Think supergroup, think lumbering behemoth: stacked keyboards, double-neck guitars and Neanderthals dragging solos out for days at a time. Enter the modern day music business and its enforced clarity and concision… sure, developments have restricted many things, but supergroups have benefited. And, today, they’re called ‘projects’.
The Magnetic North are one of our favourite projects. Led by ex-Verve, Blur and Gorillaz man, Simon Tong, the group also include Liverpool’s favourite former multi-instrumentalist, Hannah Peel, and Erland (& The Carnival) Cooper. So far, so normal: three indie musicians getting together to work on an Arts Council-funded project. That’s where the familiar tale ends, however, as The Magnetic North have already made a work of truth and beauty, with 2012’s ‘Orkney: Symphony Of The Magnetic North’. Not heard it? Do us a favour and get stuck in now: great songs, aching orchestration and vocals that whisper the secrets of the Highlands into your ear. That record concerned itself with Erland Cooper’s homeland, the Orkney Islands. Four years, and many solo projects later, The Magnetic North are back – and focusing on Skelmersdale. Yep, Skem’…
It turns out ex-Verve man Tong was brought up in the new town. So, following on from visiting the art, music and poetry of Orkney for inspiration, the three musical musketeers decided to get together and see what Skelmersdale could offer the project. Tong asked his collaborators to visit the town and listen to what it said to them. The results are astounding and captured on new album, ‘Prospect Of Skelmersdale’ (Full Time Hobby). The record is wide open and a psycho-geographical musical journey that takes in the new town becoming the official UK centre of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement of the early eighties, a delicately bruised cover of George Harrison’s ‘Run Of The Mill’ and the spare orchestration, woodwind and archive voice-over feel of seventies TV and information film soundtracks.
“I left there when I was 15 and in my memory it was a very grey and grim concrete place,” says Tong. “In my head it was always quite a cold place, too, but when Hannah and Erland went there, they came back and said it was actually quite nice.” It’s a funny thing, the memory… it can play tricks on you. Especially when describing childhood recollections. We decided to ask the main man more about his memories of Skem’, this latest album and The Magnetic North themselves…
The initial idea for focusing on Skelmersdale came from Hannah Peel. What did you think at first?
The more we thought about it, the more it seemed a really worthwhile idea. It was the complete opposite to our first album, which was about the Orkney Islands: one of the most beautiful and inspiring places in the world. Orkney is just wide open space, rolling hills and sea… Skelmersdale is very different. It’s much more intimate and there are a lot of woods – it feels like it’s in the middle of a forest because a lot of trees were planted when the town was built 50 years ago and now they’ve matured.
A bit like the band. Two records in, now… what was the challenge this time?
For me, it was such a daunting prospect to write an album about a place I had grown up in: what would the inhabitants think? Would they even care? I no longer live in the area, so I was asking myself did we even have a right to make the record? We kept putting the project to one side and time and time again kept being drawn back to it. Each time we came back to it, the process became slightly clearer and different songs and ideas would emerge.
The song ‘A Death In The Woods’ sounds like a turning point for the record…
It was a song we wrote early on and it gave us the belief that there was material there to actually write about a small, relatively unknown, new town in Lancashire.
We’re big fans of Hannah’s earlier work and that song immediately brought it to mind.
As a group, we are very inspired musically and visually by magic, folklore and landscape… so to discover we could write something about Skelmersdale that encapsulated that, was a driving force to make a whole album about it.
Do you think the record sounds like a new town?
I think it sounds like someone’s memories and recollections of a new town. It’s like seeing the town through a seventies colour filter… the red of the Ribble buses seem more red, the different colours of the housing estates, the green of the fields and the grey of the concrete walk ways and subways.
Nostalgia is all about colours, isn’t it?
Things always look better when you’re looking back on them, like an old faded photograph. Perhaps if we’d made the album while I was still living in Skem’, it might have been a heavier and angrier album. This record is more of a reminiscence.
What do you think your recollections have inspired?
A sense of very personal stories in some of the songs, I hope. And songs that could be written about people in any town in the UK or beyond… people have similar issues and everyday struggles the world over.
‘Prospect of Skelmersdale’ by The Magnetic North is out now
Pic courtesy McCoy Wynne