CBTR HQ’s Robin Turner speaks to Johnny Lynch (of Pictish Trail and Lost Map Records) about his new podcast/residency programme/subscription series – and Slow Tree give us a first look at their Isle of Eigg film
Up on the island of Eigg in the Inner Hebrides, the man behind Lost Map Records is busy compiling a soundtrack to the edge of the world. Lost Map’s cartographer-in-chief Johnny Lynch should be familiar to Caught by the River readers (and festival stage visitors) through the music he makes under the name the Pictish Trail. Initially that project looked to the UK’s mid-noughties folk revival for inspiration, but now it gazes spaceward to create joyous electro-acoustic pop music that’s undoubtedly topping the charts in some parallel – possibly better – dimension where Scotland is independent and we’re all getting new tartan passports.
To a metropolitan southerner, Eigg sounds like heaven. With a permanent human population around the 100 person mark (quite a few more sheep though), Eigg sets an example to us all by running off almost 100% renewable energy. Sitting a 75-minute ferry ride from the mainland – and neighboured by the equally brilliant sounding Rùm – it looks like the kind of place to take a breath, contemplate life, unwind, shake the grit of the city off.
This last year, Johnny has been trying to offer that peace, that space, to like-minded artists through an amorphous idea called VISITATIONS. Having been pointed in the direction of a piece of stunningly beautiful piece by Slow Tree (Skye-dwellers Neil and Abi from British Sea Power) by friend of the River Luke Turner, I thought I’d investigate further what Johnny had been up to. So I called him up.
Hi Johnny. What’s it like on the island at this time of year?
The last few months of the year are always a bit odd. Mostly dreich, unrelenting gales that play havoc with the ferry timetable, bellow in your face while you’re on your way down to the shop, and whistle through cracks of your house at night while you’re trying to get to sleep. Out of nowhere you’ll get two or three days of absolute calm, clear skies that slowly peachen, where you can see the mainland across the water, the still snow on the mountains, a landscape constantly in view that arcs around the south-side of the island like life on pause. Then it starts pissing it down with rain again. Ah, the bleak comfort of the Scottish Hebrides. I really love this time of year – with the tourists all gone, the island becomes our own again, and the community makes more of an effort to be sociable with one another.
Tell us about VISITATIONS. At first I thought you were starting a podcast… then I thought it was a new label… then I thought it was a residency programme. Now looking at it, it appears to be part innovative solution to ‘how do you make releasing music interesting in 2018’ and part love-letter/tourist enticement for people to come to Eigg…
It’s a tricky one to pin down! I’ve been living on Eigg for almost 9 years now, and so many fellow musicians I’ve met over that time – ones I’ve invited to play the festival I put on here, or those I’ve bumped into whilst on tour – have expressed how much they’d like to write and record on the island. Eigg is intrinsic to the identity of Lost Map as a label, and yet I’m the only act on the roster that actually lives here. The idea of starting a residency programme had been buzzing away in my brain for ages, and it gradually developed into an urge to create an archive of recordings that shared a geographical identity. I figured that if I invited artists to stay for just a week, it was a good idea to set them a goal, to create music that we could eventually release through the label – which would, in turn, fund their visit. So, aye, I devised a subscription series, allowing music fans to sign up to receive a set of EPs (either vinyl or digital). The proceeds would cover the manufacture of the record, the accommodation and travel costs for the artist, as well as a fee for the artist’s time. By making it a subscription, those that sign up enter on their own journey of discovery – taking a chance on music by artists they might not previously be aware of, in much the same spirit as the music was created. The podcast became a way in which to introduce the different acts, give the audience a bit of background on who the musicians are, as well as some insight on their creative process. Plus, every wanker has got a podcast now, so I might as well join ‘em, right?
So how easy is it to get artists to come to Eigg?
The invitation side of it is staggeringly easy. There seems to be some sort of instant allure to this place – when you tell people about what it’s like to live here, maybe show them a photo or tell them a wee bit about its history and community, they are compelled to come and visit. So, aye, booking the Howlin’ Fling festival, or approaching artists to take part in the VISITATIONS residency, has always been a piece of cake, in that respect. The tricky bit is actually organising their trip over… that’s when people find out it’s a 5 and a half hour journey on the train from Glasgow up to Mallaig, plus an overnight stay there, followed by a ferry trip early the next morning that can take up to 6 hours if it goes around all the other islands first. Oh, and by the way the ferry only goes 4 days a week in winter, and that’s if the weather’s good. Aye, that can be quite a hurdle. The epic journey is part of the experience, though. When friends arrive at the pier on Eigg for the first time, I always grab them by the shoulders and exclaim “Welcome…to Jurassic Park!”
Ha! Here be monsters. When they’re there, how much do you think environment affects their work?
That feeling of escape, removing yourself from mainland living, plays a big part – people interact with their surroundings differently, after that journey. Trying to absorb it all, taking in the wildlife, the views out to the mainland, the stunning sunset over the neighbouring island of Rùm, and the magnificent towering mountain, An Sgùrr, in the middle of the island. So much of the place is exposed, you can see for miles, and the way the light hits all of it differently. It’s a lot to take in, even just standing still in one spot. The island still surprises me, every day.
In the podcast interviews, each act who took part in the residency informed me that they spent a lot of their daylight hours wandering around the island. Sometimes they would be field recording, or capturing the sound of an instrument in a cave somewhere, but mostly it would just be taking a walk and seeing where the day led them. You can hear that in the music, it all feels really open and relaxed and free. This sounds corny, but it actually sounds like Eigg. I’ve been listening to the music that was created on headphones while walking around the island, and each EP is the perfect soundtrack!
The funniest thing was that ahead of the project, I didn’t know how much recording the artists would feasibly be able to do during their week-long stay. The remit we gave them was to create just two pieces of music, each under five minutes in length. Even then, I thought that was going to be a tricky task. Not a single one of them did that – they all did way more! So much so, we had to change the nature of the entire subscription programme, from a 7” vinyl singles club to a series of 12” EPs, in order to accommodate all the music that had been created. I love that – it just goes to show that the music was created without any sense of limitation. It blows my mind.
Slow Tree – Neil and Abi from British Sea Power – is your third Visitation I believe? How did you meet those guys?
First time I met them would have been when they came up to Eigg when British Sea Power headlined our first festival (which was then called ‘Away Game’) back in 2010. That was surreal, they were amazing. I’ve been a fan of BSP since the first album, and they’ve always struck me as a group of people who like doing things in their own way; they’re thirsty for an adventure. I kept in touch with the band, and they invited Pictish Trail out on their European tour last year. We were hanging out loads, and while on the road I was putting the initial plans together for VISITATIONS, and both Abi & Neil were very keen to be involved. It was perfect, really. With this being the first series, I was keen to work with people I already knew, and trusted so I could get honest feedback from them on the shape of the project. Abi & Neil are so approachable and friendly, it’s been a joy. Not only did they create a 22 minute EP of stunningly atmospheric music, they filmed their experience and made a mesmeric 45 minute ambient art film. Ha! How the hell did they manage to do all of that? Such a great film, too.
It’s wonderful – a tourist board film fuelled by tea and diazepam. You talked about the festivals you run up there – first Away Game and now Howlin’ Fling! Do you see VISITATIONS represented in future Lost Map / Pictish led festivals on Eigg ?
That’s the dream, really – to find a way of being able to integrate both. I’m currently organising the next Howlin’ Fling! for summer 2019, and really keen to make VISITATIONS a key aspect of it. Quite difficult working out how to make something that is ostensibly a project born out of working in isolation, and then presenting that to an audience…but by Christ, I’m sure there’s a way!
Final thing. If you could get anyone up to record on the island – a single artist or a super group of the great and the good (and possibly the grot), who’d make the grade?
Oooft. If we’re talking DREAM BOOKING, I’d love to do something mad like get Vic Reeves up, and have him collaborate with someone like Meilyr Jones or Cate Le Bon, and create a psychedelic baroque-pop masterpiece, about life on a remote Scottish island. That could happen, right? A mash up of the Big Night Out and two of Wales’ greatest left-of-centre modern musicians? Why the hell not. Can’t think of any better advert for island life.
VISITATIONS will be featured this weekend as part of the Glasgow Film Festival (at The Savings Bank, Sunday 24th February). As well as the film screening, there’ll be live performances from each of the acts that took part in the first series of VISITATIONS – Monoganon, Free Love and the debut live performance from Slow Tree (Neil & Abi from British Sea Power). More info, and tickets, here.
The first series of VISITATIONS EPs are available to purchase as a 3 x EP set, in a tote bag, from Lost Map here.