Stories From The City Of Sadness: Millimetre Interviewed
, November 2nd, 2010 10:30
John Freeman talks to Terence McGaughey about his new album, a difficult upbringing and the loneliness of Londoners.
Millimetre is Terence McGaughey, a London-based singer-songwriter, whose courageous fourth album 13 Homes explores the subjects of exile and alienation. Through hymnal electronica, far-off beats and uneasy lyrical imagery, McGaughey’s latest work is a challenging and hugely rewarding listen. A bit like the man himself.
To spend a lunchtime with McGaughey is to experience a whirlwind of opinion, charm, passive-aggressive vitriol and some unprintable thoughts on Patrick Wolf. Whether it’s a withering character assassination of the current gay scene in London, or his objections to Morrissey’s latest ramblings, or his love of Kristin Hersh, McGaughey is articulate, passionate and warm. He admits to shyness, but proceeds to survey his life in unflinching honesty - over a butternut squash bake.
Born in the rural town of Fintona, County Tyrone, McGaughey escaped to Belfast (“I had to get out - I would have ended up dead”), and became a significant character in the city’s fledgling gay scene. But the 90’s were difficult times for a gay man in Belfast, and McGaughey moved to London, as Millimetre, in 1999. Through four albums of sophisticated electronic introspection, including last year’s excellent Heliography, McGaughey has already created a hugely impressive body of work.
Your latest album, 13 Homes, has a number of themes running through it, and one of them seems to be about alienation and a sense of needing to belong somewhere. Does this concept relate to your own personal situation?
Terence McGaughey: It’s more about what I see in other people. When I was growing up in Fintona - this shitty little town in what is basically bandit country - as pathetic as it may sound, I used to dream of moving to London. So it’s about the relationship people have with the city.
There seems to be a lot of melancholy in the younger generation. On a basic level, in London I’ve noticed hundreds and hundreds of people snogging madly outside tube stations, which suggests to me there are a lot of people having affairs. They’re not being lovey-dovey, they are snogging as if the apocalypse was about to descend. These are people with pretty miserable lives.
I think that people have enormous inconsistencies in their emotional lives that get played out, because people are really repressed about their emotions. I see it in London, and I’m an observer, so I’m just saying what I’m seeing.
That seems to be another subject of a couple of tracks on the album, particularly, ‘Naked Brother’ and ‘Hands Free’, on which the lyrics seems to explore the hollowness of casual sex. Is that the correct interpretation of these songs?
TM: It is. People from older generations have handed down a kind of sexual anarchy to younger folk. With young gay men, the situation is ten times worse, because older gay men have shown no responsibility over the last ten years in the appropriate sense of sexual behaviour. Monogamy is considered this awful weakness. It’s not as extreme with straight people, but a lot of young people don’t know how to manage their love life. They don’t have lots of emotional intelligence about sex. I’ve noticed it and am trying to unravel it a bit. However, you have to be careful how you present it, and it is easy to be like Morrissey and just lay into stuff that you don’t have a single clue about.
Although you are now based in London, you grew up in small town called Fintona in Northern Ireland. What was that like as a child?
TM: Well, the countryside was incredibly beautiful, and Fintona used to be a vibrant centre for the linen industry. But, that all finished in the 1950’s, and [during my childhood] there was huge poverty. I was going to school with people who were malnourished; they had swollen fucking stomachs from malnourishment.
Alcoholism, drug abuse and child abuse was rife – people would beat the crap out of their children in the street. One of things I am still most guilty about is I would watch the kids getting hammered by their parents. We were so used to it.
So it’s not surprising that you moved to Belfast at the age of 15. How quickly did you acclimatize to the city?
TM: In the early 90’s you had to know the places you could go, and the places you couldn’t. Even language is loaded in Belfast – like the story I tell about the letter ‘h’. If you say ‘haitch’ it means you are a Catholic, and if you say ‘aitch’ it means you are a Protestant. There was a period where marauding gangs would stop random people and ask them to recite the alphabet. I was stopped by a gang, and I got ‘h’ wrong and got the crap beaten out of me. So, it is stuff like that you have to get wise to.
Also, my sister’s husband was a policeman and got blown up by an IRA bomb and lost his legs. So, I had these issues as the gay scene in Belfast is to the liberal left, which tends to dovetail more with the Republicans and Sinn Fein people. It was my baptism by fire. Where I come from, everyone was so poor, and no one has the time to sit around and say ‘I’m not speaking to him because he’s Catholic’.
During your time in Belfast, you became an important figure in the gay community, through your fanzine and a resource centre, Queerspace. How did the latter come about?
TM: When I came out and rationalized it in my head, I was so happy and pleased that I was gay, and had this thing that wasn’t connected to Fintona, but was mine. I wrote a queerzine called Muff Monsters On Prozac for a while, and then met a rich New Yorker who came over to save all the little dumpling queers in Belfast. She was a proactive rich kid, and it was her suggestion. So, a group of us opened a resource centre on Botanic Avenue in Belfast.
Queerspace was just supposed to be a place where people could come and sit down and realize there are other gay people in the world. But, from day one we had problems of being harassed – firstly by Ian Paisley’s mob who had a church just down the street. We went to the police, but they weren’t fucking interested. And then some people were stopped by the police as they tried to enter the place. I stayed with it for a year, until the Sinn Fein people started getting involved and turned it into a fucking committee meeting nightmare. It eventually closed down, partly because of the constant protests and lack of money in the way of grants. That was that, and then I threw myself into music.
So, is that when your career in music started?
TM: Yeah, I had got involved in music. David Holmes opened this late night coffee shop/club called Mogwai and we ended up doing these late-night DJ things, where we would get all this free food and coffee. I supported The Creatures – it was one of my first gigs. Siouxsie was a horrible bitch - she’s really up herself. But I still think the Banshees are great, and Siouxsie is a national treasure.
Had you always been musical? Was it a calling waiting to happen?
My father listened to all this Irish rebel music and his side of the family are all artistic and musical people. I grew up listening to The Chieftains and Paddy Riley. I’d tried all these different ways of expression, but even in Belfast I didn’t know who I was and I didn’t feel like a real person. I always wrote, and always wrote poetry. I always had that in me. I don’t know what happened per se, apart something snapped in me, as things had been building up. I went through a period of a couple of years where I was insane and completely destructive, and did crazy things. One day I acquired a four-track from a friend and I started from there. Within about two years I was Millimetre.
And finally, 13 Homes feels particularly bleak. Should I be worried for you?
TM: He he. I don’t think you need to be worried about me! I’m getting to do what I want to do. You know when you hit that point in your life when you have spent a few years being an adult and you start to know yourself? Well, I wanted to get everything that was playing on my mind into a semi-coherent shape, as music. I’ve been permitted to turn my emotional life into this wonderful physical playground, and I’m able to inflict it on other people.