Incendiary interview Tom McRae – part one

I’ve been mugged before, but never at gun point. So that was interesting.

I’ve been mugged before, but never at gun point. So that was interesting.


Incendiary: Hi Tom, it’s nice to see you.


Tom McRae: Hi.


IN: I caught the gig the other night in Utrecht, which went very well I thought.


TM: Thanks.


IN: But I’ve just heard that you had a little trouble afterwards.


TM: Well it was fine, really. We were just drunken musicians on the way back from a venue at four in the morning. And, you know, you take a wrong turn down a wrong alleyway and that sort of thing happens. And you know, I’ve been mugged before, but never at gun point. So that was interesting. No one was hurt, everybody handed over their money, ’cause it’s only fucking money. It’s not worth dying for. Then we all walked away and got even more drunk, so it was fine.


IN: Well I’m glad to hear you’re alright. It’s not often you hear those kind of stories around here.


TM: Well no I was mugged before, in Amsterdam. And that was my fault too. I suppose you just need to be sensible wherever you are and it hasn’t changed my opinion of the place ’cause I love coming here and Holland is just beautiful.


IN: Well I’ve been a big follower of yours, and I must say that I do like reading your rants on the internet. What I do see in you though, is a strange kind of duality. On one side there’s the angry, venting person who writes those long rants and comes up with some dark and bitter lyrics, but then that’s completely counteracted with the quite jovial, cheerful person on stage. I suppose it just makes you quite normal in a sense, but it’s refreshing to see a performing artist with, what seems to be, very little pretense around them.


TM: I had to think about that very hard when I started, because who you are when you start is who you remain. Once you’re written about by a bunch of people then that’s the story forever. And I was in real danger of being the tortured, dark, deep poet and I knew that that would  be a straight jacket for me. It wouldn’t allow me to grow up and to change and to do other things. Also, if you do have a construct and a personality and a persona that you choose that isn’t really you, it is incredibly tiring. You know, I don’t mind it being pretense because basically art is pretense anyway, but I do think that, for me, I need to feel that it’s real. I need to be real in those situations otherwise it doesn’t connect with me. I don’t put on the shirt that I wear on stage and become Tom McRae, I go on stage with the same bad mood I’ve had all day. I just do it. It saves on energy and it just allows me to be free.


IN: I think your music, or your work in a sense, has a kind of duality to it as well though. A lot of your rants online have a political slant on them and some of that appears in your lyrics at times, but underneath it all there’s this sense of….well, menace isn’t the right word, but this kind of grumbling. (Tom laughs) But then you place that next to some of the most beautiful, and I mean really beautiful and lush music next to it and the way you play with those two opposing forces I think is what hooks me. I wonder how much of that grumbling comes from the fact that, isn’t it right that your Father was a vicar or something?


TM: Yes, that’s right. And my mother in fact.


IN: I wondered how much that kind of spiritual upbringing, when compared to the world you see around you, has resulted in a kind of conflict.


TM: Well, we’re all the product of our childhood and our upbringing and you can’t get away from it. But also, it’s all that you know. So if all you have is an incredibly strict, religious upbringing then that’s how you see the world. But, the things that I got from it, both good and bad. In fact, not bad, not bad at all. I was brought up with the idea that there is a mystery and a magic and a beauty to the universe and my parents happen to call it God. And that’s fine. I was brought up to go to big buildings and sing my heart out and that was a good thing. To be part of the pageantry and  ritual and to be involved, and to see my parents being involved in communities and to be in situations where they were trying  to make changes, even small changes to people’s lives. Those were great things.


To put another positive spin on it, the other great thing it gave me was a fucking huge thing to rebel against. It gave me a massive, massive thing  that I knew I had to throw off and reject. From the age of eleven or twelve I just thought, "This is clearly fucking ridiculous." I’d read the theology books in the study and I’d read the Bible countless times and I thought, "Well, these are all great stories, but for fucks sake people come on. This is nuts." So I rebelled against it and left it behind and now I’m free of any sort of religious traces. It’s allowed myself to be myself completely, to own myself and my position in the world completely and that’s a gift. That’s lucky. I was filled with a certain amount of anger and rage because of it, but that became fuel for the fire, sort of, later in life.


IN: I can understand that because I was brought up as a Catholic. My mother’s a strict Catholic, although she named me Damian and chose Judas as my confirmation name.


TM: Wow.


IN: Head altar boy till I was eighteen, believe it or not, but then as soon as I went to Uni it was like, "Ok, that’s enough." But there’s a thing that the comedian Dara O Briain says, where he goes, "I don’t believe in God at all. Not a religious person in the slightest. Still Catholic." And no matter what you do, you can’t get away from it can you?


TM: No.


IN: Now, I don’t want to go down a big theological discussion road with you, but I wondered if all that gave you the sense of the power that music had?


TM: Absolutely. One hundred percent. I mean, I didn’t have any pop music in the house. My parents didn’t listen to any modern music. My sister’s did, but, really, they had a Simon and Garfunkel record and a Bob Dylan record. That was my choice from my parents record collection. But I would go to church and I would sing the hymns. I would walk down the aisle singing Once In Royal David’s City and I’d be thinking, "These are banging tunes. These are fucking great." And that emotion of singing loud and singing with other people and have them harmonise with you. That’s spiritual! You don’t need God for that. Tribes have been doing that since people could make noise. And clearly, that was my first experience of music.


Interview : Damian Leslie


Click here to go to part two.