Later this evening, Meursault will find out if his fourth album I Will Kill Again has made the shortlist for this year’s prestigious Scottish Album Of The Year (SAY) award. Currently part of the 20 strong longlist that will be cut to ten after the public voting process ceases tonight, it’s the second time Meursault have been nominated – I Will Kill Again’s predecessor Something For The Weakened was also shortlisted four years ago.
Essentially the solo moniker of Neil Pennycook, Meursault first came to our attention a decade ago while still a full band thanks to the stunning debut Pissing On Bonfires/Kissing With Tongues. A second long player All Creatures Will Make Merry followed suit in 2010 with Something For The Weakened seeing the light of day two years later.
Having embarked on a four year hiatus of writing and recording which culminated in I Will Kill Again, Pennycook is back doing what he does best both in the studio and on stages in front of appreciative audiences. Having witnessed his incredible set at Focus Wales last month, DiS caught up with the enigmatic singer/songwriter to talk music, politics and award ceremonies among other things.
DiS: Do you tailor the live set depending on whether it's a solo performance or full band show? Which do you prefer?
Neil Pennycook: From my point of view whether I'm playing solo or with a band, I'm very much doing the same thing. It's fairly consistent. It's the dynamic that tends to be different. I don't know if I could say I prefer one or the other to be honest. They're two totally different strands to what I do and they feed into each other.
Is Meursault primarily just a solo project nowadays?
It always was. It just took me ten years to figure it out. All my friends started playing music when they were about 15 or 16 at school whereas I started really late. I didn't have much interest at that age and it took me until I was about 25 to pick up a guitar and try to play it properly. So when I started I didn't really consider what the dynamic of the project was. I didn't really understand what a solo project was so in my head it was a band. Several problematic situations down the line years and years later I came to the conclusion that its very much a solo project. I write all the parts. The line-up's constantly changing. I'm doing lots of solo shows but they're not being billed as solo shows. It's still very much a Meursault show. It just took me ages to figure out what I was most comfortable as. That's what a big part of the break between The Organ Grinder's Monkey in 2014 and the new record was about. It was very much me deciding if I'm a solo artist what does that entail? So I decided to go out and be a solo artist for a couple of years and try to figure it out. So now if I've got the band with me there's a mutual understanding about what the project is. Because it does get messy.
Do you have the same people play with you when it's a full band or is it a revolving cast of musicians?
It's very much a revolving cast. I've got pretty much as fixed a line-up as I've ever had. That's been pretty consistent since the reformation if that's what you want to call it. I've been playing on and off with Sam (Mallalieu, drums) for about seven or eight years now. But mostly people come and go because of the nature of the project. Many of the people I work with have other projects and in some cases, numerous ones. They'll be in the band for six months, maybe a year then they'll have had enough and do something else. Sometimes they come back. It's a very revolving door!
Do you think being on a label like Song. By Toad encourages that kind of collaborative nature with musicians from other bands?
It's hard to say. I think there's definitely that kind of ethos with a label like Song. By Toad. Edinburgh's a very small city. There's not much of a scene in the sense of a particular sound or anything. For example, us and Lush Purr are label mates with very similar tastes. When we're touring together we listen to a lot of the same stuff in the van but when we go on stage we're both very different. Our music is so different yet we're still very supportive of one another. I guess it's a case of making the most from what's around you. Edinburgh's a tiny city compared to London or Manchester so we just band together regardless. We try and facilitate each other.
Would Meursault exist in its current form if you came from anywhere else other than Edinburgh?
Possibly? It's hard to say. I don't think I'd have come across someone like David Thomas Broughton or M O S E S so easily had I been based in a bigger city. These really niche very kind of cult acts. Again, because it's a smaller city with smaller venues and smaller crowds you just get to know the acts. You get to socialise with them and steal their stuff in a friendly way!
I Will Kill Again is your first release in three years and first full-length album in five. How long did it take to make? Were some of the songs kicking around for a while?
Four years. It took a long time to do this album. I recorded a full album of all the songs on I Will Kill Again about three years ago. Those recordings are virtually unrecognisable from how the songs sound now. It was in a completely different style.
What made you change the songs?
What we were talking about before about how Meursault kind of dissolved then I regrouped. Mentally. That record just frittered away I guess. It was quite sad at the time. It was very much the story of a band falling apart. People were going their separate ways. It was a long hard gestation for this record. I was always very confident, very assured that was the kind of narrative I wanted to present with this record.
Did the tracklist change over time?
Kind of. The only one that changed was the actual title track from it being the first song on the record to the last one. Everything else pretty much stayed where it is. It's more the songs themselves that changed. If you heard the version of 'Klopfgeist' for example you wouldn't recognise it. I think we were aiming to be Fugazi at that time. Hindsight's a wonderful thing but looking back for whatever reason I can honestly say that wasn't the right kind of framing for that story. The songs went through three or four different incarnations before I settled on where they are now. A lot of that was down to the introduction of a piano on the record. It's got a massive Peanuts influence. I love the work of Vince Guaraldi and the piano orchestrations are based on his stuff. That was the catalyst musically for finding the sound that would fit the story I was trying to tell and eventually the record came together.
Did you ever think the album would never be released?
Definitely. I think a lot of it was down to getting back my confidence. There was a time when I thought about stopping writing music. I thought that album would get lost, which in a way became the motivation to make sure it didn't. When albums take that long to make there's a worry it's going to be another Guns'n'Roses Chinese Democracy. Utter balls in other words. So that was a worry as well. That I'd spent far too long on it. So it was very important that I kept the arrangements fairly minimal so they could be finished easily.
Did your influences change while you were making the album? Did that play a part in the songs changing?
A big part of it was down to me being responsible for my own production to be honest. I'd worked with other producers before, and again it was a confidence thing. I'm self taught when it comes to recording, production and the instruments I play. When more people started listening to Meursault the less confident I became in my abilities. It's that imposter syndrome. The more you meet people you respect and admire the more you start to think I am a total chancer and I'm gonna get found out. So that's when I started working with other producers. Like on the second record _All Creatures Will Make Merry _ for example. I produced it myself but then it turned out as many people didn't like it as did, so for various reasons I thought it would be better if I outsourced that production role. And then during that time and when I started doing the Supermoon stuff a few people asked me to do recording projects for them. At the same time we had Song. By Toad's recording facilities available to us. Matthew (Young, label owner) moved house and with that came the studio. So I was plonked in it and let loose and as my confidence grew as a performer, my confidence grew as a producer.
Now you've made those changes to the songs on I Will Kill Again, do you ever listen back to other records from the Meursault back catalogue and think about redoing them as well?
I already did actually. Matthew decided he wanted to do a five year anniversary boxset for the label, and because the first album Pissing On Bonfires / Kissing With Tongues had never been released on vinyl he wanted that to be part of it. When I was mixing the songs and bouncing them down I didn't know what a WAV form was but I did recognise MP3. So I bounced them all down as MP3s. Then in the interim period - a few years had passed - the laptop I used to record the first album broke. And I didn't back everything up, so there was no chance of ever getting the WAV files for that album. So I re-recorded the album from start to finish and it got released to a very few people. I'm not against the idea of revisiting songs although I'm at the point now where I'm feeling a bit more confident than I have done in the past. I'm quite proud of my back catalogue as it stands. I wouldn't want to go tampering with it at the moment.
I think there is a definite progression in Meursault's sound, particularly if you listen to each record in chronological order.
Whenever I start a new record I want it to be vastly different from the last one but I don't really know how to go about it. I want it to be a new chapter. I think I'm acutely aware by now that I have a very distinctive voice. The upshot of that is I can get away with a certain amount of musical to-ing and fro-ing. Different styles and instrumentation where hopefully the vocal will be the familiar thread and that's why having a back catalogue like mine works as one whole body of material. I'd like to think there's a commonality that links everything I've done. In saying that, I do sort of take that liberty and run with it in so much as if the vocal is going to have a commonality about it how far can I push things? What else can I do? Could I do a metal record and it still be recognisable as Meursault? It's interesting to me.
The album has received glowing reviews from all sections of the music press. Did you expect it to be received so favourably?
I'm really happy with how it's been received. I couldn't have asked for more. I had no expectation going into it. After four years of writing and recording then re-recording the album, I was just glad it came out. I was just relieved that I'd managed to do it and get it printed and pressed. That I could physically hold it. After four years of work, I didn't really give a fuck if anyone liked it at that point! I'd spent four years of my life on this piece of work. I was happy with it and that was all that mattered. That's how I felt. It's done, like it or lump it.
Culminating in a nomination for the 2017 Scottish Album Of The Year (SAY) Award.
It's really nice.
Do you think it might open doors for you in a similar way to how it did for Anna Meredith, or do you not think too far ahead about things like that?
I've been doing Meursault for 10 years now, so whatever comes my way is just great. Even at this stage, the fanbase does seem to be growing. I'm travelling further afield and more people are coming to the shows. There seems to be a steady, natural growth that I'm really happy with. If there is a little shot in the arm once in a while, that's fantastic as well. So the Scottish Album Of The Year nomination is great. It just goes against that Scottish feeling of deprecation that we’re all known for. That we would have a national awards ceremony. But that aside, it’s a lovely thing to have been nominated and be considered for such an award. There’s a lot of big names on there and a lot of really great records as well so it’s just nice to get counted alongside those.
I guess it’s justification for your perseverance in putting I Will Kill Again together and getting it out there.
There’s a certain amount of bloody-mindedness involved too. I accept that.
Now you’ve got this record out there and attained a fair degree of recognition, has it revitalised you as an artist? Have you started writing album number five?
I have. I’m playing a couple of new ones in the live set at the minute. I like to keep the set constantly turning over. That said, I am very aware that I’ve got a record out and it’s still very fresh. For everyone else it’s pretty fresh, it’s not for me. Also, the album is only 35 minutes long and normally you’re expected to play for a bit longer than that so what I do with the rest of the time is the fun bit for me. It gives me an opportunity to introduce new songs as well as reinterpret some of the older ones. I don’t want people to be over-familiar with them by the time I release the next record so I might drop a new one in tonight then possibly not play it again until the next album comes out.
How many new songs do you have at present?
I’ve got a bunch.
An album’s worth?
I’ve got a bit more than that. I’ve just released 35 minutes of music that I wrote four years ago so I’ve written a lot of songs during that interim period. I’m self-editing a lot of them at the moment. That’s where I am in terms of looking to the future. Just going through what I’ve got and trying to find some form of narrative in there. Something that ties them all together. The concept record thing, it bothers me how people seem to have so many hang-ups with that kind of thing. I started playing music late but I’ve always had an interest in writing and literature. So my confidence lies primarily in writing lyrics then dressing them up with the music afterwards. So it is really important for me if that’s the kind of artist I’m going to be in putting most of the emphasis on the words then there has to be a point. I don’t want to waste people’s time. I want to tell a story. If I’m going to be up on stage I want to be in people’s faces doing what I do. The world’s full of music. The world’s choc full of bands. There are so many amazing records getting released every week so if I’m going to do this there has to be a point. I have to be able to justify it to myself. I’m not just going on stage to sing a back catalogue. I’d never do that.
Looking back, do you think some of those songs you wrote eight or nine years ago on your first couple of records are representative of where you are today, both as an artist and personally?
No. I don’t see how they could be. The vast majority of my material sounds very personal to an outsider. That’s not necessarily the case. I’m not saying that’s not true with a lot of the songs. There are certain songs tied to ideals that I held or influences that were more prevalent back then. Things change. I don’t have any songs that I’m particularly embarrassed by now but there are some we just struggle with when it comes to incorporating them in the live set. Like ‘The Furnace’ from the first record. Mainly because I can’t figure out how to play it anymore, but also because it doesn’t really fit in the set as it is now. If it doesn’t fit that doesn’t mean it's relegated to the bin. It just means it doesn’t work for now. The next time I go out on tour and turn the set over again it might mean ‘The Furnace’ totally fits and becomes the highlight of the set. You just have to play it by ear.
Has the current political climate influenced your writing?
The new stuff definitely. That’s something at the back of my mind just now. I Will Kill Again is probably my most personal record and the next one is arguably my most angry. I’m not saying it’s my attempt at a Billy Bragg record but I do feel furious most of the time and I don’t get why anyone else isn’t. I live in Edinburgh with my girlfriend who I absolutely adore. She’s an Australian immigrant. I’m an artist on a low wage income. She’s a Scottish literature student. That’s my situation and it’s far worse for so many other people. So the new songs are loud and angry because nothing else makes sense at the moment.
Why do you think there aren’t as many artists writing about the current social and political climates as there were in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Margaret Thatcher first came into power?
I think a lot of artists are scared of alienating their audience which to me is utterly cowardly. I’m old enough to remember the Thatcher generation and the idea of being a shy Tory wasn’t such a thing back then. Whereas now, when myself or other artists look out into the audience you can’t necessarily tell what their background is or what their beliefs are. Not many artists include their political convictions in their writing. Also, the idea of the protest song – which is a horrific term anyway – has been so tainted through the 980s and early 1990s. Thank you, Bob Geldof and Bono, for pissing on Woody Guthrie’s grave! The idea of these songs being sung for the people by the people got absolutely rubbished. I’m sure Live Aid did a lot of good in other ways but I can’t help but think we’ve lost a huge part of our culture as a result of that. How do you write a song now, be angry and not alienate a part of your audience? The answer is you can, but if you’re going to do it you must have conviction and accept that. I guess if you want to be a popular internationally famous artist then don’t sing about what’s going on socially or politically. How many artists do you know that are truly extroverts? So the idea of just spewing out thoughts and ideas as they occur is minimal. I don’t think it's exclusive to musicians either. I think that way of thinking permeates a lot of people’s lives.
The music industry does seem to be one conservative race to the bottom right now.
I’ve stopped referring to it as the music industry. What is it? It’s not an industry. The thing we refer to as the music industry rightfully died about 15-20 years ago. Probably when Kurt Cobain blew his head off. It was literally around that time. I can’t remember the last time a mainstream artist at that level had any sort of substance whatsoever. The reason for that is the model that was created in the first place around people like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, it was always corrupt. The amount of money that was flying around at the time. No one ever commanded that amount. No one ever deserved that amount. It was ridiculous, fantasy money. People flying around the world in private jets to play rock shows. As someone that grew up with Fugazi and Daniel Johnston its just utter fairytale bollocks! It should never have been allowed in the first place. So when you meet people who are trying to claw that back, who somehow think we should get back to there, it’s quite soul destroying. Why would anyone want to go back there? It was awful.
I guess music reality television shows haven’t helped either. Certainly, in creating a perception with the public that kind of lifestyle still exists.
I know musicians who think it still exists, never mind Joe Public! Can you blame them? Every year there’ll be a new Led Zeppelin or Bob Dylan documentary constantly perpetuating this myth. We’ll never get away from it. The reality is there’s not much financial reward out there for artists. And you know what? It should be hard. It should be a struggle. We’re at a point now with contemporary music where it is make or break. I’m not saying everyone should regard it as high end, high brow artistry. That would be missing the point. What I’m saying is we need to remove the entertainment industry from the music industry because they’re two very opposite things. They’re cancerous to each other. It’s like trying to monetise something that doesn’t deserve to be monetised to that degree.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians that want to go out and play or form a band?
Find something you give a shit about so much that you don’t feel embarrassed going on stage to scream about it! Find the meaning and the purpose of doing it. If you’re going to get up on stage have conviction. Don’t worry about making a dick of yourself. That’s the biggest thing I want to see put in the bin. The whole posture that goes along with contemporary music. If you’re gonna fuck up then fuck up. If you’re gonna try stuff out and it doesn’t quite work don’t give up. Don’t try and present people with the finished product all of the time. Let them see the working of it. If you’re going to have a fanbase let them be involved in it. Try and reach out to them. Don’t try and be above them. That’s what being an artist is about. Really putting your neck on the line for something you believe in. That doesn’t necessarily have to be deep and meaningful lyrics. It could be the music or even the aesthetic but you have to believe in it. If you want anyone else to give a shit about it then it has to start with you. There’s far too much stuff out there already that has no meaning. We need to stop filling the world with meaningless content.
Are there any new artists you’d recommend Drowned In Sound and its readers should check out?
I find it quite difficult listening to new music at the minute because there’s so much of it out there. Because of my buying habits I’ve found myself checking out a lot of old country and metal records recently. Most of the new stuff I tend to check out is what’s around me, so that’s usually bands that I play with or stuff on the label. At the moment I’m really liking the Chrissy Barnacle and Faith Eliott records. Beyond that, I’m really struggling. I’ve always been terrible at keeping up with new music.
You’re involved in a couple of other projects such as Supermoon for example. Is there anything else in the pipeline with those?
Yeah, I have a couple of projects on the go at the minute. I’m not going to say too much about them at the minute as while they’re done, they aren’t ready to be shared publicly just yet. One is this cool collaborative thing that’s very similar to Bastard Mountain. Just me and a few pals – Kenny Creosote and Frances from Animal Magic Tricks basically - playing some of each other’s songs and trying to build some kind of story out of that.