IN CONVERSATION: Johnny Lynch (Pictish Trail)

IN CONVERSATION: Johnny Lynch (Pictish Trail)

I wouldn’t break my post-Brexit boycott of Wetherspoons for many people, but Johnny Lynch, better known as Pictish Trail, needs to meet somewhere he can keep an eye on his ambiguously parked car, so we huddle around a couple of coffees outside the temple of gammon on Womanby Street. He’s in Cardiff on tour with Steve Mason, and spoke to me about the 8-bit garden of delights that is his forthcoming album Thumb World – electronica, nightmarish beasts, UFO abduction, pirates, fear, claustrophobia and dad-rock. He also shares a few insights into how his label, Lost Map, rose from the ashes of the Fence Collective – how to become a record industry mogul on a tiny Scottish island, the best way to choose your university, and the vital importance of massaging fragile egos.

CB: Ok, so, I’m here with Johnny Lynch from Pictish Trail and we’re doing an interview for God is in the TV.

JL: Hi!

Very professionally I have cobbled together some questions.

Oh right, cool.

So, you’ve got a new album coming out in February, Thumb World.

That’s the one.

Would it be fair to say that there are a lot of weird electronic noises on it?

Yup, there’s a fair whack of electronic noise on it. A lot of weird synthesisers put through distortion pedals and such on pretty much every track.

It seems a lot more so than your previous albums. You’ve always been very electronica based but this seems more focussed on it.

Yeah. The germination of a lot of these songs was me in my wee studio space on Eigg with my 8-track machine and a bunch of synthesisers and pedals and making little loops and noises and chords and little melodic progressions and little patterns and then trying to formulate sections of songs from that. That’s where the songwriting took place, but the actual production stuff took place down in Kinver with my friend Rob Jones, so I went down to him with these little fractions of songs, and hopefully, we managed to sew them together into a cohesive album.

So does it always start with the music or the words, or do they come at the same time?

There’s only one song on this records where the words came first, called ‘Heart Eyes‘, which was originally going to be called ‘The Bear with Heart Eyes‘, but it became apparent that every track of the album had just two words in the title so I had to condense that down to just ‘Heart Eyes‘. But all the other ones came from a place of starting with music.

They usually come together at around the same time. I’ll have like a melodic idea, and it might just be a chorus or something and then I’ll have a line that I’ll want to sing or something and it’s a case of jigsawing the song together around that.

Talking of the bear with heart eyes, there’s a couple of songs that have these nightmarish animals in them. Do you find animals particularly scary?

Well, I live on a farm, so I’m scared of all animals (laughs). They’re gonna take over at some point, due to some genetic mutation that happens whereby we’ll all be fucked.

I was thinking about, with the whole album in general, Thumb World, how humans are quite separate from the animal kingdom because we have opposable thumbs. There’s very few other animals that do. A few primates do, but not many, so it’s one thing that separates us from animals. But the bear with heart eyes is about a sort of real bad acid trip I had at Glastonbury where this recurring image of an 8-bit bear haunted me in my tent throughout an entire evening after certain exploits.

I kind of thought that everything was over at that point. I felt like I had absolutely no future and was caught in limbo and in fact, was caught in hell and that I was going to spend the rest of my life in this purgatory surrounded by dance beats going on continually. We had a tent set up in the dance area of Glastonbury and all my friends had fucked off somewhere and I was having an acid meltdown in my tent, thinking, if I sleep then it’ll all be over and everything’s going to be fine, but I couldn’t sleep and I kept being haunted by this ridiculous bear.

That song became the nucleus of this idea that spreads throughout the album of the being no escape (laughs), of this sense of claustrophobia, and life repeating itself over and over again.

So the bear with heart eyes is a particularly hellish character. Thankfully he’s not haunted me since. But the image of it definitely stuck with me. It’s always a bit tragic when people tell you about their drug escapades, isn’t it? Don’t do drugs.

When I heard it I thought, this sounds very symbolic, there must be a deep poetic reason behind it.

Well, I’ve convinced myself that there is. But it was born out of debauchery.

Drug-fuelled nightmares. Cool yeah.

But it became something that felt reflective of my state of mind in general in the year leading up to the album being finished.

The other image of Thumb World is the mobile phone. We control so much of our lives with our opposable thumb, and it seems like a lot of the songs are about how our relationships with other people become relationships with our mobile phones or laptops?

Yeah totally. There’s certain songs that reference that. ‘Turning Back‘ is about the moment when you first meet someone, and trying to relive that moment over and over again, and trying to capture what’s so great about that moment and hold onto it. Within that song, there’s an element of the person that thinks they’re controlling the action is really being controlled by the other person. It’s all very Black Mirror. Maybe I was watching too much Black Mirror.

I feel like too much of our lives is dictated by our devices, but I’m totally a slave to mine. Particularly where I live on the Isle of Eigg, it’s the way I communicate with all the bands and the people who work for Lost Map. It’s such a vital part of my working life but also my creative life. A lot of the ideas I have for songs get recorded into voice memos or what have you, but there’s a tipping point isn’t there?

Well, it’s like anything that’s really seductive and useful, a great strength also becomes something that’s quite corrupting.

Totally. It’s become this thing now, very recently, a thing of reassurance. You’ll put something up and you’ll look and see if people have liked it, or if someone’s replied to a certain message you sent them. Probably everyone feels like this, but you can get quite paranoid about how you are perceived and the picture you’re presenting of yourself. It’s hellish.

I don’t use Facebook much anymore, and one of the main reasons for that is not politics or it’s addictive or anything else but that I log in and the first thing I see is something I posted five years ago of something. And I just think, am I? … is that?

Oh yeah.

Is that… Happy memories… No.

It’s heartbreaking actually. It’s a weird sort of mirror of what you were doing.

I feel like things should just be gone.

Sometimes you get a little memory and it’s a picture of someone you’ve not spoken to in a long time. Either you’ve fallen out or you’ve lost contact or something, and you get this little glimpse of them. The guilt factor starts this thing on you instantly. It’s very manipulative.

I get a lot of reminders of school friends birthdays. I don’t know why. People I shared a classroom with. Never reminders of people whose birthdays it might profit me to know about.

I’m sure you’ve had a moment when you’ve had time on your hands and you’ve been doing that scrolling thing, either on Instagram or Facebook or whatever and you do get a little glimpse into people’s lives. I don’t think I share as much of myself in the same way on these apps as other people do. Or maybe I’m just lying to myself. So it seems like quite an obvious theme I suppose. And maybe it is quite naive, but it was something that was on my mind a lot, and the album is about the claustrophobia of being trapped inside that a little bit, and into that way of thinking and into that lifestyle of presenting yourself in a certain way. But it’s also about trying to escape that as well, and I tried to instil that sense of escapism and fun and madness into the album.

There’s a lot of science fiction themes, alien abduction, sex on the moon…

That’s not science fiction, that’s science fact! (Laughs)

Do you believe in aliens?

Nah.

(They laugh)

That song, ‘Slow Memories‘, about alien abduction is really a metaphor for wanting to escape from domestic life or the circle that you move in, being just lifted out of that. Quite literally I suppose, with the alien abduction thing. But it’s is also about shame and not wanting to own up to something, and wanting to escape, and to escape for a reason that is beyond your control.

It’s weird because when I was writing the song I started with that as a theme, and a few lyrical ideas I could jigsaw around it and then I sort of thought I should look into alien abductions to find out, you know, what the score is there, and how people’s reports of it occurred. There’s a line that uses the word unpredisoposed and this was a word that was used by, I can’t remember the name of the guy now off the top of my head, but there’s a guy who was reporting about it at the time in New Mexico or something. And unpredisposed was a sort of a term that related to how all the people who were abducted by aliens had very similar stories and yet there was no way they could have synchronised their accounts of what happened. And I found that interesting. They each had this excuse or reason for what happened that was beyond their control, but there was no evidence to explain how they could all have the same retelling or account. I’ve probably not phrased that particularly well. Good luck scrambling that one out!

I’ll google it. It’ll be fine.

I thought that the idea of people not wanting to own up to the reality of something was quite interesting.

There’s that other song about escaping from Somali pirates.

Yeah. That’s a theme across the record. It’s called ‘Fear Anchor‘. Ostensibly it’s about the fear of having another child, and I have just had another child (laughs).

Congratulations.

Thank you very much. The previous album was written in the run-up to my first child being born, and this one in the lead up to my second child being born. I think I was kind of going through a bit of a mad time trying to come to terms with being a father and all that sort of stuff, with a world that every day seems to be disintegrating in on itself. I think we’re a more politically aware generation perhaps than twenty years ago. And things seem to be a little bit more… Or maybe that’s not true, but something feels quite claustrophobic at the moment. So I was aware of that and then being really scared about bringing another child into the world and then I listened to this podcast where this guy, Michael Scott Martin, was recounting a tale of his exploits of being kidnapped by actual Somali pirates, and then thinking oh right, what he went through must have been actual fear and the fear that I have about becoming a father again is kind of… you know, lots of people have done it before me. It puts a perspective on it.

And they were all scared too.

Yeah, all petrified. I’ve deliberately made the song sound really dad-rock (laughs), because that’s another fear of mine, that I would eventually become dad-rock, so let’s embrace it. Quite literally Embrace it.

So, moving on, you’re on tour at the moment with Steve Mason. How did that come about? It’s a bit early in the tour, isn’t it? To ask you how it’s going?

This is literally the first date. I’ve not even seen him yet. I assume he’ll turn up at some point.

Good.

I’ve been a fan of Steve’s like for ages. I mean his music and the Beta Band’s music was a huge turning point. They were the band that made me fall in love with music really. I was a fan of music and I bought CDs –

(At this point a couple of random, angry men walk past Wetherspoons and apropos of nothing discernable one of them shouts, ‘FUCKING DICKHEAD!’ CB and JL smirk bravely until they are out of earshot.)

Welcome to Cardiff, yeah?

Everyone’s a critic.

Yeah, Beta Band were like the band that made me think, oh I want to make music. I was so in awe of how they created songs and their collage approach to recordings and stuff. It just blew my mind. So I’ve been a fan of his stuff since then really. I was living in America at the time, my family had moved overseas and I was a teenager in America at high school there and as soon as I graduated I wanted to move back to Scotland. And I used to go to a record shop in America called Secret Soundz and the guy who ran the shop there was like oh, have you decided what college you want to go to? And I was like I’m not sure and he was like, well me and my friends chose our college based on the bands we were into at the time. He went to Athens, Georgia. He was a big REM fan. So he was like what’s your favourite band? And I was like, it’s the Beta Band, where are they from? And they were from St Andrews in Fife and so I moved to Fife and got in tow with the whole Fence scene that was happening there. And that had very strong ties to the Beta Band – Gordon Anderson’s a founder member of that band. So I found myself in the nucleus of that scene I guess.

So I’ve been in touch with Steve over the years. He’s played a few of the events that we put on. In the Fence days, I used to put on an event called Home Game in Anstruther. I invited him a few times and he played and they were always amazing shows. When I moved up to Eigg I invited him to come up and play our Highland Fling event, our first one as Lost Map, with his band and played it and was totally amazing. So we’re not in contact a lot but he’s clocked that I’m a big fan. Like any sort of superfan, you’re always sort of… ooooh-kay. But he’s been very patient with me and very supportive. I sent him an e-mail asking if I could go on this tour, and he was like yeah, come and join us. Hopefully, it’s not been a massive elaborate joke.

(Laughs)

He’s actually in Leicester tonight…

Oh god! That would be classic me if that happened.

I’m pretty sure you’re all right.

I saw a poster… so fingers crossed.

I had a last question about Lost Map Records. It must be difficult to run a record label and do your own stuff. So as the kind of god-like Svengali figure of Lost Map records, if you were to advise someone who was doing the same thing, what have been your best and worst decisions as a record label boss?

I have to think about this.

Okay, you can be as diplomatic as you want, if there are secrets….

The Lost Map thing was born out of necessity. I’d been working at Fence for ten years and running the label there and then found myself in the position where that thing had completely just disintegrated, and couldn’t continue, so I spoke with all the bands who were with Fence at the time who we were working with and we started up a new thing. Lost Map was born and it’s been really amazing because I’ve been able to immerse myself in all this music that we’ve been lucky enough to release and forge relationships and friendships with the people whose music we put out. And it kind of feels like, particularly since I’ve been on my own on Eigg, the way I operate is very much outside any specific scene in any city or town. Even with Fence we were operating out of a fishing village where there was a definite singer-songwriter mentality, like things had to fit in with a certain kind of aesthetic or a certain sound, whereas with Lost Map it feels like things are bit more open and I can put out whatever the fuck I like. Which is good.

But you’re asking the best and worst decisions? The best decision was just to start Lost Map I think, and preceding Lost Map the best decision for me was to move to Eigg. Lost Map was born out of that decision. And then the whole direction where my music has gone has come out of that as well. It’s been a liberating thing. I’m not sure how much that’s good advice for everyone else…

Find somewhere incredibly remote?

Cut yourself off from everyone.

There’s only so many islands as well.

That’s true. But I think the best decision in that respect was just following my gut and not having to worry about doing something cool, or something that fits within a certain scene necessarily. It’s just kind of going with what music I like listening to and which people I like working with.

The worst decision though was maybe being too honest with some of the artists. Telling them what I think about things (laughs), like what changes should be made. You know, speaking as someone who makes music myself, we all have fragile egos, and I’m aware of that now. Trying to be as diplomatic with the acts as possible. It’s not always easy.

I bet.

Because you want to be honest. I am like… very blunt sometimes with acts about what I like and what I don’t like. But I’ve learned to match that with, er, this thing is really good, and kind of ensure I balance the good cop with the bad cop.

Also, I have to massage that ego, make them feel confident. It’s something I’ve had to take on myself and go, all right well, I have to instil that sense of confidence in my own thing. Because otherwise… it’s a weird thing creating something and putting it out there, you put so much of your hopes and ambitions into it and you kind of put it out there thinking, I hope someone likes this. Even as much as any musician would say they’ve created something on their own terms and they’ve created something that’s just for them… when you make something there’s a lot that’s tied into that. There’s a lot of your hope and a lot of your identity that’s…

Oh yeah, I feel that writing about music, and that’s a weird kind of thing. It’s like if someone says I liked your review… I’m like, well that’s flattering, but you liked my opinion about someone else’s efforts?… but it’s still… it can feel quite exposed.

Well it’s a dying art. You know, you’re a great writer, the things you’ve written about Callum Easter this year have been great, there’s things where it’s definitely given us the confidence.

I wasn’t fishing for compliments!

But you’ll recognise yourself that it is a bit of a dying art. There’s so many that just crib directly from a press release or something, or, things are just delivered in such a flat uninspired way. That when good writing does come out, it should be recognised.

Aw thank you, Johnny. I won’t put that in (somehow the comment finds its way into the finished article).

There you go.

I’ll just keep that for myself (a likely story). That’s probably enough. I did have some silly questions to ask at the end.

Go for it.

Answer as freely or as fully as you want to.

Ok

Van Morrison or Camper Van Beethoven?

Oooooooooooh. Er. I’d probably go Camper Van Beethoven, because, what’s their big tune?

It’s ‘Take the Skinheads Bowling‘ is the classic.

Bowling yes. And Van Morrison’s meant to be an absolute dick isn’t he. Although I heard an amazing story about him at a festival…

(They spend a considerable amount of time exchanging legends about Van Morrison’s epically truculent behaviour before concluding that it wouldn’t do to get on his bad side)

Actually, you know what, I’ve changed my mind, Van Morrison all the way.

(CB nods with vigorous enthusiasm)

David Attenborough or Professor Brian Cox?

Oh God. I’m gonna be controversial and say, Brian Cox.

Oh yeah?

D:Ream innit?

(Both giggle)

Also he just seems quite smiley. He was on an episode of Postman Pat. I’ve watched that recently with Arlo. I’ll go Brian Cox.

There is the idea that he takes an unbelievable quantity of drugs as well.

Oh really?

There is a meme of him that went around just going it’s amazing! We’re all made out of stardust!

Yeah (laughs), I’m on team Cox.

King Crimson or King Tubby?

God, I’m glad you didn’t say something else. (CB laughs) To be honest I’m not overly familiar with either. Like what’s the guitarist in King Crimson?

Fripp

Robert Fripp. I’m gonna go Fripp.

Power ballads or torch songs?

Oh god. What is an example of a torch song?

I dunno. Edith Piaf or Scott Walker. Some of his would qualify.

I’d probably go for a torch song over – I’m not gonna choose power ballad because – Whitesnake? It’s a part of all that. Journey?

And the final and most divisive question, Shetland or Orkney?

Eigg. (Much laughter) Fucking west coast!

Thumb World is released on Fire Records on 21 February 2020. Pictish Trail is on tour throughout December and next spring.

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