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Escape Velocity

Camus, Coke & Hookers: Meursault Interviewed
Thom Ward , September 7th, 2010 07:44

Thomas A. Ward talks to Meursault's Neil Pennycook about recording in living rooms, major labels and the exaggerated demise of the local music scene

Following the critical acclaim that their debut album Pissing On Bonfires/Kissing With Tongues received, Edinburgh's Meursault, pronounced 'Merr-soo', return with All Creatures Will Make Merry to keep beard-stroking hacks well-groomed over the summer months.

Touted as one of Scotland's most promising new acts, the applause and support that they have garnered on a local level is set to break beyond their national borders; and in the album's wake, the hearts of those that stumble across their ruminating lo-fi sound will be filled to bursting as a result of their anti-folk-cum-electronic experimentation.

The Quietus catches up with Neil Pennycook to discuss how his once solo outlet has slowly evolved and coalesced into a settled sextet, what it means for a musician to be emancipated from the trials and tribulations of a major record label, and if the local music scene is dead in the light of the internet.

How did Meursault come to fruition?

Neil Pennycook: It was just a solo project to begin with – me sitting in a room playing with guitars and drum machines – and then Fraser [Calder] joined as a result of helping me with my first recordings. The other guys just kind of joined in one at a time over the next couple of years, from a mixture of old acquaintances and friends from other bands.

You decided to name the band after the protagonist in Albert Camus' The Stranger. Why? Do you or your music bare any representation of his character?

NP: It was more to do with the typography of the word itself and the sound of it than anything else, although I read the book literally once a month at art college. Any resemblance really is just accidental.

What were your initial influences into getting into music and writing your own?

NP: At the end of the school year I was playing a lot of basketball, but I hurt my leg and they told me not to play for at least six months, so I ended up playing guitar instead. At that point I wasn't really into music, so I hadn't given much thought to what songs I even liked and just started playing my own songs instead.

Your debut Pissing On Bonfires/Kissing With Tongues was originally a self-released project. Why did you decide to sign to Song, By Toad records?

NP: The first time Matthew [Young - Song, By Toad records] even spoke to us was at our album launch. He came to quite a few gigs and invited us to record a Song, By Toad Session, and we knew he was starting up a record label so it just kind of made sense. We didn't really do any PR at all for the self-release, and even though none of us really knew what we were doing (including the label at this point), it just seemed worth giving it a bit of a push out to shops and journalists and seeing if it stuck.

What were your influences in writing and recording that album? What are the songs unveiling as their themes?

NP: I was listening to stuff like early Bright Eyes, Neutral Milk Hotel, Daniel Johnston at the time. But when I'm writing songs I don't really reference things as I'm writing, it just kind of seeps in somehow. It's also a break up album, but not purely in the romantic sense - more about discarding old habits.

Meursault really feels and sounds like it has become a new kind of animal from listening to your latest record All Creatures Will Make Merry: Bigger, bolder, more fully formed. Why do you feel this is so? I understand the band was finally formed as of last year from a collective of Edinburgh musicians? Was it more of a band effort in producing the final outcome?

NP: With the exception of about two parts, the first album was recorded by myself using a SM58 and a MacBook. The band only began to form when I started to try and play the songs live, but even then it wasn't really an album yet – just a collection of about twenty songs I had recorded.

For All Creatures Will Make Merry I was writing parts specifically for people, but only a few of the songs were actually developed with the band in the traditional sense. Some of the guys didn't even hear some of the songs from the new album until it was finished, but it was still an intentional step towards more of a band dynamic, which I hope to explore more in the future.

What are the influences behind the new album? Listening to the record I find that there is a great deal of happiness in songs that resolve in an aural sadness – the album, for me, hits upon great amount of contentment as an equilibrium.

NP: It's kind of hard to expand on this because that sums it up quite well. It is an album about happiness, but not just about 'being happy'.

What was your recording environment for the new album?

NP: Everything but 'A Fair Exchange' was recorded in the living room of Kate and Matthew's house, who run the label. It is a room I've done a lot of recording in and I knew the sound and felt pretty comfortable working there. Also, there was no time pressure, and sometimes they fed me.

Why did you decide to produce the album yourself? How do you bring shape and form to your songs?

NP: I've never differentiated between writing and recording a song because I've always done it at the same time. It's as important to how it sounds as how you play your instruments, and I can't imagine handing something like that over to someone else. It's important to know when to stop. It's not like you hear the song exactly as you imagined it in your head – you work on it until you know that it's finished.

Folktronica, Ukulelectronica, whateveronica. Must make you laugh, right? I think the music press finds great comfort in being able to stick someone in a box and label it. How would you describe your music?

NP: Epic lo-fi. It's an entirely meaningless term, but it sounds about right.

How does the album relate to the live setting? I've seen a few videos of you on YouTube and you seem quite happy stripping your sound back to its ramshackled, folksy roots.

NP: I don't feel it has to relate to the live setting. The recorded versions of the songs are not definitive – you can play them with the full six-piece or just on a banjo. You record these songs, but then you can play them for years afterwards so they are bound to change. And apart from that it would be boring, not for just the band, but for everyone.

Is folk music evolving or are you just happy to fuck around with it? When did you decide that this was the direction that you want to take with your music?

NP: It don't really think of it as folk music. I did listen to a lot of traditional Scottish folk, but then I listened to a lot of heavy metal as well. It depends on what you think of as folk music, because I think a lot of music counts as folk music, anything that is basically storytelling and has a narrative. You can write a folk song on anything, it doesn't have to bear any relation to traditional instruments or melodies.

This will be your second critically acclaimed album in as many years, yet you still seem happy avoiding big labels and the A&R machine. Why is that? Do you still see music as a grass-roots thing? What are your ambitions for the band and as an artist?

NP: I'm more comfortable working at my own pace and with people that we know and trust. My only ambition for the band is to continue to progress. I want to make each album and each show better than the last one.

What's your relationship with Bear Scotland Presents?

NP: Bear Scotland is a group of friends from Edinburgh who all admire one another's music. We just hope that the wee daft bear logo can lead people from one band to the next, so any success for one of us might help out the others in some way.

The Guardian Music Section [http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/jun/10/local-music-scenes-internet] recently claimed that the local music scene is dead in light of the internet. But Edinburgh seems to burgeoning at the belly with local influences, artists and labels. Why do you think this is? Are local scenes dead?

NP: That tells you more about the writers pre-conceptions than it does about anything bearing any resemblance to reality. Almost the entire statement seems completely wrong to me. We see community-based music and local music scenes all over the country in better shape than they've ever been. The benefit of the global audience is that it allows all these small, potentially isolated communities to work together and support each other. But it certainly doesn't damage local music communities at all, at least not judging by anything I've experienced.

What does music mean to you in two words? I've always thought of it as tension and release, which is what I feel a great deal of in your new record.

NP: Coke and hookers.

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Meursault embark on a UK tour this October and November, when they play the following shows:

_October 25 The Caves, Edinburgh_

October 26 Head Of Steam, Newcastle

October 27 The Harley, Sheffield

October 28 Royal Park Cellars, Leeds

October 30 The Luminaire, London

October 31 The Playhouse Bar, Norwich (Free Entry)

November 2 Star & Garter, Manchester

November 3 Stereo

November 4 Dexter's, Dundee

November 5 Beach Ballroom, Aberdeen

November 6 Stero, Glasgow

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