Conor McTernan travels to Glasgow to meet the artist who counts Aphex Twin and Björk as fans of his music.
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It took the Scottish writer Alasdair Grey almost 30 years to complete his novel Lanark. Combining the real with the surreal, Grey's dystopian opus paints a bizarre picture of a Glasgow-like city, conveying stark ideas of postmodernism and personal hells.
"When a thing is perfect it is eternal," reads one of its most striking lines. "It can be destroyed afterward, or slowly decay, but its perfection is safe in the past, which is the only inevitable part of the universe."
This reflects the worldview of Calum MacRae, a 23-year-old Glasgow-based English Literature graduate, who makes sublime electronic music under the name Lanark Artefax. His singular sound has piqued the interest of electronic music heavyweights like Aphex Twin and Björk, both of whom have played his tracks at festivals this summer.
On a bright April morning, I had coffee with MacRae at Stereo, a laid-back music venue and vegan café in Glasgow. "I've always wanted to become a film composer," he said over the noise of the café. Pensive and softly spoken, his jet black hair is peppered with greys, making him appear older than he is. We're discussing Mica Levi's score for Under The Skin, which was set in Scotland. MacRae went to the Scottish premiere at the Glasgow Film Theatre, where he met the film's director, Jonathan Glazer. "People gave Glazer stick for portraying Scotland as a gloomy place, but tonally it appealed to me," he said. "I like having something with tonal reference when I make music, so the music can soundtrack."
MacRae, who's been quietly producing in his bedroom since 2009, has been fascinated with the word Lanark since childhood. It seemed to him that the trains from Glasgow Central went there more than anywhere else. His mother's family are also from Lanark, a quaint country town with lots of folklore in the surrounding area. An avid reader, Lanark is his favourite book. Sequences of images and words help make up his universe.
MacRae was involved in the early days of the popular Glasgow label All Caps, run by local heroes Bake and Ryan Martin. In 2011, MacRae worked with Will Bankhead to create the artwork for All Caps' first release. Around the same time, he released his first piece of music, a single track on Gilles Peterson's Brownswood Electr*c 3 compilation, under a now buried alias.
As All Caps began to take off, MacRae was pulled in a different direction. "Barkat [Bake] and Ryan started getting really into DJing," he said. "I didn't know if I wanted to do that, so I thought I would try my hand at making some music instead." He applied to study composition at the Royal Conservatoire Of Scotland. The application asked for three or four classical pieces. MacRae submitted five piano compositions and over 30 electronic sketches. He was called in for an interview and offered a place on a yearlong transition course. After speaking to a family friend, he made the decision not to take the classical route and declined the offer. He settled into studying literature and making music at home.
In 2015, MacRae had something of an epiphany at Bloc Festival. Around 4AM on the Saturday morning, he was listening to Lee Gamble when everything came into focus. "The room was pretty empty but everyone that was there was transfixed," he said. "The movement and vibe of the music Lee was playing really spoke to me." Unknown to MacRae at the time, Gamble was playing the early releases on his UIQ label. MacRae returned from the festival overflowing with inspiration. "I had to emulate that sound," he said.
MacRae blasted out a series of tracks that would become the Windox Rush EP on the Manchester label Cong Burn Waves. "For me that was the transition period," MacRae told me. "I don't particularly like the tracks now. But it shows progress, some of the sounds are there." He had begun working exclusively with Reason and began experimenting with more complicated sound design, such as microtonal dissonance, and developing his sound palette, which included some of his now-signature trademarks: spliced choral samples, scattered drums and deconstructed rhythms.
Last year, MacRae summoned the courage to send tracks to Gamble, who responded within a day. "I didn't expect anything, but I think the first email said, 'This link is broken,' as I'd sent him some duff link. I thought I'd ruined my chances." But Gamble was into his music and he decided to release five tracks as the Glasz EP. In his review, RA's Mark Smith described MacRae's sound as "a bit like watching a beautifully shot film on a scratched DVD."
Back at Stereo, a burst of sunshine had broken through the clouds outside. We headed to our next location, Glasgow Cathedral, where MacRae often comes alone for inspiration. Before meeting him, I knew MacRae was a deep thinker. He's spent the past four years submerged in the depths of postmodernism studies, something he said really bogged him down. We exchanged messages for a couple of weeks in advance of my visit, and some of his responses were over 600 words long. As we walked through the East End, I asked him about his obsession with Keanu Reeves, which his Twitter profile makes clear. "I was hoping you would ask about that," he smiled. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he produced a set of keys with a Keanu Reeves keyring.
MacRae explained that his obsession has nothing to do with Reeves as an actor or celebrity. Rather, he uses Reeves' image as a kind of iconography that helps him interpret the world, something he locked into as a child. For MacRae, Reeves embodies something "transmundane and nondescript," which helps to anchor things. "Otherwise things start to feel out of whack, or begin to disintegrate around me, which can be really odd and difficult to get on with."
MacRae feels the same way about other things, like the intricate mechanics of heavy machinery and also making music. "I do that with my tracks as well. I always use the same percussion sounds and effects and that little woop sound has also become a comfortable tag of sorts. It's difficult to get away from because without these elements nothing feels complete or authentic, I suppose."
We dropped into hushed voices as we entered the cavernous cathedral. Built in the 12th century, the medieval building is one of the best examples of Scottish Gothic architecture. It's where MacRae comes for reflection or, as he puts it, to "interface with the sublime."
MacRae isn't religious, nor does he believe in a god, but he does consider himself a spiritual person. He's fascinated with things that are sublime, or gesture towards it. "There are these buildings which are like the last buildings from the old world, which carve a space out for themselves against the modern skyline. When you're in them in particular, you have to let go of modernity. They were built for a specific purpose, which was to sublimate purpose."
We took a seat in one of the isles at the centre of the chapel. Beams of light pierced the stained glass windows. There was an overwhelming amount of detail to take in. We sat in silence and gazed upwards. "It's such a lovely room," MacRae whispered.
Whities 011 is MacRae's most ornate work to date, both musically and visually. The cover art depicts a cult of storm chasers, which he conceived together with the label's founder, Nic Tasker, and its illustrator, Alex McCullough. MacRae wanted to avoid doing a conceptual EP, rather something that constructs a mythology but isn't explicit or contrived. A key goal for him when writing music is to inject an "old fashioned bit of emotion into it." Between all the gaps and fractured rhythms he's trying to sound sincere.
As a primer for the release, Whities put out a run of limited edition records, which featured a dreamy breakbeat version of the main track, "Touch Absence." MacRae says he wrote it in about half an hour "for a laugh." All the copies were sold at a record fair in South London last December.
I asked Tasker about the response to MacRae's music. "It's been great to see DJs from lots of different scenes embrace it," he said. Vladimir Ivkovic has apparently been playing "Touch Absence" pitched down to about 100 BPM. Objekt has also played it, and Björk and Aphex Twin have been playing MacRae's music. MacRae says it's a thrill to hear his music played in clubs but it's "not the end goal."
Exiting into the sunshine, we walked towards the adjoining Necropolis, an incredibly scenic Victorian cemetery on a hill. MacRae sees it as a place where one can try to reconcile the terrible spectre of death with "the sublimity of the everyday." He paused. "And kids come up here to get drunk, which is kind of endearing."
He told me that he's considered moving to Manchester, London or further afield, but right now he's enjoying living in Glasgow. "I love it here. There's a lack of pretension, which has to do with the size of the city and how the music and art scenes interact. There's a lot of crosspollination and just a general West-of-Scotland vibe that has something to do with it."
With university done, MacRae's options are now wide open. He's had offers for gigs overseas but has declined them all. His immediate goal is to polish a live set, which he wants to be special, a bit more multi-disciplinary than the norm. He's also hinted at a "self-contained" piece of work that will be part of a wider series in Glasgow later this year. MacRae wants to make music that isn't just another release of the week. Or in other words, "things that have staying power and longevity."