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Nice ManAfter sneaking out a couple of tracks on budget label samplers for his own label, Shoeshine, under his musical alias Nice Man, Francis Macdonald's first foray into solo album territory (after countless releases as a member of BMX Bandits, collaborations with Norman Blake and Michael Shelley among others), was a Japan-only album of nineteen originals entitled 'Sauchiehall & Hope (A Pop Opera).' Eschewing the tradition of employing a vast array of musicians from a not inconsiderable circle of musical friends, MacDonald performed and produced the record entirely alone (a guest vocal from Kim Fowley the one exception), in doing so making one of the most personal, yet unaffected pop records of last year. Whether sat behind the kit with Teenage Fanclub or his desk at Shoeshine, playing in his own country band Radio Sweethearts or releasing bonafide country records by the likes of Laura Cantrell and John Herald on sister label Spit & Polish, Macdonald is a man with a mission.
What's keeping you busiest right now?
an interview with Francis Macdonald by Matt Dornan / pictures by Ben Graville
Shoeshine. Whatever else I do is just a distraction from Shoeshine matters - trying to stay on top of cash-flow, get the next couple of releases out, etc. Teenage Fanclub have been quiet but there will be some gigs in April with Jad Fair. BMX Bandits have been recording but that's just been the odd day here and there.
What's the current situation with Sauchiehall & Hope? Will it be getting a domestic release?
Yes - but I have other stuff I want to bring out before then.
What are your reservations about putting out a solo record on your own label?
It may look like a vanity project. That's one reservation. And I'm not sure the record is all that great. That's another reservation. Actually I'm fairly pleased with it and I've been kicked in the teeth - figuratively speaking - by plenty of folks who hated BMX Bandits, so I guess I shouldn't be too bothered by bad reviews or whatever.
Was it important to you that the solo record was exactly that, you no doubt had the option to bring in any number of musical friends?
Yes. I'm fed up with the 'Norman Blake plays tambourine on track 7' syndrome. If only because I've played that kind of angle up so many times in the past. I wanted it to be like [70s impersonator] Mike Yarwood at the end of his show where he says 'And this is me' and sings a song on his own, without gimmicks or distractions. Gee, I'm doing a great job of selling this record, huh? 'I want to be as good a singer as Mike Yarwood...'
You toured this record in Japan I believe. How did that go? Are you still idolised there?
There is a lot of appreciation for Shoeshine [the Japanese also released the compilation, 'A Shoeshine Celebration'], BMX Bandits, etc. over there. Japan has always been good to us. If it were not for the Japanese label agreeing to my solo album idea I probably would have never got around to recording it. It was a thrill to play some solo shows. Seemed to go over well. It was an interesting exercise for me stepping to the front of the stage and playing guitar and singing for a change. It could have gone a lot worse.
Are you as hopelessly romantic as the record suggests?
Probably not. I can be quite good at covering up my romantic feelings and playing the cold fish or making jokes rather than have big, in-depth, heart-to-heart moments. Most, if not all, of the songs are based on how I feel or have felt at some time or another. I suppose the songs relate more to how I secretly feel rather than how I generally go about expressing myself.
Do you have a similarly romanticised view of the music industry now you're working from 'the other side'? How do you reconcile your love of the music you release with the harsh realities of promotion etc?
I use Mr. Spock's dual personality as my role model... I certainly don't have a romantic view of the music industry. I think it's over-populated by bad music and know-nothing-careerist-media-and-industry folks. I've never had a successful music career. I've always thought that making good music is almost the easy part. Reaching out to a bigger audience is the hard part. BMX Bandits were always overlooked and dismissed despite some great songs and a lot of great gigs. Now I play with Teenage Fanclub I can get a feel for 'how the other half lives' to an extent, but that doesn't make me bitter playing to 23 people in a pub in Glasgow with Radio Sweethearts. It's more a case of taking the Teenage Fanclub experience with a pinch of salt: I know that I will be going back to the harsh realties of Shoeshine sooner or later.
What are you looking for in a Shoeshine record, and again for Spit & Polish?
Character. Melody. Great songwriting. I don't know. A song either floats your boat or it doesn't. I would say I like a good melody but then I like Jonathan Richman's Pablo Picasso. I would say a song has to sound original but rip-offs can sound good too. Help me out here.
Was it important to establish separate identities for the labels? Are we too quick to categorise and differentiate between genres?
I had wanted Shoeshine to be an outlet for 'all kinds of wonderful music' - but when Laura Cantrell's album dropped into my lap, I wanted to tailor my efforts in order to give this record the best service I could manage. I thought she might be a little lost in the pile the way things were with Shoeshine. I thought she had the potential to do very, very well. I set up Spit & Polish as a specific outlet for roots/Americana/country, organised different press/radio promotion folks and a different distributor that specialised in that genre. I also had other things up my sleeve re: this kind of music - new Sweethearts album, John Herald - so that further encouraged me to go through with having two labels in one. There is that cliché about there only being two kinds of music - good and bad. But, let's face it - if classical, jazz, rock, reggae, etc. were mixed together in record shops, we would have a hard time finding what we wanted, clambering over other punters, etc.
Spit and Polish is 'purer' and less overtly 'alt' in its country tastes. There's no apparent pretence in the music you're associated with (from Nice Man via Teenage Fanclub and Michael Shelley to Laura Cantrell and John Herald) so is that a characteristic you look for?
Well I think a song has to communicate something - a feeling, an emotion, a point of view. Impenetrable, gobbledy- gook words can leave me cold. Worthy, 'heart-rending' vocals can bore me flaccid too. I like good songwriting - if that's not too wet a phrase to use. Which it probably is.
Does the music you release summarise your listening habits, or would that require a wider roster of labels?
It's probably pretty close to reflecting my listening tastes: good pop and country music. There isn't much contemporary stuff that I love that I wish I could release on Shoeshine. I am jaded by so much bad music, so I'm double honoured to find stuff that I love and can release. There will always be the ones that got away: Go-Betweens, Magnetic Fields, Jonathan Richman, Bob Dylan. Some of them never even returned my calls.
Any thoughts what attracts the UK to country music so much? It's a genre with a seemingly more passionate following here than at home, or at least it appears to be more geographically focused over there.
I guess the roots of American folk/bluegrass/country music were influenced by the folk music of UK pioneers way back when - so there is some kind of 'blood connection' there or whatever. Other than that I'm not sure.
There's also a 'distanced' idealism maybe. Hearing about expansive landscapes and other 'country-isms' has a romantic element that you don't get from music closer to home. Maybe that's why British country bands have a hard time from the press?
I think you are right. There is an 'exotic' thing there which poor old UK country bands can only dream about. American acts are the real deal, first generation and when they speak they sound like Hollywood movie actors.
How would Radio Sweethearts react to criticism for being 'copyists' due to their location/heritage?
I think the music stands up. I can't really add much to that.
Do you feel a part of Teenage Fanclub at this point? Are you likely to feature on the next record beyond the proposed 'Best Of'? How likely is it to hear a Francis-sung track on a future Teenage Fanclub record?
I feel part more or less part of the gang and I can't see any reason why I won't keep gigging and recording with them. But I am not now, nor ever will be, a full-time contributing member. I don't think they need anymore cooks spoiling the broth. Planets was a fluke - written for a one-off single with me and Norman [Frank Blake]. He liked it so much he hung onto it for 'Songs From Northern Britain'. Can't see that happening again.
CWAS #10 - Spring 2002