Interview – ‘The Magnetic North’, ahead of New Album ‘Prospect Of Skelmersdale’

The Magnetic North are due to release new album ‘Prospect Of Skelmersdale’ via Full Time Hobby on the 18th of March


Watch New Video ‘A Death In The Woods’


TMN


After their first album Orkney : Symphony Of The Magnetic North, based on stories from the Orkney Islands, Simon Tong (The Verve, Erland and the Carnival), Erland Cooper (Erland and The Carnival) and Hannah Peel (John Foxx and the Maths) decided to draw their inspiration from the “new town” Skelmersdale, Lancashire, for their second album. Founded in 1960, the town had to face Thatcher’s government realities : dropping property prices and a rising unemployment rate.


A surprising twist to the story of Skelmersdale came in the ‘80s when the
Transcendental Meditation movement chose the town as their official centre. Entire families decamped to the Skelmersdale and a temple was built for their purpose of mediation and enlightenment, including the family of Simon Tong.

Prospect of Skelmersdale is a collection of musical snapshots of a uniquely British town. Across the record, Cooper and Peel’s voices swap, swoop and interweave to create an utterly immersive and believable narrative about the town and its people. The band together archived news stories, dim-lit memories, directions from road signs, local

graffiti, transposing them on orchestral melodies that freeze time.


THE MAGNETIC NORTH is a peerless band whose sublime songs are as touching and evocative as a travel notebook or a Ken Loach movie, as evinced by a new track from

the forthcoming album titled ‘A Death In The Woods’, which you can watch below:


We had the pleasure of speaking to the band and were able to learn more of the inspirations that brought about the creation of ‘Prospect Of Skelmersdale’ which you can read below, and we thank all of the band for their insights and time in answering our questions.

The Magnetic North Interview:

You all individually have already quite incredible musical CV’s, but can you tell our readers a bit more about the background of The Magnetic North. How did the project come about?

Simon- The project came about by a supernatural visitation. Erland had a dream in where he was visited by Betty Corrigal- who is a historical figure from 18th century Orkney folklore. She told him to make an album about his homeland- The Orkney Islands- and the project was born from this.  So you could say that the project was born from a supernatural visitation and this has shaped the way we have approached the Magnetic North ever since.

The arrangements are really beautiful and there’s a very strong orchestral element to your music, but there are also folk elements and modern sounds included as well. So, we’re intrigued, considering your musical backgrounds, how do you write your music and how would you describe your sound?

Simon- We start with song titles before any music is written. Maybe a list of 11 or 12 titles that we draw from place names or people of where we are writing about, whether it’s the Orkney Islands or Skelmersdale. Then we start to write the music to fit the song titles.

Erland  – Songs often start as sketches and remain that way, even when the additional orchestration is scored by Hannah and recorded on top. It stops it from feeling over produced and remains rooted to the seed of the first idea, the reference or guide track always stays in the recording somewhere. It’s always amusing when Hannah asks, ‘please tell me this one is done to a click’… the response is usually no.

 

Which leads to the next question, who contributes what to the overall sound and to what extent?

Erland  – We know what our strengths and weaknesses are but we all play, to some extend, multiple instruments, not that it matters as much in recording who does what as long as the final song sounds good. I can’t see Simon jumping up to take credit for his crucial ‘laptop-bag/kick-drum’ hitting on Silver birch – once it’s put through a compressor, some EQ and reverb it sounds wonderful! It’s obviously important that Simon plays most of the guitars and Hannah the violin and scoring. I like to pull it all together in the edit and mix. The others seem to like me having the keys to the car, even though I can drive off road for a wee bit, prang it and patch it up again. The final production for any song is always signed off, in the room, together.

It seems, by watching your videos and listening to your music, that you all share a passion for keeping the memories of the past alive. How much has this influenced you on your new project about Skelmersdale in Lancashire? We know that Simon grew up in Skelmersdale, but can you tell us what it was like to grow up there in the 80s, and what the Transcendental Meditation movement was all about?

 Simon- Skelmersdale in the 80’s was a tough place. I lived in one of the nicer areas but some of the housing estates suffered very badly during that time and the way they were designed made them scary places to walk around after dark. But I met a lot of great people and sometimes in desperation you find interesting things to amuse yourselves- like making music.

The TM movement came to the town in the early 80’s, mainly because houses were very cheap to buy there and they wanted to create an ‘ideal village’ where meditators and their families from over the UK would come and meditate twice a day in a large group at the Golden Dome and this would affect the local surroundings by sending out circle of positivity- a bit like the ripples on a lake when you throw in a stone.

The promotional film for Skelmersdale, as seen in your video ‘A Death In The Woods’ portrays the new town as a bright and prosperous place to live for all the family. Without being too political, where did it all go wrong? 

 Simon- After World War 2 and up until the 1970’s around 27 new towns were built in the UK to help ease over crowded cities. Skelmersdale was built near Liverpool in 1961. Initially industry was given incentives to move there and provide jobs for the new inhabitants but once the incentives ran out the industry left en mass leaving the town with a very high rate of unemployment and all the problems that brings. There was no train station in the town so people were expected to drive everywhere but without jobs they couldn’t afford cars so they were kind of stuck. I imagine the people who’d moved there from Liverpool felt very let down by the government who’d promised them a better life.

Did you approach the music differently when composing for the environment and history of Skelmersdale, compared to what was written about Orkney on your previous album ‘Orkney : Symphony Of The Magnetic North’?   

 Hannah – For the Orkney album, the cliffs, the rolling seas and intense harsh weather felt so apt when recording layers of low brass and a choir of sailors and fishermen. Skem is the opposite but as we dug deeper to the history, the new town covered farmland and the council estates were named after the land.

We found it was inspiring to approach and make choices to the ‘sound ‘ of this record by the time periods in which they happened. The hopefulness of Skem and the ideal utopian planning of the town of the 60’s and 70’s gave an instant photographic lens to the music. Looking to soundtracks like Ken Loach’s ‘Kes’ and albums by The Beatles and even Chelsea Girls by Nico, there was a beautiful use of woodwind and strings that really evoked the more simplistic farmland that might have been where the town now is. It was a real joy to bring in clarinet and flute players to double up the casio keyboards and synths, combining the industrial electronics with the organic instruments which now seems to be very fitting for the town 50 years on. 

Erland – the beauty of Orkney is very apparent in the landscape, the weather, the people, the folklore and history. With Skem, the challenge was to try to find that beauty where initially there might not seem much of it at all and if we couldn’t, it’s worth trying anyway.

Simon- It was much harder to initially find inspiration. Orkney is a stunningly beautiful place. When you’re there you feel as if you’re on the edge of the world. It’s a dramatic wilderness and so full of ancient historical ruins that it’s sometimes called the ‘Egypt of the North.’ Skelmersdale on the other hand is the opposite. It’s modern and mostly concrete. The only thing they have in common is that they were both once ruled by Vikings.

 

What influences did you find in Skelmersdale, but not in Orkney?

Erland – a modesty. A humbling feeling to not overdo things, to try to remain subtle. Sonically this meant, rather than recording a choir for example, just being the choir ourselves or rather than recording a quartet, Hannah plays the violin alone and layers it up. It felt less pompous and more in fitting with a ‘make do’ or non-fussy northern attitude. If it sounds good, its fine, its good, it’s done.

Simon- There is a beauty in the brutalist modern architecture of the town. It feels like a Soviet Satellite town that has been picked up and dumped in Northern England- very surreal. The best thing the town planner did when they built the town was to seed 1000’s of trees surrounding the housing estates and these are finally maturing after 50 years to make the town feel very green too- as if nature is trying to burst up through the concrete and reclaim the land.

 

How do you source your archive material and include it organically into a piece?

 Simon- I sent Hannah and Erland up to explore Skelmersdale very early on in the making of the album so they could experience it with a blank canvas and gave them a few pointers of places to visit- one of which was the local library which is an important hub for the town. There they met a woman who ran a local writers group who took them back to her house for a cup of tea and she gave them a DVD of some old promotional films made by the Skelmersdale Development Corporation in the 60’s. These films were the cornerstone of not just the audio on the album but the feel of the record as well.

I also found some footage and audio from a member of the TM community who had recorded and documented the building of the golden dome centre from the first brick until its opening and we used some audio from the inauguration of the Dome to start our album. It felt like a symbolic way of starting the record.

Just out of interest, what new or old music do you listen to yourselves at the moment? Any recommendations?

Erland – I’ve been re-listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending for example. I liked his view that a composer shouldn’t “shut himself up and think about art, he should live with his fellows and make his art his expression of the whole community, if we seek for art, we shall not find it!” I might have misquoted that but I like this manifesto. Also really enjoying Tim Hecker (Ravedeath 1972) because it sounds like it’s own universe being ripped up, torn apart and put back together again.

Hannah – Brian Eno’s ‘Another Green World’ has been great company for the journeys we have been having recently and after recently seeing a Oneohtrix Point Never gig at the Village Underground in London recently, his crazy digital world is addictive on my headphones. 

 Simon- I’ve really been enjoying Bill Ryder Jones album ‘West Kirkby County Primary.’ I’m also a big fan of The Inkspots- their sound just seems to evoke a rich melancholy. I discovered their music in the 80’s from the BBC series ‘The Singing Detective’ and have loved it ever since – I love music that can instantly transport you to a different time and place.

 

Any gigs you’ve been to recently?

Hannah – Erland and I went to see Savages play a show for their new album ‘Adore Life’. They were incredible, powerful and really mesmerizing. I couldn’t get enough of them.

 

The new album “Prospect Of Skelmersdale” is out on the 18th of March. Can we expect any live appearances in the near future? 

Erland- We originally planned to just play in London, Skelmersdale and Paris but already shows from Berlin to the Green Man festival in Wales are being put together as offers come in now news is out..

The last interview question really has to be: Can we expect a third album based on Hannah’s history in Donegal, Northern Ireland and Barnsley?

Hannah – My gut reaction much like what Simon and Erland have experienced is one of “No way, who would be interested in where I’m from!”. But I think as we have got to know each other more, it would be nice to open that door to show them where I’m from and see what they find. Its been nice to discover from making this new album that it is the others perspective of going to a place with fresh eyes that helps you understand and look deeper at not only the map of a place but the journey you made when younger to get where you are today. I’ve lived so many places though, I have no idea what they might find.


The new album ‘Prospect Of Skelmersdale’ is going to be released via Full Time Hobby on the 18th of March

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Pre-order the new album from The Magnetic North: Prospect Of Skelmersdale.

Contains the track ‘Signs’.

Order from the following locations:
Full Time Hobby online store: Pre-order here
Amazon.co.uk: Pre-order here
iTunes: Pre-order here
Rough Trade: Pre-order here
Norman: Pre-order here

Keep up with all tour dates here.


Links:

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