Engine7 – Me, But Perfect -
a solo project or more of a collective?
Right now there's six of us in the live collective, but the recorded stuff is just me. I'm more comfortable recording and writing alone, just finding my sound, but the girls who sing with me are just fantastic, and I'm looking forward to doing some new tracks with them soon.
You’re first release was the EP ‘Hope Street’ – a famous street in Glasgow - and you continue to use a succession of musicians and singers from the city in your work. How do you think the city affects your work, perhaps in mood or inspiration?
The music is a reflection of me as a person. I try to be quite honest, and not analyse it too much. The city influences my mood, yes, but for me, the music is just the stuff that has to come out. 'Hope Street' had that grimy, night time feel to it, which seemed to have a city centre oppressiveness. The title was ironic. I think the new album is truly one of hope though. Hoping to get out of the city maybe.
You’ve been prominent on the netlabel scene for a while now, what made you decide to start working with Scottish electronic label Herb?
Netlabels are a fantastic way to find your footing, but i think people's reaction to getting music for free is that it's less precious. It's sad, but many people will download a free album, listen to it once, and file it away on their hard drive. It's only natural. I wanted more people to hear my music, and hopefully treasure it, and Herb are arguably the best electronica label in Scotland. They are very supportive. I speak to the owner, Craig Murphy, every day.
Your debut album, the stunning ‘Me, But Perfect’…what can you tell me about its conception and writing? What’s the significance of the times after each song?
It's the soundtrack to a day in the life of my one year old daughter, all the events and mood swings from waking up in the morning to going to sleep at night. Babies and toddlers need to follow a strict routine, so we wrote down all the times of when something should happen, like meal times, nap time, bath time, bed time. We could predict her mood according to the times. I wrote a song for each event on the list, reflecting her mood.
So, is this a concept record almost, and isn’t that a dangerous game to play?
I don't think it should be construed as pretentious. It's very simple, not a rock opera or anything. A day in the life of a one year old child is full of wonder, joy, frustration, confusion, bliss. It just seemed like an interesting little soundtrack. It's not fey or twee though.
The first single, the frenzied Tempertantrum has been well received so far, what can you tell me about that track?
Haha! That's the one before naptime. Tempertantrum is all about the buildup. There's layers and layers of textured synths, adding more and more pressure till this massive beat just explodes. I always end up hurting myself when I play that one live.
Are there any tracks that are standouts for you, any that you’re particularly proud of, or pleased with?
I love the last track, 'Goodnight, I Love You'. It's very personal. I'm fond of using little glockenspiels and children's musical instruments. The pitched down brass section at the end works well. I'd like to do an EP that follows on from that track.
Since the album was written as a whole, do you think that some might miss the overall meaning in today’s iPod ‘shuffle’ culture, where the individual track is king?
It's no problem. Once it's out there, people should listen to it any way they like, I can't be too precious about it. The tracks wouldn't work in any other order, so you couldn't really listen to the album on shuffle, but if 'Obssessive/ Compulsive' came on after Girls Aloud
and before Right Said Fred
, hey, it might work.
Where does the name ‘Engine7’ come from, any obvious references there that we’re missing?
There was a documentary called 911 made by two brothers about a rookie in the New York fire department. The morning they started filming, was September 11 2001. They were called to the World Trade Centre, and shot the only footage from inside as the building collapsed. It's an amazing film, totally terrifying, but those firefighters were just fantastic. Anyway, the vehicles they were in charge of in that firehouse were called Ladder 1 and Engine7. Boards of Canada
?…Scotland seems to have a healthy electronic pedigree, don’t you think? What do you think inspires that?
Scotland has a very rich musical heritage, from all kinds of genres - folk, pop, rock, post-rock, and electronica. For some reason, lots of interesting music can come from small countries. Scots seem to be good at coming up with big ideas. Seeing them through is sometimes the problem...
Does it ever bother you that there’s a whole network of artists who support each other, a whole scene like yours, which although popular in specialized press, never seems to get the same recognition as the next indie rock band in the mainstream press?
It doesn't bother me personally, but I do want Scottish electronica to reach a wider audience. That's only going to happen when the scene is more visible, and comes out from underground. It just needs the right person, in the right venue. Alex Kapranos did it 13 years ago in the 13th Note, supporting bands like Mogwai
and The Delgados
Can you remember what bands or artists turned you onto music in the first place, was there a defining moment or memory, and how have your tastes evolved since then?
The first Pearl Jam
album was a turning point for me, back in '91. It sounds really dated now, but that made me pick up a guitar. U2
's Zooropa in '93 was a bit of a discovery, as was Nine Inch Nails
' The Downward Spiral the year after, both produced by Flood. They're both rock albums, but the production on them is incredible. I spent a week in Berlin in '97 and there was a night in Tresor, a moment when dance music just seemed to fall into place and I understood it. Before then I wasn't sure what it was there for. Now I'll listen to anything. I liked the new Britney Spears
album a lot.
What would your desert island disc be…your monument of musical output, by any artist and why?
Symphony No.3 by Henryk Górecki
. It's absolutely the most beautiful, emotional piece of music I have ever heard. I try not to listen to it too much though, just when I need to.
It’s hard to be objective about your own appeal, but if you could define it, what sort of people do you tend to find connect with your music the most?
There's a lot of emotions in the tracks, but it's not specific. There's vocals on the album, but no words. I think it's easy for people to identify with the music because of that.
Describe for me your home studio set-up? I use a MacBook Pro with Propellerheads Reason and Ableton Live. I've just bought an Edirol FA-101 audio interface for recording the band, but I haven't used it yet. I play electric and acoustic guitar, and a few keyboards. I've got a gorgeous Jen monophonic synth that hums when you plug it in, and a collection of glocks, chimes and shakers that I got sent over from Germany. I've got a box full of guitar pedals, but most of the guitar modeling is done with software.
What can you tell me about the technical process of writing? What hardware, programs and plug-ins do you use most?
I use a MacBook Pro with Propellerheads Reason and Ableton Live. I'm loving the PSP plugins right now, especially the Mixpressor. Wave Arts' MultiDynamics is amazing as well. The challenge is to make it not sound digital, but still keep it clean.
As a guitarist, where did you begin to work with electronics in your music and what drew you to that, rather than just conventional indie-rock performance? I was in a band for years, and our drummer was always wasted on account of taking pain killers for back pain, so me and the bassist started messing around with samplers and Roland MC-303s, as a kind of backup. By the time we figured out how to use the gear, we'd lost interest in the band, and started making lots of dodgy electro tracks. I stopped playing guitar for years. I've actually just picked it up again recently. I kind of had to because when I started playing live, I felt more comfortable on stage holding a guitar. It seems to be a more immediate connection to the audience.
To what degree are your final pieces structured/improvised/indeterminate?
All of my tracks evolve from improvisations. The structure comes from long and painstaking tinkering. I started the album three years ago...
What’s your most prized piece of kit, that one item that you simply could not live without?
My iPod. Every time I tinker with a track, I stick it on my iPod and go out for a walk. Music sounds so different when you get out of your studio, it's like it becomes real suddenly. So I can use my ipod as a quality control tool, to make sure the track works in a 'listening' situation.
Tell me about some of the other musicians you work with, and how did those relationships come about? . You supported The Orb
for your first ever gig…what can you tell me about that? How did it come about and how did it go?
It was kind of accidental. The promoter came across my music and just asked me to play. He was a really nervous guy who had invested everything in this gig. I stepped outside to compose myself just before going on, and he came up to me and said 'you must have played loads of gigs, then', just making chat. I said 'this is my first one'. He just put his head in his hands. It was a great gig though. The Orb came on and mixed their first track with my last. They were gentlemen. The promoter lost a fortune though.
How does the live set differ from your recorded output?
The live sound has much more energy. The beats and guitar are more upfront. We've developed this technique where I can sample the vocals live, loop and reverse them, repitch them and so on. There's a part of the show where we build a huge chorus from one vocal line. We put on a good show - neck hairs stand up I'm told.
Visuals seem to play a part in your live performance, how significant is this to the Engine7 experience?
I'm a graphic designer too, so I do my own artwork. I think the live projections help to focus the audience. The gigs work without the visuals, but it's a much richer experience with them. I never get to see them though, I need to video a gig one time.
Is playing live where it’s at for you, or do you prefer the comfort and isolation of the studio?
I like both situations. They feed eachother: in the studio I can make lots of delicate little chimes that sound great in your earphones, and on stage I can make fat basslines that make beer bottles fall off tables.
For me, your work really made me think of artists like Sigur Ros, who I think take the listener on an inner journey, harnessing human emotion in a really evocative and cinematic way…is that something you aim for with Engine7?
Absolutely. But it's easier to analyse the music after it's finished. It's just the way it comes out naturally. A piece of music that doesn't take you on a journey, or doesn't make you dance, is a waste of time.
If you had to pigeon-hole the Engine7 sound in the way that journalists are so keen to do, using just 2 words – what would they be?
With the album out on June 30th, what do you have lined up for the next year or so – have you been working on writing new material or any side projects or remixes at all?
I've been producing some other people, including Marie-Claire Lee
, a singer songwriter from Glasgow. I'm really enjoying that, as it's completely different, but I'm learning a lot. I'm working on an EP that should follow on quite nicely from the album, that's just about finished. I've started the next album too, but that's a different story...