Today, if you type Lord Of The Isles into Google, John MacDonald's name appears beneath the SoundCloud page of Edinburgh producer Neil McDonald. As well as the nominal lineage, McDonald cites an early fascination with Scottish history as his reason for choosing the name, the result of memorable childhood holidays "getting dragged around the Highlands by my parents." Listen to the music he's made since—an earthy, emotive swirl of house, techno and disco—and it's clear those years spent roaming the hills left a deep impression.
When I spoke to McDonald from his home in Edinburgh via Skype, he came across as shy and humble, answering questions with the hesitancy of someone who is getting to grips with being interviewed. I began by asking him how his summer had been, expecting to hear his reflections on debut gigs at Trouw and Panorama Bar. Instead, he muttered something about moving house: "I've got nowhere to live. It's all been a bit unsettling." Currently in his forties, McDonald lives with his wife and two children and works full-time as a graphic designer. Music remains, as it always has been, a hobby—something to do in the evenings and on weekends. Only now, he's finally starting to get the recognition he deserves.
In the past two years, McDonald has been particularly prolific. He's released just shy of ten EPs, through the likes of Phonica, Mule Musiq, Shevchenko and Permanent Vacation, as well as turning out high-profile remixes for Shit Robot, Jon Hopkins and Little Dragon. Pick any of those records at random and you'll hear an intricate mesh of tone, rhythm and feeling, weaving together bits from acid and trance, fusing deep house with disco and dance floor techno. This year's 301C Symphony, a five-track bundle on Permanent Vacation that stands as his most high-profile and complete work to date, was my first contact with his music, handed to me over the counter at my local record store. Before the needle dropped, I presumed Lord Of The Isles was just another newbie on the scene, but by the end of the record I was convinced to the contrary. Everything about the music—its bold emotion, the deftness of touch, the disinterest in traditional tropes—suggested a producer at the height of his game.
But then McDonald has been making music for a long time. His obsession with sound dates back to the early '80s, when as a young boy living in Fife he would repeatedly rewind the credits to his favourite sci-fi films, obsessed with the ambient soundscapes of John Carpenter and Vangelis. As a teenager, his tastes widened to include The Orb and New Order. Around the age of 16, acid house exploded, and every weekend would be spent with his friends, travelling to disused quarries, remote fields and working-men's clubs for parties.
"It was just a total shift, and you could see a change in people's attitudes through going out. You used to be scared to go to different towns or cities. And then it just changed, and you'd see people would just be dancing all night and taking drugs and whatever." A couple of years later, as acid house began to migrate indoors, McDonald moved to Edinburgh to study art at university, immersing himself in the city's lively club scene. The Venue and Pure were his favoured haunts, playing host to mind-altering sets from the likes of Derrick May and Gemini.
It was here, in a shared student flat in the Scottish capital, that McDonald made the transition from passive consumer to active partaker. By all accounts, this played out in typical fashion: McDonald took a turn on his flatmate's decks, loved it and started buying vinyl. Not long after, him and a couple of mates, including Firecracker Records owner Lindsay Todd, secured a residency at a basement bar called Negotiates. Every Saturday night for six or seven years they would play from 10 until 3 AM. "It was great having that foundation," he says. "Sometimes you'd do it on your own and just go through the whole night, five, six hours, whatever it was. Like two record bags, three record bags sometimes, and just get on it, playing from ambient stuff right through to, you know, everything."
But for McDonald, more than simply playing records, it was the actual mixing process that captured his imagination, igniting what would become a lifelong obsession. "I was really into that whole aspect of, you know, creating something else out of two separate elements. That was the essence of it for me, and the beginning of the journey of writing music." That journey began to take shape in 1995, as McDonald developed a friendship with John Vick, a member of the popular acid house collective Finitribe. The pair would spend time together at Vick's studio, Finiflex, where McDonald would "write bits and bobs on certain machines, or throw down the records I wanted to sample. And then I started doing stuff on my own in the house. I kinda learnt a lot from John, really. You know, he's just one of those guys, a bit of a boffin."
It was around this time that McDonald discovered the knack for writing melodies that today is central to his work as Lord Of The Isles. Though he failed a basic music test in his first year at secondary school ("I remember being absolutely fuckin' gutted,"), and was never classically trained, he does think there might be "some musician trying to get out of [me] somewhere." For McDonald, most tracks start with the melody, simply because it's the thing he gets the most enjoyment out of. He likens his approach in the studio to doodling—which I took as a metaphor until he showed me several of his abstract, figure-based sketches. The process sits in direct opposition to the graphic designer-world of briefs and deadlines. Most of the time, McDonald will find a sound he likes and "just sorta play around with it" until the ideas and inspiration start flowing. "I mean, that's a big thing for me," he says. "It's one of the most important things about the way that I write music, the not thinking about it." McDonald was a keen artist as a young boy, and these meandering sessions help him re-imagine "the freedom of going back to drawing and painting."
You can hear the results of such a natural approach in his productions. Take the upbeat undulation of "Greane," where the melody appears to have a mind of its own, cavorting in and out of the mix. On "Tears In The Rain" the mood is more sombre, but again we're drawn in by its earnest feel and catchy phrases. Even on "301c Symphony," where the melody is stuttered and almost awkward, it still has that same infectious appeal. On occasion, McDonald will throw in additional melodies to keep things fresh. "Horizon Effect" from the Permanent Vacation EP opens with low-toned bubbles, before breaking off into hazy cascades and a final outburst of synths. In lesser hands, his tracks could feel cluttered, but instead they surge with light and energy.
As effortless as his music can feel, achieving that level of proficiency didn't happen overnight. After a period spent making music together as Remote Control—which included an album, two EPs and an inclusion on Darren Emerson's Global Underground 20: Singapore mix—McDonald and Vick parted ways. The main reason for the split was McDonald's desire to pursue music alone. "I just found my own sort of thing," he says. "I think when you're working with someone else and you're not that experienced as a producer—I think sometimes you've got ideas and it's important that you find answers to them yourself."
Rather than trying to forge a solo career, McDonald decided to return to making music solely for pleasure, shifting his focus onto his growing family and his job as a graphic designer. I got the sense he had grown disillusioned with the industry. Had he been disappointed by Remote Control's lack of success? "Yeah, yeah, I think so, or I expected many things to happen after that album, you know. I was probably just naive." Wanting distance from all that came with making music for commercial gain, for the next seven years McDonald spent his free time locked away in his home studio, honing his craft.
When I ask him about this time, McDonald shrugs casually: "It was just what, I did you know, that's what I'd do at night-time. I wouldn't really watch TV or anything else, or go out. It kinda coincided with having a family as well. That probably helped a lot, in focussing me on what I was doing—which was stay in a lot [laughs]. I wasn't doing anything thinking that anyone was going to hear it, ever."
For the first three years, McDonald struggled with his sound. "I just couldn't get it right," he says. "Like I just couldn't no matter what I tried. It kinda drove me mad a wee bit, and then I just broke the bank and bought really decent monitors. I got them positioned properly and, you know, took things a bit more seriously rather than just writing and writing. That made the world of difference."
Just days later, LA label Adult Contemporary stumbled across the track. Finding it fitted with their trippy, disco-tinged style, they signed it on the spot. The record, released more than a year later, came out exclusively on vinyl and did remarkably well—reports even came through that David Mancuso had been hammering it at The Loft. Like most of these things, its success is down to a mixture of timing and talent. By 2011, slower, disco-influenced house was sweeping the scene, championed by the likes of DFA, Visionquest and Rebirth. Though completely unaware at the time, McDonald admits, in retrospect, this definitely helped his cause.
Off the back of "Ultraviolet"'s popularity, work started coming McDonald's way. Adult Contemporary suggested McDonald send some tracks to Chida, label head at Tokyo's Ene Recordings. The Pacific Affinity EP hit the shelves and was notable for "Rising Sun" and "Carbon Minus," a pair of deft ambient tracks. It was Chida's support on these tracks in particular that took McDonald by surprise: "I never thought anyone would release them. They were just so personal." Slowly, as McDonald came to terms with other people actually liking his music, his confidence grew.
In 2012, McDonald displayed further sides to his musical character, putting out a run of EPs via Catune, Cocktail D'Amore, Unthank (a sub-label of Firecracker) and Phonica. While the first two dealt in a similar brand of carefree funk, the Unthank and Phonica releases hinted at moodier, tougher vibes. "A2B" on Futures, and "Year Of The City" on the Phonica EP of the same name, are cases in point. On an EP of otherwise serene soundcapes, the former rushes with fierce Detroit energy, while the latter is almost techno, strapping robust kicks and churning synths to a mean bassline. It's an approach McDonald revisited on subsequent outings on Permanent Vacation and Kurve, placing more of an emphasis on groove.
Having spent the past three years amassing a strong body of work, and with gigs approaching a near-constant flow, McDonald is now ready to take the next step and make an album. In fact, when you consider the musicality of his output, not to mention his breadth of range, it's a surprise it hasn't happened sooner. Earlier this year, he transported his entire studio to a friend's place in the Cairngorms, a mountain range in the eastern Scottish Highlands, spending just under ten days writing in complete solitude. "It was a bit strange at first," he says. "I've got such a busy life with the kids and everything, the silence was deafening. But I went for quite a lot of walks, and it ended up being really productive. I wrote a couple of new pieces that I know for a fact there's no way I would've written in any other place."
I tell McDonald that many of his tracks literally feel and sound like walks (or runs) through the hills, evoking a sense of being happily lost in the wilderness. He agrees, though short of him finding the landscapes "inspirational," he struggles to explain how exactly his experience in the open air translates into his music. He can, however, articulate a connection between the countryside and another strand of his creativity: the sci-fi drawings he was such a fan of as a kid. "I definitely made this connection with my science fiction drawings that I used to do of landscapes," he says. "I was into this guy Ralph McQuarrie who did all the original Star Wars concepts. Sometimes you're in a really remote part of the Highlands, the weather is horrible, you're up a mountain somewhere, and it's like you could actually be on a different planet." The landscapes, the art, the music—it all somehow coalesces to form McDonald's distinct aesthetic.
As for the album, he's got "about 30 ambient tracks that are finished," though the aim is "to have that balance, to make it a cohesive, coherent sort of piece, from start to finish." (He'll also release an ambient album at some point, he says.) "I'd be happy if it turned out like a longer version of one of these EPs really, in terms of how happy I was with each of the tracks, but shorter, about three, four minutes each." He doesn't expect it to be finished until at least early 2015, but for his fans this shouldn't be a cause for concern. By now they know there's no harm in letting him take his time