The summer series of duologues begins with special guest James A. McDermid. Those who pay close attention to the goings on in the community of artists who make experimental & electronic music have likely taken increasing notice of his work with three full-length albums on as many labels over the past year as well as the launch of a new Mixcloud radio show. Not only that, but James can be found on Twitter passionately supporting the work of many fellow artists. This burst of activity, however, began after nearly 9 years without a release and the devastating loss of a dear family member. I am very pleased to share this candid and insightful conversation with James about his artistic journey and recent & upcoming albums.
First of all, James, thanks for taking the time to talk. I’ve been appreciating your music since the release of ‘Ghost Folk’ on Polar Seas just over a year ago, but I know you have been making and producing music for a good deal longer. Perhaps you can start off by telling us a little about yourself and your journey to where you are right now creatively speaking.
Well my mum very much sowed the seeds in that regard. Some of my earliest memories are of her playing a vinyl copy of Prokofiev’s ‘Peter & The Wolf’; whilst she sat me on her knee, she’d explain what each instrument was and how it made its specific sound, etc. She comes from a family that love to sing and listen to music.
As I got older I became interested in field recording, which led to my parents buying me a cheap multitrack tape recorder/mixer when I was 15. It wasn’t always reliable, but the odd tape mangle, audio bleed and wavering tape speed quite often sounded great. From there – and in a sort of response to what I was doing – my two older brothers started making me mixtapes of stuff they listened to when they were young, such as Tangerine Dream, Eno, Faust, Harold Budd, Klaus Schulze. It was that music that shaped where I wanted to go.
In 2001 I started a label. I released 2x compilations on vinyl (of different artists) and an album of my own (‘Glimpse’) under the name Like Kisses of Thread. The label folded in 2005 and, apart from a Like Kisses of Thread release in 2008 (on Dave Newlyn’s old label, October Man) I sort of lost interest in making music altogether. Last year’s ‘Ghost Folk’ was not only my first release in 9 years, but the first music I’d even made in some time.
You’ve shared that ‘Ghost Folk’, ‘Tonal Glints’ (Krysalisound, 2018), and the forthcoming ‘Kern/Host’ on Whitelabrecs form a series in which you used creativity to channel your grief and subsequent recovery from your sister’s death. Can you talk about how that process worked for you and, perhaps, what you hope the listener might take away from hearing those records?
Certainly my sister’s illness was the catalyst; however, books, cinema and travelling were immeasurably helpful with channeling everything in a healthy way. I should explain that the months leading up to me writing music again, I’d convinced myself that the malaise I feeling, given the circumstances, was no less than what I should expect so I allowed myself to feel everything fully. With hindsight, maybe I should have talked to someone because, as I discovered much later, that kind of thought process isn’t really sustainable. When the ideas eventually started to flow, I felt stronger and focused. Someone suggested that perhaps I was using creativity to just bury my feelings and/or put real life on hold, but it wasn’t that. It was the only way I could harness how potent everything was.
There was no intended message because the idea of anyone hearing – let alone buying – any of it just never occured to me. What I will say though is that my family and I went through some bad times between 2014-2016 and, to me, that comes across with the three albums. They way I interpret them is: ‘Ghost Folk’: the diagnosis and the moments leading up her death; ‘Tonal Glints’: the immediate aftermath; ‘Kern/Host’: looking for closure.
Let’s talk about your latest record ‘Sunshine and Dust’ just released by Cathedral Transmissions. You came up with such a distinctive concept for this – the abandoned shop, the mysterious burlap covered book, the photos of the ageless girls appearing in various cities around Europe through the decades. How well formed was the narrative in your mind when you started developing the music?
First off, thinking up short-stories is not something I do as a hobby or pasttime. The motivation to write, on this occasion, stemmed from some footage I saw of someone exploring an abandoned residential home; it had previously been occupied by a couple and their 18 month old baby, back in 1980. I don’t remember the specifics of what happened, but I know there was a murder and, as a result, the place was suddenly empty and never resold. The person walking though the house found some old Polaroids of two people looking like they were on holiday somewhere – it might have been the previous occupants, I don’t know. They looked happy.
That contrast of the photo showing what were clearly happier times, against the now dilapidated house was really eerie. I thought about it a lot and wondered what it might be like to walk around an abandoned house/factory/hospital at night. Whether one is scared of the dark or not, I’d argue that the powerful weight of darkness – and the place’s history staring down at you from the walls that witnessed it – would make anyone pretty anxious and vulnerable. Maybe it’s more symbolic than I give it credit for, I don’t know, but that’s how the idea for ‘Sunshine & Dust’ began.
I was intrigued by the level of specificity in the story that accompanies the album. You picked a particular city and year for each piece and you provided very particular details such as the Hessian Burlap, the exact page numbers where the photos were found, the gingham dresses, and so on. Besides making helping to make the story vivid and immersive, is there any special significance to any of those?
Not really, to be honest. When Dave Newlyn offered to put it out on Cathedral Transmissions, he asked me to explain what the album was about for anyone interested in buying it. I didn’t feel like I could explain what, at the time, really just amounted to a bunch of ideas skeletal emerging from my interest in abandoned buildings. So I just arranged my scattered ideas – i.e. the photos, the page numbers; the dresses, the cities and the ageless characters – into a story. Nostalgia is something I like to explore – real and embellished.
Yes, nostalgia is clearly a very central theme in your work, but I think it is fair to say you don’t take an overly sentimental approach to it. It’s really much more complex than just sentimentality isn’t it?
I think so, but lamenting the past – as far as what I went through with my sister – was a place I felt I should go to. Harriet and I shared many of the same experiences and memories so I needed to bask in them, particularly the silly innocence of childhood. I knew, however, that if I wanted the creative process to be cathartic in any way, I had to go all-in and embrace her illness and what she went through – the hope; her tenacity and determination to survive – leading up to her death. I didn’t want to write anything depressing and I think it’s possible to tenderly romanticise both the blessings and the cloudy wistfulness of nostalgia, without it coming across as mawkish. There’s something disingenuous about sentimentality. Benoit Pioulard is very good at doing that, as are Beirut and Sufjan Stevens.
Despite being busy making your own music, I see that you are very active on social media in supporting and cheering on other artists and you’ve just launched a wonderful new audio show called This Exquisite Pain which you’ve opened up to guest curators including myself. Do you find it rewarding to connect with various members of the music community in these ways as well?
I joined Twitter in February this year mainly to try to promote the stuff I was doing, but honestly didn’t expect to be as inspired as much as I have been; not just by other musicians, but from writers, photographers and painters. I just like to spread the word a little on stuff people tweet that resonates with me.
In some ways ‘This Exquisite Pain’ came from that same mindset of wanting to shine some light on people I find inspiring and/or culturally important. So far we’ve mainly had musicians, but it will become more varied. Our idea was to avoid asking guests to put together a mix of their favourite records; instead, it might be more interesting if we asked them to commit to a playlist that addressed everything from melancholia and loneliness, to introspective thoughts and stillness. The show’s name is inspired by the Sophie Calle book ‘Exquisite Pain’ that digs deep into the huge spectrum of those experiences, particularly how vulnerable we can become at the drop of a hat. So I figured you get to see a side of someone that you perhaps wouldn’t have expected or assumed.
Finally, I know you have some other projects upcoming. Anything you are ready yet to tell us about?
Sure thing. For the remainder of 2018 there’s ‘Kern/Host’ coming out on Whitelabrecs, as you know. I have albums coming out also on 1834; Sounds Against Humanity and Shimmering Moods. I think I’ll probably have another album out on Polar Seas too. Speaking of which, Brad Deschamps and I are going to be working on some tracks together and, if all goes well, perhaps put out a split release of some sort. The only other project that’s in the making is a collaboration with Maiya Hershey, where she’s providing vocals. Busy year ahead…