The 4-track DIY aesthetic of The McTells
The McTells. I haven’t thought about them for years. I used to love their scratchy, fragile, poignant, personal music. They always seemed like scurrying little creatures bringing light to the deepest shadows.
They were never ones to blow their own trumpet: big into cassette culture, homemade sleeves and the idea that music should be made for yourself and your friends, and not for monetary gain – they released many seven-inch records and cassettes, most on their own Bi-Joopiter label. There was a memorable concert played in a village hall in Hertfordshire (I believe) – The McTells, myself (The Legend!) and Beat Happening … a dream line-up, leastways from where I’m looking from. The sort of show you hold up as one of the 10 Best in your lifetime (for its camaraderie, great party music, sense of belonging), if you have any sense whatsoever. The more I think about The McTells, more I miss ‘em. I once saw Happy Mondays support ‘em in a London pub – the ensuing review saw my first use of the word ‘grunge’. Not to describe The McTells, though – they played a cute garage rumble that was far closer to my beloved Rough Trade DIY pioneers than any mean overloading amplifier.
According to Trouser Press, The McTells’ early work held “a British mirror up to Australia’s Cannanes, minus the anguish”. Yeah. I get that. Like Swell Maps, only even more so.
In the last year, a weird coincidence happened. First up, I was applying to take a PhD (in the changing role of the taste-maker music critic in web 2.0 environments) in Brisbane, and someone suggested that Paul Rixon (the former singer with The McTells) could act as a UK referee for me, as he’s now something high up in academia. So I asked him, he did and I was accepted. Sweet! Then, someone emailed me out of the blue and asked if I had any leads to … um … The McTells cos they wanted to run a feature on them.
And I did! Hence the following interview conducted with Paul in March 2009.
I use a 4-track recorder to this very day. Email me if you’d like to hear some of the results.
What inspired you to first start making music?
“Hard to remember, Buzzcocks were definitely a great eye opener, so were Young Marble Giants; the local band the Marine Girls showed me that anyone could have a go; it was their linkage to the tape label Inphaze that also got me excited, the idea that you could also put your music out there on cassette, you didn’t have to find some record label to ‘sign you up’ and all that sort of thing.”
Which singers did you particularly favour?
“Pete Shelley, I like his whiny voice, a little like mine (or so people have said). Stephen Pastel, as it sounds less like singing, in the traditional sense, and Dan Tracey, again he was very distinctive. I suppose I like voices that have character, that don’t sound as if they had been trained, that have feeling behind them. Ones that are often very ‘English’ in tone.”
How important was it to you to have control over what you were doing?
“Very. I suppose this was why we did what we did. By we, I mean those behind Bi-Joopiter, the label, and The McTells. For me making music is exactly that; it includes all the elements of creating something that, eventually, someone gets hold of and listens to; it is recording, writing, packaging and putting the songs out there. I think that is why we were all in to the DIY ethic, using our 4-track recorders to record, then cassette machines to run off our cassettes and then screen-printing our own covers. I know we moved into records eventually, but we were very hands on, we mostly recorded our own songs, designed and printed the covers. And, in the end of the day, marketed them and distributed them.”
What informed The McTells’ aesthetic?
“It was the DIY ethic I noted above. We looked to other bands that had come before which had a sound that fitted with this and our interests in music. Music that was raw, cut down and inspirational. We all liked the Swell Maps, The TVPs, The Pastels … later, bands like Beat Happening. It was the sounds of early Rough Trade, bands like The Raincoats, that sought to provide sounds and music that were not over produced, that felt like the sounds had only just emerged and had not been worked on for months; that still have energy to them. I also liked some of the cassette labels I came across in the early 1980s in Europe, that often played around with packaging, that had a more arty view of what they were trying to do.”
Which other bands or individuals did you feel a kinship with?
“I know when we first came about K Records that was a kinship there. We all loved the Marine Girls and that DIY ethic. Calvin was an inspirational and supportive person. It was nice to think there were people out there like that. Also, with Stephen Pastel one felt there was someone who you could talk to, that had a similar idea about what they liked and were trying to do. Another group I felt we had a similarity to was The Cannanes, from Australia, and The Clean, from New Zealand. They had a similar sound but also similar aesthetic.”
How did you measure success – ie: did you feel The McTells were successful?
“Commercially no, but that was never our aim. I think we managed to do what we wanted, to make music, to play in front of people and to create some wonderful artefacts which, to me, was a success. If a few people occasionally remember us great, that is a success of sorts.”
What were some of your most memorable concerts?
“Playing Netherstowy, a tiny village near Bristol. We played a small pub there and all the kids turned up. I doubt much ever happens there. We played in Olympia, in someone’s garden, with the Nation Of Ulysses, I remember the sun going down, the gentle heat and the lovely crowd. One that should be memorable was when we played with Happy Mondays at the Black Horse in Camden. I don’t remember watching them, more the shame, but they were lovely people. They let us borrow their equipment.”
What attracted you to the cassette format?
“Easy to copy, post while not being too expensive. The main thing was it gave us the freedom to copy and to then post the cassettes out. It was small enough to fit in a small envelope and was a world wide standard. If we had started now I wound fully endorse the web, down loads etc, there was nothing aesthetically beautiful about the cassette, just the freedoms it offered.”
Did you see the influence of The McTells on any of the bands that followed?
“Hard to say. I would like to think there are or were. I know of a few people who mentioned The McTells in interviews. If nothing I hope it encourages anyone to believe they can enjoy themselves, that they can do something, that they can pick up a guitar and perform.”
What drove you to write songs – what were your lyrical concerns?
“I suppose it was a mixture of things. A little politics, love, sadness … I suppose I would argue that, with a small ‘p’, everything is political. I liked making observations, from my own perspectives, that would offer some view on life. Often the lyrics were obscure, they were not obvious, with the view that you could make your own meanings from them.”
How important was environment?
“The McTells were a band of a certain time and place. We all grew up in a smallish town, Hertford, and shared similar small town outlooks. However, we were near enough toLondonto have that opening to us. We appeared around the mid Eighties and were around when the indie scenes was taking off. They were lots of venues and bands touring around our size. We were products of a conservative Britain, at times unemployed, looking for a way of expressing ourselves, of making comment – but not in an overly political way.”
How important was feedback?
“It is nice to have feedback, whether from letters, conversations with people at gigs, from fanzines etc. Some of this might influence us, then again we tended to just push on in the direction we wanted to go. But having a dialogue with the audience, with other bands, our peers, with critics, is important. It is this discourse that seeks to define how we judge music. We wanted to put the view that our DIY ethic was as respectable as any other.”
What was the most recognisably commercial The McTells ever got?
“I think, near the end, we signed a deal with Vinyl Japan. That was the first time we had signed a contract. We then split up a year or so later. Maybe this was the nearest we came to joining the ‘industry’. Otherwise, in terms of being out there for people to hear us, when we were most successful, it was when we were playing with the likes of The Pastels, TVPs, My Bloody Valentine; being played by John Peel, touring in Europe and America.”
Where did the name come from?
Different views, one argument is that it comes from the Blues singer, Blind Willie McTell, the other that it is from the children’s show, Tingle on my tum, hosted by Ralph McTell. I don’t think we really know. It was at a time we changed names ever so many weeks, then we recorded a record and we were stuck with that name.”
This interview was originally conducted a few years ago for a fanzine. Apologies, but its name escapes me right now. If it was yours, please let me know.
Some of the images were taken directly from the very excellent, highly recommended, Kill Your Pet Puppy blog.