The Witchdoctor Q&A – Paul McLaney

Witchdoctor spoke to Paul McLaney about his new Gramsci album and what inspired it. Oh, and other important stuff.

 Paul McLaney holds a unique place amongst all the singers, players and writers vying for attention in NZ’s music marketplace. No one has been anywhere near as productive over the past 25 years or worked under as many pseudonyms or tried his hand at as many different genres, all the while maintaining a reputation for reliability and consistency and a kind of emotional authenticity.

Working under his own name, or that of The Impending Adorations or Gramsci (not to mention his collaborative projects or the many theatre excursions into theatre music), Paul McLaney has built a reputation for meticulous artistry and superb presentation, and each successive album is guaranteed to be etched in blood and full of beautifully produced and engineered audio and featuring cover artwork that’s ornate and meaningful.

 

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And it was primarily McLaney behind the marvellous 2011 concept album, Immram: The Voyage of the Corvus Corrone, a prank project which pretended to be a lost progressive rock masterwork from the 1970s.

His new Gramsci album (with bandmates Marika Hodgson on bass and Greg Haver on drums and synths) is called The Hinterlands and it’s a lovely slab of vinyl that’s, as the cover demands, “TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME” to extract the fullness of its vivid, larger-than-life, anthemic 1980s-inspired sound.

 

Gary Steel – Your different projects – from your solo work to the Impending Adorations, Gramsci and others – as well as your sheer productivity means making sense of what you do is a little mind-boggling. Could you explain something of the main threads of your various nomenclatures you have worked under?

Paul McLaney – Yeah, the compartmentalisation of it all is probably unnecessary looking back across it all. I was always drawn to musicians with a broad palette, Bowie obviously. It’s a long way from ‘Kooks’ to ‘The Voyeur of Utter Destruction As Beauty’, never mind ‘Warsazawa’ to ‘Modern Love’. The same can be said of the man who seemingly wrote ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Helter Skelter’ in the same week… Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Thom Yorke, David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush… the list goes on and on. I adore restless invention.

But to answer your question in regards my three main monikers: in my mind, music released as Paul McLaney is what I do without artifice; primarily acoustic and recorded live. Like photographs really, whereas Gramsci is more akin to oil paintings. It’s the sound of my musical ambition; where my voice can go, both as a lead vocalist and in arrangement, harmonies, etc. It’s where I collide ideas and hopefully add something to the conversation of music. The Impending Adorations is more an idea of sound. With that project I’m trying to bypass traditional instrumentation and make what I call ‘the music of the mind’ – it’s very much inspired by artists like Burial and Eno.

Gary – When you walked into my record shop in ’97 with your debut album, The Prayer Engine, I had you down as “that folk guy who clearly likes Nick Drake.” This assessment has proved woefully inadequate as stylistically you’ve proved yourself a master of whatever music genre you’re interested in at the time: from the fingerpicking genre blend of early Gramsci to Talk Talk-like introspection to electronic experimentation to power rock and the kind of almost ‘80s sounding pop/rock of the new album, The Hinterlands. Are you just easily bored or is there some other reason for this restless genre-hopping?

Paul – I’m either easily bored or not so easily engaged. It’s that idea of restless invention again I suppose. I find genre specification lazy in a way: soft rock, hard rock, alternative rock, adult orientated rock, progressive rock,  indie rock, yacht rock… and that’s just getting started on the Venn diagram of rock. For me the aesthetic of the music is something that is created in sympathy to the exposition of the emotional content. Hopefully this record is all of those genres in fleeting moments.

Gary – Speaking of The Hinterlands, its style and moods make it feel thematic somehow, though on a brief listen I can’t quite connect the dots. Is this your pandemic record? Or at least, your response to the cognitive dissonance that the changed world has brought? It feels like you’re pleading for people to focus on an inner world… on what’s intrinsic about being human and an appreciation of the things that really matter.

Paul – Well there’s no dodging the fact it was written across the last 18 months. The central concept really is an exploration of the emotional interior. The idea of the hinterlands accesses the shared cultural metaphor of landscape for that vast internal expanse. It’s a forced/focused examination of the self. Speaking for me specifically it’s a coming to terms with who I am, an arrival of my complete musical self. I truly feel like it’s taken this long and this much music for me to arrive at my honest artistic self. I like big, heartfelt, cinematic music driven by guitars and the engine of rock. It’s the genre above all others that conjures an alchemic magical space.

Gary – The new album kind of reminds me of the emotionally present, heart-on-sleeve devotional rock of  ‘80s Christian band The Call, whose influences I guess were part Joy Division and part U2! Is The Hinterland a religious record, or is it more abstract than that?

Paul – It’s certainly fervent. I don’t know The Call but definitely Joy Division and the good bits of U2. By that I mean specifically when their European sensibilities were in full flight. It’s what Mike Scott called The Big Music. I’m not a religious person. Without getting too pretentious, most people close to me would agree that music itself IS my religion. I’m quite fascinated by texts like The Phenomenon Of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin where he tries to prove God through science. Effectively it’s the ambition of communion and for me music is founded upon empathy; music without empathy is noise.

Gary – It also sounds (to me at least!) rather 1980s – maybe because of Greg’s powerful but distinctively AOR-sounding drums. Was this intentional?

Paul – It’s definitely taking a nod from the early post-punk thing, albums like Seventeen Seconds but equally enthralled to Avalon-era Roxy. We wanted to make an incredibly sonic record and there was a big ambition around that in late ‘80s with artists like Talk Talk, Tears For Fears, Japan, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush et al. The intention was to rub shoulders with those ambitions. The 1980s is such a vast reference point. It can mean Go West and Flock of Seagulls in the same way it can mean REM and Pere Ubu…

Gary – ‘The Beginning’ with its draping of Mellotrons, horror movie keyboards and demonic chord changes is notably progressive-influenced. Does this mean that we might get a whole progressive-oriented album soon? (We heard through the grapevine that you were something of a Jethro Tull fan). Or did the anonymous Immram: The Voyage Of Corvus Corrone get most of your prog wah-wah’s out?

Paul – Ha! Yes, I’m grooming the band for a heavier prog focus. Again, the central idea of ‘progressive rock’ for me is music that reaches a little higher, a little further. I’m not really a big fan or multiple time signatures and musicality for musicality’s sake but attempting music that stretches out further but does so with an emotional mandate. Something like ‘Dogs’ by Pink Floyd rather than anything by King Crimson. Heavy Horses is my favourite Tull album and I suppose that’s more progressive folk or something. The new Floating Points album with Pharoah Sanders is currently a big inspiration. I very much want to attempt longer forms next time.

Gary – When so many artists have waxed and waned over the past 30 years you’ve just kept on keeping on. And not only that, have put together an impressive catalogue of albums, all of which are intricately performed, produced and engineered with genuine thought having gone into packaging and presentation. How did you know how to do all this so well, and how have you survived intact all these years?

Paul – Thank you, I appreciate that. I just move forward really. It feels like some sort of quest. This album does feel like an artistic arrival. I’m always listening and learning, and I think I’m still improving. I suppose one of the benefits of flying below the radar is that I don’t have the golden handcuffs of early success that require me to belt out the same repertoire of five or six hits year after year. I can sing and play how I feel now, and tomorrow and the next day.

Gary – How do we get hold of The Hinterlands?

Paul – It’s available on vinyl and compact disc via the Gramsci Bandcamp page or at local record stores as well as Flying Out and JB Hi Fi online.

 

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