The Pictish Trail less travelled: how isolation inspired Johnny Lynch
Johnny Lynch of The Pictish Trail

Johnny Lynch talks Pete Carson through the new Pictish Trail album – and convinces him that life is better on the island of Eigg

The Pictish Trail is back with his latest album Future Echoes, a beautifully crafted slice of experimental pop music that blends trip hop, warm synths and haunting vocal melodies.

Johnny Lynch lives two parallel lives, one on the Idllyic island of Eigg, where he has been building a house and running his label Lost Map Records, and another off the island touring and recording music.

“As soon as I visited there, I knew I wanted to be there for a long time,” Lynch says. “I’d been living in Fife before then in quiet a picturesque town, but it’s not a patch on Eigg.”

Eigg
The cliffs of Eigg – photo: TSPL

He moved there initially to visit his girlfriend, but soon acquired a caravan and started a new life in the Hebrides.

“When I moved there immediately it became apparent that I could work really easily there,” he says. “They’ve got WiFi and I work from home anyway, but when writing music and having no distractions, that’s what Eigg is amazing for. You can completely lose yourself in the silence. I’ve never been to a place so dark at night and so quiet. The silence is almost deafening.”

As we talk Lynch is starting a tour across the country and gigging with KT Tunstall, having nearly stolen some of her equipment earlier that day.

“Last night I was playing a gig in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis and I had to get the 7am ferry which takes two hours,” he says. “When I got to Ullapool, we realised KT Tunstall had left her keyboard in my van so I’ve just had to drive to Inverness Airport to send it back. I almost got away with it.”

The origins of Future Echoes

The music scene up north is bustling with artists who play more traditional music, but Lynch doesn’t think it impacts his music directly. He still gets recognised by some as a folk artist, and he understands why, but that’s not his focus.

Future Echoes has an eclectic sound; some tracks like ‘Who’s Comin’ In’ feel like odes to lo-fi Casio keyboards while others like the opener ‘Far Gone (Don’t Leave)’ is dark and trippy like something out of Bristol in the mid-90s.

Lynch hails from Edinburgh but moved around as a teen to England and Connecticut. When he returned to Scotland to attend university he started getting into the St Andrews music scene, which at the time had a very DIY approach to music.

“The Beta Band’s Three E.P.’s was a massive one for me,” he recalls. “That was punk rock, three chords and a cut and paste aesthetic. There was something about it that felt very inclusive, it didn’t feel like it was too up itself, you could tell all the parts of how it was made, the workings of it all but didn’t apologise for it. Once I got involved with them and starting making my own music, that was the blueprint for it.”

This latest offering owes a little to the US hip hop of his high school days:

“On the school bus we used to listen to a station called HOT.97 which played all the hip hop and R&B of the day like Busta Rhymes and Fugees, whenever I hear that sort of music I feel nostalgic. When me and Adem [his collaborator in Silver Columns] were messing around, that was one of the references we tried out, so the first track has that kind of feel to it.”

Future Echoes has lots of rich vocal melodies that came about through a necessity to write using just his voice.

“Bizarrely a lot of the songs written for this album came about because I didn’t have a proper space to record anything, we were building a house and all my stuff was in boxes,” he says. “A lot of it used vocals to write it, recording with just a dictaphone coming up with basslines and melodies.”

The song ‘Strange Sun’ echoes the weird and serene melodies Beck composed on his Sea Change album – one of Lynch’s heroes.

Making the record

The album is a reunion for Lynch and his producer Adem Ilhan: “He’s a multi-instrumentalist who can play anything, I’m lucky to have someone who can help me express a lot of the sounds.”

Squarepusher drummer Alex Thomas also helped out with drums, and Rob Jones from Sweet Baboo mixed the album. This team has helped skew the record in all sorts of directions using every technique available to them, looping a violin to make it sound like an orchestra and tweaking a first-gen phone app drum machine to get the funkiest beat possible. It was a long process going back and forth from the islands to London, where the album was recorded.

“We started with demos and I’d go down to record some ideas with Adem, take them back to Eigg and listen to them over and over again. I changed lyrics and chords and add parts and a month later I’d go back down to London and record some new parts, and take them back to Eigg, just constantly editing over 18 months.”

‘The sense of mystery has gone’

Talking about the new ways in which people discover music, Lynch says he doesn’t want to be a miser, complaining that it “was better back in my day”:

“The internet has had such an impact on the creative industries that now there’s no going back, it doesn’t even matter what people think of it. It’s inescapable. It’s great at letting people know what you’re doing, we use it a lot to publicise the label and our music.”

But he also acknowledges that some of the mystique has been lost too:

“The one thing I find interesting is that when I was growing up buying records by bands, I didn’t have a clue who any of these bands were. Belle and Sebastian famously didn’t do any press for the first four years of the band, adding a real mystery to them. They were only tangible through their music, and you knew only about the band from the sleeves and the artwork on their albums. I don’t know if it’s better or worse, it’s just different. I think its rare now to come across a band and not know who they are. That sense of mystery is gone a little bit and I think it kind of is a shame, there’s something quite rock and roll about not knowing what that person has had for breakfast. The relationship we have with music has changed.”

The Pictish Trail

Lynch is a distinctly personal songwriter, and he aims to speak directly from his heart to the listener: “With every record it’s about putting together a collection of songs that feels reflective of how I’ve been feeling. I don’t write narrative songs, songs about other people.”

He feels that there are universal themes in the album: death, the sense of an ending, and coming to terms with mortality, but also songs about rebirth and starting over.

If Lynch didn’t do music he doesn’t really know what else would be there for him. “I got my start in stand-up comedy, I’d maybe do some writing, but I don’t know.”

With more than a hint of sarcasm, he adds: “If I didn’t have music, I’d probably kill myself. There’s your headline.”

Future Echoes is released on September 9 with a tour starting on October 1. More info at pictishtrail.co.uk

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