Chatting about music and horror movies in a Dublin bar is no real hardship, especially when the company is as interesting as Duncan Maitland. Formerly of Picture House and Pugwash, Duncan has enjoyed a career which has seen both chart and critical success.
The coming year will be a busy one for Duncan - he has a newborn son to look after, he is currently dividing his time between production duties and his second solo album, and he has secured the highly-coveted Saturday closing slot at July's Wickerman festival. And, as if he isn't busy enough, we are thrilled to say that Duncan will be headlining Pennyblackmusic's Wickerman Warm-Up gig at The Bay in Glasgow on June 15th.
Discussing his career to date and his plans for the future, Duncan tackles subjects as diverse as the history of horror movies and the Incredible String Band. If Duncan's conversation is anything to go by, his next album will be something to look forward to.
PB: I would like to start off with a potentially embarrassing question. What was the last album you listened to? Was it any good?
DM: That is a very easy question to answer! The last album I listened to was ‘Wee Tam & The Big Huge’ by the Incredible String Band and I’m utterly obsessed with it – I’ve heard bits and pieces of the Incredible String Band over the years and, though they always sounded interesting to me, they never quite knocked me off my feet…however, it’s now like someone has lifted a net curtain and everything makes total sense – consequently I’ve become an absolute ISB junkie.
PB: A lot of our readers will know you from Picture House and Pugwash. How did a boy from Stoke end up playing with two such quintessentiallyIrish bands?
Oddly enough, I wouldn’t have thought of either of those bands as quintessentially Irish! I was introduced to Picture House way back when I was suggested by a producer friend of mine as a replacement for their recently sacked guitar player. I was rather dubious to begin with as I’d heard some of their previous music and thought it sounded pretty horrible. The new stuff they’d been working on was, however, much better and so it was that I found myself moving to Ireland.
Five or six years later, when I left Picture House, I kind of drifted into Pugwash. I had already contributed to the first Pugwash album, ‘Almond Tea’, at this point and their front man Thomas Walsh and I had become buddies so it was a very natural thing. It was also very much a tonic for the soul after the endless drudgery that Picture House had become...although it had definitely had it’s high points too.
PB: You’ve been in the music business for pretty much all of your adult life, but it’s only recently that you’ve started to release solo material. Did you always plan to record solo at some point? Was there a particular catalyst that made you do it when you did?
DM: I guess when you’re able to write songs and sing them there’s always the lurking possibility that you might record solo at some point. I never set out to do a solo thing, but I guess the important thing is getting the ideas and the songs out there and communicating them in whatever way is possible….I’d just as happily be doing it with a band although there are usually a lot more compromises, depending on who you wind up playing with of course. The nice thing about my current situation is that I’m pretty much able to do what I want – I can play with the people I want to play with, I can collaborate with whomever I chose, and if I just want to do something alone I can do it.
PB: Your first solo release in 2003 was a four track EP called ‘Live Alien’. The EP is by turns hilarious and moving. How did you go about selecting the tracks for it?
DM: Believe it or not, that EP was done totally on the fly. Originally, an organisation called Phutloose had invited me to play a series of gigs in Dublin that were going to be filmed and recorded with the notion of releasing a DVD called ‘It’s All Live’. They’d previously released a compilation CD called ‘It’s All Good’ to which I contributed a track, and so the DVD was the next obvious step. Well, somewhere along the line, after a few gigs being filmed, the project was abandoned for one reason or another…however, I asked if perhaps I could get access to the multis and release something from my set…which is what I did.
The band that night were terrific, especially terrific when I tell you that we only had one rehearsal! The tracks that are on the EP are pretty much the best from the nine or ten song set from the evening…although I seem to recall it all being pretty good…maybe I’ll release the other tracks at some point! I never did see the footage – I hear some of it did get put together…it’s out there somewhere…
PB: ‘Live Alien’ was followed by your first solo album, ‘Lullabies for the 21st Century’, in 2010. Can you tell us a bit about the writing and recording process?
DM: Well, I guess like most writers in their pre-first album period, I had a big backlog of unrealised songs and ideas from all points in time…it’s hard to truly give a good description of the writing process as every song came about very differently.
‘Lucky You’ came out virtually whole into my head as I stepped off a bus in Dublin… ‘Crash Position’ came about almost totally unconsciously by just following a mood from the first chords, almost like automatic writing… ‘Insect under the Stone’ sat around as a bizarre instrumental for ages, although I did know it was going to have singing. I’d say about 75% of it was recorded at my home studio…actually, let me blow that image apart right now – my home “studio” was this tiny flat that I was living in at the time, along with the contents of my entire life. But I guess it’s a testimony to what one can do in spite of such cramped surroundings - that from such a tiny place, something as cinemascopic as I hope ‘Lullabies..’ is can spring.
Of course, the other major contribution to the recording process came from the wonderful Frank McGing and his Ashville studio in County Meath. This is where the drums and the main lead vocals were recorded. It’s also where we did the mixing, utilising all manner of wonderful stuff including a couple of fantastic tape machines that were used to do proper phasing ( a bit of a dream come true for me) and ADT…we basically got to try out the Beatles’ production handbook!
PB: You recently said that you have enough “nuts and berries” to begin work on your second album. What can we expect to hear? Will it be similar to ‘Lullabies…’ or will you be changing direction?
DM: It’s really too early to say…something I’m doing which I didn’t do with ‘Lullabies…’, except for about three tracks, is purposefully demoing the songs. On the first album, everything I played was recorded with a mind to the possibility that it might be used on the finished album, Right now, I’m just throwing down the new songs with acoustic guitars and percussion and a few ideas as they occur. It’s a lovely thing to do – joyously ramshackle!
Of course, all those acoustics make it all sound rather Ronnie Lane or Lovin’ Spoonful as a result….not a bad thing at all! Who knows, maybe the finished album will turn out that way! One thing I can say is that there seems to be a dividing line between the songs – there’s a bunch that sound very ghostly and monochrome and there’s a bunch that sound day-glo technicolor. Maybe a possibility would be to do a side A/side B thing, one side in black and white, the other in colour…..saying that, I reserve judgement for now. Anything might happen in the meantime….
PB: Movies play an important role in your music (take ‘Terry the Toad’ or ‘Fan Club’, for example). What sort of movies do you enjoy?
DM: I have a tremendous passion for horror films, have had since I was a kid… I saw the Bela Lugosi version of ‘Dracula” when I was about six and it had a profound effect on me…I felt like I had crossed over into a forbidden zone, and I have no intention of leaving anytime soon!
PB: Did you always know that you would go into the music business, or did you have another career in mind?
DM: Would you believe, after all this movie talk, that there was a point in my early teens where I was seriously intent on being a film maker. I was looking at going to film school and all the rest of it…used to make little Super 8 films. I was as obsessed by film making as I became with making music, but I think at that point I just took music for granted as something I had always done.
It’s hard to pinpoint the moment where the crossover took place, and I suddenly changed direction but I think a lot of that film making grammar has stayed with me. I tend to always be thinking in filmic terms when making records, and I’d say one of the requirements I have from records and music in general is that it takes me somewhere, fills my head with images of something other than a bunch of guys playing instruments..
PB: You’ve mixed with rock ‘n’ roll luminaries the world over. What’s the most rock ‘n’ roll thing you’ve ever seen?
DM: I’ve never really witnessed anyone driving a landrover into a swimming pool or anything like that…I’m not sure that would really impress me anyway. Once you’ve seen one person acting out, you’ve pretty much seem them all. One of my first gigs with Picture House was, however, playing support to the Kinks. I remember Ray Davies walking into the venue wearing a college scarf and eating an apple…maybe, in a perverse way, that is the most rock n’ roll thing I’ve ever seen .
The most rock n’roll thing I’ve ever done? Hmmm, there’s a few moments I could discuss here! Perhaps I’ll remain enigmatic and save them for another interview….
PB: Your Scottish fans will be doubly delighted this year as you’re playing two gigs this summer. Firstly, you’re playing Pennyblackmusic’s Wickerman Warm-Up night and then you are playing the Wickerman Festival itself. How does it feel to be coming back to Scotland?
DM: It feels genuinely tremendous! Scotland has always been a special place for me…I remember Picture House developing a very loyal following in Scotland and when I finally returned last year, playing with Anny Celsi and Nelson Bragg, it was easily the gig of the tour!
We were on a bill at The Bay with Neil Sturgeon and the Wellgreen, both amazing…and the feeling of genuine enthusiasm and doing things for the right reasons I got from them, and people like Tony Gaughan and David Wells was utterly infectious – a real shot in the arm. Later on in that tour, we played some very exciting little places and mixed with likes of Peter Blake but, as I said to the great man himself, Scotland was the highlight for me…it really felt like that was where it was happening. And now of course, coming back in my own right, I couldn’t be more excited!
PB: The Wickerman Warm-Up night will also feature sets from Belle and Sebastian collaborator Roy Moller, Nicola Black and the Cathode Ray. What are you looking forward to most about the evening?
DM: I’m really looking forward to playing a set in Glasgow again – last time was so terrific…Nicola was playing the last time I played, but I missed her set so I’m looking forward to finally seeing her play live. Roy Moller and the Cathode Ray I have never seen or heard so I’ll be very interested to see what they’re like….the Cathode Ray is a great name for a band!
PB: As I said, you’re playing a set at the Wickerman Festival. Have you played at a festival before? Are you looking forward to Wickerman?
DM: I’ve played a lot of festivals in the past but not in my own right….and certainly not one that I’m as excited to play as Wickerman! I’ve heard so much great stuff about the festival – then throw in the fact that it happens on the site of one of my favourite horror films…I’m going to be so excited, I’ll probably need to be sedated on the day!
PB: I have a soft spot for William Shatner’s albums ‘Has Been’ and ‘Seeking
Major Tom’. Do you have any musical guilty pleasures?
DM: ‘Southern Freeez’ by Freeez…’I Can’t Go For That’ by Hall & Oates…do they count as guilty pleasures? Actually, thinking about it, they’re more just pleasures…hmmm, is there any music I feel guilty about listening to? Actually, I’ll tell you something that nearly fits the bill and that’s early Genesis. Again, there’s no guilt attached to this pleasure but it’s one that is made very awkward to share. Firstly, you have to get people past that ghastly “prog” tag – as lazy a term as “Beatlesque” if you ask me and it gets thrown around wrecklessly, dismissing a whole pot of music into the bargain. Then you, however, get the double whammy – because just when you’ve managed to get someone past the “prog” thing, you then have to get past Phil Collins’ musical war crimes…oh boy…I can tell you, it’s not easy being a Peter Gabriel-era Genesis fan….
PB: Imagine the scene: you’ve sold out Wembley Arena. What’s on your rider?
DM: I really don’t mind so long as it’s not the usual cans of shitty lager…although, if there’s nothing else going…
PB: Thank you.
Duncan Maitland will be playing the Pennyblackmusic Bands’ Night and Wickerman Warm-Up with the Cathode Ray, Roy Moller and Nicola Black on the 15th June at The Bay at 142 West Regent Street, Glasgow, G2 2RQ.