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Francis MacDonald and Harry Pye - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 9 / 7 / 2014

Francis MacDonald and Harry Pye - Interview


John Clarkson charts to Glasgow-based musician and Teenage Fanclub drummer Francis Macdonald and London-based artist Harry Pye who have recently started creating music together and whose first release is about French New Wave film director Jean-Luc Godard

Francis Macdonald is a prolific member of the Glasgow indie music scene. He was the original drummer in Teenage Fanclub, appearing on their 1990 debut album 'A Catholic Education' and then after nearly fifteen years apart from them rejoined them to play on their two most recent albums, 'Man-Made' (2005) and 'Shadows' (2010). He has also drummed with BMX Bandits and the other Glaswegian-based indie band Eugenius, and worked as a session musician, playing and recording with artists including the late Alex Chilton, Ian McCulloch and the Go-Betweens' Robert Forster. Macdonald has as well released two solo guitar pop albums under the moniker of Nice Man, 'Sauchiehall and Hope' (2003), and 'The Art of Hanging Out' (2004), and more recently in 2011 under his own name two collections of Macbook-recorded instrumentals, 'Maculate Conceptions Volume One' and 'Volume Two'. He also runs two labels, 7" vinyl singles label Shoeshine Records and Spit & Polish which specialises in albums and has seen releases by American country singer Laura Cantrell. He also manages the Glasgow bands Camera Obscura and the Vaselines. Harry Pye is a London-based artist. While he attended art college, Pye started out a film-maker and curator of other people's works, before finally becoming a painter when he was thirty. Many of his paintings are collaborations with other people, and he has worked with Billy Childish, Rowland Smith and Frank Sidebottom. He also edits the print cultural magazine 'The Rebel'. Macdonald and Pye first met online last year when Pye got in touch with Macdonald to ask him for advice on his early attemmpts at song lyric writing. Macdonald offered to write an initial song with Pye, and the two have since gone on to write several tracks together. 'Sympathy for Jean Luc-Godard', the first of these to become publicly available, is a breezy tribute to the influential French new wave director told from the perspective of an obsessive fan. It comes accompanied with a video that is made up of drawings created by Pye and Macdonald of scenes from several of Godard's films. Other as yet unreleased songs include 'Sometimes I Feel Like a Record That's Been Scratched', an echoing, abrasive number with a buzzsaw guitar line in which a miserable Pye bashes into himself for his failings, and 'We Love Mike Love', a more upbeat track about the often criticised Beach Boy. In one of their first joint interviews, Pennyblackmusic spoke to Francis Macdonald and Harry Pye about their new collaboration. PB: Harry, you have managed various bands including The Values and excellent Piper's Son. Is this collaboration with Francis your first attempt at songwriting? HP: I’m glad you think that Piper’s Son are an excellent band. Basically I kept telling people how much I loved their album, and then they asked if I wanted to be their manager. I got them to play a free Christmas concert in a pub in Pimlico, and I then I got them to sing with Vic Godard at a boat party near The Strand. In October I’m getting them to perform at Ele-fest, which is a South London Arts Festival in the Elephant and Castle. That’s all I do though – just enthuse about them and try and find them odd places to do shows in. The Values is a very different kettle of fish. It’s basically just me and my friend Julian Wakeling collaborating with guest musicians. There’s a guy called Paul Willo, who puts together compilation albums and sells them in aid of Teenage Cancer Trust. and he’s got the Values to record covers of old 2-Tone stuff for his compilations. So far Paul's Specialized project has raised over £50,000 for the charity. The Values work with guest singers such as Roland Gift and Mikey Georgeson (of David Devant). Horace Panter from the Specials has played bass for us, and Neol Davies from the Selecter has played lead guitar for us. The band’s secret weapon is an amazing sax player called Paul Speare (who used to be in Dexys and the Special AKA). The Values are kind of over, but we did recently do a track called 'Rio' with Neil Innes and a guest producer called Micko Westmoreland. I did write a couple of songs with Mikey Georgeson and a couple of songs with Julian Wakeling – all of which I think are pretty good. Julian suffers from insomnia. Mikey and I wrote a song about him called 'Sleepless in South London', which I sent to Francis saying, “What do you think about this?” Francis was very polite about it, and so I cheekily asked: "If I e-mailed you some words could you turn them into songs?" And surprisingly he was up for it. PB: Your songwriting has some similarities with your painting. It is often very funny and involves a lot of collaboration. Do you see the principle of songwriting as being the same as your painting, just the way in which you have chosen to express yourself as being different? HP: Someone once told me they thought the best collaborations are when the end result is a million miles away from where either person could have got to on their own. The Godard song was a bit like that. I think it was interesting for Francis to sing from the perspective of a Godard fan. And I was stunned when I first heard the track because, in my head, I heard it as a fast-paced song and Francis sings it in a really touching and sincere manner. I was very big fan of Monty Python when I was younger. The line “clever people like me” comes from a Python sketch where John Cleese is an arrogant theatre critic, and he says, “But clever people like me who talk loudly in restaurants...” Most of the singers I like (e.g. Ray Davies, Ian Dury, John Lennon, Jerry Dammers, Edwyn Collins, Johnny Cash, Lou Reed, Morrissey) often use jokes in their work. There are things that have happened to me that I could tell you about in a very serious way and kind of beg sympathy or pity from you. And on another day, I could just tweak what I was saying slightly, and make it a funny anecdote about how life is unfair and probably make you laugh. If you were to analyze 'Fast Show' sketches by Paul Whitehouse you’d see the message contained in his material is pretty much – life is pain and we all fail and we’re all miserable etc. Horace Walpole once said, “This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel" PB: You didn't turn to songwriting until you were forty. You suggest on your website that you possibly started songwriting because it became an inevitable time for reflection. While you had been to art college, you didn't start painting until you were thirty. Do you think with hindsight that you were spurned into doing something then as well because it was another reflective period? HP: When children go to Primary School they tend to do a bit of singing in the morning, play football at break-time, write a poem or a story, then have lunch, do a painting in the afternoon, play kiss chase or have a fight. The question really is maybe - why do some children carry on and do these childish things in public? I think it’s to do with things like confidence, encouragement and opportunity. But also, I guess when you hit thirty and forty and maybe one of your parents has died, you are more likely going to think things like, "What is it I want to do with my life?" When I left art school, I was 22 and I’m not sure I had all that much to talk about. I think it’s easier now as there are more experiences to draw from. My friend Julian Wakeling is a photographer who does a bit of re-mixing and Djing. He has all his equipment in his flat so by hanging round with him an opportunity arose to attempt to record something and then one thing led to another. PB: Francis, you and Harry only met last year, initially on email and when he came to you advice with his lyrics? What was the appeal to you of working with him instead of, say, the "professional" musicians that you have largely been involved with in the past? FM: The first set of lyrics that Harry sent me - for a song called 'Amarcord' - suggested a melody and music very quickly. I suppose they rang true and they scanned and I was able to spark off of them. I think I sent a demo of the song back within thrity mins after receiving the email. Harry's reaction was very positive and sometimes that is all you need in order to get a bit of momentum going: a bit of positivity and encouragement. I like Harry's lyrics because in the first instance they stand alone - they don't sound like filler for a melody. Harry's lyrics are more interesting to me than those of many "professionals". Sometimes I think his words are better than he realises. He'll go to change something and I'll say, "No it's fine, it's great!" PB: How does the songwriting in the band work? Does Harry provide the lyrics and Francis the tunes? FM: In general Harry sends me lyrics and I sit with my guitar or piano and see if an idea suggests itself. We are able to communicate very well. If we don't like each other's suggestions we are able to deal with that. There is no pussyfooting and no strops. It is very refreshing. PB: You're both very busy people. Francis, you're back with the Teenage Fanclub and both the Vaselines and Camera Obscura whom you manage are quite active at the moment, Harry, as well as doing your own band management you are involved in both organizing art exhibitions for other people and still do a lot of painting. You both also live 400 miles apart, one of you in Glasgow and one in London. How easy has it been to find the time to write songs and work together? FM: I need to make the time. I do different things - all related to music - which pull me in different directions and take up different head space. Most recently I've had management stuff to do with Camera Obscura and the Vaselines plus a music for a BBC documentary plus writing and recording an album of piano and string quartet music. Usually the songs with Harry come quickly, once I put my mind to it. I read an interview with Randy Newman where he said something to the effect that he knows if he gets into the room with the piano he will get some work done, but he is great at putting it off, grazing in the kitchen, finding distractions. I can relate to that. I have ideas I need to work on for Harry but sometimes there are not enough hours in the day. Oh well - some things are worth waiting for! HP: I wrote the lyrics to 'I Love Mike Love' in bed first thing in the morning. I seem to remember a large chunk of 'I Feel like a Record” was written on the margins of a newspaper while I was on going home on a night bus. When I paint I have to be in the zone a bit more and I need space and to not have to many distractions etc, but I can write lyrics anytime, anywhere. PB: 'Sympathy for Jean-Luc Godard' makes references to Godard's 60's films 'Bande a Part', 'Alphaville' and 'Weekend'. Godard made about a dozen films during that period, many of which are equal classics. Why did you decide to focus on those rather than, say, 'Breathless' or 'Vivre Sa Vie' or even 'One Plus One/Sympathy for the Devil'? HP: I bought my friend a book called 'Godard on Godard', but it turned out he had a copy already. My memory is a bit hazy, but I think I only used the titles of films mentioned in that unwanted book or that were featured in a DVD box set I had. I love 'Breathless', and I think I wrote a verse about it but got rid of it. I honestly can’t remember why. Dan Connor, who is in charge of our website played the track to a musician friend of his, and it turned out that guy is pals with Godard’s nephew. The nephew really liked our song and was amused by the drawings. I don’t know if Mr Godard has heard our tribute yet. PB: The video for 'Sympathy for Jean-Luc Godard' is breathtaking. It must have taken you both days to draw the postcards for it. Harry, you have made films since you were ten. Why did you decide hand over the direction of the video to Gordon Beswick? HP: I started making Super 8 cine films when I was very young. A friend and I would make remakes of the films we liked such as 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'. When I went to art school, I filmed crits with my tutors and interviewed other students on the course. I like what Peter Cook said about 'Derek and Clive Get the Horn', which is that it was a good record of his relationship with Dudley Moore. It was what Andy Warhol would call “a Movie Portrait”. So, although I’d filmed bits and bobs over the years I know absolutely nothing about how to direct a film. Gordon Beswick is a superb camera man, editor and director, so we were very lucky he was up for helping us out. I loved drawing on the postcards. That’s my idea of fun. FM: “Harry said, "We need to do lots of postcards, drawings of Godard; scenes from his films." I said, "Harry - I'm not an artist", but again he was so encouraging and I ended up really getting into it and feeling quite proud of a couple of my pictures. But Harry did the lion's share - maybe 70% of them. Most people who have seen the video seem to really like it. It's a pretty long song but I think Harry's idea of the postcards keeps it visually interesting.” PB: You express in the song a dislike for the films of Guy Ritchie, David Cronenberg and Oliver Stone and through the postcards in the video show quite an extensive knowledge of all of their work. What is it about them that you find unappealing? HP: The song came about because a friend was genuinely knocked out by Godard’s film 'Weekend'. He bought several copies of the DVD and he gave one to a mutual friend when it was their birthday. He was saying things like – “I think this is the best film that’s ever been made” And it reminded me of experiences I’d had in the past when I’d really wanted to find someone who would feel the same way I did about a book or record. I don’t have a problem with the parables told by Jesus of Nazareth but it’s a drag when someone knocks on my door and tries to get me to read 'The Watch Tower'. I guess many of us have the need in us to say “You must read this book. It’s the best book there’s ever been.” Or, “You have to listen to this CD at night, on your own with headphones on” etc. Anyway, many years ago I won a competition in 'The NME' and got free tickets to see a premiere of 'The Doors' by Oliver Stone. It was bloody awful. As Dennis Leary would later quip, “We don’t need a 3 hour film about Jim Morrison. You can tell his story in 3 minutes: I’m drunk, I’m nobody, I’m drunk, I’m famous, I’m drunk, I’m dead.” The narrator of the song is saying – forget about everyone else, only Godard films are worth watching. So, from my point of view, the song is about me and a tendency I have to get evangelical about films. But, obviously this song is out there and like any other song, you can interpret it any way you like. PB: The video and song for 'Sympathy for Jean-Luc Godard' were premiered at a Copenhagen gallery called 'This is Our Art, This is Our Music', which also premiered work from Kim Gordon, Alan Vega and Daniel Johnston. What kind of exhibition was this? Was it well received? HP: It was very well attended and got lots of press in all the art mags and newspapers. I think David was glad he did the show and we were delighted to be included in a show with legends like Robert Crumb, Sonic Youth, Faust, David Byrne and Daniel Johnston. PB: 'Sometimes I Feel Like a Record That's Been Scratched' starts and closes with an excerpt from the film 'Brighton Rock' in which the boy gangster Pinkie leaves a recording to his young wife Rose. Why did you decide to add that? HP: There’s an angry Elvis Costello song called 'All the Rage' that features the line “Don’t try and read my mind. It’s darker than you think”. And in the film 'Hallam Foe' there’s a bit where the central character is told, “Look, somedays I like this, somedays I like that, my shit stinks,” and basically we threw the 'Brighton Rock' bit into the mix as a way of underlining the song’s message which is – I’m damaged goods and I keep going round in circles – that’s how it is. I’ve always been a fan of 'Brighton Rock', a great film. I met Dickie Attenborough who played Pinkie once. His eyesight had gone and he thought I was someone else so he walked up to me saying something like, “Darling boy, how the devil are you?” and I said, “Oh, I’m very well, thanks for asking,” and shook his hand. And then the person he’d been waiting for arrived and so I just walked off. FM: The 'Brighton Rock' thing was Harry's idea but I liked it. I like the circular, stuck-in-a-groove feeling of this song - it's shot through the words, the melody, the Spartan guitar riff. And the music would never have been written without Harry sending me the words. The beauty of collaboration. I wanted to like 'Brighton Rock' more than I did. Don't tell Harry. PB: It is a much more abrasive song than 'Sympathy'. It has the line of "I feel old and out of touch/I have been drinking too much/I have been thinking too much," and captures all that that claustrophobic tension when you are picking away at yourself. Was that song about becoming forty? Harry: Well, I do think I think too much and I probably drink too much too. But it’s brilliant to booze sometimes. In my opinion, alcohol exaggerates the mood you’re in so if you’re celebrating with friends – booze away but if you’re feeling sad and you’re on your own the booze will make things worse. Hangovers get less charming as you get older. PB: Mike Love from the Beach Boys have been given a hard time in the press in recent years, and didn't come out of the Beach Boys 50th reunion tour especially well. Yet you both claim that 'We Love Mike Love'. Do you see Mike Love as being a much maligned figure? HP: I love the Beach Boys and Mike’s contribution to the band was vital. Billy Connolly used to say: “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes. After that, who cares? He's a mile away and you've got his shoes. I was in bed asleep when a shelf collapsed on me. Various books fell on me and I was hit on the head by a Beach Boys CD. I was annoye,d but as I was putting the CD back in the plastic case I noticed there was an address for a Mike Love fan club. I laughed to myself thinking – I like it, a club for people who love Mike Love. And then it occurred to me what if the fan club contacted you to say they needed help with enlisting members? What could you say about Mike Love. So the whole thing was just me amusing myself. FM: Mike Love was much maligned for being against Brian Wilson's more creative, experimental stuff later in the 60s. But a pal of mine , the US musician Ben Vaughn, once pointed out to me that it was pretty understandable that Mike took that position at the time; he thought they were about to rip up the formula that had been working. Maybe if any of us had been in his position it would have tested our nerve. That said I'm glad Brian followed his vision. I know nothing about Mike Love as a person but he co-wrote lyrics on some great songs. I think this song is a good example of the protagonist or narrator of a song not necessarily being the same person as the singer, performer or writer... PB: You have now written five songs together. What do you plan to do with them? Will there be an EP or eventually an album? HP: The future is unwritten. FM: The future IS written - we're going to do an album! PB: Thank you. More information can be found at http://www.francismacdonaldandharrypye.com

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