Having watched the slowly growing acclaim for his debut album, Early in the Morning, James Vincent McMorrow reaped the rewards by decamping to a pecan farm just north of the Mexican border to record Post Tropical just as he wanted to. It marks something of a departure from the sound of his debut but rather than this being a reaction or an act of defiance, Dublin’s pre-eminent singer-songwriter talks to State about its creation, expectation and influence.
You had a fairly eventful year last year, you came off the road and recorded a new album. How did you find the last twelve months?
It was nice, some good things happened. From this point in time looking back on it I’m pretty happy with how it went. Obviously, as far as highlights go, Texas is the one that jumps out. From the perspective of it being a unique experience, it was not how I initially expected my year to go so, to say now that I actually went there and made a record is something which I could never have accounted for.
Why Texas? Did you arrive with new material or write it over there?
I pretty much had the record done by the time we got there. Well, I wouldn’t say it was finished, but I certainly had all of the demos in good shape. I had been working out of my studio here but I started to feel a little bit too comfortable. My own studio is five minutes from my house and I don’t deal too well with comfort on that level. But I certainly don’t subscribe to the idea that music or art should be made in pure comfort. I think it helps if there is an element of ‘flying by the seat of your pants’. That’s how I feel anyway, no doubt many musicians thrive in their own studios and love living a vaguely luxurious lifestyle the whole time.
You don’t strike me as one of these ‘suffering for my art’ types…
Ha, no, I’m not. Don’t get me wrong, having these comfortable spaces obviously does serve a purpose, having the time and space to make something at your leisure and as you want it to be is hugely important, but for me it just wasn’t going to happen in my studio so I needed to take it out somewhere else. I looked around at other studios in Europe mainly because America was, in my mind, off-limits. I would have had to bring a truck with my gear plus all the other add-ons along with me and that just didn’t seem entirely feasible. Thankfully, though, in the end, the studio we found had all I needed and more so it just turned out to be one of those things. Maybe it was meant to be, and I mean that in the most clichéd way possible, it was just perfect.
So it could have been anywhere and not just Texas?
Oh yeah, definitely. And that’s another thing, people tend to ask about the impact of the location, as in did I choose Texas in order to achieve a particular sound and that wasn’t the case at all. It could have been anywhere and the album would most likely be the same. We looked for a place in LA, we looked in France, in Alaska, literally anywhere that had a residential studio on a level we considered good enough. In Texas, though, the studio we found ticked every box and I can honestly say that my threshold was ridiculously high. It had to be special in so many ways.
As long as the standard was high enough, the actual recording studio probably could have been anywhere. But Texas itself had an impact in the most unexpected way possible. In the way that musicians, artists, in fact most people, respond to their environment, and that is how it should be. In that respect, musicians, again like all artists can always see something beautiful and respond to it in fairly subjective ways. For me, Texas was so unique, so compelling that it made me want to get up every morning and enjoy it because I was only there for a limited time.
On that level it was incredible, and again in the most clichéd way I was just sitting on a porch looking out at the train tracks with seemingly hour-long-trains passing by each day, the sunsets, genuine tumbleweed at the sides of the road and nothing for miles in any direction. And yet the studio was the most functional, highly resourced studio I have ever seen. It was staffed to such a high level, equipped well, plenty of food, living spaces, everything. I only traveled with three people and I played everything myself so it was very stripped back but perfectly so and because the studio was had everything we needed it just worked out perfectly.
Notably, Early in the Morning was recorded in a remote cabin somewhere; did you feel any sense of isolation in Texas? If so, was it planned?
No, absolutely not. We arrived there just at the start of SxSW so all four of the studios were booked and fully functioning when we set up. So there was no sense of loneliness or isolation at all. Austin is only four or five hours from the studio so a lot of bands had been there working and then made their way to the festival.
On first listen to Post Tropical there is no escaping the fact that it is completely unlike its predecessor. What were you listening to while you were recording it? Was there anything that might have acted as an influence?
I listened to nothing at all if I could help it. You know, every lunch time or in the evenings we’d be sitting around listening to the likes of ‘Clique’ by Kanye West or anything at all that would give us a fucking laugh in the studio! We pretty much just messed around and listened to party music and avoided anything that would even suggest a mood beyond that. We weren’t trying to catch a vibe from anything else but, in saying that, chances are there is an influence from ‘Clique’ somewhere in there because it’s one of the best fucking songs I’ve ever heard in my life! But in terms of real influence, everything I love up to this point is in my head already.
I have already been influenced by all the music that I love so there really is no need to try to extract anything more from it when it comes to my own music. The music I love is already rattling around in my brain and I don’t feel the need to try to access it at specific times, it’s all there. And what’s more, the idea of misremembering something is also quite appealing. Like saying “I fucking love such and such by Bruce Springsteen and I want to capture some of that energy” only to go and listen to it again and find that it’s not like that at all.
Aren’t all memories subjective?
Yeah they are but I like the idea of remembering it completely wrong but still being able to get something from it. To me that is the whole idea, taking all these influences and bending them to your own will. The idea of listening to music just to gain anything more from it seems strange, especially when trying to create your own. In saying that, though, certain albums from the last few years really stuck with me and no doubt there are influences from them. Until the Quiet Comes by Flying Lotus was definitely a catalyst for thinking about how this album was going to be. Hearing that album was huge for me, just hearing the texture and the depth and layering was enough to get me thinking of what would be possible in terms of using that flow in a linear fashion. Taking all these disparate parts and creating songs as I write them. And then you have all those Arca records, Stretch 1 and Stretch 2, things like that gave me ideas but I wasn’t into taking them into the studio with me or anything. As hugely important as they were, I didn’t want to hear them or anything else in the studio.
You must be sick of hearing about difficult second albums.
You’re absolutely right, I can honestly say with my hand on my heart that I couldn’t give a shit about difficult second, or third or fourth albums. It makes no sense to me. I think I was blessed that Early in the Morning did so much bit did it so quietly that I didn’t feel any particular, like… put it this way, there was nobody knocking on my door saying ‘you have to do this’ or ‘you need to try this’.
Presumably the label and your management had targets, especially after the success of your debut album. Surely just because you don’t put pressure on yourself doesn’t mean that nobody else will? Even, for them, if that means accepting that you won’t try to recreate the first album.
OK, well, maybe saying I didn’t care is selling it short, but I’m attuned to life pretty well and along with that means I’m aware of other people’s concerns and ideas. But I’m a big believer in people being smart enough to understand what and how things are, especially when things are done right. Obviously there are people who view things as they are now as how they should be. You know what I mean? There are people who never want the National to change, they never want My Morning Jacket to change, or St. Vincent. They want artists to keep making what they’ve always made because that’s what they like.
Inevitably, though, boredom sets in for everybody. This isn’t me saying people don’t understand what they like, clearly they do, but musicians have to be bold and say ‘do you know what? Fuck it, I’m going to make exactly what I feel like making’. I’ll stand right behind that. And people are smart, they get that, but only when it’s done right and for the right reasons. You can’t be fucking around and watching for what somebody else might perceive as cool in music. If you’re doing that you might as well fucking quit as far as I’m concerned. I hate the idea of somebody saying ‘well, this might do well with X demographic, and this might be cool’. I hate that shit. I try to use the music that I like as my guiding light because ultimately it’s me making my music, not the X demographic or whatever.
Were you pushed in any particular direction?
No, not at all. I mean, the reaction from people when the first record came out was that ‘ok, here is a guy with a guitar’ and that carries an inherent “rustic” element to it. I mean that in the sense that it could have been viewed as a deliberate thing, and it wasn’t. It was necessity! If somebody had given me a load of money and asked me to go and make a really profound and progressive record I would have taken their fucking hand off.
I am so, incredibly proud of that first record but that was me at the time, literally the bare minimum of engineering ability, the bare minimum amount of money available, and me trying to maximize my potential. Now, with Post Tropical, this is me knowing exactly what I’m doing and what is possible. Having spent four years touring a record and playing to crowds ranging from a hundred to four and five thousand people I am fairly aware of what’s possible when I commit to my instincts and that’s exactly what this album is.
Four years is a long time to tour an album…
Ha, who are you telling! It just kept going. I had absolutely intention of touring it for that long and I reckon that if more people had actually known or cared about the [first] album when it came out that things would have been different. People hadn’t heard it and nobody came to my shows. Anybody who witnessed my first gigs would know just how ropy they were because I had no idea what I was doing.
It took me that first year to learn my craft and after that came licensing deals and the rest. The album came out in the UK and in America and I thought it had had its life, but then it just kept going and going and going so I had to keep following it. It was compelling because every time I felt I was on my lap of glory something would happen to push it further.
Was there a time when you thought, ‘I’ve had enough of this’?
I would say that, maybe from last July to September I started to feel that I was just re-treading the same old ground. The cut-off point for me was playing a festival in Kilmainham and at one point I actually thought, for the very first time, that there was no reason for me to be playing a show in Dublin. Especially having had the time to work on new songs. I really didn’t want to turn down the opportunity to play, but having been working on new material prior to it and then not getting to play it live was very strange.
Every gig I had played up to this point had felt as if it had a specific aim when it comes to gaining ground, each gig had its own impetus. But after that summer it had gotten to the stage where I felt I was almost on a greatest hits tour but with only one album. I never wanted to be that musician and I have no intention of ever becoming that guy. At that point, despite offers coming in, I decided to come off the road and prepare for this album.
Is this where you saw problems with being “just a guy with a guitar”, as you put it? Did it have an impact on your direction for the follow-up?
Yeah, to an awful lot of people I had become a guy with a guitar and this baffles me. OK, obviously I can see why this image emerged but what baffles me is how it actually got to that stage. I have absolutely no problem with it; that image of a guy with a guitar, I understand that if I stand on stage with a guitar and play certain songs it will resonate with some people on some level. But that only happened because it was all that I could do. I had no band, I couldn’t afford to hire musicians and yet I had music that I wanted to make.
So the new sound isn’t you changing direction?
I can’t say that it is. I never get bothered by being categorised as one thing or another, but it had no impact on the music on Post Tropical. This album was by no means a reaction to the success of the last and certainly not a reaction to music on Early in the Morning. The fact is I never saw myself as a ‘guy with a guitar’ so why would I, not just suddenly become one, but continue as one?
The first album was all I could do with what I had, so I don’t feel now as if I have to run from anything. This album has plenty of guitar on it anyway, but it’s just recorded and treated in such a way that it’s not obviously there. I love the texture and sound of guitars but I just wanted to use it in the right way. Chugging chords and riffs weren’t going to do it for me, nor is it likely to. The first album was literally me at day one, this is me at day two thousand.
So is it a case that your creative process hasn’t changed but your capabilities have?
My understandings, ambitions, resources and capabilities were all much bigger this time around. On the first album I never thought those things were achievable, on this album they are. I mean, I never in a million years would have imagined being able to make this album. All the ideas and concepts were beyond my pay-grade if you know what I mean. I grew up listening to the likes of the Neptunes and admiring what they had done with minimal sounds. They sounded like nothing else on Earth from what I could hear and the idea of having the capabilities to do similar with the music I wanted to make was never on the table for me until now.
I can throw myself into this and create the sounds I want to make now because up to this point the level of commitment was just too much, financially and otherwise. And perhaps this is something that people don’t accept at times. It takes money to make records and you can’t just will an album into existence just because everybody in 2014 has ProTools or whatever. Obviously it can happen this way to great effect, but it doesn’t work that way for everybody. It takes people, equipment and time and they all cost money.
So how do you envisage the live shows from this point onwards?
We’re pretty much ready to take it out now and start making all of the requisite mistakes. In the rehearsal space we’re completely up and running, but that needs to be built upon and you can’t do that without taking the songs and playing them at a show. It’s gonna fall to pieces at points, I know that. The songs are so big but we’re still only four people playing them live. But that’s why I wanted it to be that way, everybody is doing a lot and a lot of it is textural. As with the album, either we used electronic elements or acoustic elements painstakingly built to resemble electronic elements and the live show will be the same. There are some keyboards, computers, programming but everything will be recreated as live.
We’ve all heard that quote that essentially musicians become cover versions of their own albums and, no matter what, when you take an album from a studio to a stage it loses something. The fact that I spent nearly a year micro-managing this album to a ridiculous degree meant that I had to force myself to accept that. I mean, unless you’re planning on taking ten or twelve extra musicians for each song, bold decisions will need to be made with regards how they’ll be performed live.
As I said earlier, when it came to these songs I wanted them to have a linear, constructed feel to them and for me the best way to achieve that is with a tight group of musicians. That’s why there are only four of us and so much has gone into the production of the show, visually and musically. I didn’t want to lose any of that. I want the shows to be immersive for the crowd so that’s why there are four musicians doing three things at any given point. But, in saying that, you need to know what the options are and make the big decisions at the time with regards what sacrifices will be made. It pays to be ruthless sometimes and thankfully the songs hold when that is the case. Some might be a little more played out at the end but that’s naturally the case.
So at least you have three nights at the NCH to make all the mistakes you want…
Thankfully that shouldn’t be the case. Between now and then we have a few festivals in Australia and they are an absolute gift. The expectations, sonically at least, are so much lower than your own gigs, no soundcheck, no set up, basically just a line check and your done. I’m prepared for the mistakes that will come along with that but when it’s your own show you can’t let that happen. Watch me at the gigs in the National Concert Hall, I’ll be like James Brown, you’ll see me wince at mistakes and fining the band for mistakes they make…
Post Tropical is out now on January 10th via Burning Rope/Faction. Tickets for James’ shows at the National Concert Hall as well as other Irish dates are available from all the usual outlets.