Interview: Singer, Songwriter, Author Aaron McMullan
Once in a even less then a blue moon a writer or musician will come along who is pretty damn special. If you're really lucky you might chance across one of those geniuses once or twice in your lifetime. In some ways it's a lot like getting hit by lighting; at least in the bolt out of nowhere way that lighting hits you and perhaps in the way your world is turned upside down leaving you gasping for air, or the reek of ozone sizzling in your nostrils as the air around is charged by their brilliance.
I first ran across Aaron McMullan on the pages of Blogcritics.org where he publishes missives and musings on life, music, and all other manner of strange and wonderful things. There aren't many who can carry off the style of narrative that Aaron uses without the stink of self-indulgence rearing its ugly and scabby head. Being subject to that curse myself I'm grown adroit at spotting it in others and was quickly made jealous by his ability for selfless creation.
An artist looks to replicate archetypical moments in life that all of us can relate to, or at least understand, at an emotional level. He can be talking about his job or his girlfriend for all it matters as long as he relates it in a way that allows the viewer, listener, or reader to have their moment of understanding the experience in their own heart. Aaron's writing is filled with those moments, so even when he writes about places and people unfamiliar to any but him we understand what he's going on about.
Therefore it was no surprise that His disc Yonder! Calliope? was replete with songs of a similar nature. The good people at Ex Libris records, who have produced this disc, sent me a review copy, and after I had listened and written to the best of my ability about it I wanted to hear what Aaron had to say about the disc and the whole question of inspiration that he had raised with the title. (Calliope being one of the muses – feckless, fickle creatures of creative energy who when the mood strikes them will fill an artists ear so full of an idea that they won't sleep until they have written, painted, carved, sung, or whatevered it out of themselves).
So I fired off the questions that are forthcoming via email and most generously he has responded with wit and intelligence in his own inimitable style. So read, enjoy, and get to know a little bit more about the man behind Yonder! Calliope?
Tell us a little about your relationship with Calliope- inspiration – the muse- what's your source – where does it come from.
Well, the thing about Calliope is that she’s a tricksy sort of article all round, and inspiration, or sources thereof, can be terribly fickle. I’m sure you’re aware from your own writing - what has the brain in raptures one day, inspiring no end of song and verse and prose, might scarcely inspire a 32 character TXT message the next. A cigarette raised to a mouth on the street outside a café, an old drunk fella crying on a bench at 4 in the afternoon in the middle of the street, the way some lass or lad has his or her hair done one morning, the reflection of the KFC on the river – these things, and the associations they bring with them, they maybe burn the backs of the eyes for days and there you are hunched over the guitar or the notebook or the keyboard or whatever, and then, by God, before you know where you are you’ve forgotten all about it. Now you can’t sleep a wink because of the track of a tramline in Dublin or the purple lights shining off some building or other, or what some lass said to you in queue in Tesco. It’s a terribly selfish thing, I suppose. You spy something, or something spies you, you wring from it what you can – be it a song or a painting or a story or whatever – and then it’s abandoned, or at least it shrinks back from the surface. But in saying that, there are constants, I think, that are simmering away back there all the while. Certain tenuous links things have to certain core obsessions that cause that snare to spring in the first place. For me, those core obsessions involve coming to terms with my past, for one thing, and also a fascination with the kindsa lives folks live when they find themselves in situations where nobody knows them and they have the freedom to either adopt some wonderful façade for a while or maybe dispose of the one they’ve been wearing aforehand. Turmoil is consistently inspiring, be it of personal nature, or of external nature, like maybe I hear of some poor bastard in Basra catching a bullet in his ribs. People usually associate inspiration with positives. “That flick were right inspiring.” But the negative can be just as much, maybe because of a desire to make sense of it, or maybe from anger at certain things, or frustration or disappointment or whatever. In fact, to be honest, the more horror I encounter the more inspired I feel. I’m at my most productive, I’ve noticed, when I’m feeling worst. When that old Black Dog, as Churchill had it, is gnawin’ away at my shoulder. And of course certain ladies provide constant inspiration. Isn’t that why anybody does anything, at the end of the day? To impress some lass or to make some other lass say “why the fuck did I leave him?” Sure we wouldn’t get out of our beds, bejeesus, if not for them.
I took a stab at trying to interpret the title of your disc in my review – but it was coloured by my views on the subject – What was your intent with the title Yonder! Calliope?
Well, the title refers again to that uncertainty about where inspiration’s gonna come from next, if indeed it comes at all, and refers also to the years I spent chasing Calliope in and out of bars and police cells and nut-houses and temples and chapels and churches. A lot of the songs deal with the results of that prolonged hunt, from analysis of it all now that I’ve crawled out the far-side of it sober and reasonably stable of the head and with enough strength about me to turn a clinical eye on it. “Yonder! Calliope?” barks the twenty-year old me from a hospital window or wherever. At the time you never really know for sure, but looking back she suddenly appears in the midst of that car-park or hedgerow like a tiger’s face rising out a Magic Eye picture. I couldn’t see her then for I hadn’t the right eyes in the head. Jesus oh I sound the wild pretentious fuck here.
One more about the lady inspiration – was there any particular reason you chose Calliope instead of , Eros, or any other of the Muses?
Calliope’s the one I’m most keen on courting because she’s the one who’ll have you shittin’ epic poetry from now till doomsday if she takes the notion. But I wouldn’t kick Polyhymnia off my shoulder, either. The muse of sacred verse, amongst other lyrical arts. Sacred verse… That’s what everyone aims for, I think.
Switching tracks here some. William Golding once talked about living under threat and how that affects writing (he was referring to 1950's US and the threat of nuclear war). You grew up in Northern Ireland, which has known its share of volatility to say the least. Are you aware, or do you think that has affected your work, and if so how?
Well it’s hard to say one way or the other because Northern Ireland is all I’ve ever really known, volatility and all. It’d be much easier for me to gauge the effects of something half ways alien to me on my work. But being born and raised here shaped my politics and my worldview and what-not, and all of that bleeds into whatever you’re doing either consciously or otherwise, and especially so when what you’re doing is so explicitly based on personal history. But I will say that I’ve rarely went anywhere near any Across The Barricades type stuff. I’ve rarely mentioned The Troubles explicitly, although I suppose bits and pieces of sights and sounds that I was exposed to because of such are on evidence in some of the songs; bits of "Don’t Think I’ll Sleep Tonight" or "Blue From Black", for example.
Do you think there is such a thing as a distinct cultural voice in Ireland, I don't mean the new age Celtic nonsense or singing old rebel songs while drinking Guinness in some pub in Boston, more along the lines of Joyce and other crazy poets. Do you feel any connection to anything like that?
Well there’s a lyricism in the banter about these parts that you’ll find seeping out the pages of anything James Joyce or Brendan Behan or Flann O’ Brien ever etched, and certainly I’m inspired no end by those same rhythms, by the blathering I might maybe hear friends gettin’ on with at the bus-shelters or the bars or the taxi-stands of a Thursday eve or wherever. And I don’t think any Irish reader could swallow a page or two of, say, At Swim-Two-Birds or The Quare Fellow or, Heaven’s almighty, Ulysses, and not feel a connection to it in some way. But the thing is, for me, anyway, writing now, as much as those blessed Holy bastards are heroes one and all, I feel myself cursing them every time I go to pen a line. There’s a statue of Joyce off O’Connell Street in Dublin, and I dunno how anyone who’s ever tried to write anything on this island hasn’t been kept awake with the urge to run down there and batter the fucker senseless. You can’t read that Molly Bloom spiel at the fag-end of Ulysses and not be simultaneously set afire with the desire to write somethin’ yourself, song or story or whatever, and yet also knackered with the crippling realisation that really, all that needs to be said has been said, and certainly no Irish writer I would wager will ever come anywhere close to the lowliest syllables on those pages, so why bother? Well, lot o’ keyboards in the world. Someone has to click and clack.
Has it had any influence on your music or your writing?
Unconsciously, probably that Irish Voice, whatever it might be, it’s probably seeped in over the years. And the geography of the place, too, is also incredibly important. Lyrically, the record is almost a map of my hometown; those songs refer to incidents that took place on certain streets, people I’ve met in certain taverns and cafes, churches I’ve thrown up in… If I can detach myself long enough to not worry about how I should’ve written this verse different or how that line was fluffed a bit, I can wander right from the poultry factory at one end of the town to the show-grounds at the other. Even bits that deal with Dublin or wherever, which is a good 120 miles removed from my doorstep, they’re filtered through how I feel about those places whilst sat in this particular estate. Course, it’s doubtful anyone else, whether they live here or not, will get that from it, but for me it almost runs like a travelogue. It wasn’t intentional, mind, but that’s how it worked out.
Jumping around again now – Are you able to point to some time in your life that you knew you wanted to be doing whatever it is you're doing now?
I can’t remember ever wanting to do anything else, but at the same time, I can’t remember ever really thinking I could get off with it, either. I still don’t know if I can, but I feel a bit more confident. I was gonna join the marines at a time, mind, which probably wouldn’t have been the wisest career move what with me being the size of a streak of wet shite and about as much use in a fight as a willy in a convent, and also being a big pink pacifist lefty faggot or whatever it was John Wayne called me in a dream one time. I doubt I would’ve gone far. But the career advisor folks at school wanted something on that paper, and I very much enjoyed the music of the Doors at the time, and we all know you can’t walk three foot if you’re a marine without tripping over the top of a Doors song. I grew out of that, thankfully. The Doors, I mean.
On Yonder! Calliope? you're joined by a number of other fine musicians, were there parts of this disc that were collaborative efforts with some of them – the music I guess is what I'm getting at – or did you show up for the recording sessions and know what you wanted from everybody and just say here do this for me would you?
The record as a whole is a collaborative effort between myself and Andrew Gardiner, the producer. I brought the songs and he set about sneaking around the corners of the buggers with a torch, coaxing each and every one of those phantoms out the shadows, wrapping them up in no end of musicological wonderments. Had it been produced by me, it would’ve sounded very different.
Things I wouldn’t have done, Andrew knew instinctively HAD to be done, and he was right. And then, things HE would’ve done, I knew we shouldn’t, and we didn’t. I thank God for meetin’ the man, and thank God that he met Luke Page beforehand, the co-founder of Ex Libris Records. Luke Page, we all agree, is the very fellow who is most responsible for Yonder! Calliope? ever getting past the mixing stage. The trauma that fella has endured.
But yeah, it was very much a collaboration between us, and a collaboration carried out over the ocean a good chunk of the time, particularly during the actual mixing stages. Tracks in varying states of undress were cast back and forth from Newcastle, England to here in Northern Ireland a thousand times or more, Andrew pointing out some new addition or some new level fix or reverb-swathe or whatever, and me giving my thoughts on the matter and so on and so forth.
The recording process itself was spread over both patches of green, too. Here, Andrew recorded myself and Mr Ryan H Fleming who I adore to the back of the guts and who plays most of the lead guitar parts on the record, and in Newcastle he then recorded the various other musicians who appear on there. Various Ex Libris artists and friends, some of whom are busy making their own records or have recently finished doing so. People like Rebecca Jones, for example, who is an amazing songwriter and has a voice the likes of which I imagine lines the streets in certain azure avenues in Paris, or Sarah Gill, the cellist, an incredibly talented classical musician and composer. Beautiful work they’ve done on this record, every one of them.
You recorded Yonder! Calliope? with Ex Libris in London. Why the move down there away from Ireland – or is it just a temporary thing for purposes of getting the recording done?
As I say, although a good deal of the recording was done in England, actually in Newcastle, I never had to record anything over there, I did my bits in a studio in Portrush, Northern Ireland. I did go over there for all sorts of promotional malarkey, mind you. But I will be moving to London within the next month, for reasons of A – the distributors, NDN, are workin’ out a grand London-based scheme and I’d really best be there, and B- whilst we’re maybe all living in each other’s digital back-pockets nowadays, still, if you’re physically positioned anywhere outside of a few key areas, it’s very hard to meet the right kindsa folks at the right times, i.e, when they’re very drunk and notably aroused and in dire need of opening some doors to a lad.
Back to the CD again – a lot of the songs are about personal type subject matter, relationships etc. Have you drawn upon your own experiences for subject matter directly at all, been influenced by things that have happened to you, or just made everything up off the top of your head?
Everything on there comes directly from personal experience. Sometimes two or nine personal experiences have been juxtaposed, mind you, for the sake of The Grand Narrative, but there’s very little fiction, for all of that; poetic licence taken, maybe. I’d forgotten just how much it felt like a diary, actually, till about two months ago. From the moment we started making the record till about a week after it was finished, any time I’d heard anything I’d been hearing it as a Work In Progress and directed my attentions accordingly to this or that fresh-added drum beat or trumpet line or whatever.
Then, one evening I sat down to listen as a Normal Listener and it hit me at a more, I dunno, holistic level maybe. The whole thing came tearin’ out the speakers at me and I remembered what had led me to write that particular line, what I’m talking about there and so on and so forth. It tore me in bits, is the truth of the case. There are songs on there – not all of them by any means, but a few – that deal with particularly unpleasant experiences, and to be confronted with all those phantoms all a sudden in that short space of time was a touch overwhelming.
But that’s all we have, isn’t it, is our experience. It’s all we have to draw from. There’s a brilliant line in Burroughs’ The Ticket That Exploded where he mentions “A million actors with the same corny part” or something like that. We’re all basically telling the same story. Vladimir Propp went to great lengths to show us all just how simple that story really is. So anything that I can talk about that might colour my stories that bit differently to the next fella or lass… I suppose it’s the only currency I have.
There’s more to it than that, obviously, mean – a good deal of why anyone writes with any detail about personal things, other than they’re incredibly self-obsessed, which I am, is to do with a certain cleansing; an exorcism, maybe. Certainly I’d prefer to have those things wavering about the grooves there as wavering about my head. I worry sometimes about the ethics of it all, mind you. Mean, other people are involved in most everything anyone might be experiencing in one way or another, and Bad Shit rarely hits anyone without staining the tweeds of the folks stood closest. The fella falling naked out the ambulance isn’t the only one who felt that tarmac on the face. The folks who were stood watching felt it too. So to then be wringing profit from those things, by which I don’t necessarily mean monetary gain – artistic gain – it troubles me at times. But certain things refuse to leave via anything but the fingertips or the yap, so what can you do?
What would you like people to take away with them after listening to this disc? What was your intent I guess you could say – or was it simply the need to create motivating you?
I never thought about how folks would react to it other than – I hope they like it and I hope I don’t sound a self-pitying bastard. Mean, I write a lot, I write a lot of songs, and these 12 happened to be the ones I liked most and the ones also that fitted best together. Any themes or lines that can be drawn between them are probably coincidental, in that they weren’t written to play into some larger picture, it’s just that those things are what I’m obsessed with and they show up in everything I do. But I hope folks can connect in some way to those things. I’d like that.
I was told by somebody I interviewed that I should ask what's next, it's the thing to do. Since then everyone I've asked has just said – whatever happens I'll go with it – but I'll ask you anyway – What's next for Aaron McMullan?
The move to London is the next thing. Gigs and promotion and what not, and hopefully making Ex Libris back the money they put into the record. And the songs are still comin’, so that’s nice. Aside from all of that, I’m working with a production company here in Northern Ireland with regards a screenplay and scribblin’ at a novel and pretty much getting as much done as I can before the inevitable screech of the factory at my doorstep and I’m off to tin beans for the rest of what I have to live listening to beautiful men and women either side of me telling me about the books THEY wrote one time, too. Maybe I’d read it some time? I’d love to, I’ll say.
Well I don't think Aaron McMullan needs to worry too much about ending up working a factory job and talking about the times when he was, because he will always be what he is now. This isn't the work of someone for whom creativity is a passing fancy that will fade as the blush of youth fades from his cheeks. He's in a long-term relationship with his muse whether he knows it or not now and nothing he or anybody else can do will part them asunder.
Thanks to Aaron for taking the time in his hectic schedule of promoting to sit down and pen such thoughtful answers to my questions. All that's left to do is everybody go out and buy Yonder! Calliope?. Go the website of those nice folk at Ex Libris records and say can you send me one and for a very reasonable amount of change you too can own one of the most exquisite CDs that it's been my privilege to review in a long time.