Originally published: The Stool Pigeon
“I’m really wary of signing to big record labels,” explains Meursault’s Neil Pennycook. “There has been the interest, but we have everything that we need to sustain us on an independent like Song, By Toad Records. We can afford to keep making records with the music that we want to write as opposed to keeping to other people’s standards.”
Independence has been a buzz topic north of the border for some time now, politically and musically, and Pennycook is sceptical about the industry with reason. In Edinburgh, very little enters the Scottish capital in the way of external influence. Big tours bypass the city in the hope of reaching bigger audiences in the more commercially-driven scenes of Glasgow. And as a result, Edinburgh misses out on everything that the industry drags along with it: media coverage, money, crowds and A&R.
“I think Edinburgh has a history of losing out on publicity,” Pennycook explains. “Your expectation levels when you start out aren’t as high, and you don’t really know what you are aiming for.”
Starting out in 2005, Pennycook, true to his word, didn’t really know what he was aiming for when Meursault came to fruition as a solo outlet: “It was just me playing with an acoustic guitar, a drum machine and not much else probably for the best part of a year.” Something of an abortive start until he drew the attention and aid of local musicians Fraser Calder, Chris Bryant and Callum McLeod when attempting to record for the first time. “A lot of [the band forming] came down to the fact that I had written the album and had no idea how to play it live or record it, so I had to get a band together to back me up,” he explains.
They released an EP around the time that this line up was coalescing, but the outcome ended up being representative of a band that had yet to really get a feel for what they wanted to sound like and where they were going with their music. “I think this happens with a lots of Edinburgh bands with the idea of pacing yourself,” Pennycook explains. “Getting a good idea of your own sort of pace that you work at and what you are comfortable with – not forcing things at the expense of the music really.”
But by the time they released their critically, but not commercially, acclaimed debut Pissing on Bonfires/Kissing With Tongues, first as a self-release in April 2008, then again on Song, by Toad Records in December of the same year, they had developed a very distinctive character based around a shifting interplay of electronics and traditional folk instruments.
“I don’t really know where the electronic elements came from,” he laughs, “A lot of the instrumentation that we have used on the songs is just down to what was there and what was available to us – and not knowing anyone that played drums.”
Meursault, now a seven-strong troupe who are all deeply rooted in the city’s live music scene, live within their means as a result of their proximity. The hand-to-mouth approach to their music is the result of what is essentially a small town scene, struggling against the A&R tide that meanders past them. There is locality in the city’s folk-inflected sound – something of a foundation for the bands to build from in terms of support – but there is also the attitude of the musicians themselves that helps to keep the scene alive.
“Our ethic is all very similar: we are all stubborn as fuck!” Pennycook offers as a collective disposition. “With the industry as it is we’re all just looking to keep our heads above water. It’s really important in that way to be stubborn and sure of yourself, but also to be realistic and not sell yourself short and by any means… It breeds a certain mentality of ‘Ah, fuck ‘em [the A&R], we don’t need ‘em’.”
And they don’t need them. Fuck ‘em indeed. Their DIY approach to creating music and sustaining a career thus far lends itself to this warm and fighting posture. Their forthcoming album All Creatures Will Make Merry acts as a bulwark to the collective’s perspective on the situation at hand, evolving their pastoral elements of folk with lo-fi electronics to create something new and enthused.
“When I talk to people about folk music I kind of dread it,” he explains of the band’s progressive sound. “For a lot of people it’s acoustic guitars and buckets and buckets of twee, but for me folk music is just story telling.”
So what’s your story? “I don’t really like going into that kind of stuff,” comes a coy reply. “Pissing on Bonfires/Kissing with Tongues was a break up album: not in the romantic kind of sense, but kind of going through a period in life where everything was kind of changing and I was pitching certain ideals that I had. This record was sort of moving on from that and getting on with things and doing things that would make me happy.”
From our conversation, it’s clear what makes Neil Pennycook happy, and that’s his music. For it is his music on every level: from the control that he has over writing, recording, and direction, to the comfort that he finds from his results. As insular and awkward as All Creatures Will Make Merry and its creator may appear in their unwillingness to comply with convention on any level, this has not been without reason. For all Meursault have created with an independent ethic, it’s sound and sentiment reaches further than the borders that have been set against them.