How to Find Home: Making Mull Historical Society’s Wakelines
Talking to Colin MacIntyre and Bernard Butler about making music the hard way
- 10/02/2019 -
Where are we most at home? Is it in a place of comfort and familiarity? Or when feeling challenged, excited by possibility? Wakelines, the latest album by Colin MacIntyre under his long-term pseudonym Mull Historical Society, sounds like a record with a hearth at its centre. But is it anything like home for him?
Colin has told me this once before: “It could’ve been called ‘House’ or something, because it was done at Bernard’s, and that did something to it, didn’t it?” he asks Bernard Butler, producer and musician on the record - most well known for his tearaway guitar work on Suede’s first two albums before getting a much-admired UK top ten hit, ‘Yes’, with his songwriting partnership alongside David McAlmont (look up their performance on Later...with Jools Holland from 20 years ago - both Chris T-T and I agree it’s one of the best pieces of music television performance ever). Bernard is almost a Kubrickian figure on Wakelines, directing proceedings. The way Colin talks about it, it’s as if they stepped through a portal via Bernard’s home, but to leave it there would be a huge disservice to the effort each man made to craft this beautiful album.
“Because Colin is on his own, he’s had a habit of making quite big and involved records,” says Bernard. “(and) there’s no point making another one of those, for me anyway. I always look for the opening: what’s the reason to be here? My big idea was just ‘well, what happens if you just sit there and play me the songs?’”
Colin, veteran songwriter and performer since his teenage years, had to sit down in Bernard’s living room with one of Bernard’s guitars, with Bernard poised at the piano, and sing his new songs. It didn’t matter that they were not musically finished, but it did matter that a hole in a verse wasn’t just filled with a placeholder lyric. “We tried to work out what was good about the songs without the fluff, you know. If you went to the start of the songs, well what’s the first lyric? Okay, start at the lyric. Don’t start with that fluffy glockenspiel intro or whatever.” Bernard continues: “The piano is very rhythmic, a very dynamic instrument, it can be very powerful so it plays a role of lots of musical elements all in one. You can be the drums on it and you can demonstrate where the highs are, the choruses are, very easily.”
Wakelines is nothing if not dynamic. It’s a sweeping orchestral scope flowing with choral energy, Colin’s voice sounding the best it ever has on powerful centrepiece melodies like on ‘Wetlands Urban Fox’, ‘Little Bird’ and ‘Somewhere In Scotland’. For a songwriter and musician who has always thrown all he could into his albums, this is his biggest-sounding, with artistic flourishes and that elusive sense of coming home. But whereas you might expect these two to have locked themselves away from the world dreaming up arrangements and emotional threads, instead they were very much surrounded by the reality of adult life. “We had to pack up by half three everyday because we had kids coming home,” says Bernard, “After Colin had gone, I was tending to have to catch up at night. And the only way to do that while people were asleep was to play really quietly. Basically, I started looking for things to add to what we’d done. We’d recorded the basic tracks at my house. So Colin was in my front room with a guitar, I was at the piano in the adjacent room but just all together. And Mako (Sakamoto), God love him, my drummer (NB: Mako passed away earlier in 2018) was at the top of the house playing in one of my kids’ bedrooms. And that’s the way we did the core songs, we just sat together and played everything like that until we had a very minimal acoustic guitar, piano, voice, drums. That was the arrangement of the songs, you know, and if it was big enough, emotional enough, dynamic enough in that way then you knew that you could always move on.”
The three of us sat at a table below Crouch End’s King’s Head pub, usually the site of Sunday afternoon jazz and high-profile comedians low-key testing new material. Later, Colin and Bernard will perform a special end-of-year set as a duo with an acoustic and electric guitar and piano, Bernard swapping between the latter two as the songs demand. A rare night out for the two of them, if you will. They later say they’d only had rehearsal time during soundcheck, working largely on songs from the album Wakelines. By the time they play later that night, you can tell they lived those songs during recording.
“I remember saying for one of the songs, ‘this is where I’m hearing the choirboys and actually I probably hadn’t had somebody as a buffer in that way or as a kind of filter and also directing in that way to say ‘well don’t worry about that right now’. And it was amazing how quickly the songs came together. I’m not sure how aware Bernard might’ve been at the beginning of, not how sketchy things were but, I had quite a lot of stuff and I wasn’t quite sure which ones were the ones that would rise to the top.” The point the two of them continue to make throughout our chat is that they established the bedrock of the album, they reinforced the foundations upon which they built. They weren’t going to be interior designing anytime before the melodies and lyrics were firmly in place.
“Almost every musician now, everyone writes with quite sophisticated setups, using Garageband or you’re really amazing at Logic, things like that,” says Bernard, about to unleash his biggest bugbear. “As soon as you’re in that situation, you dabble and you can multiply things very very quickly and lose track of the basics. You’ve got to compare that situation to being in a room and being with a person and just performing the songs. That’s always the interesting thing for me. With Colin, there was several times where I could say “well what are you singing there?” and he’d say “well I haven’t quite finished that” and I’d say “well it’s important you fill that in coz that’s the punchline’. And I think for me it’s my latest little obsession with songs,” says Bernard, laughing. “It’s not impressive how we use software anymore. Anyone can do it on their phone in five minutes, do something quite sophisticated. So it’s no longer, ‘oh my God, did you hear that amazing sound? How did you do that?’ because any fucker can do it. That affects all areas of life really. Technology’s not impressive anymore is it? So that makes me think all the time as a musician, what is impressive? Well the only thing that’s left, that has DNA, is us. We make mistakes, we’re the only unique things. For the last year at least, with this record and another record I’ve made, that’s the way I’ve looked at music a lot. The mistakes are interesting, the possibility of mistakes, the possibilities of dynamics and personality, good or bad.”
What’s worth knowing is the offset camaraderie Colin and Bernard have. They were brought together to do a job, make something together, and the process, not to mention the results, have reflected their shared lives. Overwhelmingly, Wakelines really recalls both childhood and having children, fatherhood and innocence. “I think, doing a lot of stuff myself over the years, I’ve actually really enjoyed the collaborative and realising that even in my writing and stuff that brings out stuff you might miss yourself. It was good because I was a bit of an audience to some extent, a bit more objective than I might’ve been in the past, when you’re doing too much. I think lyrically I felt there were certain songs like Fourteen-Year-Old Boy…”
“It’s a lot about kids I think,” pipes up Bernard. “That’s what I thought about at the time. It was happening in my house dominated by my kids; Colin’s got kids and that’s what you naturally talk about, what’s going on back at home; I had to be quiet because my kids were asleep; I had to use instruments that were quiet, and I was grabbing my daughter’s £20 classical guitar, so I got into the whole spirit and flavour of that. It throws a warmth around things, that feeling is definitely what we have in common.”
“Yes, very true,” says Colin. “And ‘Little Bird’ is about kids, and ‘Swiss Sea Battles’ we had the idea towards the end – (Colin starts singing “put the light on” complete with handclaps) – we talked about getting the kids to do (the handclaps) or something. They didn’t, but they still influenced it. I think some of Bernard’s family walked through during ‘Clementine’ one day which is for a keen eyed observer to try and find.”
“You can hear them shouting at each other!” says Bernard.
“It was allowing the things in your life to influence what you make,” Colin deduces. And here, Bernard gets to another arterial route branching into the heart of the record - circumstances of life, of the life you’ve chosen and set up for yourself, working within those limits.
“See, when you start making a record, you can fly off and think ‘we can go to Lanzarote and bring in a horn section and steel drums, and that’s what the direction of this record is going to be’. You think of those elements, piling stuff on, or you can think what exactly is it, who are we as people? I think that’s more interesting really and it’s more available to us too! This is the way we work these days. This is the important thing because often you get reverence imposed on what you do because we’ve both made lots of records and people like them and stuff, and actually it’s worth pointing out that this is how you have to do it these days. We made it in my house because we had to. This is the budget available to both of us. And what you do with that is you start thinking differently. We can’t go to New York to make this one, so how can we record what we are? That actually throws up some really interesting stuff, makes you work harder.”
Colin laughs. “And maybe Xtra Mile wouldn’t have sent us to Lanzarote anyway, you never know!”
Mull has always reimagined home in his songs, or actively laced it into his records like the tannoy from the ferry between mainland Scotland and his beloved Isle of Mull appearing on his 2001 debut album Loss. ‘Fourteen-Year-Old Boy’ might be the taut heart of that connection to home on Wakelines, as his young teenage memories of his father leaving for work form the vivid centre of the song – the burned toast smell all that was left in the mornings, or when he arrived home one day with his birthday present, his first guitar, one he still owns today: “You held my guitar above your head / you waded to the water’s edge / I wrote this song on it for you / plugged the island into view.” ‘Little Bird’ is an elegant ode to daughters. The album closer ‘Put Your Arms Around Me’ alludes to those without a home, seeking safety on our shores. ‘Wetlands Urban Fox’ tracks a roaming vixen, speaking of London’s wildlands reclaiming their home from ours. Even those songs not specifically echoing sentiments of home, that warmth from the fireplace I mentioned earlier is very much present. Yet to get there, Colin had to be challenged by Bernard, to be pulled from comfort into a place where Wakelines could be made.
“I knew (Colin’s) a really good writer, I knew he’d write great words and really uplifting melodies and that was really attractive to me as a core thing. I thought if I can catch him there and get him to go with it and throw the kitchen sink away and just stand there and just sing your words, and that’s a really tough thing. I know I demand an awful lot of trust but I like doing that because it turns me on. It’s what I like about making music, it’s a challenge. You do have to throw down the gauntlet to do anything good I think. It’s the ‘what ifs’ that are interesting and it’s more kudos to the artist when they say ‘yeah I’m gonna go with this’. Because as soon as you’re a little bit awkward and uncomfortable...again these are good qualities and they make good things, they bring emotions out and character so…it’s music. It’s supposed to be challenging
“And even for tonight,” Colin says, about the gig they’re about to play. “Actually I feel that sense as well. I think that’s continued a little. We’re coming at it as if I’ve not met you before this song. You’re forced a bit by what we have at our disposal. And I think, after you’ve made quite a few albums as well, I think what’s the point otherwise? I feel the same with my writing. You’ve got to feel like you’re jumping off a cliff to some extent.”
“They say your first record is your entire teenage years rolled into one,” says Bernard. ”And then you start saying ‘what now?’ And after a while it’s a real freedom to say ‘well I can try anything’. I It could mean you go reggae or... it could mean in some ways you start relaxing and having a bit more faith and going into the unknown and I think when people do that successfull,y it’s a great thing. We’re not kids anymore fortunately. So we don’t need that massive rush of craziness on a record. You don’t crave that anymore.”
Has Colin MacIntyre found home on Wakelines? I think he’s always had home, a sense of place, on every record he’s produced. But to find his most intense, personal and beautiful reflection of it – of his home, our home, what home is, who makes it home for us – he had to leave the comfy hearth that we find in our homes, and via someone else’s, he channelled vulnerability into his most accomplished album since Loss and perhaps above and beyond that.