Set to launch Lost Map Records’ first release F A M I L Y at Glasgow’s CCA this weekend, Monoganon‘s John B McKenna divulges all to Harris Brine…
Thoughts about the universe’s creation and demise – and even the metaphorical similarities to our own existence and death – have long troubled the most gifted of minds. Even the world’s best philosophers and physicists have been tormented when trying to grasp with notions of how we arrived and what happens when we inevitably vacate the building.
One alternate explanation, the cyclic Ekpyrotic model, claims the collision of two of a multitude of membranes created our own universe. Its name derived from an Ancient Greek word ekpyrosis, and was applied by the Stoics who succeeded Aristotle to mean “conversion into fire”.
So how on earth does a complex model of the universe fit into an interview with John B McKenna, the frontman of Scottish group Monoganon?
“I quite like when an album evolves throughout its songs”, McKenna explains, through the medium of Skype (he has lived in Malmö in Sweden for over two years).
“Also, the last track on Songs To Swim To, we tried to make it similar to the first song on the new record, so we have a continuing story, you know?”
McKenna’s conscious link is undoubtedly apparent. ‘To Glass In The Blast’ – their debut offering’s coda – perfectly seeps into the new album F A M I L Y‘s opener ‘Quick Crescent Moon’. Both, but particularly the latter, could easily be mistaken with the work of Conor O’Brien’s Villagers.
Additionally, F A M I L Y itself, from a stand-alone perspective, is evidence of a series of musical membranes existing entirely of each other. ‘Best Pals’ fully embraces the wild looseness of Broken Social Scene, ‘All You Need To Know Is Now’ has a monotoned McKenna somehow shining through a glittering jewel of electronica, while ‘Easterhouse’ could be from a sedated Scottish eavesdropper inside The War On Drugs’ studio during their recording of ‘Best Night’.
“The difference between the songs was decided in advance,” he says. “I had a lot of demos, and we just kinda’ went with the songs that were gonna be quite different from each other; be wide-ranging. We recorded all of the songs in five days though.”
F A M I L Y will be the first release on The Pictish Trail‘s new adventure Lost Map Records, and its nine tracks were created whilst McKenna underwent his own personal journey, albeit a traumatic one following the death of his uncle in 2008.
“I think it’s been quite good for me to start talking about it. That’s something that wasn’t helping the grieving process, by avoiding it.
“He was my best friend since I was really young. He used to pick me up from school everyday. He was like an idolised character in my life. When he passed away, I was really f***ed up about it, basically.
“Actually, I wrote quite a lot of these songs while we were recording Songs To Swim To. Writing about my own experience, it just so happened that that was the biggest thing to occur in my life at the time. It was a natural way of going through the grieving process.”
Even the album itself experienced its own difficulties, having been lost twice and mixed thrice, but its delayed formation allowed McKenna to retrospectively look at both the work and his own voyage.
“I had written all the songs, then afterwards went through them and saw some sort of connection going through. It was always the same. I was being really held back by this thing that happened to me. I was dwelling on it you know?”
On being asked about the themes he’s noticed, McKenna admits, “there’s a lot of escape ideas. I was definitely trying to run away from something”.
“But then there was this revision of…” He pauses. “Your mind? Yeah, to take control of your own mind. Things I never considered before, like capitalism and feminism…” (new material ‘Bean A Daughter’ is an ode to Kurt Cobain’s daughter, with perspectives of girls passing through adolescence firmly in mind). “I went through all these realizations at once”.
If McKenna’s mind were a paint pot, his creativity has been the screwdriver prising it open. Now by wildly splashing F A M I L Y with his thoughts, there’s a little less settling in his head.
“I think if I hadn’t done these songs, I’d still be dwelling on it. I got made to realise where I am. I do feel like I’ve dwelt on it a little too much, but I’m moving forward.” He breaks off, smiling. “Yes. Still moving forward.”
He mapped out his own venture to Sweden for a girlfriend (‘Wasted Teens’ is a dedication to her), and embarked on learning the nation’s native tongue, something that he now chuckles at.
“I went to this Swedish immigrants course to learn the language. Basically, everybody who comes from Britain or thereabouts just comes for a girl, or a boy,” he says, and smiles through a titter. “I didn’t know I’d be such a cliché.”
The difference in cultures between his home soil and his chosen place of exile as “hard to explain” due to both subtle and blatant differences, and McKenna admits he’s currently in a state of flux. Working in a maritime museum, being in a generally more relaxed atmosphere and writing material with Scandinavian friends keeps his mind at peace, yet “winter is coming”, he laughs. “And it’s quite a dark winter. I think I’ll see how I get on with it and make a decision”.
His new label’s founder may be settled on the remote Isle of Eigg, but they’ll both descend on Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts on Saturday (9 Nov) to unfurl F A M I L Y in its entirety, along with Eugene Tombs (and of course the rest of the Monoganon throng: Colin Kearney, Andrew Cowan and bassist Susan Bear).
A self-written-and-drawn zine will be hidden in each LP, whereas the live performance will see McKenna display “a lot of shite patter… Depending on how drunk I get, probably bizarre patter. Bizarre, shite patter”.
As for coming to terms with his issues, McKenna is fully aware that torment can be the supernova of creativity which, when the issues have drawn out, can leave mere remnants of the artist’s talent in future works. But he sees his own serenity as the perfect opportunity to improve on succeeding work. “When I was writing some of F A M I L Y‘s songs, they just completely poured out. I didn’t even have to try”.
“Now, it’s a different form of creativity,” he continues. “I’d like to think I’m in a stronger place. I have bigger ideas. It’s became more of a challenge”.
“I see the end of this album as being ‘what we might do in the future’…” McKenna says, harking back to the string connecting the musical filaments of his back catalogue.
When asked about F A M I L Y‘s closing song ‘Ivory and Tusk’ – one that’s reminiscent of Radiohead – he grins widely. “I actually wrote that song five years ago. It’s the oldest song on the album. When I wrote that, I was listening to a lot of Radiohead. I was 19-years-old. I just saw it as a challenge to make that song interesting production-wise. So, I think in the future, the way it will be influenced – the way the production works – it’ll be like Deerhoof’s records. That’s probably the way I want to go with things”.
McKenna’s uncle helped write ‘Ivory and Tusk’, and upon his death five years ago, the frontman decided the song was dead too. After bizarre dreams of ascending mountains and then climbing one with his dad, he decided to rewrite it, as it helped strengthen a bond between a father and son who lost a brother and uncle respectively.
He might not have adopted the same mentality as the Stoics, but in the last minute of F A M I L Y‘s closer, we fully encounter McKenna’s own ‘conversion into fire’ through furious, rising flames of guitar and with it, Monoganon’s conscious collision of membranes through their two albums; both records clear evidence of an expanding future.
A glance at a page on the model of Ekpyrotic Universe, or the fact the aforementioned mountain McKenna climbed is derived from the Scottish Gaelic word teinnteach (meaning ‘fiery’) may be overwhelming, but all this can thankfully be simplified through the frontman’s own description of his latest album on the press release…
“F A M I L Y be some complicated shit yo”.
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