“Without cinema, I wouldn’t be writing music, it’s as simple as that; it’s more influential than anything in my life, I’d say...”-James McDermid
James A. McDermid: the mastermind behind This Exquisite Pain and a recently completed album trio dedicated to his late sister, Harriet…
The initial record to this trilogy, “Ghost Folk,” is composed of 25 emotive tracks & was released on Brad Deschamps’ Polar Seas Recordings on 21 April 2017. Later on, we saw KrysaliSound release the follow-up, “Tonal Glints” on 18 February 2018. The final part to the trilogy, “Kern-Host,” was released via Harry Towell’s Whitelabrecs on November 18, 2018. After coming back to music production and creative outputs in a huge way with a trio after a brief hiatus, it’s a blessing to have McDermid’s creativity for inspiration, or even solace in our constantly connected busy lives.
As one door closes, another opens, and reveals another transitioning part of McDermid’s story. (but many, many more surprises are in the pipeline from talented McDermid…)
Enter Shimmering Moods Records to the picture. 20 February 2019 reveals a drift, a timestamp, a train journey into James’ life. During this time, moving cities was one of the most significant changes that had impacted McDermid to break the cycle. In the process, sparks of motivation were spawned to create an empowering and energetic state. “In Little Swallows” is the result of revisiting prior years of similar out-of-sync daily train rides — which shared the same space as Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment and Benoît Pioulard’s Précis… The combination of these two spawned an album to remember this time-frame forever…
Feeling inspired by the work and meaningful ideology of James’ soundscapes, the artist interview had to happen. Below is the outcome of our collaboration work.
Friday Artist Feature 07 :: James A. McDermid
James: I don’t think I really have a production style, per sé; I’ve always worked with whatever I had around me until something worked. I used to collect vintage analogue gear and I’d work with those almost exclusively; this was before VSTs were prominent and/or affordable. I’d use field recordings – as well as anything I could bang or hit – recorded to tape and then feed that through whatever synth had the right filter for what I wanted to do. After a number of years – and constant maintenance – I sold all of my synths and went completely into Laptop/VST territory; however, I found this didn’t work for me at all and it led to me taking a break from music for several years. When I started back up again in 2014/2015, I was sampling myself playing the accordion, guitar, violin, cello and working them in Ableton Live – once I felt a fresh connection between what was in my head and my heart, I continued on with what became ‘Ghost Folk’. What hasn’t changed is that an idea or trigger has to come before I start on the sounds. If I’m simply noodling away – and I don’t have a nugget of an idea – then I’m not disciplined enough to see it through to anything more than a half-baked idea.
AG: How has running your own label, Nastycandy Records, for sometime changed your outlook on the music industry?
James: Well, for me, running a label and/or releasing music through a label is about sharing something I feel passionate about with others who may also respond to it. There was never any money to be made really in running a low-key label like I used to have; more than that, there was no real way you could easily sell music online. It’s absolutely a more straightforward and immediate process now which, with the growth of Bandcamp and SoundCloud, has helped create a community of sorts where everyone tries to support one another whenever something new is posted. None of us need validation, but it’s nice when someone enjoys what you do. When I was trying to make my label Nastycandy work, all I wanted to do was get the music out there; however, the reality was that I spent almost all of my time on the telephone to vinyl plants, fickle distributors, radio stations etc. Had the label not had some airplay by John Peel on his main BBC evening show, I’m not sure I’d have broken even. Speaking of money, I will say that whilst there are musicians like myself who have a day-job and are happy making music for free and/or a token amount, that simply doesn’t work for musicians signed to labels who demand more from their artists. There’s this tendency to manipulate creative types (trying to make their chosen field a profession) to work for free. This isn’t just musicians I’m talking about, but every field from photography to stand-up comedy; you’re asked for your work for free in return of the “privilege” of being shown some interest. It must be incredibly frustrating. Spotify, for example, is great for giving people access to music who might not be able to afford buying it, but there’s something grossly cynical about not paying those musicians anything other than peanuts – even when they’re doing tens of thousands of streams. Whilst I enjoy the nostalgia of simpler times, I accept change and I accept that this is just how it is now.
AG: Can you talk a little bit about your radio show, This Exquisite Pain? How did you coin the idea for a radio show with such deep, personal connections for listeners?
James: I went through some particularly rough times towards the end of 2017. 2018 was my recovery year and it’s when I started This Exquisite Pain.
I’m not saying anything new here because, like anyone in similar situations, I found a lot of comfort in listening to more melancholic music than perhaps more uplifting stuff. I’m talking about anything from the likes of Siouxsie, Leonard Cohen, Sufjan Stevens, Joni Mitchell… as well as Hotel Neon, Colleen, Chelsea Wolfe etc. I also re-read one of my favourite books during this period: a multimedia book by Sophie Calle called ‘Exquisite Pain’. In the book, Calle suggests that maybe great art can come from great suffering. In an oversimplified way, I can describe it as her turning her own heartbreak and devastation, into the book itself; however, rather than it being a novel about her pain, the second part of the book catalogues small (true) stories from strangers she asked “when did you most suffer?”. The book itself is way more angular than that – so I’m not doing it justice – but this was the seed of my idea at least. I figured I could put together a bi-weekly programme/show where I’d invite musicians and artists I admire to put together a mix within the theme of the Sophie Calle book, yet through their own personal lens of introspection. So, going back to my own experience with seeking solace in playlists I’d made for myself, I figured that with the popularity of people streaming mixes these days – Mixcloud; Soundcloud – it’d be interesting to have a show with a recurring theme that listeners could rely on each time they streamed a new episode.
AG: Music plays a key aspect in our lives — can you talk a little bit about traveling and producing music with minimalistic instrumentation available to you as reflected on your most recent album for Whitelabrecs: “Kern-Host”?
James: It’s not something I actively look to do as a necessity for me being productive, but when I do decide to go away it’s great that I can fit my laptop, controller keyboard and headphones in my little suitcase along with my clothes, etc…
The first time I did it was when my late sister and I went to Portugal for a week. She had finished her Chemo’ some months before and so this was just a relaxing break for her that I’d decided to come along as well. In the evenings after dinner she’d read her book and then fall asleep for a while; the doors to the terrace were open and the apartment overlooked the sea. So, I used to just sit outside with my modest set up and work on some tracks, with my sister in sight. Some tracks across Ghost Folk, Tonal Glints and Kern-Host were realised and worked on over that week, so I have strong clear memories of that week. It was the last time she would go to Portugal as she died less than a year later. The other side of traveling and writing is the exhilarating fear of going alone; both the fear and the excitement. France is my favourite place in the world and so I thought that by combining my romanticism of being in Paris alone, with the addictive miserablist attachment I had for solitude at the time, because of what my sister was going through – maybe some music will come out of it. I’m not sure if I’ll ever repeat these ways of producing, but they absolutely helped me at the time.
AG: It’s clear that you won’t be bound by specifics — as clearly identified in the recent guest mix you did on AG. Does film play a large role alongside your love for music [production] and unique take on nostalgia?
James: Film, absolutely, but nostalgia is not always an end point. Without cinema, I wouldn’t be writing music, it’s as simple as that; it’s more influential than anything in my life, I’d say. I was largely ignorant of cinema outside typical widely commercial tentpole stuff, until about 1998. It changed after a partner I was with at the time was a real cineaste and she just opened my world up to both European Cinema and the other side of the US film industry such as the independent market and classic Noir. I found that there were certain directors that just absolutely connected with me and left me with feelings and emotions and attitudes towards people and the world that I’d never experienced before. When you discover something like that which impacts you in such a powerful and profound way, it inevitably bleeds into whatever creative output you have. It chokes me up sometimes just thinking about the films that have shaped and matured me. That sounds a little flowery and pretentious, I’m sure, but I don’t mean it to be. Trust me, whatever I might end up saying about the real-life experiences behind albums of mine, more often than not a film exists in there somewhere too.
AG: In some of the album reviews we’ve read of your work – as well as an interview you did with Stationary Travels – we learned that it was your sister’s diagnosis in 2014 that snapped you out of your 6 year hiatus. So with the triptych of albums dedicated to her now complete – not to mentioned a handful of other albums you’ve put out in and around those releases – where do you find yourself now and your relationship with composing? Admittedly, you seem to have made up for lost time over the past 2 years, but looking through your Discogs, you’ve not been as prolific as you are now.
James: I’ve never felt as settled, musically, as I do now. I even think, to some degree, the label I ran all those years ago was to fill a gap in my own creativity. I loved writing when the moment struck, but those moments always seemed too few and far between and I never quite managed to coax albums out my self. After my album for October Man in 2008, I found myself with zero motivation or ideas to write music. I live in Bristol which has so many beautiful places to walk and visit, so I would go out at 9am on a Saturday and walk for about 3 hours just taking it all in. I’d feel energized and creative and alive and yet there was a block… a wall, I suppose, whenever I even considered the possibility of putting all that into music. Obviously that isn’t the case any longer. I’m not religious and I’m not spiritual, but I wondered if perhaps the confidence to sit down and write music again was gifted to me to me at a time I needed it most: to channel grief and the realisation my sister was going to die. Yes, I’ve written a lot of tracks, but the trilogy reserved for Harriet was specifically made up of tracks I made either when I was physically with her or when she was just there in my thoughts – particularly after she passed. In terms of the music I’m making outside of that, a newly discovered confidence can’t be discounted; that said, by learning to open myself up to translating into music whatever’s bubbling away inside me, it’s allowed me to keep writing about different things and not be drawn into a dangerous cycle of rumination on the past. Through Harriet, I found a door which was slightly ajar and I walked through it. I know where I want to go and I know how to get there – my mind is clear.
AG: Tell us about 2019 — will this prolific run will continue? Do you have anything planned?
James: Well, 2018 was made up of releases mostly written in 2017: Tonal Glints; Sunshine & Dust; Kern-Host. The album I did for 1834, Melodies of the Widowbird, was the only album I wrote start to finish in 2018. So I won’t be releasing 5 albums this year. So far In Little Swallows is the only thing completed. The next album (which I’m still working on) will be for Polar Seas. I’m already putting together ideas for collaborations with the poet Bára Hladíková – who is also releasing an album this year on Shimmering Moods – and musician Juliette Jemm, which I think will come to fruition this year as well. I’d like to get maybe 3 releases out in 2019; however, there are some beautiful labels I really want to be a part of, so who knows really what’ll happen!
As a side project to the This Exquisite Pain show, I’ll be setting up a label called TEP – a label where I really want to focus on the same themes as the show, but through the music of those who contribute. I’ll most likely put out a compilation first and donate all the money to a charity that supports those with problems arising from loneliness and depression. I’ll try and balance this with my own music and to continue, of course, with This Exquisite Pain. My main focus for the show in 2019 is to try and secure a regular scheduled spot for an online station e.g. Resonance Extra.
AG: What upcoming guests can we look forward to on This Exquisite Pain?
James: Well some are secured and some have tentatively agreed, but all being well the show will see guest mixes from Marcus Fischer, Cruel Diagonals, Mira Calix, worriedaboutsatan, Tim Linghaus, Belly Full of Stars and Alexis. I’m also thinking of doing whole shows focusing on influential labels, but also inviting more reviewers – like I did with Brian Housman from Stationary Travels – and broadcasters who do so much for the community like Dublin’s No Place Like Drone show. I did an interview last year with Benoît Pioulard and that’s something I’d also like to try and do again.