IN CONVERSATION: Stephen Pastel on This Is Memorial Device soundtrack – “it’s a love letter”

‘Why am I doing this?’ are the opening words in Stephen ‘Pastel’ McRobbie and Gavin Thomson’s album This Is Memorial Device: Music From The Stage Play, based on the theatrical production of David Keenan’s 2017 cult novel. The play and book tell the story of a fictional Scottish band from early 1980s, the best band you never heard and ain’t it the truth every town and city has one of those? With this Memorial Device, from the town of Airdrie some 12 miles east of Glasgow, no-one but the characters in the book know what the group actually sound like and somehow, that does not feel too important. Readers, and listeners of the record, or the play’s audience are not excluded because of it. We do not lose out.

The band was at the centre of a microcosm of activity and creativity, during a time when post-punk turned – some – public spaces and streets into alternative inspirational creative places of promise. Writing, recording, rehearsing, drinking, the whole lot. The story of Memorial Device is a celebration of a world of loyal communities and yes, an amount of bravery. Because after all, as the book says, ‘it’s not easy being Iggy Pop in Airdrie’. The sheer daring it takes to believe there is something else out there for you.

The music on this record seeks to emphasise, create atmosphere, illustrate spoken word and mood rather than attempt to recreate or imagine the works of Memorial Device itself. Over a simple piano and ethereal ghostliness, we are educated by ‘Introduction To Why I Did It’ , Ross Raymond (Paul Higgins of The Thick of It/Line of Duty) asking himself why he has taken it on himself to tell the story of Memorial Device. In his answer he talks passionately of himself as a young buck, when creativity and art transformed Airdrie, a place of modest means but collective belief in the power of art, its endless opportunities and possible, impossible magics.

Why? feels a suitable question to put to Stephen Pastel. He, with long term Pastels soundman Gavin Thomson wrote the record,  and worked on the new music and sounds with the band’s Katrina Mitchell, John Hogarty and Tom Crossley.  Why such a focus on a novel appropriately subtitled “an hallucinated oral history of the post-punk scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and environs 1978-1986”, a story – many stories – now decades old? 
Stephen explains over Zoom how he was asked by award-winning theatre director and playwright Graham Eatough to create music for the stage performance interpretation at Edinburgh International Book Festival, a project later fleshed out thanks to funding from the Royal Lyceum Theatre in the city. But what chimed so strong and familiar for Stephen was unearthing archive tapes from his own teenage years, songs recorded around the same time the book is set. ‘Mad stuff I’d done with my friend John (McCorkindale) in the early 80s that had a very similar feeling to the book.’

Similar in what way?

‘They were off-the-cuff. In the moment. I would meet up with John, and we’d just jam often on a Friday evening, also probably getting drunk and I think we took acid a couple of times. And we’d just go for it. We just switched things on. It was recorded direct to cassette, teenage madness that had something about it that was good. One of the themes of the book is the belief in art, and music is something that could transform a place and make your life better. Our lives were made better through the madness of what we got up to on a Friday night.’

We Have Sex’ springs from that bank of teenage dreams, an abrasive chaos re-built with Gavin for the project, adding another drum machine and bass. The recording is a reflection of two lads way back, seeing no limits and enjoying the endless possibilities of art, sex and music, and so, unwittingly, unconsciously part of the Memorial Device vibe. And a prime example of excitable youth heading towards the future.

Ruminating on a time forty years ago, when the book is set, it would be easy to rely on nostalgic sentimentality, but with the album being Memorial Device’s third interpretation – the book, and stage play being the first two – the release gives it life, as opposed to a gathering dust retelling of rehashed old tales.
‘There is a romance about the book, and some of it’s really beautiful, some of it’s quite gnarly too, there’s kind of really horrible moments in the book,’ says Stephen. ‘The narrative that Graham picked out probably leaves out a lot. It follows certain stories. I think we were all very wary of it being a working-class, slightly grim telling of post punk and Airdrie. That’s the starting point for it, but it’s not really what it’s about.

Airdrie’s a post-industrial town, he explains, a mixture of many elements. Fancy houses, council houses, the town centre a combination of brilliance like the library, then the tanning bars, nail salons, vape shops you see in every town in Scotland, England, Wales or Ireland.

Working class stories though, are under told, does he not agree?

‘It doesn’t look to me a great deal of social planning’s gone into Airdrie. It’s quite higgledy-piggledy, odd things brushing up against each other. So it is a working class town in the main and it’s really valid to say that, when you look at what gets published, it’s vastly disproportionate white, male middle class. But also, I think there’s more than that, to live in a place like Airdrie.

‘Within reason, people have got the means to transform, or float above their surroundings, and it was possible then. I mean, it’s probably harder than ever, it’s been a very bad time politically I think, but David (Keenan)’s own experience was very, very different. His dad was illiterate, but an absolutely loving parent. They had an amazing experience as a family, his mother was a teacher. I know David’s Airdrie a little bit, and there’s a lot to it. It’s not just one thing.’

With the music on the album, Stephen and Gavin didn’t want it to sound too ‘posh’ as he words it, and instead aimed for it to sound as rudimentary as the music on those old Friday night tapes. ‘We listened to a lot of Cabaret Voltaire because that felt like the kind of landmark of what that kind of music would be. We tried to record in a slightly different way from how we would if it was a Pastels recording. We wanted to be respectful. The novel’s a total cult thing, we didn’t want to shatter any illusion for people. Everyone will see it as something else.’

The album places demands on our imaginations. The imaginations of the characters themselves are massive; they see and retell in full technicolor, and dream big. On ‘I Started Painting Landscapes’ the band’s fan and friend Andrea focusses in on a painting on the wall in Memorial Device’s rehearsal room, and recalls the adventures that she went on in her head as the band played. How she lost herself in the landscape. The drone vibrates under words and slowly intensifies as her imagination goes for it, the music pulling her into the forest in the picture. She’s taking us there.  

And then, we have ‘What Is A Memorial Device?’  where Ross invites us to come up with the answer ourselves. We are no passive observers. It feels an active pursuit. We all have a memorial device, surely. It makes you think. Does Stephen have one?

‘Yes, I do. We lost my mum during lockdown, and I ended up moving back to our old house. So in a way, that’s my memorial device. But memorial devices are different things, different friendships you have, you’ve got these multiple memorial devices.’

With ‘Footsteps In The Snow’
The Memorial Device dream is darkened. The end of innocence. Reality hits, hard. The band turns in on itself, the community around it unwelcome and elbowed out. Andrea is narrated by Gabriel Quigley. Her recollection of the night it ends, the dream over, is delivered with both dark humour and heartbreak. The music arrangements are perfectly pitched; it is super low, akin to quiet footsteps underneath, before it intensifies and brings a true sorrow to the surface. It’s so beautiful too.

‘It was a nice piece to work with. It’s probably one of the more Pastel pieces. She’s just got this way of conveying this kind of disillusionment ,’ says Stephen of Gabriel, ‘when you look forward to this big event, and then it’s a crappy, horrible kind of horrible record company, we become aware that they’re coming to the end of their trajectory. And she’s coming to end of her trajectory with the group.’  
‘Light Out For Forever’
is spoken word perfectly soundtracked by a field recording of fresh air and birds chirping. It mourns Lucas (Black), Memorial Device’s singer who comes to a sorry end but the narrator wonders once more, glimpsing new dreams. ‘I think of Lucas, and his bootlegging of memories. And then I see him as a pirate, a laughing skull and bones now and it makes me want to up anchor once more,’ Ross intones.

Imagination is so powerful, isn’t it?

‘Imagination and memory, and people misremembering things and that becoming the truth or their truth. The idea that there’s a kind of universality of everything, it just isn’t possible,’ says Stephen. ‘You know, even with my own group, The Pastels, we, Katrina and Annabel and myself, we all remember different things and in different ways. And that’s not so long ago, we did most of that work in the 90s.’

The novel, play and album doesn’t feel like a sentimental “what could have been, if only…” scenario. The Memorial Device story comes across as an emotional yet accurate portrayal of a time. One worth documenting.

‘It’s not dwelling on moments that went wrong. It’s just saying these were the moments that took place, and there are moments that take place now that are different. There’s a lot of nostalgia everywhere, it can be overwhelming sometimes. There is a part of me that always wants to get details right, but also, I don’t think that’s the most important thing. But I think it’s a really strong piece of theatre. It’s incredible. And I don’t think it’s all that important that you were around in the 1980s in the West of Scotland.’

‘The Morning Of The Executioners‘ sees us out. Mirroring that experience of Stephen looking over those old cassettes and working on them, two of the members of Memorial Device find a tape Lucas left, and develop it into a more realised piece. Gavin come up with a melancholic, mournful funereal brass arrangement. ‘We were wondering whether we should put drums on, and we weren’t sure, because it was the climax of the record. And then we decided to put some kind of military style snare you get sometimes was a person of some prominence.’
Katrina was away at this time so Jennifer, Gav’s partner played drums on it. ‘Ross, the narrator, he’s trying to recreate this incredible moment he had a Memorial Device concert, he’s trying to bring the audience with him, and gets quite séance-like in places in the theatre adaptation. But then when he hears this music, he realises that, you know, it’s something else. It’s not, it’s not just this nostalgia for how you felt when you were 16, it’s something more profound than that.’

If the book is a love letter for that time back in the 1980s and Airdrie, what is the album?

‘It’s also a love letter. Really the starting point, apart from the novel, was finding these tapes. The sheer madness and joy of them. So I felt a real affection for that time, and the kind of innocence before doing everything, everything’s in front of you. You don’t have any rules or anything. The music’s purpose is to make the theatre piece work. But I wouldn’t have wanted it to come out as a record unless I was proud of it, and thought it added something to Memorial Device. I think it’s brought out something else in the book, that it’s a slightly different telling of the story. Music explains things in different ways.’

This Is Memorial Device: Music from the Stage Play is released via Geographic Music on 28 June.

Photo credit: Steven Gribbin

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.