Interview with Constant Follower: every year another layer

by | Music, music interview, New Music

Ever since the Scottish “soaring-ambient-dreampop-experimental-folk” band began releasing music more than three years ago, Constant Follower’s emotionally honest and pain-stricken, yet warm, lyrics have become one of the project’s most endearing and beloved qualities. The name of the outfit itself is a reflection of those things that we carrythrough life, for better or worse, that ultimately define who we are.

Described by Folk Radio as “instantly compelling, memorable and moving,” Constant Follower have already been championed by the likes of BBC 6 Music’s Gideon Coe and BBC Scotland’s Vic Galloway. The idea for the band’s debut album “Neither Is, Nor Ever Was” was borne out of a respect for change, and the inevitable passing of time that frightens, comforts and humbles every one of us at once.

To what extent do you feel that Scotland / Glasgow / the Hebrides influences your take on life / your music?

McAll: Constant Follower: Growing up in Scotland was beautiful and brutal. The reputation that Glasgow gets as a tough city isn’t quite deserved, no more than any other city anyway, and the people are so lovely. Of course, there is a rich tradition in music. First the folk songs, sung around fires to keep the midgies away, then later folk like Bert Jansch and Davy Graham, then on to Alasdair Roberts and then, somewhere down the line, us. There’s definitely something that comes from traditional Scottish song in my music. And certainly that sense of longing that a lot of Scottish music has – that mournful collective-memory borne from centuries of repression. And then you take all that weighty stuff and place it in this most beautiful landscape – open skies, greenery, mountains, rivers, lochs… the space. I think this is where Kurd’s guitars come in to give that sense of an endlessly expansive landscape.  

“instantly compelling, memorable and moving”

You (Stephen) suffered an attack by a gang in Glasgow, which ended up with you losing your memory and “reimagining and inventing a new childhood”.  How does this reimagining and reinventing define the music, the songs you come out with?

McAll: I suppose my childhood ‘memories’ are now more like memories of stories that people have told me about my childhood; memories of photographs of my childhood that people have elaborated on. Where those retellings end, there’s just a blankness. Perhaps the songs fill in some of these gaps.

“The name right away signalled something to me about permanence. I thought of how each year a new layer is added within the tree, small or large depending on the conditions of the year, and how these layers remain throughout it’s life”

Why the name “Constant Follower”?

McAll: I was raking through some old books and found a vintage pamphlet about these Giant Redwood trees in America. When settlers first arrived, they couldn’t believe their eyes. There was one particularly large tree that had a large space inside which the Native American peoples had been using as a shelter for centuries. The settlers came in and opened it up as a curiosity shop. Anyway, there was a tree called ‘Constant Follower’ – one of the biggest and oldest. The name right away signalled something to me about permanence. I thought of how each year a new layer is added within the tree, small or large depending on the conditions of the year, and how these layers remain throughout it’s life whilst. And it made me think how we’re one and the same. Our years remain with us through life, for good or for bad and become part of who we are.

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Would you consider yourself generally optimistic or pessimistic – and why?

McAll: I’m optimistic. I believe that thoughts become things. When you see the negative in things and when you expect the worst, I think that’s what you draw to yourself. Optimism and positivity on the other hand breed positivity. I’d say to everyone, try this little experiment – for 24 hours don’t say a single negative thing about anything, find positives in everything, and see how good you feel afterwards. I guess I learned this after I was attacked. During my recovery, I certainly suffered from depression – which I suppose is a kind of negative feedback loop. People will say to themselves ‘I’ll do this thing, once I feel better’, but it’s only doing the ‘thing’ that allows you to escape the loop. I think mushrooms definitely helped give me the space to change the way I was thinking during that time. I’m glad to see that their benefits are once again being recognised and researched (in some places).

What is your approach to songwriting? Where does it come from? Do you let it grow or go after it?

McAll: My songs come when they’re ready. Forcing them seems to push them farther from reach. I think I need to be in the right headspace – a quiet mind. Maybe it’s like the timid child at a party. If you play a quiet cooperative game, invite them over and they’ll most likely join in. If the other kids are running around screaming, they’ll hide in the corner.

This will sound too simplistic and obviously behind this ‘method’ there is a lifetime of experiences, listening to other music, reading books, learning to play my instrument etc… but, what I do is a sit down in the evening with my guitar and my little book that I note things in, and I just play around and kind of sing nonsense words into melodies. When there’s something I like, I keep going over that bit, then real words form.

Once I have the first line, the rest just seems to come out like a finished song over the space of an hour or so. But that’s where the ‘years of experience’ come in. I suppose it feels like driving down an unfamiliar road at night – you can see the solid road ahead clearly, and you just guide yourself through the turns, keeping watch for interesting things that happen at the light edge… and, importantly, keeping note of the good ones. I don’t have a memory much anymore since the head injury, so I record everything on a little Zoom recorder as I go. I must have hours of unfinished ideas. Sometimes the road leads to shitsville even though it seemed so promising when you set off. I think one of the biggest skills in being a songwriter is self-editing – knowing when something has promise or not. Shitsville or hitsville!

“Time passes quicker than we know. And it passes quicker as you get older. To me it’s about recognising that things won’t always be as they are now and realising that time is the only thing that you have”

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indieRepublik: In your song Set Aside Some Time I sense a mix of nostalgia and perhaps some kind of impending doom (sorry ?) Would you say that was accurate – does it reflect your feelings about the song, or what you wanted to say with it – or am I wildly off base?

McAll: I think there is perhaps a sense of doom in that there is a message of being stuck in the same script. Time passes quicker than we know. And it passes quicker as you get older. To me it’s about recognising that things won’t always be as they are now and realising that time is the only thing that you have. People are caught in this race to anxiety and depression in the name of acquisition and ‘wealth’. Yet, they move further and further away from the things that I think truly are wealth. Time in nature, time with children, time with old people… time with yourself. Most people I know are killing themselves for a job they hate so that they can have a house with too many rooms and a car that uses more petrol. Surely this is shitbrained? This isn’t what life is about. Life is about connection. And you can’t be connected if you’re never at home with your children, or too tired after work to go out in nature.

Your dreams: Colour or black and white (or something else entirely?)

For the life of me, I can’t remember what they are. I have a sense of colour, a bit washed out like the video for Set Aside Some Time. My daughter writers down her dreams. Each night she says to me as I go out her door “hope you have some crazy dreams”. Having children, you need to explain to them why they are having these horrible nightmares. It all boils down to the fact that you don’t want to meet a sabre-toothed tiger in the flesh first time and not have had some practice what to do. I think. I worked on the dairy aisle in a supermarket for a year – each day I’d go home exhausted and dream of packing cheese onto the shelves all night… then get up in the morning and do it all day again.

indieRepublik: Why music?

McAll: Some folk are good looking after plants, some are good at music. I think, when our brains evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago, there would have been benefit to having a spread of abilities in the village. So that’s maybe why ‘gifts’ seem to be quite random in some ways. It wouldn’t do to have a whole village that were musical, but all incapable hunting for food. So, some folk can skin a badger, and others can keep the village morale steady with music. I think the problem nowadays is that we don’t ‘follow the child’ and try to recognise ability and provide opportunity for children to grow their true interests in the way that would seem sensical. Instead, in the UK anyway, children are herded into call-centre-preparation and standardisation-camps, where there is very little art and virtually no music introduced. 

indieRepublik: Do you have a plan you’re working to, or are you just letting things carry you along? Or a mix?

McAll: I believe that if you do your best and work hard at something, opportunities open themselves up for you. I don’t have a firm plan for the band, but you’ve got to have some sort of thoughts about the future. We have an incredible stable band now with Kurd on electric, Amy on synth and vocals and Kessi on bass and vocals. Each member is an incredible songwriter in their own right, but it’s the meeting of our best qualities that allows the special moments to happen. We are very much a ‘live’ band in the sense that the recordings are simply an attempt to recreate the emotion that we convey live. Our aim I guess is to put the band in a position where the people who will get something from the music are able to hear it. So much music is produced today, for better or for worse, so bands now have to try to be heard amongst all the noise. In theory, the good stuff should rise to the top and be heard, but I read an interview from a well-known producer saying that he’s worked on tens of incredible albums that just disappeared into music obscurity. He didn’t have an answer for why that happens. But I guess it’s just about reaching the right audience. I think that if you’re honest with your music and the way you offer yourself, then you’ll connect with folk that are like you; and if they’re like you, they might understand where your music is coming from.

indieRepublik: When can we see you perform in Germany / Europe (global pandemics permitting)

McAll: Kessi is from Hamburg and we have many friends both there and in Berlin, so there will certainly be some German gigs as soon as is possible. I’ve been to many gigs in Hamburg and the German people are very respectful; like the Scottish are at gigs too. With our music, there is a lot of open space and we need that hushed atmosphere to make the music work. We very much look forward to coming your way as soon as possible.

indieRepublik: Your lovely song Set Aside Some Time is out right now…what’s next? EP, album, string of singles….?

McAll: There is an album on it’s way, ‘Neither is, nor ever was’, and we’ll be bringing a couple more singles out first which kind of set the path for it musically. I think there’s no single song that is the ‘Constant Follower’ sound, so it will be interesting to see how the next music is received.

“It’s no radical idea that we should be taxing the biggest companies who are exploiting artistic talent, and maybe directing this towards the artists who are not being paid.”

indieRepublik: How would you like to see the music industry changing (if at all) coming out of coronavirus? What direction do you think the music industry could / should / might go in, especially thinking about how musicians and venues alike could be protected from their quite fragile existence?

McAll: How sustainable can the music industry be as it is now? People expect their music for free. But it takes years of hard work to produce good music. I find it difficult to understand why is the artist the only person not being paid? How can that be sustainable? And I wonder why? Artists will always be artists – they will always continue to make music – because it’s something they need to do. Perhaps the industry knows this and takes advantage? The thing I would like to see coming out of Corona times (in addition to and end to Corona-related playlists and Corona-themed songs), is for people to realise that the music they’re consuming for free has a person or even a whole family behind it that are struggling to pay their bills. I’m talking UK here – I know this is in place in some other countries – but perhaps the government might realise the benefit that vibrant cultural development brings and recognise artists by at least paying a basic minimum income? It’s no radical idea that we should be taxing the biggest companies who are exploiting artistic talent, and maybe directing this towards the artists who are not being paid.

indieRepublik: Anything else you’d like to tell our readers?

McAll: You’ve asked some questions which raise big issues in my life as an artist and I’m sure in most other small artists working in this field. It is one of life’s ultimate joys to create something from your experience that connects with another human being, and to have them enjoy it. From the first picture you drew for your parents, to the eight minute epic I’m working on at the moment – there is a need in people to work hard at something, do your best, present it to someone you care about and receive that gratitude and connection from them. It’s something we all need. Music takes this one step further – with music you present the finished work to someone, but you also invite them to become part of it; to let them understand it in their own way, and to bring them the solace or joy that they can’t bring themselves. It’s up to us as listeners or ‘consumers’ of music to nurture and protect the people who are giving so much of themselves to offer us their music. 

indieRepublik: Thanks very much for the interview, we look forward to seeing and hearing a whole lot more Constant Follower!

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