Ploughing an entirely different field from most other current new bands, Dead Man’s Waltz hail from Skye, write songs inspired by Eastern European folk music and regularly host gigs where the audiences are asked to read out Victorian ghost stories.
I caught up with the singer Hector McInnes ahead of the last night of the tour, to get an insight into one of the most interesting and experimental bands around.
itm?: How did Dead Mans Waltz come about? I know that Injuns (another Glasgow musical project with Hector at the helm) continues, is Dead Man’s Waltz a side-project of that?
Hector: Yeah, I mean it definitely started off as an offshoot of that, we’d been doing sort of increasingly strange things with Injuns, and the Insider Festival – which has just past last weekend – when they started out, so this is the third year, when they did the first year they’d invited us to get together some sort of conceptual performance, we were going to do some spoken word and stuff like that. We originally came up with a show that was called ‘the Dead Man’s Waltz’, and it was kind of like an ‘Injuns presents..’, thing, and we came up with this concept of a band that was made up entirely of dead members. It was like a band of zombies, basically.
itm?: So is that where the ideas for the Cry On Me video comes from?
H: It was definitely rooted in that, it probably came a bit later, but we kind of did that performance, and we were telling Victorian style murder tales to an improvised soundtrack, and inviting members of the audience to read them out. So it was a very sort of interactive show.
itm?: A collaborative thing.
H: Yeah, and it worked out really well. We had a bunch of songs we’d written to go along with that, and basically as that year panned out we came down here and did a show in Glasgow in a place called the Now Museum, which was an art gallery at the time, it’s an abandoned ice-cream warehouse out in Partick.
itm?: I saw that on the press release of the website, and I thought maybe you had made that up, you know how bands sort of try to make a mad mystique about themselves.
H: Haha, no that’s actually true, that was all true. Once we’d done that it seemed to us that it was taking on a life of its own, people were phoning up and asking “what is this Dead Mans Waltz thing?”, so we started gigging as that. By the time it got to late last year we had this collection of songs, and we thought, well, let’s just put the band together round that, we’ve got the great songs, we’ve got the idea behind it.
itm?: How important is the storytelling to the band? Because obviously there is some sort of narrative going along, and as you say you do have strong tie-ins with theatre, like the musical ‘Scary Love’ which you developed last year. How important is that for you?
H: I think what that does for us is it provides a context with which to write and perform. I mean, the storytelling is a great thing to bring out when it’s appropriate, but at the moment for us it’s definitely been about the fact that we feel the songs that have actually come out of it stand on their own two feet, and we wanted to just get out there as a band and start playing songs.
What the background of it did do was provide us with was a story we could kind of tell to ourselves basically about, I mean I guess what we’re trying to do is this pan-European folk thing, particularly with the single thats coming out, there’s a heavy Eastern European feel to it. Yeah.
Other numbers lean a little bit more towards the Scottish folk scene, and other ones lean a bit more to what we know of French folk music and stuff like that. That sort of idea of picking wee bits of folk music from across different areas of Europe.
itm?: And bringing them together.
H: Yeah, exactly, and that definitely came out of the original Dead Man’s Waltz project.
itm?: Would you continue to branch out into these collaborative or drama type projects, or do you want to just focus on songs just now?
H: I think at the moment we just want to concentrate on songs because one of the things is when you start off with a concept like that it’s very easy for it to just get out of hand, and you just start putting loads and loads of random ideas in, we were definitely doing that at the start, but I think through performing them it’s kind of distilled itself down, into what seems, to us at least, a clear concept.
itm?: …and what you want it to be about?
H: Yeah, absolutely.
itm?: What were the influences on the upcoming album? You can hear unusual things, some Brecht in there…
H: Absolutely! Yeah yeah, definitely Brecht has been a big influence on our sounds, I guess that transfers through to us through other acts like Beirut, for example, who also has a lot of that German & Eastern European influence. People like Yann Tiersen, who did the Amelie soundtrack, its kind of clearly like a French folk music thing, buts its also written from nothing at all.
itm?: Do you see yourselves as part of the Scottish music scene, or do you distance yourself from that? Because you have very different reference points to ‘a Saturday night out on the town’, type thing, it’s a lot more imaginative.
H: It’s interesting you say that because originally part of our website introduced the press releases and stuff with a quote from this novel called ‘Flatlands’, by Edwin Abbott. I remember explaining to my brother…
itm?: Is this your brother Mylo?
H: Yeah, and he was like ‘What the hell? Must be the only band to open their press release with that instead of ‘We’re four guys from Skye trying to make it big”. I genuinely feel we are part of a Scottish music scene. The great thing about Glasgow is its big enough that there’s lots of different stuff going on, but its small enough that you can actually go and meet all these people. You can go to a bar on a Saturday night, go up to the bar and have a chat with like Rachel Sermanni, or Louis from Admiral Fallow, just meet these guys and have a chat about what everyone’s up to.
itm?: So what Glasgow/Scottish bands are you into yourself?
H: Well Admiral Fallow, yeah, love them. Rachel Sermanni we’ve watched, when we first started this thing we went up to a bar in Aviemore that’s run by one of the people that runs the Insider festival as well, we did a gig there and she played alongside us, and we’ve been totally captivated since then. I know the French Wives, yeah. I know their music, I’ve still not had a chance to see them live. There’s a really good band called Bear Bones, definitely worth checking out. And a band called Kites as well.
itm?: Who were the formative bands that got you into music when you were younger?
H:One of the interesting things about being from Skye is that you’ve got a very limited selection of where you can get your influences from, and I mean I kind of guess growing up in Glasgow, if you’ve got older brothers and sisters and they start going out to gigs, then you start going out too and getting involved in that sort of thing, whereas all of us were living on Skye until were were around 14 or 15, by which time you’re probably set in what you really like by then.
itm?: It’s quite a traditional set of influences you’ll be drawing from.
H: Yeah, it’s inevitable that you’re influenced by the folk scene up there, because it’s so active, there’s just so much stuff going on. I guess part of our growing up experience of going out and playing music in bars, rather then going out and doing gigs, is definitely part of it, like going out and joining in folk sessions in a local pub with local folk musicians, and hearing what they were up to. That sort of sharing of songs and music that way.
itm?: Do you think growing up in Skye, obviously the landscape, that had a shaping effect on you? Do you think you would have turned out differently if you had been in Glasgow?
H: Yeah, without a doubt, I think so, yeah. I guess where I was going with that before was that living on Skye, what it allows you to do is get a whole load of influences, but in a way you choose your own influences, and you’re maybe slightly less influenced by your friends, who just generally stick on the radio and listen to whatever they like.
itm?: I did most of my growing up in quite a small part of rural Ireland, and if you grow up in a place like that you have more space to think, you’re not hindered, you can be much more imaginative. Do you think that influences the music?
H: I definitely think that is true, yeah, you get more time as well, because the pace of life is so much slower, you get more time to sit down and listen to a band, and you really start to get a relationship with who you think your influences are. You can’t nip out and buy the latest release from a record shop, like when I managed to get my hands on a cassette of Nevermind, when that came out, it was like “Right, great!”
itm?: It’s kind of like delayed gratification in those places. You really need to suffer, then you’ll actually appreciate and sit with it.
H: Yeah, totally! You spend a bit of time with it. If you were the guy that’s got, for example, the cassette of Nevermind then…
itm?: …then you’re the guy that everyone goes to.
itm?: Where did you get it from, incidentally?
H: Um, Record Rendezvous, in Inverness, I think.
itm?: I was up in Inverness last week for Rockness. Are you playing any festivals this year?
H: We did a small festival up in Stornoway called Sounds in the Grounds, which is great, it’s a really lovely little atmosphere. We also went down and took part in a session at the Arran folk festival a couple of weeks ago, and we just did the Insider festival last week.
itm?: There’s, obviously even in the name of the band, the recurring theme of death, and in the ‘Cry On Me’ video. Is that like an ongoing narrative in the band, or are you all just really morbid?
H: Haha! We’re all totally miserable!
itm?: It’s like a concept band of ‘death’?
H: It’s not a concept band, but having said that it does give you something to write about. We’ve been making music for quite a long time, and between the four of us we have a very broad range of influences, and we’ve always been troubled by this idea that everything we try and do ends up being really eclectic. I think we wanted to concentrate on an idea that would get all of our attention simultaneously. Again, that came out of the storytelling thing, it also came out of the Scottish and the Eastern European folk influences I mentioned. It’s very easy to fall into the idea that folk music is quite twee, that it’s basically for tourists.
itm?: But it deals with the darkest things, like American folk music, there’s this album I have of American murder ballads.
H: Oh ok, yeah. Is that like the John and Alan Lomax recordings?
itm?: It is yeah, and it chronicles all these stories in America, real stories, but the way of reporting them was the ballads that grew through the area. I suppose it’s an interesting thing to explore for you.
H: Definitely, in terms of that European folk music influence, I suppose because it comes out of ordinary everyday peoples lives, where they were genuinely very poor, up until quite recently, that death was quite an immediate thing that everyone had to deal with.
itm?: Something everyone’s going to face.
H: Yeah, exactly.
itm?: What’s next for DMW?
H: Well we’ve got the single coming out at the start of next week, Fallow Fields, looking forward to that. We’ll have another single coming out towards the end of September, and the album will come out early in October.
itm?: Any other gigs?
H: Well, tonight’s actually the last of the tour we’ve been doing to promote the single, then we’re taking a short break. We’ll be back to do another festival called the Isle of Wedge, which is taking place back home on the Isle of Skye. That’ll be in August.
itm?: Would you get your brother to remix you, or has he offered?
itm?: Would you consider it?
H: Possibly, yeah.
itm?: Would you ever consider a collaboration with your brother?
H: Well, I used to play with him when he did the live shows, I used to play live drums, and do the samples, and some of the playback stuff when we were performing live. So yeah, we have collaborated before. I would be very interested to hear anyone try and remix any of the sort of music we make.
itm?: A remix of Brechtian folk.
H: Brechtian folk-disco.
itm?: Drop the Pressure. Would be interesting though.
H: It would be. Maybe I should pitch it to him.
itm?: Let’s leave it at that.
The latest single from Dead Man’s Waltz, ‘Fallow Fields’, is out now.