Scottish songsmith D B MCGLYNN (you can call him Brian) is a doyen of the Scottish music scene. He spoke to Pete Small.
DB McGlynn has had a long and glittering career artistically, which, perhaps excluding the more discerning Greenbelter or music lovers in his native Glasgow, never really placed him in any danger of becoming a household name. First, the voice - a rich velvety thing with a hint of gravel and a whole lot of passion. Distinctive too. Then there's the sounds. First came the Victors, a kind of new wave/pop goes gritty white reggae band, back when that sort of thing was happening. Next came Woza, more of a straight pop outfit, then various solo projects. Every phase is marked by classic intelligent songwriting, none more so than his last album recorded for the perennially excellent Sticky Music people (Talking Drums, Lies Damned Lies, Billy Penn's Brother and watch out for Calvin's Dream). It's called 'To Hell With The Handkerchief and rightly received high praises in CR13.
It's 12 years since the first release. There must have been some interesting moments along the way. "This much I will say, whenever any musicians start to play with me I always say it's bound to be a good career move for them because almost everyone I've ever played with has ended up more famous than I have. I don't know if you know about the blues musician John Mayall - his band the Bluesbreakers spawned most of the great blues rock guitarists of the last 20 years. John Mayall had a knack for picking other people and I think I've been blessed or cursed with a similar ability. In fact, one of my former sidekicks has just joined Simple Minds and when you say to people that ex-sidekicks play with Deacon Blue or Wet Wet Wet, most people have heard of them but when you say Simple Minds then they're downright impressed, no question about it."
Wasn't it Lorraine out of Deacon Blue who sang backing vocals with Woza? "And Ricky Ross as well," chuckles Brian. "Ricky was the keyboard player. In fact, that was how he started playing music seriously. Naturally, his talent didn't come from me but his initial motivation I think I can take some credit for. He was in Dundee and I asked him to write and play with me in Glasgow and in doing so he had to make a decision. After a while, I think he got fed up with being the sidekick and he's obviously much better at being the frontman. Their bass player, Ewan Vernal, is another one of my discoveries. He was a young lad working beside me. I was looking for a bass player and asked if he knew anyone. He said no but sheepishly admitted that he plonked around a bit and would we mind auditioning him? I've enjoyed working with good musicians. I try to work to high standards wherever possible and that means that I try to work with the best musicians and very often I can't hold on to them. Other people say thank you very much indeed, you've put in the spadework, we'll have that person and off they go with them."
Depressing I should think, to see the gravy train going by like that? "I think I found it very disappointing at certain points in my life but I'm older and more philosophical about it now. I feel quite proud of most of them and I'm glad to see other people do well. There's no point in comparing your life with other people's. I think I've wasted a lot of time doing that in the past and I don't like doing that at all. I like to give thanks for what I've got and take pleasure in what other people do and in that way my joy is multiplied in the whole process. But as far as my own story's concerned, I've worked very extensively as a grassroots performer all over the country and that has been meat and drink to me for many years. I've loved it. I've met thousands of people and played to countless thousands more and I've enjoyed it enormously. I started off as many people do as part of a subculture of Christian music or gospel music. In Scotland it was a strange phenomenon. There was a quite clearly demarcated point where a group of us met and decided that we would dissolve ourselves into the bloodstream of the wider community."
How did you arrive at this approach? "I think it was part of our developing theological understanding if that doesn't sound too pretentious. Most of us were nurtured within the bosom of the Church and initially accepted things rather uncritically but I think the limitations of hermetically sealing yourself off within that environment became apparent to us as part of our developing understanding of the faith. So it was a very conscious choice to step out beyond that. Not in any sense to cut our ties either with the faith or the Church but to move out beyond the narrow confines of what we came to see as a subculture."
Out of this was to come the label Sticky Music and its associated
artists: Talking Drums, members of whom were to join forces with label
producer and solo artist Steve Butler to form Lies Damned Lies, Andy
Thornton of Big Sur... "And of course Ricky Ross himself (who recorded
a solo album with Sticky years before Deacon Blue) is a prime exponent
of this, having done this more successfully than most. There's still a
strong touch of his gospel roots that shines through his music and
through the kind of person he is and I think that's true of a whole
group of musicians."
It must have been very helpful to have had this kind of association with believers who share your situation. "Undoubtedly, having that support was tremendous and it felt very exciting at the time. Elsewhere in the country people hadn't reached the same conclusion so there was a certain phenomenon associated with this whole move which the early bands reflected. Charlie from Lies Damned Lies summed it up by saying that Sticky Music have had an influence which has far exceeded their sales. I was very proud to have been associated with that. There was a certain turnaround in my thinking which hinges on dissolving the distinction between a lower and a higher, more spiritual plane of existence. We came to the conclusion that that distinction was an artificial one and that life was a seamless garment that you put on. Much as the early Celtic Christians saw things, faith was expressed through every part of life and life found its expression through every part of faith; that a healthy model of spirituality was also a healthy model of humanity. In other words, a whole Christian would also look like a whole human being. Therefore, every part of their lives would be touched and brought into the process.
"I think that artificial division or dualism can be hurtful because if you see yourself as living on a quasi-spiritual plane then unfortunately what often happens is that physicality and material things become tainted and there is a constant aspiration towards a higher plane of being which in reality is inextricably bound up with the physical and the material and consequently to try and separate them is to tie yourself to a task which is quite promethean. You'll have no peace because it's an impossible task which rests on a fundamental misunderstanding. I think to dissolve that is really quite a liberating experience. I became aware that the faith which had been handed on to me as justification by faith had somewhere along the line been turned into faith by justification; so everything you were doing and saying had to be justified ad nauseum rather than being caught up, life and faith being intimately bound up together and expressed in one great and glorious whoop! I believe that everything in life is potentially sacramental. A sacrament is a symbol which reveals the mystery of God or faith or your life. The symbol is usually a common element. Jesus picked up the bread and wine from the table because they were at hand and water is used as a symbol of baptism. These are common symbols of life but they become the symbols of an inner grace. I think that by extension all the common elements can be transformed and become sacraments if you see them through the eyes of faith, and mediate to you the mystery of God or faith or your life as an individual or as part of the wider community. When you see this it has a radicalising effect on your life because all things and all people are potential sacraments."
Now let's talk about music. To Hell With The Handkerchief sounds a lot more grown up than anything previous, as if the most obvious influences were no longer contemporary pop ones. "I'm 37 now so I started listening to pop in the late 50s when I was a small boy. My father was very musical and I remember him buying Mario Lanza, Frankie Lane, Elvis Presley, Everley Brothers and Roy Orbison. All of these things are an important part of my musical development because I experienced them first time round at first hand, albeit as a child. I think I was very influenced by the early to mid 60s R&B and soul and a lot of blues based music. Then in my late teens there was the flowering of what was called underground music - Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Cream, The Who, Hendrix. All of the American greats - Dylan, The Band; great black musicians - Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, all the Tamla Motown stuff. I know this is edging back into the pop sphere but there was quite a crossover. Someone like Otis Redding and also black rock 'n' roll artists like Little Richard had one foot in the pop charts and the other in the whole R&B tradition which in turn was firmly rooted in black gospel music. A lot of the white bands, The Band being a case in point, absolutely steeped in gospel music and I think I just took that in intravenously right through my childhood and teenage years. I like all sorts of music but whenever I open my mouth to sing or play, that's really what comes out; the whole gospel, blues, R&B and to a lesser extent jazz tradition."
Another big influence is roots musician and inventor of the holy blues Rev Gary Davis. "He's my hero and the earliest music I played was marked by the same kind of primitivism that he was such a masterful exponent of, and my friends used to tease me about it. To some extent the Victors captured that vision but then I went away off somewhere during the Woza period into much more pop territory. I'm not disowning it, I enjoyed it, but I don't think it was quite true. I think I was allowing myself to be influenced by what was going on around me rather than looking for a singular vision. In the last two years, really I've gone back explicitly to my roots and that's been very liberating - I've enjoyed it very much indeed."
D B's last album contains many examples of someone writing eloquently about his faith with a degree of integrity to both the faith and the songwriting art which to my mind is rare. An example: "It's written in the wild wild sea/Written in all childlike grace/Written in the blue world/As she spins through time and space/In the cold kiss of moonlight/And in the silence of the night/The moving finger writes...("There Must Be More"). Is this a difficult thing to achieve? "I find it difficult to write good songs as I think everyone does. Whether it's more difficult because it's this subject I really don't know. A lot of writers, it seems to me, are groping for a great theme, to launch themselves into great-unexplored regions, big ideas. As a consequence there are a lot of songs about the environment which is a perfectly legitimate subject but is it just me? There seems to be a lot of songs about that or about various social injustices. I must admit I became very conscious of how extraordinarily privileged I was to have immediately to hand such an absolute wealth of material which comes as part of the inheritance of faith, lying about the house, as it were. I wouldn't say it was easy, but in some ways it seems the most natural thing in the world. And yet I don't see myself as part of any group that's tucked away from the mainstream, I want ot be in the midst of things and actually I find people accept it quite readily, even thinking it's quite sexy in the best sense of that term because it's very passionate. I think being true to myself is expressing my faith. That's what I'm good at if I'm good at anything. It's like coming out of the closet, isn't it. Yes folks, it's true, I'm a, whisper it, gospel musician. I see what I'm doing as white gospel music. Can you have that as a genre?"
"...while the whole world cried out YES" ('Hands Of Love').The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.