An ever-shifting Scottish group led by singer/songwriter David Scott, the only constant member, the Pearlfishers are a glorious soft pop band mixing acoustic-based music with subtle orchestral flourishes, rather like a Glasgow-based Prefab Sprout with a major Brian Wilson fixation. Since forming in 1989 the Pearlfishers have refined and broadened their sound while maintaining a steadily growing cult following.
Scott began writing songs while a teenager in Glasgow in the early '80s. In the summer of 1984, Scott played his earliest bedroom efforts to local musician Bobby Henry, who offered to put a pair of them on The Shift Compilation, an anthology of Glasgow bands released on Henry's own Shift Records. Released under the band name Chewy Raccoon, a joke name that stuck, the songs attracted enough attention that Scott and the band were signed to Shift's distributor, Phonogram, which released the group's sole single, "Don't Touch Me," in August 1985. The single flopped, Scott was dropped by Phonogram, and the Chewy Raccoon name was, thankfully, retired.
The following year, Scott hooked up with Australian-born drummer Jim Gash, keyboardist Robert McGinlay, bassist Chris Keenan, and backing vocalist Jeanette Burns to form the immediate precursors to the Pearlfishers, Hearts and Minds. Signed to CBS Records, the group released one single, the folksy "Turning Turtle," produced by Eric Stewart of 10cc, in September 1987. After that single followed the Chewy Raccoon disc to oblivion, internal dissension split the group, who left CBS in early 1988, permanently souring Scott on the major-label experience.
Scott and Gash quickly formed a new group, featuring Brian McAlpine on keyboards and Yugoslavian bassist Mil Stricevic. When an American group called Hearts and Minds signed with A&M Records, Scott and company changed their name to the Pearlfishers, after the Bizet opera. Twice burned by his previous experiences with record labels, Scott formed his own imprint, My Dark Star, which released the Pearlfishers' debut single, "Sacred," in late 1990. Sessions for an album tentatively titled The Flo'ers o' the Forest followed, but they were abandoned in the summer of 1991. An EP, Hurt, was fashioned from songs recorded in the abortive album sessions and released in November of that year, quickly followed in early 1992 by a cassette-only release of strictly acoustic songs called Woodenwire, which featured a musical setting of a Robert Burns poem and a pair of traditional Scottish folk songs.
Recorded in nearly a year's worth of off-and-on sessions, the Pearlfishers' debut album, Za Za's Garden (named after one of Scott's earliest pre-Chewy Raccoon songs), was released in August 1993. Produced by Scott and McAlpine, the album largely abandoned the rustic and folky elements of the Pearlfishers' early releases in favor of a newfound emphasis on crystalline arrangements and Beach Boys-inspired harmonies, anchored by McAlpine's delicate keyboards.
The first of several lineup changes took place after the release of Za Za's Garden. In fact, for the next several records, the Pearlfishers were simply Scott and McAlpine with a revolving door of rhythm sections, plus guests on various string and reed instruments. During an extended break between the first and second albums, Scott partnered with Duglas T. Stewart of the BMX Bandits to create and tour with two revues based on the music of Scott's two primary influences, Brian Wilson and French jazz-rock idol Serge Gainsbourg.
Signing with the German label Marina Records, Scott and McAlpine released possibly their finest album, 1997's The Strange Underworld of the Tall Poppies, an album that is to Pet Sounds what Za Za's Garden had been to The Beach Boys Today! Two stop-gap EPs followed, 1997's Even on a Sunday Afternoon and 1998's Banana Sandwich, while Scott and McAlpine labored over 1999's The Young Picnickers, another album of moody, semi-orchestral pop, this time featuring a collaboration with Stewart. Scott and Stewart collaborated two more times in 2000: on-stage with a tribute concert to the legendary Italian soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone and on records with the Marina tribute album Caroline Now!: The Songs of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, executive produced by the pair.
2001's Across the Milky Way introduced a new era in the Pearlfishers' career. McAlpine was gone, leaving Scott to handle keyboards along with his usual guitar and bass duties. The album is perhaps slightly less grand than its two predecessors, with a more intimate, live feel. Original Pearlfishers drummer Jim Gash returned, and bassist Lindsay L. Cooper (of avant-garde jazz trio Day & Taxi) is among the dozen guest musicians. The Strange Underworld of the Tall Poppies was re-released the following year. ~ Stewart Mason