When The Magnetic North first formed they set out as a one-off, planning for their debut release, Orkney: Symphony of the Magnetic North, to act as the consummate collaborative culmination between UK indie staple Simon Tong (blur, Gorillaz, The Verve, The Good, the Bad & the Queen, and Erland & the Carnival), Erland Cooper (Erland and the Carnival), and Hannah Peel (John Foxx and the Maths). Despite the trio's initial desires to run the full lifespan of a group with a single release, demand for a follow up grew (as usually is the case when fantastic records are made), and the band reconvened to contemplate their focus for a potential LP2.
The group's cartographically inclined debut focused on motifs surrounding The Orkney Islands in Scotland (Cooper's home), and turned out to be far more influential than the group had initially expected, opting to orient their sophomore effort on yet another locational premise, this time the Tong's enigmatic hometown of Skelmersdale, England, via Prosepct of Skelmersdale.
I was fortunate enough to speak with The Magnetic North's Simon Tong about the trio's upcoming release, Prospect of Skelmersdale, which consists of a series of vignettes centered on the town where Tong spent some of his most formative years.
TRANSVERSO: Are you looking forward to getting Prospect of Skelmersdale out into the world?
SIMON TONG: I think so, yeah. I don’t know, I’m slightly worried about it.
Why is that?
Well the album [is] kind of about where I grew up. I’m kind of wondering what the people of that town will think about it – whether they’ll like it or they won’t like it. I don’t know.
With that in mind, most people in the US may not be familiar with Skelmersdale. What’s it like?
Yeah, I don’t think many people in the United Kingdom know about Skelmersdale [as well]. Its been strange. We’ve just been doing some press in Paris and Berlin as well, and its been very strange talking about this small insignificant town in England that we made a record about; its very surreal.
Does that put the onus on you to direct the dialogue about Skelmersdale?
Yeah, I suppose so, but the other two members of the group, Erland and Hannah, they’ve been there quite a few times, so they know the place, and they were very much involved with the making of the record – the lyrics and the feel of the whole thing. They kind of have an idea of what they’re talking about as well. But yeah, because our first album was about the Orkney Islands, in Scotland, where Erland’s from. So the onus was kind of on him for that one. So yeah, for this one, it feels like the weight is slightly on my shoulders. [Laughs] It’s a good weight to carry.
Does that mean if there’s a third LP, the onus will be on Hannah?
Very much so, yeah. [Laughs] I hope she’s ready for it.
What was your initial reaction when Hannah suggested visiting Skelmersdale, in regard to the album?
I just wasn’t sure, because we made the first album by accident almost. I don’t know if we got it written in the press release, but the first album was inspired by a dream that Erland had – he was visited by a ghost in his dream who had told him to write a record about where he came from. So, that was kind of the starting point of the group; that was how we kind of formed and made a record, because of this supernatural dream. It’s a strange project, really, and we didn’t think we going to do another album. We just thought we were going to do one album about the Orkney albums, and we thought that’d be it, we’d just leave it at that. Lots of people kept saying, “Oh, you’ve got to do another album, you’ve got to do something else,” and so we kind came around to it thinking, “What can we do it about? What can we do it about?” And Hannah just kind of said “[Simon] Where do you come from?” and I said “Well, I lived a long time in this town called ‘Skelmersdale,’” and she says “Ah, tell me about it. Tell me about the town.”
It was a new town, it was built in the 60s, as kind of an overflow from Liverpool. A lot of the poor people in the slums of Liverpool got moved to this new town. And then in the '80s, the Transcendental Meditation (TM) community set up there and she was like, “Wow! That’s a good plot for an album,” and I said, “Really? Do you really think so?” And she was like, “Yeah, come on, we got to!” So she was kind of the driving force behind getting project off the ground really. In terms of getting me to think about what an album about Skelmersdale would entail. So I basically wrote about ten or eleven track titles from my memory of places in Skelmersdale, just kind of things connected to it. [Then I] sent it over to her and Erland and they were like “Wow, these titles, they’re inspiring us already.” Titles like “Pennylands,” is one title and “Silver Birch,” is another, and it was kind of like “Oh, these sound like such beautiful places.” And then I thought, “Well actually, why don’t you go see for yourself,” so I sent them up there to Skelmersdale, which is sort of Northwest England. I gave them a list of places to go, and they went and visited these places. A place like Pennylands is a not particularly nice counsel estates, you know it’s the housing estates. So a lot of these places sound really nice, but when you get there. It was kind of a good adventure for them to go and see what this place was like, what kind of, its good for them to get a perspective without anything coming from me influencing their mind. They could just go and take some photographs of these places and stay there for a few nights to see what they think of the town. So that was just the starting block to sort of kick the project off.
Was that a significant turning point in regard to getting the album creatively oriented as well? With you being the most familiar with Skelmersdale – did a lot of the creative intuition come from you, or was it largely collaborative?
It was very collaborative, actually. Maybe initially, it came from me – just a few little song ideas and lyric ideas. But they very quickly picked up on things and developed their own ideas. And that was very much what we did with the first album as well, and Erland kind of let me and Hannah write about his town/homeland quite freely, and how we felt while visiting there as an outsider. So I kind of gave them that opportunity to write about it as an outsider, and then I would write about it as someone who actually has experience in there. Yeah, that’s kind of how we do it – we sort of trust each other’s view and intuition, I suppose. We all know what our sound is – we all kind of have a definite sound of what instrumentation we use, and what kind of way of recording and making a song. We kind of all know the general color palate of The Magnetic North.
Did you ever find yourself gravitating toward certain aspects or vignettes of Skelmersdale when Erland and Hannah asked you describe the town?
Yeah, I suppose it was a series of little snapshots that I had drawn from my memory of people and places. Well we knew we kind of wanted to bring in the Transendental Meditation Community, because that was where I kind of grew up in the middle of it. That was all part of Skelmersdale. We had to kind of touch on that, and we used some old audio footage from a friend of my dad’s [who] had recorded when they started building the community. So we have this sort of opening ceremony of this person kind of inaugurating the Golden Dome, which is this sort of place where they all go and meditate. And then we found, when Hannah and Erland went up the first time, they found this woman in the library who had like a local writers group in Skelmersdale, and she gave them this DVD that had these old 1970s industrial kind of promotion videos which were made by the council and the corporation that run the town to kind of promote it for industry. It’s a very funny kind of stiff upper lip kind of British BBC documentary [that was] slightly patronizing of the local community like “Welcome to Skelmersdale, look at these new factories we’ve built; we’re just crying out for industry,” and so we kind used a lot of sound bytes and interwove them with the music and really gave the album its backbone, and kind of backdrop, I suppose; a kind of late 60s, early 70s kind of lens on the music and everything.
So is the footage used in the videos for “Signs” and “A Death in the Woods” from those early promotional videos?
Yeah they’re these promotional videos, but they’re great. There’s this kind of sheen of slightly, well its slightly cheap film. Its not high quality Hollywood film; its really kind of faded. 60 mil or… God knows what it is, but its got this sort of grainy look, kind of mostly British look to it.
Where does a song like “A Death in the Woods” come into play when creating the album’s tone/direction?
I suppose that was one of the first songs we wrote, I think. Its kind of a mish-mash or an amalgamation of different memories of mine thrown together; its not particularly one story that runs throughout the song. Its just a lot of images and kinds of things that I remember, like in a dreamscape almost; just thrown in like a stream of consciousness. So that kind of set the feel of the album. Because the whole project was started by [the] supernatural dream that Erland had. Our creative process is sort of the process of trying to revoke ghosts of the landscape of wherever we’re writing about – whether it’s the Orkney Islands, Skelmersdale, or wherever it happens from. That’s kind of what we’re trying to do: we’re trying to find the magic that’s buried under the landscape. With the Orkney Islands it was really easy for the first album, because the Orkney Islands are a beautiful, beautiful place next to the sea, its got cliffs, and it has so much history. Its got Neolithic monuments, five thousand year old villages; its really just soaked in history. Its got great poets and writers have come from there, you just can’t fail to be inspired by the place.
How did Skelmersdale compare to Orkney?
Skelmersdale is the complete opposite of that. Immediately, there’s nothing and you think “Oh, hell. How am I going to write about this place?” Its almost like – it's very brutal – the architecture has lots of concrete, it almost looks like something out of the Soviet Union that’s sort of been picked up and plunked in the middle of England; but in its own way, that’s sort of very inspiring in and of itself. It's sort of modernist, and I’m sure that plenty of people that study architecture and town planning would look at it and go, "Oh, look at this, its fantastic.” You wouldn’t necessarily want to visit there.
So what angles did you find in regard to writing songs about Skelmersdale?
It was funded by the government, so a lot of the houses there are kind of what we call “Council Houses” or sort of rented houses, but over the years people have eventually bought them as they changed the law, but they’re still predominantly rental homes. It was quite a poor place in the '60s, '70s, and '80s; it was very depressed. The industry came initially and then just as soon as any government grunts came out, they just disappeared off to Brazil or wherever it was cheaper to work. So you were kind of in this ghost town of people. There’s no train station there, just lots and lots of roads, and people just kind of couldn’t afford the cars, so people were just kind of stuck in this town. What interested us, we realized quite early on in making the album that we can tell these stories of people and we can try and musically represent the landscape, but we have to give some kind of hope, we can’t just make a depressing album about how shit this place used to be – we had to give some optimism and hopefulness. Going back to the town, I kind of left 20 years ago and I haven’t really been back until the past couple of years since I’ve been doing this album, and it feels kind of like its getting better. It feels like the people themselves are kind of making it better. Its almost like a community needs a long time to develop.
Has the community begun to change at all, or have things just remained the same?
The town is about 50 years old now, and it feels like people are finally building that community and kind of [have] a sense of identity themselves and it just feels like there’s hope there. When the Transcendental people moved there in the '80s, I think they kind of changed the town by bringing optimism in. They had this belief that – the Maharishi is dead now – they had a belief that they wanted to set up a little village in every country that would meditate and people would gather and meditate, and affect the countryside around them. Wherever they were, they gave off good vibes. So they moved to Skelmersdale to set up this community, and there’s probably five or six hundred people there and they meditate every day in the Golden Dome with the view that they were going to improve the town simply by meditating; that they were going to give off these good vibrations. They had lots of scientific evidence to show that they were doing this. Whether that really did happen or not, I think that the fact they moved to the town itself sort of way. It brought these sort of middle class people who brought this attitude, and I think it has made it a more interesting town culturally. The identity of the town changed.
You mentioned the Transcendental Meditation community of Skelmersdale – did TM have any significant impact on the creative process?
Not really, only because it was there. I mean, I don’t do it anymore, but my father was a fanatical follower – and he still follows the Maharishi even though he’s not alive – so its always kind of been in my life. And if I was going to write about a town like Skelmersdale, it was going to have to be there in the background somewhere. I have a love/hate relationship with it, and I’m not going to slag it off and say its terrible, but I’m [also] not going to promote it. Now the Maharishi died ten years ago now, but now David Lynch has taken the mantle, and he’s kind of the leader in waiting, which makes it even stranger.
That’s where my only familiarity with the TM movement stems from, is the popularity of it within Hollywood/creative circles.
I mean they’re having an active push to try and get creative people and artists involved in doing it, to get as much promotion as it can. I mean, the Maharishi used The Beatles in the 60s, he definitely used them to springboard the movement in the West.
Speaking of The Beatles, is your track “Run of the Mill” a reference to the George Harrison song?
Yes! It actually is [the song].
Any particular reason as to why?
Initially it was a coincidence. Erland and Hannah have a studio over in East London, and they were working one day and a friend of theirs, Laura Groves – a beautiful singer from Yorkshire, actually an old friend of Hannah’s just came by and she started playing on the piano [the George Harrison song] and we thought “Oh that’s fantastic, let’s record it,” and we recorded like a simple kind of piano version which is actually the way it appears in the album, and we just put the guitars in after. Initially they just recorded it, and it wasn’t until later that we thought “actually, this would fit so well with this album,” and that’s just kind of the, obviously, the George Harrison connection with the TM. But the song itself, “Run of the Mill,” it has connotations to the north of England anyway, it has mills and stuff, so it just kind of seemed to sit really well. It was one of the last songs to go on there, because we weren’t really sure we were going to put it on. The album was just kind of there and we just plonked on at the end and then listened to it and thought it just kind of closed the album. It was just a bit of serendipity really, and we just kind of ended up using it. It just really fits with everything else, and it was a beautiful way to close the album.
Are there any sort of over-arching motifs or themes you would like to be conjured up for the listeners?
You know, I think you can enjoy the album without knowing anything about the concepts within Skelmersdale. I hope people would just enjoy it as a piece of music whether its just listening to single tracks here and there or listening to the album as a whole – I obviously hope people would listen to the album as a whole album, thought people very rarely ever do nowadays – just to invoke. Its really drawing on childhood memories anyway. Kind of the feeling of looking back on your childhood and seeing these memories that have been buried in your head, I suppose anyone can relate to that. Just kind of having that magical kind of way you remember a Christmas or whenever you remember playing on your front lawn or a holiday. Its just sort of looking back in that 70s lens or whatever era you grew up in, just looking back at it like an old photograph, or an old grainy bit of film. Trying to give that impression while listening to the album, you’re traveling back there into the midst of your sub consciousness.
Read our review of Prospect of Skelmersdale here.