Gazing into the fresh glow of The Cathode Ray with Jeremy Thoms

The Cathode Ray_RingMaster Review

Photo and copyright Peter Tainsh

2015 has provided many treats this year and definitely amongst them was the latest and second album Infinite Variety from Scottish indie band The Cathode Ray. It was an encounter embracing the nostalgia of the eighties through fresh and inventive escapades bred of the now. One of the band’s founders is Jeremy Thoms, he also the man behind the great indie label Stereogram Recordings, and someone who to describe as busy is a big understatement. Nevertheless, Jeremy kindly gave us a chunk of his time to talk about the album, The Cathode Ray itself from top to bottom and more, including an insight to his own musical loves…

Hi Jeremy and many thanks for giving us your time to talk with us.

Ever late to the party, we discovered The Cathode Ray through your new album Infinite Variety which came out a couple of months or so ago to, it is fair to say, swift acclaim. In a music world where it seems increasingly harder to actually get people to part with money or indeed offer full attention to things, did you have any particular expectations or hopes for its unveiling or is it more anything is a bonus for bands right now?

We didn’t have any expectations other than hoping that those who had liked the first album would stay with us for the second. We knew we’d made a good follow up album but, as you say, in an environment when it’s very hard to engage with people, nothing is guaranteed.

Photo by Hugh Womersley

Photo by Hugh Womersley

Originally the band was just you and Paul Haig, famed for Josef-K and his own solo career. The press release for the album suggests this was not originally intended to be a serious band project but a writing collaboration. Was that the case and what brought Paul’s involvement to an end?

Paul definitely just saw it as a writing collaboration – “a bit of fun” was one his quotes – with group recordings just being made to illustrate them. However, the reaction to them was so positive, one thing lead to another and I pushed for it to become a band and take it more seriously, which Paul wasn’t happy with so eventually he left. What confused matters in the press and public eye was that Neil, David and I were his backing band when he did a solo tour in 2008. However the emphasis then was completely on his solo work, and he had no intention of being a member of a band again after Josef K, which in the end we had to respect.

The double ‘A’ sided single What’s It All About? /Mind was released in 2006; I believe this was meant as a one off release?

Not initially but it ended up like that. Certainly with Paul participating. When we made the agreement with Pronoia Records in 2006, the album had been recorded with Paul’s full participation, but by the time we got around to discussing getting it released he had changed his mind. So he asked us to remove his lead vocals, which we did, although some of his guitar and backing vocals do remain on the first album.

At what point did that spark the appetite to push things further; as a full band and with more releases?

The point that changed everything was bumping into Steve Fraser at a TV21 album launch in 2009. I told him what had happened and he was keen to get involved. The minute we started talking music I knew he was the man. We didn’t even bother with an audition. I knew the songs were strong enough to survive without Paul’s involvement. That opened so many doors, being able to play live (which Paul would never have done as The Cathode Ray) and generally move things on after quite a difficult start.

Were some of you all already old friends and maybe previously worked together before uniting for The Cathode Ray we know today?

Neil Baldwin and I have known each other for 34 years (!) and have played in bands together intermittently since 1986. David Mack and I had been working together since 2000 so, yes, there was a certain chemistry. Steve was the “new boy” although we’d all known him on the Edinburgh scene previously.

I have to admit for once, and not intentionally, I read about the band and its background before hearing a note for a review, and to be honest once seeing a list of previous projects for members of The Cathode Ray2_RingMaster Reviewthe band which had been indelible pleasures in my personal soundtrack, subsequently luring a revisit to old favourites records after finishing the review too, there was an increased anticipation and eagerness to explore the band and album. Do you think having your musical histories has helped draw awareness to the band or not?

Well obviously there’s going to be a certain amount of that, but I do believe, hopefully without sounding conceited, that The Cathode Ray is more than the sum of its parts. But initially I guess it did help getting people interested through our various previous involvements.

There were whiffs of all some of your previous bands at times across the songs and often nostalgia blessed air of Infinite Variety, The Bluebells and Scars maybe most notably in our ears. You are a band unafraid to draw on previous adventures and spices to hone new and fresh exploits, as potently shown on the album?

The songs that I write aren’t consciously drawing on any of our past exploits, but I guess where you’ve come from does influence where you’re going. In any case, it’s probably coincidental, as Steve only toured with The Scars as a depping bassist so wasn’t involved in their creative process, while Neil only contributed to arrangements with The Bluebells. But inevitably, as we all come from that post-punk background, some of the sounds and styles of these bands are going to rub off.

How would you say The Cathode Ray has evolved over time and specifically between Infinite Variety and its predecessor, your self-titled debut album?

I would say the vague initial brief of merging post-punk Manchester with New York has simply broadened to the point where I regard ourselves now as a band that isn’t easy to pin down musically. Our original press release mentioned 60’s Garage, Soundtracks and Northern soul, to which one critic added Psychedelia, Glam-Rock, Euro-Disco, Krautrock and 90’s Alternative Pop when reviewing Infinite Variety. So it is definitely evolving. I’m currently demoing material for the next album and there’s even more interesting musical areas I’d like to explore. It’s good to surprise people.

TCR cover_RingMaster ReviewGive us some insight into the thoughts and intentions going into the writing and recording of Infinite Variety? Do you build a release on particular aims or ideas or predominantly let things organically evolve?

Things do tend to evolve organically. If you put too much pre-conceived thought into it, the music loses its spontaneity. Although I suppose one particular aim is not to repeat ourselves. Each album needs to be a significant progression from the previous one, so a certain degree of thought does go into that. Also, apart from melodies and lyrics, I’m always interested in rhythms and try to be as adventurous and varied as possible in that area too.

We described the album as a “kaleidoscope of fun, sound, and adventure”, a fair hint we think at the array of flavours and inventive spices fuelling and shaping the songs within Infinite Variety. In the hands of many bands it might be an incoherent mix, but you manage to seamlessly blend all spices and individual characters of songs perfectly. Where do you and the band start when composing songs?

Well I compose the songs and demo them first with the key riffs, chord progressions, lyrics etc. all in place. At that stage they often do sound fairly disparate. I then present them to the band in the rehearsal room and that’s when it starts to sound like The Cathode Ray. Steve, Neil and Dave all contribute parts and arrangements until we arrive at the finished article. Some songs like The Eyes Are The Window took a long time to come together and changed quite considerably from my original demo. Others end up fairly similar to the original template, but all manage to sound cohesive owing to the fact it’s the four of us playing them, I guess.

The album’s tracks manage to be rich and at times expansive in texture and flavour yet also ‘slim’, i.e. no excess baggage or indulgence. They manage to be an open evolution from your first album but also reveal a bolder leap in aural colour and character; how do you hear their relevance to older propositions as one of their creators?

Well obviously it’s difficult to be completely objective about something you’ve created yourself, but I see their place in relation to the first album as a natural progression. The leap in colour and texture which you describe is simply a way of moving the band forward, without cluttering things up unnecessarily. You use the word ‘slim’ and I suppose that comes in at the production stage – cutting off any excess fat!

How long in the making from first note to paper or thought through to last note laid down was the album?

The boundaries are always blurred as we always tend to have songs left over which were either written too late to make the cut or simply didn’t fit at the time. For example, This Force Of Nature had its origins as a completely different song dating way back to 2006. It had never sounded right so was left on the shelf. I went back to it in 2014 writing new lyrics and melodies and it quickly came together then. Eureka Moment and Buck the Trend were written in 2009 when Steve first joined. But the bulk of I.V. was written and recorded between 2012 and 2014 – around two and half years.

Our review stated spices of bands from around the eighties as rewarding aspects but over time sixties/seventies tones have emerged. I sense your own inspirations and musical loves go far back?

Oh yes – my musical tastes stretch way back! How long have you got? Songwriters have always been key to me. From Lennon & McCartney, Brian Wilson, Smokey Robinson, Jimmy Webb and Bacharach & David, through Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Scott Walker, Al Green, Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Robert Wyatt and Neil Young to Costello, Paddy MacAloon and Rufus Wainwright, the song is always key. Then there’s the bands I love – The Stones, The Velvets, The Doors, Faces, Roxy, Yes, Kraftwerk, Television, Talking Heads, Buzzcocks, Chic, Wire, Magazine, Pretenders, Joy Division, Dexys, Scritti Politti; Cocteaus, Talk Talk, Teenage Fanclub, High Llamas, Flaming Lips… the list goes on.

There is no mistaking that Scottish bands and rock ‘n’ roll of all styles and design bred there, has something unique to it, and we could go on a long list of examples. Can you define what it is in ‘the

Photo by Jez Curnow

Photo by Jez Curnow

water’ which helps breed such distinctive and so often inspirational bands from that part of the UK, as ones yourselves?

I think there’s an open-mindedness up here. Maybe Scottish bands tend to draw from a wider pool of influences than other parts of the UK. Or maybe it’s to do with being distanced from what’s happening down south – even in the age of the internet. It’s certainly true that scenes of their own do seem to crop up here around labels like Postcard, Fast, 53rd & 3rd, Creeping Bent and, possibly, our label Stereogram too, which has attracted similar kindred literate spirits. Either that or we all seem to be obsessed with the Velvet Underground!

What comes next for The Cathode Ray?

Firstly, we’ve got two more live shows coming up this year as part of The Stereogram Revue in Edinburgh and Glasgow, plus a new track called It Takes One To Know One on a compilation album. Then there’s a new video shot earlier this year at the Kings Theatre in Edinburgh by Jez Curnow to go with Saving Grace, our other featured track on the comp. After that we’ll be knuckling down to working on the follow up to Infinite Variety. I’ve got five or six new songs written and demoed, plus a couple of leftovers, so we’ll be getting on with them. Expect some new directions.

Your releases come out on Stereogram Recordings, your own label which seems to have out grown and blossomed far more than its original intent I believe. Can you tell us a little about it and what is ahead for the label too?

It has indeed outgrown its original intent which was simply to facilitate a release for the first Cathode Ray album, plus any other projects (The Fabulous Artisans) or archive material I had kicking about. But over the last couple of years it has been growing steadily with first Roy Moller signing up, followed by James King & The Lonewolves, Milton Star, St. Christopher Medal, Lola in Slacks and, Band Of Holy Joy. The critical and public response has been great which is hugely encouraging. As previously mentioned, we’re rounding off the year with two Revue shows which will feature the entire roster in some form or other (minus Milton Star who don’t have a live set up at present). These gigs will be accompanied by The Sound of Stereogram, a budget compilation in the spirit of New Wave in ‘77 or Pillows and Prayers in ’82, featuring both new and old tracks from all eight acts on the label. Next year promises some new signings plus new material from the existing acts.

My big thanks to you again for chatting with us; have you anything you would like to add?

Nothing to add except thanks very much for your support over the last year.

Lastly and looking at band’s influences on your Facebook profile, a list of bands littering my own record collection I have to say, can you indulge me and give us a few of the bands/records which inspired you to get into music and then as a musician push yourself further?

Well I’ve already mentioned a whole bunch of artists who’ve inspired me, so here’s some records that have been key: “With The Beatles”; “Motown Chartbusters Vol.3”; “Pet Sounds”; “Piper at The Gates of Dawn”; “Forever Changes”; “Loaded”; “Scott 4”; “What’s Going On”; “Exile On Main Street”; “Never A Dull Moment”; “Close To The Edge”; “Aladdin Sane”; ”Houses Of The Holy”; “Quadrophenia”; “Rock Bottom”; “Country Life”; “Zuma”; “Songs In The Key Of Life”; “Trans Europe Express”; “Marquee Moon”; “My Aim Is True”; “Never Mind The Bollocks”; “Risque”; “All Mod Cons”; “Love Bites”; “Fear Of Music”; “Closer”; “The Correct Use Of Soap”; “You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever”; “Rattlesnakes”; “Steve McQueen”; “Don’t Stand Me Down”. Again the list goes on…

Read our review of Infinite Variety @ https://ringmasterreviewintroduces.wordpress.com/2015/04/21/the-cathode-ray-infinite-variety/

https://www.facebook.com/thecathoderay   http://www.stereogramrecordings.co.uk

Pete Ringmaster

The RingMaster Review 23/11/2015

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Interview with Plum/Shona Maguire

The just released album The Seed from Scottish singer/songwriter/producer Plum is one of the most graceful and glorious collections of ideas, thoughts and songs to caress and inspire the ear so far this year. With an intriguing and provocative theme veining composing and music making of the highest and deepest quality, it is an impactful and beautifully caressing release that takes one on a personal trip with Plum and also a journey inside themselves. We had the pleasure of grabbing some of her time to ask Plum (Shona Maguire) about the album, music and herself.

Hello and a warm welcome to The RingMaster Review. Thank you for talking to us.

Would you first simply introduce yourself?

Hello, I’m Shona Maguire/Plum. I’m an Edinburgh based songwriter & producer, Aberdeen born with a love of electronic music, art, independent film & treehouses.

Why the name of Plum rather than using your real name for your music?

It’s a childhood nickname (given to me by my dad, nobody knows why). I don’t know why, but didn’t want to go by my real name (too folky sounding), so used Plum originally intended to be a stop gap until I found a better name but it stuck.

When did you first find yourself falling into the arms of music?

Age 3 I fell into the arms of my granda’s piano. I was in the youth orchestra, played oboe in High School, then picked up a guitar at 15, and that’s when the songwriting began. It grabbed me. I was in a band in high school. Our high school technician showed me the basics of studio recording & I was then hooked on learning more. Did work experience at Split level studios & kept going back for about 5 years. The short answer is probably mid to late teens.

What were the artists and songs that had the first powerful effect on you?

I was a late discoverer of electronic music. Bjork & Lamb were the gateway & I fell into that scene at age 19. Loved it with a passion – Boards of Canada, Chris Clark (now Clark), The Beta Band, Twin, PJ Harvey, Squarepusher…

And the biggest influences to this point?

I think the first are still the strongest. Add my musical friends Frogpocket, Araya, and Christ. And Kate Bush, and Joni Mitchell. But I never intended to make the same type of music as my influences. I try to write from the heart & to tell stories with it. With the lyrics as well as the instrumentation, textures, layers & moods you can build up.

Was music a feature of family life from day one up there in Aberdeenshire?

Pretty much, we had a piano in the house, though I don’t remember anyone ever playing it except me. My dad has always had a great taste in music. His records playing in the living room with the fire on is a standard memory. He introduced me to Nirvana, The Chemicals Brothers, The Blue Oyster Cult, Metallica, Howlin Wolf, Marillion, Mike Oldfield, Suzanne Vega. My mum was big into Kate Bush, Van Morrison & Joni Mitchell & I remember car journeys to those soundtracks.

When did you first have the urge to make your own music, was this before or during your time undertaking work experience at Split-Level Studios?

Before…but it was the entire motivation behind working there. I bought a reel to reel tape machine from a back door warehouse in Leith & drove out to the studio with it on my motorbike. I made the studio blokes leave the outhouse (was kind of a practise shed) so I could record because I was too shy to sing in front of them. Was so excited to use it. Seems so old school now! Brilliant sound. Wish I still had it.

Your bio states you move to London to take a Music Production course being frustrated at being unable to communicate your ideas exactly as you wanted. Was it that much of a struggle conveying your creative thoughts and was this in terminology or interpreting what you heard inside to others?

Without the production know how I was relying on others to interpret my direction. And the people I was working with were (bless their lovely souls) far more conventional in their approach than I wanted. And I couldn’t find the right words to convey what was in my head. It wasn’t as direct as that though as I travelled for a few years, during which time I didn’t do any music. Then all of a sudden I had to get back into it. With more passion than before, and a need to take control.

You were creating your own music in tandem to learning studio production?

The course was very hands on practical & we were encouraged to write our own music as part of the course. Free studio time almost unlimited. Was a dream come true! Though I needed to work 28 hours a week to pay digs in London. Every other spare moment I was booked into a practise studio at Point Blank.

Before you had finished your course you were signed to Summer Rain Recordings, how did that come about?

As part of the course we had to set up a MySpace account & upload music. I did so & started getting some good feedback. One of them was from David at Summer Rain & he offered to put out an EP for me. To be honest I was pretty shocked, I didn’t feel ready, but was delighted to take up the opportunity.

You released two EPs though them, The Whispering Chamber (2007) and The Glory Feast (2008). How were these received and what impact did going straight into recordings during the course have on your self-belief as an aspiring artist?

Honestly, myself belief has always been a little shaky. The EPs were well received, but I was terrified to perform live so didn’t do much gigging on the back of it. The fact that a label wanted to sign me definitely helped my confidence though. It gave me the confidence to sing on my own tracks.

Next you returned to Scotland and became the first and I believe only female artist signed to Benbecula Records?

This is true 🙂

The album Different Skin in 2009 was met with a mass of critical acclaim as well as finding further love from your expanding fan base. This was maybe a pivotal point in your career to date and has given you more freedom to expand and explore your ideas?

Absolutely. Signing to Benbecula was a dream come true. I sent Steven about 6 demos over 2 years & finally he felt I was good enough. It brought a lot of UK press & gigs & was a fantastic experience. It was great to be part of such a forward thinking music scene & definitely helped push me creatively.

We now come to the reason we really wanted to talk to you haha, your brand new album The Seed. How are you feeling in its early days of being in the ears of the public?

I’m excited. I’m really pleased with the release & the feedback so far has been amazing.

Tell us about its theme and where the inspiration for it came from.

It’s very private but essentially it’s about the power of suggestion. Something said to me in childhood had had a profound effect on my personality & fears & aspirations. It’s about the seed of an idea & how it can grow beyond your control. Finding the root of things is one massive task, but digging it up & planting alternatives is equally difficult. I just find the whole concept fascinating.

The way the album and songs are beautifully crafted and placed, let alone sounding around this concept suggests The Seed was a labour of love and intensive in time.

Yes it was a hell of a journey. Very personal. Very difficult. I was really ill for a month as I tried to conclude the album, but the sense of relief when I did was incredible. I’m really proud of it.

The album as you said was a journey, so did you write the songs separately and fit them along the album’s quest or wrote them to fit each aspect of the theme?

Lol. I may have just answered this one. I wrote to the concept loosely but wanted it to flow as an album, so there’s definitely a process behind the order. The journey was about working myself out for me, and the order of the tracks reflects that chronologically.

How have you evolved as a composer/songwriter o you feel and how has your music too from Different Skin to your new album?

Definitely. It was my first concept album, it took 2 years to write & produce. I got a lot of help from Keir MacCulloch, and I learnt a lot from him.

The Seed has an organic flow, a feel that is inspired by Nature and I believe you put yourself in the heart of it when writing the album?

Yes I moved to a cottage near Jedburgh in the Scottish borders to write it. I wish I could have stayed there. It was magical, overgrown, wild & beautifully peaceful. Was the perfect setting.

How do you approach your songwriting?

The songs write themselves. Sometimes the lyrics come first, sometimes I’m playing the guitar & it all falls into place, sometimes I’ll build a song around a sample. I never write the beats first though which is I think more common.

The album is wonderfully unpredictable and surprising, your blending of caressing melodies and a calm ambience to striking and often discordant tones, beats and samples is majestic. How much is simply organic for you and how much do you have to really stretch even your ideas to achieve this?

I don’t have a strict idea of where I’ll end up when I start. I play about with layers & effects until I like what’s there. Until I feel it fits with the point of the song…which is usually driven by the emotions or mood.

Alongside the warmth and beauty to your music on the album there is a darker thoughtful vein bringing a striking balance? What do you hope we see that contrast as within the concept, as it does neatly open up many trains of thought at times?

I haven’t really thought about it. Contrast is human. I think it’s part of nature.

You have self-released The Seed. Was this always the intention or has been forced upon you?

It was always the intention. I wanted to write it exactly as I wanted without feeling pushed to go with an overall genre or style. I wanted the freedom to explore. That and Benbecula had closed, and I wanted to write rather than knock on the doors of all the other labels.

You helped to finance the album through sponsume.com. How did that work out and in a time when many bands are looking at this aspect why did you choose that site?

I actually tried We Fund first but they took ages to approve my video so I cancelled & gave Sponsume a go. Found it to be an excellent source of encouragement & a great way to engage with fans. Benbecula promoted it to their mailing list too which was very helpful.

Did the response you got surprise you?

Absolutely! I never thought I’d reach the total it was a stab in the dark, a total “may as well try” approach. I was really amazed at the support.

Is there any part of the album that you are most proud of?

Myriad. I knew I had to tie together all the pieces, I knew I wanted to finish on Meadow of Weeds, but was struggling to connect the struggles and the growth & the climbing with the hope & fresh start of meadow of weeds. It really took a lot out of me, but I’m very happy with the result.

Please tell us about the excellent video for the title track off the album.

It was the collective ideas of moi, Jim Wolff, Michael Kinlan, Jordan Laird (Leith FM) and the super talented Greg Hoyna who is proficient in both cardboard use and stop frame animation. Was fun to make, though I cricked my neck lying still for two long days.

What is next in the world of Shona /Plum?

Hopefully more gigs, & more opportunities to be creative.
Once more many thanks for sparing time to share your thoughts and in answering our questions.

Would you like to end with any last words?

Thanks so much for your support of an independent muso like myself. It’s much appreciated!

Read the review of The Seedhttps://ringmasterreviewintroduces.wordpress.com/2012/04/03/plum-the-seed/

The Ringmaster Review 09/04/2012

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