Interview by Isabella Eastwood.
As is becoming more normal and (slightly) less awkward, Medicine Men’s frontman Ian MacKinnon and I start our video interview on what is a still abnormally sunny afternoon. Ian cracks open a beer as he settles down, and I greedily eye the bottle while mentally shuffling my notes. As for many of the artists I’ve spoken with so far, Ian has benefitted from the Isolation Session project, not only in terms of having a focus, but having the opportunity to approach music in a new way.
First things first, Ian tells me why he chose the song he did: “I thought of Mark W. Georgsson’s fist album immediately. It was just about to come out when we signed to the label, and I went to the album launch at The Hug and Pint. The song – “Oh My Dear Friend” – is really beautiful. It’s actually more up-tempo than others and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it.
The plan was to put the song into a higher key and to introduce a slower pace; Ian intimates undercurrents of MGMT and Arcade Fire. But the conversion wasn’t without its difficulties.
“The end of the middle eight [a type of bridge] took me a few attempts because of some issues with the speed and phrasing. It took me really going over it, working out what Mark did and slowing it down to figure it out.”
Ian also ventured into new musical fields when he decided to forgo his main instrument, the guitar, a move that prompted his band mates’ encouragement, revealing a reassuring level of faith in his abilities.
“It was quite a big move for me but the truth is, it doesn’t need the guitar. It left a lot more space for the vocals, and it’s got synths, bass and drums. It turned out pretty much how I hoped it would. The rest of the band seem to like it too, and there’s none of that ‘How am I not involved’ or ‘You can’t put that in the band’s name’. They trust me to get it right, which is great.”
Ian’s is another case of having to work outside of his usual band set-up. Without the incentive of rehearsals to keep the momentum and progress going, he has had to work around his tendency to procrastinate and find some self-discipline (“which doesn’t come naturally to me at all” he adds). But being left to his own devices has lead to the recognition of hitherto unidentified strengths:
“One thing Chris Smith, who mixed the track said was that he didn’t actually have to do much to the track, and that the producing and mixing was fairly well done. It made me realise that I know the sound, the vocals, and the drums that I like. In terms of our last album, the guy who mixed it told me I had basically co-produced it because I was so much more involved than artists usually are, and I was always telling him exactly what I wanted to do.”
“So I’ve never been the most prolific of songwriters, which is what I always wished I could change about myself, but if anything this period has made me focus more on production, and I’m enjoying it much more than I’ve ever done before. This time has definitely given me more confidence, and I think at the end I think I’ll come out of it a better producer. If I can call myself that!”
What with the launch Medicine Men’s second album on an indefinite hold, the band is currently up in the air, especially in terms of when they will be able to tour again. The experience of working with less leads Ian to think that the live shows, once they pick up again, might easily involve a more minimalist approach:
“Beta Waves, a 2 piece I know, travel all over in just a car. Meanwhile, when we played Electric Fields, we filled a big van full of drums, amps, guitars, keyboards… We got paid 75 quid. One of my DJ mates turned up with just a laptop, he got paid 7 and a half grand.
“We really don’t travel light, and we’re not quite popular enough to legitimate that financially or logistically. So you can scale up, or scale down what you take, depending on the venue. It’s helped strip back from what you would automatically include to what you just need. It makes you refocus and think about what’s necessary, and not just in the case with music, but with everything: what’s important in our lives, what are we missing? Social interaction, our families… we’re missing the important stuff.”
Speaking of important stuff, the conversation turns towards the live music scene, and how the pandemic is not only suspending any type of live show – leaving artists, musicians, actors and their fans suspended in limbo – but how it is also accelerating a pre-existing process that threatens the livelihood of musical development.
“You hear estimates such as 18 months (https://consequenceofsound.net/2020/04/health-expert-concerts-wont-return-fall-2021/) before we can go to gigs again – and you hope that that’s just a conservative estimate, but you just don’t know. And the people at the top of the music chain – often business men, not music people – don’t understand how important the small places are to help generate the big bands they have at their festivals. The amount of small venues in London and Edinburgh have lost, even before this, is really troubling! Everyone needs an entry point! No one goes straight to the Barrowlands, or even to King Tut’s. You need these smaller places. They’re incubators for bands to come!”
Which is why, and it’s worth underscoring at every opportunity, the Isolation Sessions are so significant: they keep the focus on the venues we rely on so much to feed us with creative (and sometimes not so creative, can’t all be winners) talent and uncharted acts, just waiting to be unearthed.
Medicine Men's new album "A Different Port" is released on Friday 15th May and is available to pre-order here.