Of Course You Exist: An Interview With The Pictish Trail
, February 15th, 2013 09:42
The Pictish Trail is back with another album of dreamy and skewed pop, transmitted from his caravan on the remote Isle of Eigg. He speaks to Nicola Meighan about the gestation of Secret Soundz Vol. 2, touring with Josie Long, and writing 30-second songs
You wonder whether Prince William knows that he stars in the yarn of The Pictish Trail.
Long before Pictish, aka Johnny Lynch, joined forces with King Creosote to helm Fife's beloved Fence Collective; before he and Adem exposed themselves as disco divas with Silver Columns; before Lynch, KC and James Yorkston spawned The Three Craws – before he evolved from stand-up comic to alt-pop idol – Lynch had an indie act in St. Andrews, and it went by the name of Prince William Golf Band.
Thirteen years hence, the inventive bard from Edinburgh-via-Connecticut is discussing his dreamy, warped-pop opus, Secret Soundz Vol 2. He's on the blower from blowy Eigg, the remote Hebridean Island on which he lives in a caravan, surrounded by sheep and chickens, after moving from Fence's coastal command centre in Fife. We find him fresh from knocking troughs and building fire. He is drinking tea.
You made your new album on an Inner Hebridean island with no law enforcement, no streetlights and a population of 70. What impact did moving from Fife to Eigg have on your songwriting?
Johnny Lynch: Well, I can't really write songs about my surroundings that much – I always feel a bit corny writing about birds and trees. In saying that, moving to Eigg was a huge step in what happened with this record. I've been here on and off for the past two-and-a-bit years now, and it's just been incredible. My mum passed away last year, and coming over here and having the space and the time to sit down, having no distractions, it allowed me to really think about it. Time goes at a different speed up here. A lot of the songs, like 'Michael Rocket', 'Wait Until' and 'The Handstand Crowd' – those three songs in the middle of the record – were very much about that time. When the album was done, I kind of knew that I had to record them up here on the island."
Deadpan Welsh troubadour Sweet Baboo recorded Secret Soundz Vol 2, after I did a spot of match-making between you both a few years ago. I feel like the Cilla Black of Fence.
JL: Haha, that's right! Yeah, we started to get Sweet Baboo [aka Stephen Black] to Fence things up here after that – he played the first Away Game [festival] on Eigg in 2010. He recorded that Euros Childs album, Face Dripping – that's one of my favourite albums of the last five years – and he played in Euros' band. He's just an amazing musician. I saw Stephen at the Applecart festival last year and I said, 'You know, I could really use a hand recording some of these songs.' Although they were kind of home recordings, I really wanted another pair of ears. He's such a stickler for there being no special effects - all the sounds that we recorded, all the reverb on the vocals, everything was recorded as it was meant to be done.
Obviously Secret Soundz Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 share titular themes (inspired by your favourite Connecticut record shop), but what relationship would you say the albums bear to each other?
JL: Well, they sound kind of different to me because I had my tonsils out between them! [laughs] I can hear something different in my voice. But when I was recording Secret Soundz Vol 1 some of the songs were new, and some were pretty old, and my songwriting's always been fluid like that, so this record's the same. I don't think of sitting down and thematically doing an album. It's more that I keep writing songs and stuff starts to gather, it sticks together – even though the songs might have been written five or six years apart – and that's how both of these albums worked. And I've got this thing where the last song on the record shouldn't really sound like the last song, and both albums share that.
There are also resonances with other Fence artists and songs – King Creosote plays accordion on 'Michael Rocket', and your recent single, 'Of Course You Exist', almost sounds like an upbeat riposte to King Creosote's geographic love-quest, 'No Way She Exists' – was that intentional?
JL: It wasn't actually! [laughs] Maybe I meant it subconsciously, but that's just one of those weird reflections that sometimes happen. 'Of Course You Exist' is meant to be the song that mirrors 'Words Fail Me Now' from the first record. The idea with the second album was to kind of mirror the first, so there are like little references throughout the record to my other songs. But yeah, a lot of it's by accident – I'll write a song, and then afterwards I'll realise – 'Ah, that's what that means!'
But I'm fine with little myths. I had a whole myth on Secret Soundz Vol 1 about how, if you listen to one of the tracks, you can hear a bus go past, but that was a total lie. I put it in the press release to see if anyone would write about it. Quite a few people did.
A trailer about the making of the Secret Soundz Vol. 2 album
You wonder whether Les Dawson knows that he graces the fable of The Pictish Trail. Back in Fife, in Fence's Cellardyke HQ, you can't miss Dawson, gurning on the wall (he is, deadpans Lynch, "a huge inspiration"), alongside posters, zines, DIY merchandise and references to Fence's beloved artists and alumni – James Yorkston, KT Tunstall, Rozi Plain, Withered Hand, Kid Canaveral. There's a single that looks like a sweatshirt (Lynch's 'Of Course You Exist'); reference to an album that doesn't exist (King Creosote's live-only Nth Bit of Strange LP); and the imminent short-player from excellent new signings, Randolph's Leap, which is available on the popular porcelain mug format. Lynch's current backing band and tour support, the wondrous eagleowl, have a long-awaiting LP forthcoming on Fence in the spring: rumours that it will be issued as a download code engraved on the wings of a Bengal owlet are yet to be confirmed.
Does Lynch consider it important to make a statement about the value of recorded music, and the physical artefact, with Fence releases?
"I just don't understand why more people don't define their music on physical objects other than CDs," he replies. "The goalposts are much wider now, and people can do what they want a bit more. I like that. For years I had this idea of doing a poster with songs on it – initially that's how I wanted to do my 30-second songs project, In Rooms, but in the end I thought against it."
In Rooms, released on vinyl in 2010, documented Lynch's attempt to write a 30-second song every day, and resulted in a delirious, 50-strong anthology of art-pop sketches, techno poems, electro vignettes and acoustic hymns. Has the project impacted on his music in the long-term?
"Yeah, that was a really fun project to do, and it worked in two different ways, both of which involved Josie Long," he reveals. "Josie kind of suggested the project and I thought, 'This'll be a good idea, it'll help me learn how to work my equipment better', so it was really good in terms of being a bit disciplined, forming habits and working out all the different sounds I had on my machines that I didn't know about.
"The second part came when Josie asked me to go on tour with her. Because it was a comedy tour, I was really worried that my music was going to be a bit maudlin, but In Rooms was the record I was promoting at the time, and I thought, 'Right, these 30 second songs might not necessarily be funny, but at least they might take people by surprise'. It was a really good exercise in trying to win over an audience. Mind you, it didn't always work."
Secret Soundz Vol 2 is out now on Fence. For more information click here to head across to the Fence Records website.
The Pictish Trail and eagleowl play the following dates in the coming days:
15th - Preston, Continental
16th - London, Dalston Victoria
21st - Edinburgh, The Caves