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A Scottish tale – Whisky, rain and music

We talk to Gavin Sutherland, AKA Other Lands, from Firecracker Recordings Mac-Talla Nan Creag, about their soon to be released 2nd LP, “The Sorrow of Derdriu”.

So Mac-Talla Nan Creag I believe translates as Echoes of The Rock – this is the second volume – what was the original inspiration for these albums?
The translation can be a fairly fluid thing as I understand it… it could also mean ‘Sons Of The Rock’, I’m told. I’m yet to hear otherwise but I will freely confess that I have almost no Gaelic – that was last spoken in my family about three generations ago – though other members of MTNC (as it shall henceforth be referred to) have been brushing up on it of late and could possibly hold something like a conversation with a bona fide Gael, I expect.

‘Sorrow Of Derdriu’ will indeed be the second volume. The original inspiration came after I got an email from Matt Ritchie, chief archaeologist at Forestry Commission Scotland, He’d had the bright idea of us making a record to help promote the work they do. Matt and I have known one another for a number of years – in my role as a record seller I’ve supplied him with stacks of wax on his visits from Inverness, where he now lives, to our shared hometown of Edinburgh, where I still live. He’d been a fan of Firecracker Recordings’ output for a good while and was keen to know more about the whole process of making records, so this seemed like the ideal way to go about it.

I got this message from him one evening in early 2014 while, as fate would have it, I was sharing a pre gig curry in Glasgow with Lindsay Todd, aka Firecracker head honcho and design dude House Of Traps. Matt had attached various images to demonstrate some of the rich visual content they could provide as inspiration. I showed these to Lindsay over a plate of steaming naan bread and he got quite excited; he and I know one another pretty well by now so I knew it was more than just the contents of the buffet having this effect on him.

So we started talking straight away about who we could get involved in such a project and Neil McDonald, aka Lord Of The Isles, was pretty much the first person who came to mind as he was already an established member of the extended Firecracker family, as a pal of ours since the ’90s and having already done the ‘Futures’ EP for sister label Unthank. Moreover his work has frequently alluded to the Scottish Highlands, whether with the moniker itself, track titles taken from Gaelic place names, or just that general feel of majesty, mystery and uplifting melancholy that the landscape inspires.

A mere heartbeat after mentioning Neil, I then thought of Drew Wright – aka Hoch Ma Toch – who again, I’d known since the ’90s myself, though apparently Neil and Lindsay had never met him, which seemed quite odd to me as not only had I known them all for about the same number of years and through similar musical channels – I had bonded with all of them over a shared love of House music back in the day – but they also all hailed originally from Fife or thereabouts (well, okay – Dundee in Neil’s case) were all keen hillwalkers, wanderers, and beard sporters.

Serendipitously both Drew and Lindsay had, quite separately, taken inspiration from the book ‘The Living Mountain’ by Nan Shepherd – an extended love letter to the Cairngorms which lay unpublished in a drawer for decades before surfacing in the ’70s, subsequently gaining cult status over the years (just two years ago in fact she became the one of the first women to appear on a Scottish bank note – about bloody time eh). Lindsay named his small but perfectly formed (and sadly short lived) Edinburgh based record shop after it, while Drew recorded a whole album of the same name. Some of the songs from that album were actually used in a BBC documentary about Shepherd that was presented by the writer Robert Macfarlane, whose work I would also recommend you check out if you haven’t already done so.
Again, Drew’s musical excursions have drawn heavily upon our shared heritage – focussing at points on traditional Scottish and Gaelic song, sometimes unadorned but also often with an experimental approach that gives nods to all sorts of more modern influence, from drone to ‘Dad’ house (as it perhaps used to be known), but always in a very natural, honest sounding way. He and I had talked about trying to collaborate somehow for a few years anyway, so it felt like fate had handed us an excuse on a plate.

How long has each album taken to put together?
It took us a few months to start properly formulating the project the first time around – we missed a couple of deadlines for funding for one reason or another, or peoples’ work and life commitments wouldn’t allow it to happen – you know, the usual. When the stars have finally aligned, the actual process of making the music has generally been pretty quick and effortless with both albums, it’s just been the stuff around either side of that – whether sorting out the logistics of financing it or coordinating everyone to be in the same place or close enough, or simply waiting for mastering or pressing plants or artwork to get done – that seems to add to the length of time it takes for each project to see the light outside the burial mound. The second album has definitely taken longer… I guess the old cliché is true sometimes.

The first release was all recorded in the Hebrides I think?
Close, but not quite. The field trip for the first album – under the guidance of the ever knowledgable and enthusiastic Mr.Ritchie – was conducted mid to late November 2014 and took place variously around Kilmartin Glen, Glenelg, and near the eastern edge of Loch Alsh. We did intend to check out some sites on the Isle Of Skye but we ran out of time on that particular jaunt. Nevertheless, we still managed to take in a fair few sights at a fair few sites, and captured sounds at all of them, some of which would either appear as they were recorded – as in the case of pieces such ‘3rd Pass’ and ‘Grugaig Perc’, both of which are just Drew and I jamming it out in the ruined broch known as Caisteal Grugaig – and some of which became the source material for the music we produced back in the relative comfort of our respective home studios.

“The Sorrow of Derdriu” takes you to near Ben Nevis where an Iron Age fort was recently discovered, the home of a mythical exiled Irish Princess in 300AD apparently?
Well, truth be told some artistic license has been exercised here. Again, it was Matt who came to us with the suggestion of promoting FCS’s ongoing work, this time on the site of Dun Deardail in Glen Nevis where they discovered the remains of a vitrified hill fort, dated to around 500BC. For those not in the know – and I certainly wasn’t before all this came about – the process of vitrification takes place when rock or stone is heated to temperatures above 1000ºC, so there must have been a very large amount of timber burnt to achieve such a heat. The resulting melt created a conglomerate stone which is not only pretty interesting to look at, but also formed a much stronger bedrock. Whether the people of this era where aware of this we don’t know, nor indeed do we know why they burnt such structures, if it was deliberately or by accident. Such mystery, as with much archaeological investigation, offers a great deal of room for imaginative theories and artistic interpretation, so – perhaps given the similarity of the names ‘Derdriu’ and ‘Deardail’, Matt hit upon the notion of suggesting that this could well be the unnamed ancient Scottish hillfort that appears in the ‘Sorrow Of Derdriu’ myth. In this very old tale, a chieftain’s daughter in ancient Ireland (or Erse) – whose fate is foretold by seers before her mother has even given birth to her – is chased and fought over by warring factions who want to either marry her off to some horrible old git, or to aid her escape with her young lover and an army of tough bastards to Scotland (or Alba – insert joke about not being able to tell your Erse from your Alba). Suffice to say, it ends in tragedy, though therein lies the poetry I suppose. This provided us with something of a theme to base the music around, playing with ideas of love and war, fight and flight, fire and rebirth, as evoked by the story.

Can you tell me a bit about who else appears on the new album?
Besides the core members of MTNC (as we’ve now decided to collectively refer to ourselves, by the way – after putting out the first album as a ‘Various Artist’ thing which was possibly a bit confusing, I suppose) this new album features a fair amount of input from John Kenny, internationally renowned authority on early music and exponent of the Deskford carnyx. This astounding instrument is a replica of a near two thousand year old relic which was found, partially intact and extremely well preserved, in the Moray Firth in 1816. In 1992, Musicologist Dr John Purser and metalsmith John Creed remade it faithfully and, soon after, John Kenny became quite possibly one of the first people to play such an instrument in millennia.
Once more it was Matt who suggested John get involved, having met him before at some event of an archeological bent, I think. Matt figured the sound of it was a perfect fit for the mood we were trying to create with this record, so he got in touch with John, asking if perhaps he had some audio which he wouldn’t mind us sampling. John responded very quickly, saying first of all that he’d like to know exactly how we were going to use it – quite rightly he was concerned with how the sound may be represented – and that, in any case, he’d much rather work with us in something like a live setting, responding to what we were doing ourselves.

Again, the logistics of everyone’s lives meant that in the end, the only musical member of the crew who could make the recording session on the day was me, and so way back in July 2017, upon his suggestion, John and I met in Crichton Church in Midlothian – an incredible stone vaulted building dating back to the 15th century. John brought along his friend Jim Brook, who helped mic up the room and record things in this space which has simply fantastic acoustic properties. Lindsay came along too, along with quite a few members of my family, and also a very excited Matt and his wife Monika (who helpfully took lots of photos, some of which appear on the album artwork).

I brought along a semi acoustic guitar, some pedals and an amp, and for a few hours John and I just jammed it out and bounced ideas back and forth, with John giving us a schooling on how instruments like the carnyx may have been played, how they relate to modern instruments such as the trombone (which he also plays), and with me trying to think of ideas that Drew and Neil could then take away and work with – so we ended up with pieces that would become tracks like ‘Into Battle’, ‘Sketches Of Spean’ and ‘Flight (the only track on the LP to feature contributions from all of us).

Towards the end of us pulling together the various pieces, some of which we did together (‘Ballad Of Glen Nevis’ and ‘Mulad’ were recorded by Drew and I, playing live in my home studio with almost no preparation, completely improvised and with little or no overdubbing) and some of which were entirely solo efforts from each of us, I realised we’d made an album themed around the plight of a young woman – albeit a fictitious one – which alas featured only musical contributions from men. Drew had suggested including a few lines of verse attributed to Derdriu that he’d found in one of the many versions of the myth, and it occurred to me we should at least have them spoken by a woman or a girl, so that honour went to my own teenage daughter Eva, who appears on ‘Derdriu’s Vision’ at the very start of the album. Not to be a pushy parent or anything, mind, but I would like to get her on more recordings in the future as her guitar chops are coming along nicely, and – fatherly bias aside – her singing voice really is something else.

Field recordings in Scotland – being from Inverness, I can well imagine the weather you faced! What are your favourite and worst memories of this? What went wrong?
It rained – or, at least, it drizzled – pretty constantly throughout our first field trip, but this wasn’t too much of a problem as a) we’re all from Scotland and therefore well hard, of course; and b) we were at least occasionally able to shelter inside the various stone burial mounds or brochs that we visited.

A favourite memory is perhaps that of Drew and I crouched inside a tiny room of sorts, just high enough to sit upright in, inside the ruins of Caisteal Grugaig – him with a shruti box and a banjo, and me with a bouzouki. Getting in and out of the space was some effort but once there, it was well cosy. Actually, I’ve now half remembered hearing something about that wee space having since collapsed in a heap of boulders… not sure if I just imagined that, must go and check now.

There are no worst memories, although I do regret slightly that, because of the aforementioned work and family commitments everyone has these days, we were unable to get a similar field trip up to Glen Nevis with all of us present for this new record. We did almost all manage to go up individually – Lindsay might be able to tell you about his attempt to do some recording / filming up at the top of the hill that Dun Deardail sits on while it was blowing a gale. I gather the force of the wind was such that the rain drops kept smashing the off button on his camera, stopping him filming altogether!

What was the set-up you used? How was this then used back home in your own studio?
In order to capture field recordings both Neil and I (and possibly Drew?) used hand held recorders – not sure what the others might’ve used but I’ve got a wee Tascam thing – while Linds had an altogether more pro set up with a proper boom mic and everything. I couldn’t tell you the specific kit he used, but he’s been pursuing that field of interest for quite a few years now, having attended a few courses with legendary sound recordist and former member of Cabaret Voltaire, Chris Watson. If you’re going to learn from anyone, it certainly helps to learn from one of the very best!

We all have similar yet different approaches to using these recordings in our work – Drew has his voice, for starters, but he’s also got this fairly minimalist, sometimes playful, DIY approach that takes in natural acoustics, cheap equipment, found sounds and so on. I’d say he’s in some ways the least reliant on technology out of all of us. Neil is obviously coming from a more electronic music background, but he has a way – you might say almost painterly – of working in field recordings, or recordings of instruments and voice, and warping them into unrecognisable shapes that have this great electro-organic quality to them. I see myself as somewhere between the two of them, using a total mixture of ‘traditional’ instruments, both acoustic and electric, self taught musicianship and production techniques – though with both records I’ve tried to capture the moment as much as possible and not overwork things or add too much post production.

There are some very unusual instruments on the album, what stands out the most?
I don’t think it’s for me to say what stands out, really – that will be a subjective thing. Obviously the new LP features the carnyx, which you may not find on many recordings, typically – although John Kenny does have a fairly extensive discography himself and is constantly busy with projects all over the shop. Things like the aforementioned shruti which Drew has used, or the harmonium which I use on the first album are perhaps more commonly associated with Indian music, while things like the clarsach (or Celtic harp), bouzouki and mandolin originated around the Middle East and Mediterranean but are equally associated with traditional Scottish and Irish music – similarly the banjo, bodhran, and indeed the guitar. I love them all equally and wanted to get some sounds in there from which you could infer a connection both to Scottish music, and music from all over the world. I think we all felt it was important when dealing with such ancient history to almost bypass notions of ‘Scottishness’, to focus instead on a spirit which predated that, and in fact probably has just as much in common with, say, North Africa as it does with the far North of Europe. In fusing those ideas with current production techniques and electronic sounds we tried to bring the two things together as a unified whole, rather than that tacked on thing you hear sometimes with ‘traditional’ pieces over ‘modern’ beats – not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, it just wasn’t what we wanted to be doing.

Was there a fair amount of Whisky involved?
Oh aye.

I can imagine a wee dram of Ardbeg with this – what would you recommend?
Again: subjective! And, like music, my favourites change from one minute to the next. I suppose the obvious malt of choice for the Firecracker crew is the Linkwood, but perhaps its smoothness is not the ideal compliment to this particular record. I’d say an Islay malt is probably closer to what you’re after so the Ardbeg is a good shout… equally I’d suggest a malt fairly unlike any other, like a Talisker perhaps (this is maybe just because it’s fresh in my mind having picked up a bottle when we were in Skye recently though).

Do you have any plans for a 3rd volume? Would you have a dream line-up for it?
No plans as yet, but you never know eh. Dream line up would be the three of us, Linds on the design duties again with additional illustrations from Alasdair Gray and Charles Avery, musical contributions and words from beyond the grave courtesy of Jeannie Robertson, Hamish Henderson, Bert Jansch, Ivor Cutler, Tam Weir and Nan Shepherd. I could go on… certainly there’s a whole host of live collaborators who I’d love to work with, realistically, but I wouldn’t dream of mentioning them here for fear of jinxing it.

You recently played the albums live at Skye Live and you have another gig upcoming soon in Edinburgh, any plans to do more gigs, any down south?
Again, no plans; but if the right offer comes along, you know… We are all fairly busy family guys for the most part though so there’s not likely to be any touring up and down the country in a shitey transit van any time… ever! We are very keen to do some gigs next year in some interesting locations though, and it would be nice to get some extra collaborators involved. Of course, it is far too soon to be revealing any of this to anyone so I will be quiet on this topic for now.

How is the scene in Edinburgh just now?
It’s as vibrant as it’s ever been in many ways, I’d say. I keep finding pockets of great things happening that I had no idea were going on, generally amongst people significantly younger than I, so that’s always a good sign. We spent a bit of time rehearsing in a studio complex in Leith which I’d never been to until last night, and, although I was aware it was there, actually checking it out for the first time and seeing people doing great, creative things was still a very pleasant surprise. There are a whole host of great local artists, promoters getting behind them, and venues who are 100% into the music and not just including it as some careless afterthought so they can get a later ‘entertainment’ licence. That’s not to say it’s without its troubles – there have been people fighting valiantly for the rights of venues just to be able to play music at a volume, in a city where some of its residents will gladly tolerate the noise of drunken arseholes and hordes of Harry Potter tourists, but draw the line at young (and old, to be fair) people just enjoying themselves. I imagine you’ll find that anywhere you go though.

You’ve released tracks under Fudge Fingas originally and now Other Lands on Firecracker. Why the change of name?
Errr.. Midlife crisis. Next question!

Whats next for you? I thought your Other Lands 12” was incredible, one of the best releases on Firecracker and there have been many great releases on that label!
Well thank you, that’s very kind of you to say so. You can thank Lindsay in part for curating that release as it’s comprised of tracks spanning the period between 1998 and 2017, that I probably never would have thought of putting together myself. In a similar vein, Pulp Records (for whom both Linkwood and I have done remixes for in the past, so we had a good relationship already) are putting out an EP of mine next year featuring mostly late night, introspective house music and other tracks from across a similarly wide timespan. I’ve also recorded around an hour’s worth of almost completely beat free, semi improvised music with just a guitar, synth and fx that will come out on cassette, with an accompanying 7″, on the label Origin Peoples (again, old buds from years back who I’ve talked about doing stuff with for a while now) – that’ll be some time early 2019 as well, I think. I should give a shout out to The Nuclear Family too, good pals from Glasgow with whom I just did a split release on their own label – go get it!

Lastly, you manage the wonderful Underground Solu’shn shop in Edinburgh, what current tracks, albums and artists are doing it for you currently?
I don’t manage it, as such – but I do just about cope with it (insert laughter).
Once more my favourites change from one minute to the next but just this week I have very much enjoyed:
Admiral’s ‘Cash On The Line’ on Panoram’s Wandering Eye imprint – jazz not jazz / electronics yes electronics
Best Available Technology LP on 12th Isle, though at this point we’re still waiting on it appearing in the shop. Just wanted to give ’em a shout really tbh.
The Alle LP, ‘Dine Pæne Øjne’ – which I had on again today, having not listened to it in something like a month after having it on constantly for some time – that’s still one of my favourites from this year.
The ‘Lost Transmissions…’ compilation on Invisible, Inc. – so many great contributions on this, it gets better with every listen. The label has been steadily amassing a pretty fearsome catalogue… can’t wait to get the forthcoming Laraaji & log(m) LP!
The new Kurt Vile LP ‘Bottle It In’ is another one, like many of his records I find, which improves each time you hear it. Went with my good girl Julie to see him live in Glasgow last week with The Violators and they were dynamite .
Oh, and the Khruangbin Christmas single is a beaut, makes me shed a wee tear every time I hear it, nearly. I do love them dearly.
Lastly, just this evening I got a sneak preview of this Andrew Wasylyk LP called ‘The Paralian’ coming out next year on Athens Of The North, and it’s kind of causing me to rethink my whole approach to music – like all my favourite music does, really.

There you go, thanks for reading this, if you managed it all: well done, you get a GOLD STAR.


Gav x

The Sorrow of Derdriu is available to pre-order now and will be released in January 2019 on Firecracker Recordings.

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