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Spencer McGarry

The Spencer McGarry Season are an audacious, ambitious and hugely talented band from Wales spearheaded by Spencer McGarry. Having been hugely impressed by their debut album and an excellent live performance at this year's Green Man festival we linked up with the man himself to find out more about what lies behind The Spencer McGarry Season.

The band has more than 10 members so how do you manage that large number of people? What are the pitfalls and advantages of working with that number of musicians and egos?

It was a nightmare to begin with but now with Buddhist resolve, I have resigned myself to the fact that with such a large band (between 9 to 13 members at any one gig), scattered throughout England and Wales, we will never be able to rehearse.

At first this concerned me but then I remembered, I hate rehearsing so it doesn't really matter, on the plus side we always seem to pull it together for gigs and people who come to see us have expressed surprise that we don't rehearse. The reality is though, everyone in the ensemble is competent on his/her instrument and all the music is written out so there's shouldn't really be a problem. 

So besides the sheer organisations hell of getting everyone to a gig and never being able to rehearse, there's also complications around agreeing a date for a gig that we can all do- it's really difficult getting the bare minimum of band members who can all play the same date. Sometimes I've had to cancel a gig because the band would have consisted of piano, flute, drums and one other singer. Although lately I've decided to play gigs with only those who are available- it's quite interesting as they songs are densely arranged so that it's possible to get different versions of the same band/song in varying combinations each time, like taking the flaming lips album Zaireeka on tour.  From an audience perspective it may be more successful as there's less to distract the modern pop ear, which can be sometimes overwhelmed by the countermelodies.

The advantages far outweigh the pain and there is no greater feeling from a composer's point of view than when one's music is being played by such a large, talented group of individuals, I enjoy looking across the stage to see the humanity involved and revel in the sound they produce. I remain flabbergasted at how modest and accommodating they all are, the only bad ingredient or ego I would say, is me.

Are you a benevolent dictator or is there more of a collective approach?

I would make no apologies for being a dictator, I don't think any great art has been produced in collaboration; well I'm specifically talking about a group of people creating via collective input. It has been quipped that a camel is a horse designed by committee and I completely sympathise with that- it's functional, but ugly.

I've got time for writing partnerships with clearly defined roles (Rogers & Hammerstein) and even for more permeable arrangements (Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks), but the thought of a group of people sitting in a room endlessly debating bass lines and frequency of choruses is repulsive. I've been in that situation and it's always tedious.

However, my dictatorship is more born from necessity than taste. I hear my own songs complete before I bring them to a group, all that remains then is to explain to each member what I'd like and then we play it all together. There is room of course for a little debate over elements like attack on strings and bending of notes, but on the whole it's just a matter of the musician playing until they get what I am trying to explain (I have no formal musical training so it can sometimes be a task).

This is of course, not to take anything away from the group.

Who are your musical influences and what impact do they have on your writing?

I am in the process of recording six albums in six different styles/themes so each album will have a different set of influences. Some are constant, for example The Beatles, who I believe influence all modern pop musicians/producers whether they like the band or not. It's often hard to ascertain exactly what influence a band or composer will have upon the individual and to this end I attempt to keep a log of every song under the aegis of this project so that I can readily trace it's origin/influence. I put these up toward the end of an individual's album life as a sort of 'director's commentary' on what I have released. The first one for our debut is here-

And the second will follow hopefully before Christmas.

For this latest album I have been influenced by the golden age of show tune writing- Rogers & Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Gershwin, Stephn Sondheim etc, which has meant tightly packed, lavish orchestrations, songs in several sections and lyrically a focus on humour and where possible, one- liners. The album's length was very important for the medium. Where-as the first album was a three-piece rock affair (meaning we had to stick to a strict 45 minute running time), the musical style implied a long album of two halves, with repeating motifs. I think one could turn the album off around track 8, have a breather then return at a later date to the rest.

You seem ambitious musically. What are you striving to achieve? Do you have a grand plan to write a musical or make the perfect pop song?

A few people have said that or have taken me as joking when I started this project, but it makes perfect sense to me. I don't understand why anyone would want to make an album in the same way twice. It's truly baffling- I'm always disappointed when a band I like does this, or when I purchase an album based on reviews exalting its pioneering, spirited, adventurousness, only to find it's yet another rock record. I think for better or worse, it's very important just to go ahead with one's ideas and test new personal boundaries. I'm not sure what I'm striving to achieve (not public success at any rate!) but I'm just doing what my brain tells me whilst refusing to be boring.

Charlie Francis (who produced Episode 2) has been on at me to write a musical and lately I have become a little obsessed with the inventor Tesla and life around the turn of the last century. It's easy to assume that humans were a different breed back then but the more I read the more I realise that we have barely changed, it's unsurprising really in evolutionary terms, but society then is the same as now- same focus on technology, value of celebrity, fast paced lifestyle, competitive innovation, new forms of entertainment, it was a fascinating and exciting time.

I've been doing some reading around Tesla and he's sort of the great forgotten genius, his life story has a lot of dramatic potential and his ideas have much modern relevance to the move towards greener energy and fairer society as well as being shrouded in not inconsiderable mystery.

So I suppose after I finish with Spencer McGarry Season at album number 6, I can start on my Tesla project. I imagine I may need a huge deal of funding if I want to turn it into a stage show though- in whatever form that may take. It would at least demand an awe inspired set.

Times is hard and the world of popular music doesn't get much help from the powers that be that other art forms get - most bands and artists we know have day jobs. If you became Welsh minister of culture tomorrow how would you address that?

Hmm not sure. I used to work for the Welsh Assembly and I'm not certain what exactly it was I did. The one thing I learned was that government is a headless, heedless beast. It really is like the motion picture 'In The Loop'. People go to meetings and make decisions than have ramifications years and decades down the line and no one is quite sure why. I don't even think individual parties have power over anything. I mean new parties get elected but they are committed to not only the previous governments spending but also perhaps (where things like roads and development parks are concerned), the government before that. I wouldn't be surprised if the Conservatives in the coalition are picking up where they left off in '97, all the while blaming failure on the previous Labour government.

Anyway if I were Welsh minister, after I'd spent months in pointless meetings, I'd then have to fight powerful senior civil servants who have their own influential ideas on what I should be doing.

I think the most important thing I could do is separate the ministerial portfolio's for sport and culture as to me never the twain shall meet. I would commission a report to finally explain the link between the valleys and American rock music, West Wales and somniferous mid-paced guitar strumming and Swansea's inexplicably frustrating popularity of cover bands over original music, as these areas are of the most interest to me.

With a band of your size how do you manage the logistics and cost of live shows?

If money was no object what type of stage show would the band put on?

Umm it's a bit tricky all we can do is cover petrol costs to make sure that at least we're not losing money- which is always the point with art- I mean obviously it'd be swell to make money all the time, but the reality is with such a large band on such a small scale all we can hope to do is break even and have a jolly good time doing it.

If money were no object I would put on the following show: -

Paris Opera House in the summer. I'm on grand piano, the whole band are there, but augmented with a larger orchestra full of instruments I have been unable to obtain - harp, tuba, oboe, Shamisen, Marimbas, the Cwm Rhondda male voice choir, etc.

The set would be a naive, almost pantomime collection of Michel Gondry inspired fixtures that are able to move independently of each other and every song would have its own separate lighting/mood. I would open with 'Bali Ha'i' from South Pacific on one of those cranes into the audience that Michael Jackson was so fond of, dressed in something white and flowy (do they make wedding dresses for men?), and we'd go on to do a selection of my favourite show tunes and my own songs. 

Unfortunately, Muse have beaten me to my dream idea of having each band member on a sort of freudianly phallic, independently moving, totalitarian evoking platform, but I'm sure I'd come up with something suitably striking. The show would end with me ankle to neck in a kind of armless dress made of wires that would go into the stage.

I'm afraid I have already described the above in an earlier interview for Gaydar, so apologies for repeating the content, I just can't describe it any more succinctly. I was also accused of intentionally camping it up for the website concerned and would like to point out that this is erroneous because my very nature tends to the superfluous.

You have said that you are going to make 6 albums each in a different style. What can we expect from episode 3 and when can we buy it?

Episode three is the opposite of two. It's artificial, inorganic, cold and features electronic sounds that aren't really within my taste range. I thought it might be interesting to make an album from sounds I wouldn't normally gravitate to, so I brought a synthesiser and have begun working with drum programmes.

Thus far we are thirteen songs into the album and hopefully it will be finished by Christmas. I'm not in a hurry to release it though and will continue with the chamber orchestra until roughly next summer. It's sounding to me like Human League, Prince, Devo, Add N to X, Madonna and general computer game music. I may also record no 4 and release them simultaneously just to gain a bit of ground on the whole thing.

Who would you most like to collaborate with and why that person?

Hmm, there's not many people actually alive I admire- I'm currently enjoying the Janelle Monae album and I loved Sufjan Stevens' BQE project- I'm looking forward to getting his new album and I'm thrilled he hasn't just done another Illinois. I suppose Steve Reich would be an absolute brush with the divine, it's heartening that he's reaching a new zenith when most composers his age would be fading away. I'd like to work with him because I feel that not only would I be able to learn a great deal, it would also broaden my mind to an unimaginable degree. I don't know what I could possibly offer him though? I would also drop anything and everything to be able to soundtrack the animated Life of Pi film which is my favourite book. I've got a vague idea of what I would do to evoke the watery rhythms (this is turning into a job application now).

Musical highlight of working on the Spencer McGarry Season project so far?

It's got to be playing the Greenman Festival main stage with all 13 members of my ensemble on a baby grand piano which I'd never played before. It was one of the best gigs of my life irrespective of how we actually sounded, the sheer joy of having us all together at least playing music will always stay with me, it's one of the things that reminds me of why I spend so much time and effort over music.




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