Lockdown has been a difficult time for everyone, dealing with isolation and distance from those we love and care about. Although his own journey began many years ago, this is the theme of the debut album Distance, released on 18th September, by Popcorn Fiend, aka Scottish multi-instrumentalist Michael MacLennan.
“It feels slightly surreal,” Michael said when we spoke recently, “from the perspective of having worked on the songs for such a long time, songs I’ve been writing for the past decade or so through places I’d lived which included Glasgow, Salford Quays, London and Salzburg, in Austria, back to London and now back in the Highlands. I started pulling them all together and thinking there’s a journey there that is expressed through an album format.”
Distance is the culmination of a journey that started in Aberdeen in 2003 with Popcorn Fiend’s ahead-of-its-time debut EP Subliminal Messages Will Mess With Your Mind, which delved into the sort of head-spinning eclecticism which music streaming would eventually bring into the mainstream.
A product of Michael’s relocation to Glasgow, and eight years in the making, 2011’s PF/EP similarly stretched in several musical directions but veered into a starker, raw sound, reflecting the formation of a full band for live performance. Popcorn Fiend sprang into life just as CHVRCHES and The Twilight Sad began showing what Glasgow had to offer in terms of synth-laden anthemic indie pop, but their momentum was stalled by personal circumstances.
“When I started writing material for the album I was still living in Glasgow. It was an interesting situation. All of my family and most of my friends were all based in Scotland and it meant a great deal to me that I’d find myself becoming more dissatisfied and not sure what to do next. So when I was writing stuff there was a sense of disquiet with the family and then I moved to Salford Quays. Here I wrote The Fourth Wall and had in mind the collision of the deliberate sparseness and purpose of the early Factory Records, post-punk, with more modern electro. A friend described an early demo as Joy Division covering Modeselektor which I found a pleasing comparison.
“This was the first time I had lived outside of Scotland and it was about the time of the Scottish Independence Referendum (2014). I felt slightly removed, not only from family and friends, but also from what was going on in Scotland. There was a sense of isolation and I began thinking about those relationships and what that meant: relationships to my closest family, my closest friends, to Scotland itself and its place in the UK.
“There was definitely elements of that that presented itself and the songwriting became more analytical and more contemplative. When I then moved to London, the feeling of being in one of the biggest cities in the world came through. It was more central but also further away.”
I suggested that this must have been quite a culture shock, coming from rural Scotland.
“Yes!” Michael agreed, “a very different experience. Initially I was from the Highlands but then I moved further down south, and to ever-bigger cities. First was Aberdeen, where I studied and, as Popcorn Fiend, that was where I created the first EP. Then I moved to Glasgow, where I was for most of the decade, then Salford Quays, and on to London.
“That was another interesting time. I was working for an ITN website at the time of the General Election, when Labour were expecting to be elected but the Conservatives got in with a majority. I remember working that night as the results came in and people were coming to appear on the ITN News show – Michael Gove and Peter Mandleson literally next to me while I was working on this.
“The album’s about distance, in one sense, but then I’m moving to these places and there were interesting parallels with what was going on at the time. When I moved to Salford Quays there was the endless referendum over Scotland’s relationship to the UK and I found my relationship to Scotland through that. In London there was the 2015 General Election when the Conservatives got back in in quite a shocking fashion, in a way that, again, made me think about my relationships. That was when the SNP got over 50 MPs, like there was a tale of two different places.
“And then, when I moved over to Austria, I wrote the track A Virtue as the Brexit referendum happened, another cultural moment. I was out of the country so it was like peering at it and seeing myself wrapped up in the effect of that. That’s why the title Distance felt very appropriate, because there were all these things going on and my personal life, my relationships with people and these things are being broken apart or forged through these matters of distance.
“It made me aware of my own personal smallness. I’d lived all my life in English speaking countries but moving to Austria was a good chance to get an idea of what it means to be European and being removed from the UK at that time when Brexit happened. There are some Celtic origins to Salzburg and Salzburg resembles Inverness, where I was born, in many ways, parallels to where I was from, although the weather in Salzburg is very much nicer in the summertime!
“It made me aware of my origins, someone from the Highlands who played the bagpipes, more about my place and it probably informed the lyrics as well.
“Eventually I came back from Austria to London which is where I decided to finish the album and then to the Highlands where I have been mixing and mastering it ready for release. It feels fitting that I’ve finished the album here, like an end point.
“It’s also been odd to finally return and then be unable to see many of the people that I care about but I have to be grateful to have some quality time with family and friends. The album deals with themes of isolation and distance but, on an up-note, how that helps you to realise how fortunate you have been to have made such connections.”
Musically, the album is as diverse as the locations where they were written. The first single taken from the album, the dynamic Bear On Bear, is an uplifting electro-infused tonic that 2020 so desperately needs featuring the powerhouse drumming of Ross Rankin (The Kills, Titus Gein, Blue Sky Archives).
“Bear on Bear was written specifically with Ross in mind. He is one of the best and most fearsomely entertaining drummers I have had the pleasure of playing with,” Michael explains. “Ross plays with such ferocity and I wanted to create a bank of electronics that he would effectively be playing against, setting up a musical clash-of-the-titans, a showdown finale between man and machine. A Virtue is slightly synth-wave but still quite ambient, Sketch Of A Plan is quite rock, so there is quite a lot of variation.”
Remain, another track from Michael’s Salzburg sojourn, has a sombre eastern European ambience that put me in mind of Brian Eno’s work on Bowie’s Low album. It sits on the album between The Fourth Wall and Reciprocity. “The Fourth Wall was very electronic, the one after is very rock. Remain was bridging two very different locations and styles of music. There is also the feeling of trying to hold on to something, it was very much about that journey.”
The journey had begun in Inverness when young Michael’s mum introduced him to the music of Queen. “She was a massive Queen fan and that defined my primary school years. When I got older I got into rock music and a bit of Britpop as well. The first album I bought was Parklife by Blur, then I got into Metallica and also electronic music,
“My first instrument was the bagpipes,” he laughs, “being Scottish! That’s what I grew up playing, then I got my first guitar when I was 15. That was me sold as a favourite instrument but when I was 11 or 12 I was a computer geek and I got into early music production software, even before the guitar. I remember getting this software called App In A Box where you created chord sequences. It blew my mind that using this computer software I could have this band that would play what I wanted them to. I could produce everything and have it sound, almost, how I wanted it to. That was really inspiring. It was like the dance producers who would create these generation-defining pieces of music in their bedroom.
“The first EP in 2003 was quite eclectic, everything from dark and electronic, drum and bass to rock and metal and pop and some ambient elements as well.
“It’s interesting that I did the first material and then it was quite a problem when I was working out how I could present it to people because there was dance, rock, electronic, metal and so on. Nowadays, there are genres and then specialities within those but then you find that being eclectic, you find these niches find a more receptive audience. So I feel my age is quite appropriate for what I’m doing.”
Distance is released on 18th September on Pure Moth.