Incendiary sit down for a while with Tom McRae

You spend the first five years trying desperately not to fail and fuck up and you spend the rest of your career desperately trying to find ways to fuck up, because that’s where it gets good.

IN: Hi Tom, how are you?

TM: I’m good, very good actually.

IN: Good to hear. Well I must say that I still enjoy following your little rants on the internet. Your blog postings, or whatever you could call them, are one of the few things to keep me consistently entertained so please, keep them up won’t you? And I did enjoy, was it last week? Where you were in Paris and everybody kept mentioning things like, “So, you’ve been going ten years. Why are you still here?” As if it were a surprise.

TM: (laughing) It is.

IN: I was travelling into town today, listening to The Alphabet of Hurricanes. You know, doing my best research and preparation and all that, but then I listened to your previous album, King of Cards and it’s almost as if that’s from a different person, completely.

TM: Yes and after I’d made the album, it was like, “let’s get this out of the way.” With King of Cards, I did approach it differently. I did try to making a slightly poppier record. Which, for me, doesn’t mean that I was trying to become Lady Gaga but I was trying to see if I could do something and do it convincingly. I think there are some really good songs on that record but I don’t think it worked, for me, as being who I really wanted to be.

It was an attempt to do something and I stand by it but this record I was… I was totally free.  I had no record label. I had no time pressure. I had nothing. I had walked away from V2, we’d shaken hands and they’d collapsed as a company. Probably partly to do with me. And I just sat down in my studio and started writing and recording and never have I had that freedom. Never have I had that luxury where, nobody’s waiting for this record. There’s no A&R man to please. There’s no release window that I’ve got to hit. There’s no tour booked. Sit down. Shut up. Do something you like or..don’t do music anymore. It was quite simple.

I started doing it from..this is great! I don’t have to care about anything other than, “Is this a good song? Have I recorded it well? Let’s do it all again tomorrow and the next day. And the next day. And so on. It feels like I’ve finally hit my stride. Personally. Musically. I feel like all the things that I worried about before, all those years have kind of gone now and I can just concentrate on being the version of me that I always kind of was before and now I’ve come back to that really.

IN: Well I’m glad to hear that because I stopped myself from saying earlier that this album feels like it’s a more comfortable album. I don’t mean that as if this is something safe, because it’s not, it’s actually quite a risky album but when I listen to The Alphabet of Hurricanes, it’s makes me think of Just Like Blood because this has the same sense of power behind it. Driving it.

TM: Yeah.

IN: I got the feeling that you’re, well comfortable is not the right word, but perhaps you’re more confident in what you were doing and unafraid of anything.

TM: That’s exactly right.

IN: It made me laugh to think about trying to describe it to a record company person before them hearing it. I mean let’s break it down a little, it starts with a ukulele, then you throw some woodwind instruments over the top and there’s loads of handclaps and possibly one or two ‘poppy’ tracks but that’s it and they’re just gonna turn their noses up and run.

TM: (laughing) Don’t come back. There’s the door. Yeah, well I do feel confident. I know that I can make any amount of mistakes I like and correct them and before, the way I’ve been forced to make records really, is “Ok, that’s the take. That’s the way we’re doing it and onto the next track.” Whereas this was….I recorded the songs tons of times. I would sit up at night doing one little mandolin line or something and then come back the next day and try it again. I knew that, after a while, I could make anything work in the way I wanted to make it work because I’d never been totally in charge of the recording process before. When you realize then that you’re not going to fail. That you can make something and it’ll either be good or it won’t and that I can be in control of that. It did make me feel more confident.

IN: Well you can tell, because there’s nothing on The Alphabet of Hurricanes that feels like it doesn’t belong there. There’s no fat on it and, although you cover some familiar territory…

TM: Of course, yeah. The same old shit.

IN: …it impressed me at how condensed everything is. There’s a clarity to everything. There’s one track on there, American Spirit. I think of that as being the couple who walked to Hawaii (ED: See Just Like Blood for details)are now just hanging around on the beach waiting for the bomb to drop.

TM: That’s genius! I love that.

IN: Well it feels like there’s a familiarity or connection between those songs, which is what I meant by covering familiar ground. Not that you’re repeating yourself but more that you’re delving further into an idea. But then you’ve got Won’t Lie, which feels like something totally new for you. I mean, I can’t imagine you could have written a track like this five or six years ago. It’s a perfect way to waltz into a bit of domestic violence, if nothing else.

TM: Yeah, pretty much.

IN: What I like about the album and how you write songs anyway, is the way that you mix emotions and play with different feelings and emotions within one song. For instance, I know that if I hear something upbeat, then lyrically we’re probably moving into some dark territory.

TM: That’s probably the only that I try and do deliberately because I’m more interested in catching people unawares. I’m not a great believer in intellectualizing lyrics. I know people love Morrissey and I know people love Dylan and, blah blah. And they’re both great but they’re still songwriters and you can’t separate the lyrics from the tunes because then they’d be something different. I like songs that kind of creep up on you. Like Elvis Costello’s. You’ll be listening to a song and singing along and then all of sudden you think, “Oh my God I’m singing about this. I didn’t realize.” For me it kind of stretches the listener, it tests you as a listener and that’s more rewarding. To play with people’s expectations.  It’s too much of a clich├ęd form to give people what they want.

IN: Well some people do put too much stock in that this person is always this, or that. I mean, let’s not forget Dylan wrote Froggy Went A Courtin’.

TM: Exactly.

IN: Well I got the idea that this album was something that you’d made for yourself. Truly, for yourself. It doesn’t matter what happens to it commercially, this is exactly how you want it, because there are songs on here where you can tell you’ve made decisions in them that really were not commercially driven. Please is a prime example of that, because there’s everything in that song that shouldn’t work, and yet it works wonderfully.

TM: Yes, it’s really funny you said that. You’re the first person who’s said it. When I started writing that song I said, “I’m gonna double track the vocals.” ‘Cos double tracked vocals are shit. They’ve never worked for me before and I thought,” I’m gonna try and make that work. I’m gonna try and do it in the way that Elliott Smith did. Oh dear. I didn’t, but it still sounds like that. I’m gonna put handclaps in that sound like Feist, cos she did it really cool. Mine don’t sound cool. Ok, I’m gonna pick banjo in it, that’s gonna make sound like, fucking, The Seeger Sessions or something but it doesn’t. It sounds like a fucking country session or something.

IN: Then we’re gonna put this thump thump drum pattern through it that sounds like some school band or something.

TM: Yes, yes. It’s me! That’s the reason it sounds so shit is it’s me! Doing it in my bedroom and going, “Oh well, I’ll replace this later on.” And then of course, you put everything else into the song and you can’t replace it because it’s like taking the scaffolding away without having built a house! So then I just went with it and there’s not one point in that song where it’s actually in time with anything! (laughs)

IN: But I love it, probably because it feels like it’s hanging together by a thread. I mean, you mentioned the handclaps and, normally, handclaps just feel like an afterthought and totally unnecessary.

TM: Handclaps are terrible aren’t they? They’re like flutes. They don’t belong in music. But I thought, bollocks. Just use it.

IN: Well that’s what’s great about the album as a whole because you can tell you’ve really just attacked it. It gave me a similar impression to when I heard Josh Ritter’s The Animal Years a few years ago, where it felt like somebody had poured everything they had into it, all their energy. Everything is there for a reason. Everything has a place and you’ve put your heart and soul into making something, a work of art so to speak, that really means something to you. Whatever happens, that’s it and it’s always going to be there.

TM: That’s exactly right. And that’s the conversation I had with myself and my wife. I sat down and said, ”I’m not going to do this anymore until I can do something that meets, or comes close to my standards of what I want to do.” I’m not just going to look at music as, “This is what I do, it’s my source of income. It’s my job.” That’s not good enough. I’ve got to make something that is aiming higher and is stretching me and is making me try harder and that’s what this record was about. It’s me applying to carry on. “Am I going to carry on?” And I feel that the answer is completely yes and one or two years ago it wasn’t. I was always on the verge of going, “No. I’ve got to walk away from this because it’s going nowhere.”

IN: Do you think that’s…and I don’t want to say something like ‘life begins at forty’ but do you think that there’s a kind of realization where, after years of doing this, you start to think, “I’ve forgotten what I got into this for?” and then trying to find it again or recreate it? I mean most of your lyrics are about you coming to terms with yourself.

TM: Yeah totally. I have a massive problem with authenticity and ‘is it real?’ Is it real for me and am I doing this for the right reasons? Because if I’m not? Get out of the way because there’s a bunch of good people waiting to come through. It was quite an issue for me to, if I’m going to write about my life, is that going to be worthwhile? Are there still going to be things that I want to hear and that I want to tell other people? I realized that, yeah at forty, there’s a whole bunch of other stuff are going to come up and half of them are trivial but they’re still being alive and I can still put those into songs. That’s like discovering a whole hidden wing in your library at home. “Oh my God, I haven’t read all of this stuff!” That excited me. I don’t have to be a teenager anymore. I’m in a teenage medium, because that’s what pop music is but I’m making stuff that can still kind of interpret my life to me and that was a relief is what it was. “Oh good, that’s still there.”

IN: This is the first time you’ve brought a lot of horns into your work. Are you going to be touring with that kind of set up?

TM: Nope. There’s going to be a band, a six piece band, but unfortunately there isn’t a Bruce Springsteen budget to fund all of this. There will be ways to make this work live and it’s weird when I finish a record because there’s always that moment where I go “Fuck, how am I going to make that work live?”

IN: Well there’s always a way to make that stuff work.

TM: Yeah, and I think an audience appreciates that. They’ll still get it and enjoy it but, yeah, I used everything. The modern world is great for me in that I’ve got a friend in L.A. who I can send a song to. Say, “Can you put a bit of this on?” They can send it back. Send it to another friend in New York who puts the strings on it and suddenly, you can do all these things.

IN: Well that’s the beauty of the artifice of it, that nowadays you don’t need to be in the same room to achieve something.

TM: No, there’s a phone line. All it takes is two minutes for me to listen to it and say, “Can you try this? Can you do that?” It’s a great process. I love it.

IN: Will you still have the two Olly’s with you?

TM: The two Olly’s will be there.

IN: Well just throw half the horns stuff over to Olly Kraus and say, “Make that work!”

TM: And you could man. You could tell him to do anything and he’s a genius, he would make it work. They are both, I have to say, my brothers in arms. The safest pair of hands you could ever ask for.

IN: Well I couldn’t imagine you with anybody else.

TM: Well I wouldn’t want to do it. I like touring with friends and, you know, I have the same crew I’ve  had for years. I have the same front of house guy who does my sound. They’re, for me, I’ve deliberately tried to make this a family and I’ve done stuff with other people and I still tour solo and in other guises but it’s never as much fun as it is with these guys.

IN: Well you can tell that there’s not just a mutual respect for each other, but there’s a real trust and camaraderie between you, simply from the way that – and I’ve seen you play a number of times – but just in the way that you’re quite prepared to let Olly, on cello, can kind of mess around..

TM: Totally.

IN: …and come up with something off the cuff. That kind of thing you only get when you’ve played with each other for a long period of time, because that trust is there.

TM: Exactly. It’s a conversation. You’re looking to have someone say something back to you. On stage, that’s the chance I get to do something different. To let him (Olly Kraus) or Olly Cunningham play something and sometimes it doesn’t work but when it does? That’s the bit for me that I’ll come away from that gig going, “Oh my God, Olly did that thing!” And the audience likes that. As a fan, I like that. When I go to a gig I enjoy it when I hear someone stretching something slightly or you’re looking at them thinking, “What are you going to do next?”

IN: There’s nothing worse than watching a band just going through the motions. I mean, you can still have a good night and everything, but there’s nothing memorable about that.

TM: Totally. It’s got to be a bit of a live wire act. You’ve got to be able to walk along this thing and be prepared to try something. You spend the first five years trying desperately not to fail and fuck up and you spend the rest of your career desperately trying to find ways to fuck up, because that’s where it gets good. There’s nothing you can’t rescue in a gig. The whole P.A. can go down. I can save that gig. Everything can fuck up. Everything can go down and that will make it special. And the minute you realize that you go, “Oh, it’s ok.”

IN: So are you still based in New York?

TM: No, I moved back to London because I needed to get on with doing some work and put in some long hours but now I think the next step is to get out of London. I’ve sold my house and we’re going to move……somewhere. I don’t know where, but I’m going to build a studio somewhere.

IN: Well you are an avid traveler aren’t you?

TM: I’m just a bit, restless. I’m always looking for something else to be inspired by. Maybe Amsterdam?

IN: Well we’d be glad to have you, if you do.