dog stands was a pleasure denied her, for once.
Perhaps the more indie nature of these festivals reflects her own tastes?
“I’ve not been to a gig there for ages,” she says of a venue whose name we shall withhold for obvious reasons. “I was there the other day but just for lunch; it has great food but a manky vibe to it!” See? “It’s all good bacteria!” she enthuses, selling us an image of deep-fried potatoes and tiny pots of life-giving yoghurt. “The chips are amazing! I think they use the same fryer for everything, it gives the food this edge… I’m mildly obsessed with chips,” she confesses, “though I hate skinny chips – what’s the point?!”
Another obssession, she freely admits, is clothes. “I’m into concepts – today it’s ‘just up’. Her ensemble of top and jeans (and various flashing accessories) is certainly closer to casual than formal evening wear. “Or it might be Agatha Christie – well, maybe,” she concludes, perhaps planning out a line of random chat for a future show”.
So, what else? “I try to dye my hair sometimes, though I dyed it blonde and left it in for too long and didn’t work – so I’ll stick with the red – people love red hair!” Well, most people. “I did this thing on people who’d been dumped, and two people txted in ‘she was a ginger!'”
Handily, there’s a music mag with celtic alt.folkie James Yorkston on the front. “Wahey! he’s a proper one, with, the full ‘ginger tan’.” She picks up said magazine. “I love the smell of this one (is this music?) too.” We get a quick run-through on the music press smell test. “NME smells musty, Q is… scentless; Mojo smells of man, is this music? smells of an intimate gig.”
Whether that’s good or bad is unclear, though it might help music fans navigate poorly-lit venues.. “I have this thing about gigging blind,” she recalls, “you pick a gig who you know nothing about, do NO research into the band, get a ticket and head along. It can be hit or miss, but I think could take off as the next extreme sport!”
There’s a brief pause in the stream of consciousness before we’re off again. “I like bizarre chat, like last week we talking at 6am about which monopoly piece you’d be – apparently they’re getting rid of the Scottie dog.” And that bombshell got Susan’s listeners excited, as ever. “Some guy was the iron – slightly odd. He explained that Monopoly’s all about being something you’re not, and he never did the ironing!”
Following that logic, what piece would Susan Hay select? “The top hat, cos I think it’s important to look a bit dapper when your strutting about Park Lane.”
Seems that despite the challenging mental jumps, the weekend listeners are only too keep to share their ideas on the more unlikely areas of life.
“I think on a Sunday, from 6-7, the audience is composed of people who are still up from the night before!” If Xfm ever need a breakdown of their audience demographic, expensive surveys won’t be needed, just ask Susan on her experiences of just about every timeslot. “Weekdays – up till mid-morning it’s all about what’s going on that particular day… afternoons have the listeners pick the tunes… Drive… Drive’s different, it’s so busy, so busy, and we’ll be chatting about anything… Music Response, is brilliant- all about new music, with loads of listeners getting involved and letting me know about what music they’re hearing.”
Susan takes a swig at the bottle she’s brought into the studio. “I’m actually addicted to Diet Coke,” she confesses. “I do want to be healthy, but I drink 8 bottles a day, it’s become a habitual thing – on top of the fact it’s not good at 4am, by the end of the show the bin’s full of empties and peanut M&M wrappers.”
I wonder if they’re putting something addictive in the drink. “There is something – Nutrasweet perhaps? – that’s banned in the States, if you go to America it tastes different. Not that I’ve been – I’ve never really travelled… though I went to Eurodisney once when it just opened.”
And family holidays, inevitably, formed other musical memories. Susan had been to see the likes of the Pet Shop Boys, and Van Morrison, but the annual vacation was often in Cork, seeing Val Doonican there “a bit brutal”. But being dragged along to another candle-lit backroom pub gig surprisingly yielded a famous face – Ronnie Drew, Dubliners singer and occasional bandmate of Shane McGowan & the Pogues. “Every and now again there’d be a wee story and and couldn’t have been more real if he tried,” she recalls, digging deep in her memories. “I was about 12, and completely spellbound”. Big stadium shows aren’t exactly Susan’s gigs of choice – especially after that Pet Shop Boys show. “It was at the SECC, and the noise and pyrotechnics were unbelievably terrifying – I went to school next day shattered! Excellent first gig though.”
Indeed, really intimate shows are something which she can get pretty much on demand, when bands come into the Xfm studios to record acoustic sessions. “I’ll make the tea and sit in the corner,” she says of her excuse for attending these sessions. “Stuart the producer will say ‘guys, that was a great song – Susan, just keep doing what you’re doing!'” King Creosote was one of her favourite recent sessions. “He did ‘Bootprints’, and then a cover of ‘Streets of Philidelphia’ with Johnny (Lynch) singing, Bruce-style – but with ‘Philidelphia changed to Anstruther!”
Sadly, she missed out on a close encounter with a rather harder-to-meet act, as the Arctic Monkeys came by Xfm.
“I missed it because I had this saga of my driving test,” she moans, more at missing Alex Turner and co. rather than the trauma of her examination. “I’d failed 8 times, and got a call – ‘there’s a cancelation tomorrow’ – and the Arctic Monkeys were coming in… but I needed to pass that test”. Happily the sacrifice was just-about worth it. “The examiner was an older guy, and a ginger, and for some reason I told him ‘this is my 9th’ – I’d never done that before – so maybe he took pity on me!”
So now she has music on the move.
“The car’s only got a cassette player, so I’m foraging through old shoeboxes and finding mix tapes from the 80s and 90s – they’re all named things like ‘Exams, Aargh!’, or ‘Lightwater Valley School Trip 1996’.” Currently on her stereo? “Frank Sinatra, Lightning Seeds and the Delgados – it’s great, I’ve been just driving round the block!”
And her licence is, for now, still clean. “I’d stopped at Ali’s shop to get the papers before the weekend show,and thought the police car behind would be going to the police station just beside the studio.,. but they followed me into the car park and they were a comedy police duo – a Peter Crouche-esque policeman, and a wee policewoman who could have been a warder in Bad Girls. ‘How long have you been driving without your lights on?’ So, a narrow escape as Susan promised to ‘never do it again’.
Perhaps she was still half -asleep? No, she insists, even if there’s been a late night gig, she’s still up and about and awake. “When the alarm goes off, it’s ‘ok, let’s play some records!'”
Susan Hay was on Weekend Breakfasts on Xfm Scotland when this interview was conducted, around 2005 or so?
Hear her nowadays as a regular sidekick to Fred MacAulay on BBC Radio Scotland