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St Christopher Medal - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 25 / 11 / 2015

St Christopher Medal - Interview


John Clarkson speaks to Ali Mathieson, the front man with Scottish-formed Americana/pop act St Christopher Medal, about their debut album 'Sunny Day Machine' and why it has taken almost a decade to release and record

‘Sunny Day Machine’, St Christopher Medal’s debut album, should by the laws of musical nature never have been made. Four out of five of its members had been in Life With Nixon, a Scottish indie pop band of the 90s who had recorded two EPs and played a “million shows” before breaking up after playing a final show in Glasgow in 1996 and five years together. In the intervening years since Life With Nixon dissolved, its members have all relocated from Edinburgh and Glasgow where they were originally based. Vocalist and songwriter Ali Mathieson spent some time in the Hebrides, but now lives in rural Perthshire where he teaches in a local secondary school. Bassist Billy Nisbet is also in Perthshire. Drummer David Mack relocated to Teeside from Edinburgh a few years ago, and guitarist Kenny Mathieson, Ali’s brother, is now based in Manhattan. New recruit and pianist Andy Jefferies, Ali Mathieson’s flatmate from university in the late 1980s, meanwhile resides in Dorset. Allured into working with each other again by the power of friendship and the strength of Ali Mathieson’s song writing, they formed St Christopher Medal almost a decade ago. While ‘Sunny Day Machine’ was recorded in just six days of studio time, hampered by the geographical location of its members, it took years to finish and release. It has just come out on the Edinburgh-based label Stereogram Recordings, which is owned by Cathode Ray front man Jeremy Thoms, and, as well as the Cathode Ray in which David Mack also plays drums, also includes on its roster other equally “lyrical acts” such as the Band of Holy Joy, James King and the Lone Wolves and Roy Moller. ‘Sunny Day Afternoon’ is a sublime Americana/pop record in the great tradition of Leonard Cohen, the Byrds, Teenage Fanclub and the country rock of the Rolling Stones, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and which takes its lyrical inspiration from cult literature, the Hebrides, fatherhood and the ghosts of the past. St Christopher Medal will be playing two rare gigs in Edinburgh and Glasgow on the 2nd and 3rd December as part of the Stereogram Revue in which most of its acts will be undertaking short sets. Pennyblackmusic spoke to Ali Mathieson about St Christopher Medal and ‘Sunny Day Machine’. PB: Four out of five of you were in Life With Nixon, who folded in 1998 after five years together. 'Sunny Day Machine' has apparently had a gestation period of many years. How quickly after Life With Nixon broke up did you form St Christopher Medal and start working on this album? AM: When Life With Nixon finished all the way back in 1996 I was really quite mixed up. It’s more of a ‘life’ type thing than a band one – I felt I’d invested quite a lot and it just wasn’t going to work. We had been a really good and hard-working band I thought, paid our dues, but it was obvious that we didn’t really fit in, and that was going to be a problem. It didn’t help that none of us really understood the music business at all. I got a job – quite unexpectedly – on the Isle of Barra in the Western Isles and that was it really. We talked about keeping things going, but the reality of living in the Outer Hebrides means that that wasn’t going to happen. I kept writing songs and sent them to friends under the name Hot Shirt, but it was the kind of lo-fi that even Lou Barlow would have laughed at and none of those songs still survive as far as I am aware. It wasn’t until I got married and moved back to the mainland that it even occurred to me that being in an actual band might all be possible again. Children came along and having something of my own, something completely separate, seemed to be more and more important. I think I wrote some songs and then made some phone-calls around about 2007. That was the start of St Christopher Medal. Most of 'Sunny Day Machine' was written between then and 2009 when we did most of the recording. PB: Life With Nixon were quite a well-established name. When you decided to get back together why did you decide to reform under the new name of St Christopher Medal rather than continuing under the Life With Nixon moniker? Was it just because St Christopher Medal’s sound was so different? AM: More than that, it seemed to me that the songs came from a completely different place. I still love the sound of some of the Life With Nixon songs we made. They’re lively, fun and sound like what they were – the product of a band that was really tight and practiced a lot and loved playing. Kenny and I were largely hammered and Billy and Dave largely weren’t, which was a discussion point at the time. Regardless, we’ve got a great bunch of pop songs in the vaults still that nobody’s heard and are great and that I’d love to release some day. I’d love to walk into a venue tomorrow and see a band as much fun and as musically strong as Life With Nixon were. What the songs weren’t, though, is even remotely ‘about’ anything. The best ones are the ones that were funny and light – good, smart riffs and singalong choruses. Tight. The songs I wrote later were trying to do something much different. Later it occurred to me that writing a song is much more about straightening out some of the tangles that life leaves us with. “Yeah, I did do and say that, but look… I also think this...!” It made sense to have a new thing, and that was St Christopher Medal – the saint of travellers, saviour of lost little children. Crosser of rivers. PB: You have had major geographical problems to deal with in that four of your members are spread across Britain and your guitarist Kenny Mathieson lives in Manhattan. Your songs are also musically complex and none of them finish in the same place as in which they started. How as a result does the songwriting in the band work? Does you come up with the basic idea and then it involves a lot of file sharing or emails or does it work in a different way? AM: I write the songs until they’re finished before I bring them to the band. The songs are done, but how they might end up sounding is completely up in the air. That’s not up to me. It’s up to the five of us and I’ve got enough faith and trust in the others to let that go completely. That’s the magic of playing with people you like and know very well. Kenny is by far the most opinionated and so he often has quite a big part to play when we’re putting things together. Typical lead guitarist really. Amp turned up far too loud and secret Angus Young fantasies. He needs watching, of course, and that’s the job of all of us, but it helps that he’s a bit of a genius. If life has taught Kenny anything at all it’s how to apologise for going over the top, and it’s something he’s become very good at. PB: Why do you think that with such major obstacles against you that you have stuck together against the odds? Is it just out of loyalty to each other and friendship or are there also other factors? AM: As I’ve got older I think I’ve become much more serious about music. Once, music was about making a big loud noise and having people look at you all lit up. It was also about the things you shared with your friends – the things that made you the same as one another. Billy and I used to bunk off school and spend a whole day listening to the new Smiths album. Andy and I, roommates at University, fell asleep to 'In My Tribe' by 10,000 Maniacs every night for two consecutive terms. After I had kids of my own I realised that as much as I loved my family and, to an extent, my job – if I was ever going to say anything that wasn’t about them or about the obligations I already had, then I was going to have to make up stuff of my own. Music is actually about making something that you’re happy to have stand for you when you’re not there yourself. It’s about mapping an alternative present. Seeing your own self in a new way. It made sense to want to do these things with people who knew me well. The fact that I like the way everyone plays helps a lot too. Over the years I’ve played with a lot of people and outside of St Christopher Medal very few have given me the shivers! St Christopher Medal are only just getting started. PB: Your press release says that ‘Sunny Day Machine’ was recorded during six days of being together. Was that across several years? AM: The recording of the record happened in two, three-day sessions. The first was a practice at Dave’s on Teeside. The second was a recording session at my mum’s in Argyll (the ‘Appin’ of ‘Appin Indians’). These two were a couple of months apart. The engineer in Appin was Kenny’s mate Jonathon Wallace (ex of Olympic Lifts) who, I think, did a really stunning job. I think that was in 2009, but it might have been earlier. Kenny and I mixed the record in 2011 – the weekend of the massacre at Utoya. In between there was a good number of grumpy phone-calls between me and Kenny, with me wondering what the fuck was taking so long putting guitar lines on the songs! Angus Young does it in three takes. THREE TAKES! PB: It was followed by two more years of “head scratching”. What did you mean by that? Was that sitting on it and wondering what to do with it until Stereogram offered to release it or did you mean something else? AM: Absolutely. My objective was always to make a good record – a record that did justice to the songs and which sounded as beautiful on the turntable as it sounded in my head. I hadn’t given even a moment’s thought to what we would do after we had done this! There really was no agenda, no method, no real plan at all of what to do. The record was the plan. Jeremy from Stereogram offered to release it and that just seemed like something falling out of the sky, which is what I had always thought would happen. No planning at all. But in the end, I think that the reason the record sounds like it does is because we didn’t have any sort of notion of what it was supposed to be. It’s just something we wanted to make. PB: Lyrically the album is really intriguing. The opening track ‘Glori’ takes its inspiration from Canadian writer Don Hannah’s out-of-print and little known novel ‘The Wise and Foolish Virgins’. What is that novel about and what was the appeal of it? AM: That song has actually had quite a big legacy. The novel is about families – how they grow up and change and become something you never could have guessed from the early years, when the kids are young. When you have kids of your own you become two totally different and opposite things simultaneously. You become a dad (or a mum) which is new and crazy. You also become a child again – a member of a family which you had almost entirely forgotten. It all comes back. The novel seemed to be about that and so in my head it became a song. It’s a great novel actually, but pretty hard to get a hold of, as I’m finding out now. It has a fairly mad lead story about a man abducting a child, but that wasn’t really what interested me. It was sad and beautiful and hopeful. After writing ‘Glori’ I started writing more songs about stories – specifically classic short stories. These songs I have funnelled into a new band called The Gutenbergs and that’s all we do – songs based on great short stories. It’s an outlet for my writing and playing when St Christopher Medal isn’t happening. I’m lucky. PB: ‘Satchel Bag’ is about the new owner of a house discovering a set of photos of one of the previous owners of the house from fifteen years ago. What inspired that one? It it based on a true story or incident. AM: It’s a true story, written shortly after moving into the house we live in now in Amulree in Perthshire. Again, the time of having young children in a family is a fairly intense one, and the house you choose to live in fixes so much forever in the lives of your children – for maybe good and maybe for bad. Our house is a particularly shitty example of how not to turn a stock byre into a house. It was converted into a house for very little actual money and with the same kind of attention to detail that the Germans used when converting Clydebank into a pile of rubble. Real lazy stuff. Not without its own charm though, and there was a load of stuff in the attic when we moved in – personal stuff. Letters, photos, that sort of thing. The thumbprints in the window-putty, initials on the bin. Nothing really spooky though – I made that stuff up! PB: ‘West’, the final listed track on the album, is followed after a short break by two unlisted hidden tracks. Why did you decide not to make them a part of the official album? What are they called? AM: ‘Secret Hand’ and ‘Snow Day’. The first of these is actually St Christopher Meda and we made it on a kind of social weekend at my Mum's before we had a real sense of making an album. It’s about living on Barra and meeting my wife Magaidh for the first time. ‘Snow Day’ is something I did on my own. I’m trying to teach myself how to play the piano. There is another version of this song covered over with vocoder and korg-mini arpegginations to the point of madness. I thought that was the one we were going to use and I’m slightly disappointed it isn’t. Amulree is right up in the hills and when it snows we can be blocked up for days. The reason they’re secret tracks is that they don’t really form part of the arc of the record. However, I think that an awful lot of what we do is good and if I didn’t put it on our record then literally nobody was ever going to hear it, and I think that would be a shame. I’m tired of making things that no one at all ever hears! PB: The videos for two of your singles. ‘Vatersay Love Song’ and ‘From a Zafira Comfort’, were shot in what looks like the Hebrides and have the quality of 60’s and 70’s home movies. When were they actually shot? AM: Both videos were filmed by my son Roddy who is in Second Year at school. 'Vatersay Love Song' is filmed, unsurprisingly, on Vatersay. The long shot on the left is the road to Vatersay from Barra, filmed in the beautiful sunshine of January this year. The second one, ‘From a Zafira Comfort’ features my other son Hector and two of his buddies from Amulree. The landscape is Amulree in Spring. PB: You are going to be the opening band at the Stereogram Revue shows in Edinburgh and Glasgow in December. Will these be St Christopher Medal’s first ever gigs? How much of a chance will you have for rehearsal beforehand? What can we expect from you at those shows? AM: Actually we played last year in Dunkeld, at the British Legion. It was lots of fun, but a bit of a disaster at the same time. Our only rehearsal was going to be in the venue before the show, but Kenny missed his flight from Belfast and I ended up having to traipse down to Stranraer to pick him up off the ferry hours and hours later. By the time we got back to Dunkeld it was nearly showtime and our ambitious plans were in ruins. Dave was particularly cross if I remember correctly. We had managed to get the New Madrids to support us and they sort of rule, so I felt a bit uncomfortable. Anyway, it was a very, very odd night, and I remember thinking that St Christopher Medal seemed to be on a very odd journey indeed. This time we know that Kenny and Andy won’t be with us so we’re not too worried about not sounding like the record. Hopefully we’ll sound good and we’ll do right by the songs, but it’s unlikely to sound much like the record. I grew up listening to Dylan and pretty much in love with the whole Dylan idea, so I’m comfortable with the idea that things keep changing. Changing is good. PB: Now that the album is finally out do you have any other plans for the future? AM: I have the next St Christopher Medal record all written. They’re St Christopher Medal songs for sure, not Gutenbergs songs. Totally different. The next record is a stunning thing – really properly good, but we need to do it right. We need to do it in less time than 'Sunny Day Machine' took, but we need to get it sounding the way I want it to. If we manage to do that right then I know we’ll really have something to turn people’s heads. We’re never going to play too much with Kenny in the States, but we’ll make music together and the music will be surprising and good. That’s enough, I think. Surprising and good! PB: Thank you.

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St Christopher Medal - Interview

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