Article and Interview : TF6 'Big Gold Dream' Pitchfork Interview with Director Grant McPhee
We were lucky to be interviewed by leading music magazine Pitchfork for our soon to be released documentaries TF6 Big Gold Dream and TF11 Teenage Superstars:
Q&A: The Sound of Young Scotland Doc Director Grant McPhee
by Marc Hogan
Scotland was late to receive the punk gospel, but once it got hold, England’s northern neighbor clung tightly to the do-it-yourself mindset. Independent labels such as Edinburgh’s Fast Product in the late 1970s, along with Glasgow’s Postcard at the dawn of the '80s and 53rd & 3rd in the latter '80s, helped break new ground in post-punk, indie-pop and other genres that hadn’t yet been formalized. Great Scottish bands emerged from this period of cultural ferment, among them Orange Juice, the Jesus & Mary Chain, and Teenage Fanclub; since then, the legacy has continued through Belle and Sebastian,Mogwai, Camera Obscura, Franz Ferdinand, and on throughChvrches, the Twilight Sad, and PAWS.
It’s a story that has been outlined before, but perhaps never told in so much loving detail. Grant McPhee, a director who in his day job has worked as a digital imaging technician on "Game of Thrones" and "Outlander", spent a decade tracking down more than 60 interview subjects for two feature-length documentary films packaged together as The Sound of Young Scotland: namely, The Big Gold Dream: Scottish Post Punk, DIY and Infiltrating The Mainstream andSongs From Northern Britain: The Country That Invented Indie Music. "Everything is taken down to soundbites, and we don’t want to do that with our film," says McPhee. "We just want to let it breathe." The project’s slogan refers to the Postcard label’s motto, itself a play on classic Motown slogan "The Sound of Young America."
Watch a 9-minute teaser for the self-distributed films, which McPhee hopes will have a short theatrical run before becoming available via DVD and video on demand. He talked to The Pitch’s Marc Hogan about the Fast Product’s link to Joy Division, the adverse effects of a major-label gold rush, and a searing noise-pop band that came from one of Britain’s post-World War II "new towns."
Pitchfork: It was 10 years in the making. What was so fascinating to you about the early Scottish indie scene?
Grant McPhee: I’m a bit of a musical geek, and I like tracing back a lot of music to where it started. Probably around about that time it would be the tail end of Britpop and a lot of UK indie music, and I just liked tracing it back. It seemed to fall back a lot to Postcard Records, the label which Orange Juice were on. I happened to be making a music video for a friend, and he was friends with Malcolm Ross, who was the guitarist in Josef K and Orange Juice. He just said, "Oh, I’ll put you in touch with him." It just snowballed from there. A very slow snowball.
Pitchfork: You’ve interviewed Edwyn Collins, Bobby Gillespie, Jim Reid, Peter Hook, the heads of these various labels, Vic Godard of the Subway Sect—what was your proudest interview?
GM: It’s tough. A lot of the ones that were the proudest interviews and most interesting were probably people that I didn’t know too much about. It’s really because we approached a lot of the interviews from a fan’s perspective as well as a storyteller’s perspective. I was genuinely interested in hearing firsthand from a lot of these people. Somebody we spoke to recently was David Miller, he’s in a band called Finitribe. They’re not especially well-known outside of the UK and they’re slightly dancier, an electronic band. But it was just fascinating listening to him and getting completely different perspectives. So some of the lesser-known people were more interesting. It’s just really because we love finding out new things and discovering new bands.
Pitchfork: What can people learn about the Scottish indie scene from these two films that they might not have known before?
GM: Just how everybody links together—it’s a spider’s web! For instance, the mid-'80s, slightly later indie scene was all based around the BMX Bandits in Bellshill. They would all rehearse around in somebody’s house. Duglas Stewart, the lead singer for the BMX Bandits, would sit down. And then Sean Dickson would stand up, and it would become the Soup Dragons. And then Sean would sit down, and Norman Blake from Teenage Fanclub would take over on mic duties and it would become the Boy Hairdressers, which was the precursor to Teenage Fanclub. The guitarist was in Superstar. All these bands were just intrinsically linked together.
Pitchfork: From this trailer, it looks like you can kind of rewind it all and it goes back to the White Riot tour.
GM: Yeah. In the UK, London is the hub, and 30-plus years ago information traveled very slowly. So we heard about punk slightly later than everybody else. It was probably a good year later than the rest of the country when the first punk bands started playing. People would read about it in the NME, but the White Riot tour, which the Clash headlined, that was the starting point for everybody. It’s amazing to see [the bill]: The Clash, Subway Sect, Buzzcocks, the Jam—all the great first-wave punk bands.
Pitchfork: And then came the Fast Product label, and the all the great records on that label from the Human League, Mekon, Gang of Four—even Joy Division. But I thought people might interested to know that Fast Product refused to sign Joy Division. Is that right?
GM: Yeah, (Fast Product co-founders) Bob (Last) and Hilary (Morrison) both talk quite openly about it in the film. Basically, they were uncomfortable with the name Joy Division. They still maintained a good relationship with them, but they just didn’t put out a single. But Fast Product did eventually put something from Joy Division on one of their compilations. A lot of bands did start out on Fast Product, and Fast Product were just incredibly influential on Factory Records, their whole outlook.
Pitchfork: Making the film, what did you learn about Postcard Records?
GM: It was very different to Fast Product. There wasn’t rivalry in the sense of traditional rivalry. At that time, everybody was seen as an outsider if they were into punk and indie music. Society in Britain was very different at that time. But what we learned about Postcard, it just seemed to end very quickly. I won’t tell you too much, but in the film there’s lots of information about what happened and why Postcard ceased to exist.
Pitchfork: In the trailer, it sounds like Postcard co-founder Alan Horne was up and down about even Orange Juice being good.
GM: Essentially, Alan was a unique character. With a lot of people like that, they can have their ups and downs, good and bad moments. And when you’re a small, close-knit circle, it can be quite disruptive for a lot of bands. Now when we think of indie bands, it’s more an aesthetic and a lifestyle. At the time, Postcard and Fast actually wanted to be on the charts. Their aim was to sign to major labels. And when they got their offer to sign to a major label, that was really the end of Postcard Records.
Pitchfork: How all the London A&R guys came in seems almost reminiscent of what happened in Seattle after grunge. What were the lessons of the major-label signing spree?
GM: I think it was really a shock to major labels that they didn’t have the influence they thought they had when a lot of these indie bands were starting to get good press. There were some fantastic major labels who did understand the indie aesthetic and ethos, but a lot of A&R people just thought, "Oh, there’s money to be made. We’ll sign anyone who’s walking around Glasgow with a guitar." And they pretty much did. And I think for a while that sort of destroyed the whole scene.
Pitchfork: Eventually, though, you have Jesus and Mary Chain, Teenage Fanclub and the 53rd & 3rd scene and bands like Shop Assistants. Where do you see those later bands fitting in?
GM: For 53rd & 3rd, there’s actually quite a neat little transition. Sandy McLean, who was the co-owner of 53rd with Stephen from the Pastels and David from the Shop Assistants was essentially the distribution head of Fast Product. When Fast Product went under, he continued on as Fast Forward, but they needed product to sell. So 53rd & 3rd was a company on top of Fast Forward. It’s really a direct continuation, but a completely different ethos. Teenage Fanclub fit in very well [with that scene].
The Jesus and Mary Chain are just totally different. In the UK, after the second World War, after all the main cities were bombed heavily, they started building what they call new towns, and they were very, very bland, boring cities without any shops. They don’t even have pavements. And the Jesus and Mary Chain were just out there on their own, doing their own thing. Once they played in Glasgow, they were doing something that was just so far out there it’s difficult to even capture it on film.
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