Incendiary sit down for one last time with Tom McRae

Tour. Be as good as you can, night after night. Try your hardest. Work hard at it. Honour the fact that people are paying to come and see you.

Sometimes everything just aligns in a way that you can’t argue with. Incendiary has always run on a kind of alchemical formula none of us can understand. Also, I should tell you quite clearly that I don’t want to understand it and really, we shouldn’t try to. Whichever spirit of the ether brought us together has looked after us and protected us for the past fourteen years and for that I am incredibly thankful. Finding the right moment to end this adventure has been tricky for us. We’ve been looking for it for a while now but, as always with Incendiary, we can’t really plan these things. They just happen. It’s been our way.

Last weekend’s Subroutine Festival in Groningen brought my co-editor Richard’s adventure full circle in many ways – and highlights exactly why his voice in particular has been so important. Please, if you haven’t already, read that wonderful review. I can’t think of a more fitting way for him to sign off.

And where does that leave me? Well, one week later and I’m on a train to Brussels with friends, heading for a concert at the Ancienne Belgique, one of my all-time favourite venues. I’m armed with tickets I purchased some time ago in another spur-of-the-moment decision. No plan, as usual. I’m headed to see Tom McRae, a man whom I’ve written about repeatedly over the years. In fact, I’ve been banging on about him to anyone who would listen – and many who wouldn’t – since Incendiary was in its infancy. And as it happens, the writer who’s accompanying me, Simon, wrote a review for one of Tom’s albums that still ranks as one of my favourite pieces we’ve ever published. Full circle, once again.

And so here we go; once more around the block.

I meet Tom at the venue but quickly we’re off in search of a long lost guitar and find ourselves in a delightful art-deco cocktail bar, L’Archiduc. The measures are astonishing, let me tell you. Check this place out if you’re ever in town. We take a seat in one corner and just start chatting. As usual with me, there’s no pre-designed list of questions. Just let it happen. Same as it ever was. Tom sips on a gin and tonic, talking quietly to protect an already tour-ravaged voice and I make my way through a bourbon and coke strong enough to fell an ox.

Damian: I’ve been looking back this week at the stuff I’ve written about you, ever since that first night I saw you in the Melkweg, with Jesse Malin.

Tom: Oh God, yeah.

Damian: And the night after was in Katwijk, which is a gig I had to hitch-hike home from. I tell you, getting into Katwijk can be difficult enough but getting home was another matter entirely. And reading that and listening to all your records again, without wanting to sound in any way nostalgic, it seems, to me at least, that there’s been three distinct phases to your career.

Tom: Ok?

Damian: Well at first I thought you could split them into more sections, simply by the locations in which they were recorded. The LA record, the New York record etc. but actually I think, for me, they distil down to three main areas. The first is those first two albums, with you being on a major label and just doing your thing but very quickly realising that it maybe wasn’t all they’d promised it to be. The next few albums are you essentially trying to find your feet once again and trying to play the game somewhat, but still trying to do it your way.  Then, from Alphabet of Hurricanes onwards it just feels like you’ve totally gone in your own direction and, with an almost blinkered view just really made the records that you wanted to make.

So for me, Alphabet of Hurricanes feels like a really important turning point for you. I think you were promoting that record the last time we spoke,

Tom: Yeah, probably.

Damian: And am I right in thinking that these last two albums have actually been recorded in the same place?

Tom: Well, essentially yes. When I moved out of London and I left Cooking Vinyl, which put out Alphabet of Hurricanes, I moved to Somerset where I had my own studio. I made the two albums in the same place, although I recorded chunks of them in Wales, essentially it was all put together in my studio. So yeah, that’s probably accurate.

Damian: So is this you finally settled in one location now?

Tom: No, no we’ve moved already. (we both laugh) We were there for five years. Loved it. But now we’ve moved to a little place in Wiltshire and we’re also in the process of looking to move to France. We get restless.

Location does affect the records but I think, more than anything, I’m still finding my way. I’m still making it up. I’ve been off record labels now for…five years. And although I now license and distribute through labels I do everything myself. I don’t go to them for money. I control everything I write. I record exactly how I want and I think I’ve finally got the set of skills I need to make the sort of records I want to make, without involving other people. Or making compromises. Or watering it down. And now I have zero commercial expectations placed on me because I have zero commercial expectations. And now the labels aren’t saying, “Ok, so now you have to do a radio song” or you have to do this kind of song or whatever. Now I feel freer and more technically capable of making a record. And whether it’s a good record or a bad record, ultimately, that’s down to different forces but technically, and in regards to the recording process, I’m finally at a place where I can control 99% of a record.

Damian: Well that suits you because I think that, in many ways, I see your career as a textbook example of how to succeed by true obstinance.

Tom: Oh for sure.

Damian: I’ve always admired the way you’ve seemed to stick to your guns and, even when you were under pressure, for whatever reason, to never really give in to that pressure, or give up your ideals in many ways. And that’s again why I think, after King of Cards, there’s a real turning point for you, which leads into Alphabet of Hurricanes. Not that King of Cards is a bad album.

Tom: Be honest, it’s absolutely fine.

Damian: I am being honest! I remember you telling me a few years ago that you didn’t really like it and I rebuked you for it. It is a good album.

Tom: I think there’s some good songs on it, but I don’t like it.

Damian: So with that record were you listening to other people too much?

Tom: It wasn’t that. I’m not just going to lay the blame at other people’s door. Because it was my choice and I’m the author of my own mistakes as well. I don’t mind that. It was very, very clear at that turning point that… I’d been on Sony for three records and this was the first record for my post Sony career. It was on V2 so it was still a big label, or big enough, and they weren’t completely draconian but they wanted an album that would sell and I wanted an album that would sell because I saw, very clearly, the way things were going to shake down… The internet was already affecting sales. You had to get airplay to get an audience and you had to have a big enough audience in order to survive and sustain…So I thought, this is my one window to try and do something that’s commercial. And it was blatant and I didn’t think of it in terms of, “I will make something bad.” I thought I’ll try and make something good but it’ll be the more accessible bits of what I do, smoothed around the edges or whatever. I tried to do that and I tried to do it honourably. I wrote stuff that I think are some good songs and I’m still proud of some of those songs but, looking back, I didn’t even go all the way. If I’d wanted to do that I should have gone the whole hog and I didn’t. I even compromised on that because I was too cowardly to let go of the thing that I truly want to do, which is just chase this thing to its end point. And I don’t know what that end point will be. I just want to make the sort of music that I love listening to and I’ve never listened to commercial radio. I’ve never listened to and fallen in love with commercial albums. (laughs) So I chased that rabbit down a hole and after that I thought, “I’m done. I will just purely do exactly what I want to do from now on and live or die by it.”

Damian: Well you can see that very clearly put into action with Alphabet of Hurricanes because there you run into something like Peace, which pretty much holds itself together in ways I can’t quite understand. It feels like you’ve just locked yourself in a room and made things up on the spot and even for that way of recording, I don’t think you’d have been able to do that if you were still playing the game the way the labels expect you to play it. And it’s a joyous song.

Tom: And that was a pop song! I mean,Please…A year or two years earlier I’d have either done it massively different or not have done it at all. I just thought, it’s a great melody and I’m going to do it and do it in this way. And, you know, everybody needs an uptempo song live.

But honestly, every day I’m making it up as I go along and every year I kind of go, “Oh, I have to do something different.”

Damian: That’s what we all do. It doesn’t matter what you’re aiming for, what happens on the road is always more interesting than whatever destination you had in mind originally.

Tom: Yeah, you have to embrace the chaos.

Damian: I mean, look at Did I Sleep And Miss The Border? (Tom’s latest album) and that first track (The High Life) which puts a big smile on my face because, first of all, where’s that voice come from? You’re singing in a way that’s almost theatrical – and I don’t mean that negatively – but it’s a real change for you.

Tom: Yes it is, absolutely and I wouldn’t have been able to do that earlier…

Damian: You can tell that you’ve really just decided to let loose, and have the confidence to do that.

Tom: When I was younger and, bearing in mind that in terms of the business I’ve never really been younger because I didn’t get my first deal until I was twenty nine. I was obsessed by this notion of authenticity. You had to have the experience. You had to be that person. You had to wear the clothes onstage that you wore during the day or otherwise it wasn’t real. That, somehow was the truth, (laughs) and the older I’ve got… none of that matters.

It’s true because it’s right and it’s real and you feel it and you believe it. If you want to sing in a voice, sing in a voice. If you want to put on a suit onstage but walk round in jeans and trainers like I am now then do it. And that’s not hypocritical, to me. That’s honouring the fact that there’s performance and there’s artistry and artifice, but that doesn’t make it fake. I looked at my heroes and I thought, “You know, what does Bruce Springsteen know about robbing a bank? And what voice does he sing in from song to song?” The people who are able to tell stories within their songs that you still believe, despite the fact that you think, “You go home at night to you wife and your family and your pigs and your chickens and your kids are in secondary school.” For me, that doesn’t matter to me anymore. If it’s a great song and it speaks to you, then it speaks to you. I finally feel able to, not impersonate, but inhabit a sort of voice or a role or a character.

Damian: Well there’s a lot more character stuff in this record. I mean, you’ve always written character songs anyway, but there are probably more characters, within this record than any of your others. Especially with something like Christmas Eve,1943, which is a prime example. But even something like Hope Against Hope, which I love because you do something there that’s typical of you. You had to put that last line in there, didn’t you! (Tom laughs) You build up this great song, which turns into something quite hopeful and uplifting. I can imagine you all arm in arm on stage, and the crowd singing along happily with you and then you have to throw that last line in, to completely darken the mood again and a lot of people may miss it, because they can get carried away with the la la laaing and whatever but it’s like, “You wouldn’t let it lie, would you?” It just makes me laugh. It’s great.

Tom: Yes, yes.

Damian: So looking at the record, on the one hand I hear the sound of a guy who’s really confident, strong and impassioned and totally focused on what he’s doing. Then, on the flip side of that – and there’s always a duality going on with you – you come out with a piece of merchandise that has a whisky glass with The Last Shot written on it. And lyrically there’s a similar sentiment on occasion too. So where do I find you now? Are you at yet another crossroads or, where’s your head at with all of this?

Tom: I think anyone who’s any good thinks, “This is the last record. This is the last tour. I’m going to quit.” And all my friends, especially all of my contemporaries whoever had varying degrees of success. Even ones that are far more successful than I’ve been, we all have this conversation, which is, “Are you done yet?” Because, really, your future’s kind of mapped out for you in this business. Unless you achieve a massive level of success, which I don’t think is achievable now, for various reasons, because the business is crumbling, the demographics have changed. Nobody can be a Springsteen again. You can’t have people like Johnny Cash any more. If you can’t carry on being at that level then you have to accept that you’re on a glide path down. Now, so long as that glide path down is as joyous as the take off, then it’s great because you’re doing something you love with people that you love. But inevitably, you’re going to hit that point on the X/Y graph where it just gets really hard to just keep it going. And to do it as well as you want to do it. To not compromise the show or compromise the things that make you love what you do. And I don’t want to compromise any of those things.

And, you know, there are times, every year, where I just think, “I can’t do the show I want to do. I can’t make the record I want to do and I can’t give it the oxygen of publicity that I want it to have” and I sulk for a couple of months. But then, once that’s gone by, and the record that I’ve released has been out for about a year then I find myself thinking, “Who am I kidding? Of course I’m going to make another record!” (we both laugh). And then, almost against my will, it starts to come out.

It’s a cliché but it’s not a choice. If it was a sane, rational choice, then I would have quit a while ago. Because it’s not a great way to stay healthy and, to have a pension, but it’s just….I can’t understand the world in any other way.

Damian: Well, I know that you have an audience of sorts, because I see the same people there at the front of every bloody gig you do!

Tom: Yes.

Damian: So I know you’ve got the stalkers there.

Tom: Yes.

Damian: With their bubbleguns.

Tom: Yes.

Damian: And hey, I’ve seen you enough times that I suppose I must be considered part of that group. And the forums are always healthy and active, so that must be really rewarding in some sense,

Tom: Yes, actually, they’re there and having, now, met most of them over the years, they’re…. I hate the term fan, because it’s kind of derogatory after about sixteen. I look at them and feel like they’re this kind of extended family. It’s like we have this annual general meeting. We all get together. (laughs)

Damian: Well what impresses me is that it’s not just support for the sake of it or because of something trendy. It’s not like, Beatlemania or anything, although I know there are certain websites out there that discuss you having fantastical, intimate relationships with others…

Tom: Yes, I’m well aware. (laughs)

Damian: But it must be kind of gratifying because these people have really stuck with you, and for no other reason than they like and admire the work that you do. So what I was wondering was, have you got an audience that will sustain you at a certain level?

Tom: That’s a very good, apposite question. I have an audience that I’m incredibly lucky to have. Which I think I’m probably the last generation of artists making non-commercial music that will have a chance to find a big enough audience to last over a bunch of years. I mean, this is my fifteenth year now.

You know, as we all get older, we can’t go out so much. People have got kids and don’t want to go out so much or people lose certain passions and music is one of those that often drifts by but they stay! My audience keep coming and some of them bring their kids now…they’re old enough to come to shows, which makes me feel old.

But yeah I do, I think I do, and I think part of my whole plan and certainly part of my constant bickering with labels had to do with…I thought that, the thing that’s going to sustain me is a live audience because it’s the one thing that I can control. It was the one thing that no label could interfere with. When, on my second album Just Like Blood, Sony pulled tour support. They said you’re not going to tour anymore, I got two credit cards. Put them down and we toured for basically the rest of the year, with the band…and it worked. It basically cemented the relationship that I’d had from the first record, there was that continuity where people thought, “Ok he was good and he’ll be back and we’ll do it again.” So, for me, that’s been the bedrock. Tour. Be as good as you can, night after night. Try your hardest. Work hard at it. Honour the fact that people are paying to come and see you. You know, that’s not nothing and today? That’s huge!

For me, to be at the point where I can say “I’m not going to tour now but we’ll tour next year. And we’ll tour with the band and we’ll break even, or we’ll make a little loss if we do a big tour. And I can do a solo tour, a string quartet tour or whatever…I can make some money and keep going…. To me, that is an incredible, incredible gift and I feel incredibly lucky but I do think that I’m the last of a generation. I worry that new kids coming up won’t have the investment to expose their music to a big enough audience, to find them, and they won’t be able to afford the constant touring, to find an audience in the way that I could.

Damian: Certainly not at an inter-continental level.

Tom: No.

Damian: For me, I think it’ll just destroy itself but then, something will come out of that and it’ll be different. For the simple reason that music still matters to people. It obviously does or we wouldn’t have found an audience for the magazine because we certainly didn’t promote it heavily. Or at all, for that matter. Whether that audience will ever be the size that it was, probably not but that’s perhaps a good thing as well. It’ll just find its feet somehow and as soon as the marketing departments start to walk away from it, that’s when the fun will start again, because there’ll be a vacuum there that needs filling.

Tom: Yeah and that’s the right way to look at it. To think that, well, everything has it’s time and culturally, music has had its time. As part of the economic cycle. But I’m a big poetry fan and poetry never made money. Even for the heroes of poetry, the Byron’s and your Shelley’s, most of those thin pamphlets were vanity projects. They’ll never make money and, like contemporary poets, there are no rich poets. Yet, everybody loves poetry and it’s an important, cultural part of our lives but it’s not part of the economic cycle and music is just going to be that. And festivals, when all of the big acts die and when the Foo Fighters stop touring and when The Stones are finally gone, there’ll be no bands coming through to take over from Coldplay and Arcade Fire because there won’t be any bands coming through that have had that exposure and so festivals will become this other thing. But people will still care! It’ll still be here but arguably it’ll be better than it has ever been.

Music will survive and every generation is really contrary. I think there’s a reaction from kids, at the moment, who see their middle aged parents enjoying music of a certain type and they’re not into that. So they go a different way. I think the next generation will care less about Facebook, they won’t care about Twitter. They’ll have their own worlds, they’ll be in their own bands and they’ll be doing crazy stuff. And it will be crazy and it’ll be blissful and mind-blowing and brilliant. And their friends will love it! Whether it finds a wider audience is, arguable but that’s not the point. It’s all about the process.

The only danger to music, in terms of its cultural force, is when holding a guitar and standing up in front of a bunch of people stops being sexy. If that happens, it’s game over. But so long as you still have that thing where people want to be that guy, or sleep with that guy or girl then, really, let’s not beat about the bush here that’s one of the main reasons that this thing has kept going for so long. It’s not going anywhere.

Damian: Well I hope that you don’t go anywhere soon.

Tom: I’m not going anywhere and I’m sure you’ll resurface in some manner somewhere down the line.

Damian: Oh I’m sure we’ll crawl out of the woodwork somewhere or other but until then, even if you get up on stage and read the phone book, I’ll be in the crowd watching. Thanks for everything, I really mean that.

Tom: Thank you. Thank you very much, man.

And with that, we drank the rest of our drinks, embraced and said farewell.

The gig, as it happens, was extraordinary. Tom and his Standing Band, as Tom’s long-suffering friends are currently called, played not as if their lives depended on it, but rather that this is what they live for. The alchemy was working once again. A great band with a great singer and songwriter. A great venue and an incredible crowd, respectful and attentive as all AB crowds are. I’d like to thank them all.

 I’ve listened to the song Walk to Hawaii for close to the entire length of Incendiary’s lifetime and as I type this now I’ve still got it circling round in my head. It never gets old. Full circle. Once again.

Finally, I’d like to thank you, my dear Incendiary heads. I certainly know we haven’t agreed on everything over the years – and you’ve told us in no uncertain terms on occasion – but I do hope we’ve entertained you. That’s all we have ever tried to do. Music matters, and will continue to matter so long as people like you keep searching out fellow enthusiasts like us. It’s now our time to hand over the baton. We didn’t plan any of this, we just picked it up one day and ran with it. Now it’s your turn.

Go and run, wherever the need takes you.