“Eventually everything becomes commodified. There seems to be a ‘folk’ revival every decade, and it gets worse each time.” It’s an unseasonably autumnal Saturday afternoon in Oomoo Café on a rather desolate-looking Smithdown Road, and experimental acoustic guitarist JOHN McGRATH definitely suits the autumnal-vibes; his clutch of haunted, icy soundscapes sounds very much like wandering around half-remembered, wintry dreams. His could be perceived to be a slowcore aesthetic, yet atmospherically and sonically he could not be further from such a sound, without upping sticks and forming an experimental bluegrass band.
Things are on the up for this newly solo artist, who recently enjoyed his “world tour to Bristol” supporting the excellent Richard Dawson. But John is in no mood to discuss the myriad of so-called folk bands storming the charts and music magazine, your Staves, your Haims, your (ahem) Mumford & Sons. Oh no, “authenticity is false: Dylan going electric, it’s all good. If you believe in something, go for it. Electronics are just another instrument. Both Eric Roche and Morton Feldman have influenced me – all that experimental, repetitive stuff”. In 10 short seconds John rubbishes the major hurdle facing the current slew of fingerpickin’ guitarists in Liverpool, and Britain in general: that of pushing boundaries. As in Britain’s 80s nascent indie scene, they often hold in abhorrence anything they would consider inauthentic – electronics, effects peddles and anything verging on the avant-garde included. John McGrath offers something genuinely exciting compared to the wave of beige that gets passed off as folk these days.
Despite undeniably being a folk artist, John McGrath certainly exists at the freakier end of things (but no, he is not ‘freak folk’). This is the result of a history of hungrily consuming music of all kinds. Apart from folk, his major influences are the modernist classical and experimental works from the likes of David Lynch, Jim O’Rourke, Christian Fines and their ilk. “I’d love to do an extended piece, something a bit more rhapsodic. You know, drone, lag, electric counterpoints. Something really influenced by [Jim O’Rourke’s] Bad Timing.” These seemingly disparate strands are instead a relatively natural extension of his Irish musical heritage – morosely evocative and atmospheric. If it were not for the fact the techniques he uses are based in Frippertronics and Terry Riley’s work, his extended drones and repetition would sound, rather fittingly for a genre steeped in heritage and tradition, positively medieval. Repetition seems to go down even worse with the general populous today than experimentation. How wrong could they be though about finding it boring, as John explains: “Exact repetition as a concept is an impossibility: when we hear a repeat it alters our perception of earlier occurrences. I like to play with this idea in my music. You know, like Neu! And that early Can stuff.” Sounds pretty darned exciting to me, no piece ever being played the same twice.
The one constant thread through all John’s projects from his solo explorations to his rather poetically described “twisted Twin Peaks-style” group Black Snow Rodeo is, “In the words of Robby Basho, ‘soul first, technique after’. If you forget that then the music just won’t feel right.” John’s music is always packed to bursting with feeling, whilst navigating around the trap of earnestness- the perilous factor that is always a danger for singer-songwriter types and one of the many elements marking him out from so many of the common-or-garden guitar blokes you find in Liverpool’s bars, pubs and streets.
So, what is John’s next move going to be? “I have to keep developing; I’ve also got a lapsteel I’d love to use. [But first] I’ve got my PhD [in Music] to finish.” Mixing pop music with academia is often a taboo subject, with purists turning their nose up at the notion an artist can learn their craft in such a way. But, would Caribou sound like Caribou if Dan Snaith had never done his? Well, most definitely not. Perhaps it is this high-level, academic consideration that ultimately sets John apart from most other musicians: after all, if Morton Feldman is one of your core influences, the notion of an academic approach to your work will be completely natural. This, mixed with John’s clear love for acoustic guitars, shows that he is not afraid to transgress perceived traditions, and it is so refreshing to find someone willing to challenge a perceived conservative style. But then, not many folkies would work with Shangaan Electro (whom he supported at their very well-received recent visit to Liverpool).
The future certainly looks exciting for this inimitable chap. I for one cannot wait to hear his extended lapsteel rhapsody. Better than yet another bloke sat in the pub moping over a guitar, non?