In conversation: Francis Lung: “I like unauthored natural sounds, curious and mysterious”

In conversation: Francis Lung: “I like unauthored natural sounds, curious and mysterious”


 

It seemed the world and its wife did live streams during lockdown, artists across the board entertaining us from bedrooms, kitchens, gardens. Francis Lung, aka singer, songwriter, producer and composer Tom McClung, was pretty quick out of the gate on it all, the former member of notorious non-conformists WU LYF springing up on Facebook and Instagram pretty regularly in those hardcore stay at home days, performing refreshing, stripped down versions of songs from last year’s debut album ‘A Dream is U‘ and more.

“I get frustrated when I’m not busy. I can’t really do nothing. Or else I’m uneasy. I like to have stuff happening and when stuff isn’t happening I don’t know what to do with myself,” he explains down the phone to me from a park near his Manchester home on a warm mid-August evening.

It turns out the live stream experience was as beneficial to him as it was to those of us in our individual bubbles who appreciated the shows and cherished that sense of unity across the globe. From a musician’s point of view, he enjoyed approaching songs – his own, and others – from different angles, finding the process creatively inspiring. At the end of it, he decided to record seven of them at home.

The resulting EP ‘Songs From A Living Room’ comes out this week.

“Originally all the lockdown performances were in a living room. Technically they’re recorded in the second bedroom but we don’t have to tell anyone that (laughs) it’s got a better ring to it!”

‘A Dream Is U‘ released 12 months ago give or take mere days, is a charming collection of baroque flavoured, melancholic and 60s inspired songs showcasing his songwriting talents. The recordings on the EP are a further twist in the Francis Lung story, recorded on an 8 track tape machine typically used for demos.  It was an exercise in engineering and a determined quietness within his work, a new approach for Tom. I suggest to him that aiming to hold the attention of a room with a quiet song is something which comes with confidence, and experience.

It can feel like you resign yourself to ‘oh I’ve grown up now, here’s my quiet song,’” he laughs.

“But in reality popular music is different these days and quiet music has come full circle and is super popular again. Actually you look at someone like, I’m not thing like her, but Billie Eilish, she’s a relatively quiet singer and performer I like that quiet resurgence, it’s interesting.”

 

In the live streams and on ‘Songs from a Living Room’, Tom has delivered a new interpretation of ‘Brooklyn Gurls‘, a song originally performed way back in those WU LYF days but was in essence an early public Francis Lung outing. The WU LYF version lurks over on YouTube still but attempts at recording it properly himself since fell short of his own satisfaction. Bringing it out for an airing once more this spring and summer made him give it another go with a fresh eye and ear.

“I wrote the chords when I was 18, 19 on this crap acoustic guitar from a charity shop. I remember coming back to it and never putting any words to it or do anything with it but it always stuck with me. By the time I was 21, 22 we’d come back from staying in Brooklyn with a group of amazing promoters. I started calling them the Brooklyn girls. Not the most inspirational thing,” he recalls.

He found he missed his time over there.

“I was just playing the guitar and thought a good opening line could be ‘what’s your favourite song, I don’t like that one’ and the rhythm of that goes with that chord progression I have, and so after I finished that first verse and I thought I’ve run out of things to say here but what am I thinking about and…I wish I was back in New York again.” 

‘Don’t put that song on, it reminds me of being back there and I miss that place and I want to go back’ sounded kinda classic in a funny way, an almost tongue in cheek way did I write this or is it something that already existed?”

“You can be anybody in New York and no one gives a shit who you are. You can walk down the street and think you’re the shit, if you’ve played a great show the night before and someone on the street can call you out for the colour of the t shirt you’re wearing and make you feel this small,’ he continues.

“’How do you like me now’ is kind of ironic, I’m nobody, this me being nobody pretending to be big, how do you like me now, Manchester guy in New York. It just made me laugh when I said it. It’s an attitude about the song I hadn’t really done before and I liked it. It seemed a bit more funny and true to who I actually am.”

Was this a Francis Lung turning point? Or is it a cliché to say that?

“Ah, I like clichés! I went back and revisited some other ones that were the first Francis Lung ones that I had demos of and thought maybe I could edit these to be a more conversational style thing. A lot of the EP songs came in that same batch and I started to find my voice.”

‘Brooklyn Gurls’ made its debut on a WU LYF Radio 1 session with Huw Stephens in 2011. Tom recalls the session with mixed feelings. The band messed around and answered Stephens’ questions using keyboard sound effects. It probably felt hilarious to them at the time?

“I do feel bad about it, we were just rude. I’m ashamed of it but also proud of it. We really did not care at all about playing the game and doing the things that would make us hit the big time or whatever. it was definitely disrespectful but it was kind of what we were about, we didn’t really want to do things we were uncomfortable doing and we felt a certain way. These days everyone’s so well behaved.’

Playing live in Liverpool, 2019

The new EP carries a couple of cover versions, a very simple, loyal interpretation of The Replacements’ ‘Androgynous‘, but he plays around with J Mascis‘Several Shades of Why‘ a little more. After touring ‘A Dream is U’ last year, Tom realized his favourite part of playing live is the guitar solo.  That, and listening to Television and Dinosaur Jnr themse;ves and the Minute Men has informed the new album due next year.

“I did it with electric instead of acoustic,” he says of the Mascis cover.  “I did ebows instead of real strings, I made the electric version of the acoustic song in my eyes.”   

The EP version of ‘Up and Down’ from last year’s album is what he refers to as “the definitive quiet version”, with tacked piano.

“A lot of the EP has tacked piano on it which is when you put thumb tacks into the hammers of a piano. It makes a metallic percussive sound. It was done to old pianos in bar rooms so you could be heard above the noise of people drinking and shouting and fighting.  It’s really beautiful,”
he enthuses.

“It’s a sound that I’ve always loved but didn’t know what it is. I wanted to put it on the Dream is U record but people told me I shouldn’t put tacks on my piano ’cause it will ruin it and during lockdown it was all the cards are on the table wasn’t it. I did one tack, played it, took it out and the piano was fine.”

“I like natural sounds that are unauthored and curious and mysterious,” he adds.

One can’t help but notice birds loudly squawking in the background as Tom speaks, escaped parrots making themselves heard, agreeing with him perhaps.

On ‘Unnecessary Love‘ he made a “lo-fi, homely version” that took the strings from the original and time stretched it which was “painstaking….we did more strings on top of strings!”

He went to town on vinyl samples as well, another Francis Lung first.

‘I literally plugged into my amp and scratched, I sampled Tchaikovsky, lots on Selfish Man. On my tape machine I would play lots of keyboards in one key just random things, then layer it and not think about what I was doing, constantly turning the tape over so some of it was backwards, some of it forwards and then I would record that into the computer and cut it up and put it in random places. Synth noise you might hear are actually lots of different keyboards going backwards and forwards at the same time. And pitch shifting to make different chords and stuff.”

It sounds like he had a lot of fun making this EP?

“I’ve definitely taken some liberties that’s inspired the next record as well lots more nose and sounds as well as guitar solos slightly more experimental strong structure. I want to sound like me.”

He describes the EP as a “momento” of our collectively strange yet in many ways progressive summer.  Those live streams have had a positive effect on him in other ways, it feels. A happy hangover of it all is him popping up with a tune on Instagram even now, then disappearing again. Blink and you might miss him though.

“If I feel like playing a song I’ll just start streaming then I might post it, I might not. If you see it, if not that’s fine too. I like that. Live for a minute then it can just disappear. Or I can post it up. It’s something I would never have done without lockdown.  I thought it was really cheesy before but now I think it’s a nice way of connecting with people instantly and expressing how you’re feeling.”

‘Songs From A Living Room’ will be premiered at a Tim’s Listening Party on Twitter at 8pm on 27th August, the day before its release, follow the hashtag #TimsListeningParty or the Francis Lung account here.

Francis Lung photo credit: Marty Saleh