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UTR Interview Relay: Pickle Darling Chats With Scott Mannion

UTR Interview Relay: Pickle Darling Chats With Scott Mannion

C.C. / Interview by Lukas Mayo / Thursday 13th August, 2020 12:52PM

Part three of our four-part UTR Interview Relay series of artist-driven interviews is here. Picking up the baton from previous interviewer Amelia Berry (Old Chips, Amamelia), Ōtautahi songwriter Pickle Darling aka Lukas Mayo caught up with Scott Mannion, co-founder of Lil' Chief Records and driving force behind The Tokey Tones, who is currently based in Chelva in eastern Spain. They chatted about the long process involved in creating Mannion’s 2019 debut solo album Loving Echoes, issues that come along with being pigeonholed as being “twee” and the distinct visual style of artists involved with Lil' Chief. Dive into their conversation below and keep your eyes peeled for the next UTR Interview Relay edition, where Scott Mannion will interview a yet-to-be-revealed Aotearoa artist.

Pickle Darling: It's been a scary year! How are you?

Scott Mannion: It sure has! Weirdly it’s been one of the best and worst years for me. The best because I am now a father and experiencing the wonders of a brand new person. The worst for obvious reasons. Sadness and rage is much of what the state of the planet is doing for me right now, which can be overwhelming — but I have so much to be thankful for, including the luxury to be able to switch off and focus on the beauty in front of me when I need to. Which is to say, I’m ok!

Congratulations on fatherhood!! That's so awesome!! I wanna get into some of the details of Loving Echoes, the attention to detail on it is amazing and it is such a beautiful record! How long were you working on the album, and how did the album change shape along the way?

Thank you, that means a lot to me to hear that, really. I mean I was faffing about with stuff for “the next album” since before the Tokey Tones albums were even released, but it wasn’t until 2013 and I moved to Spain that I really managed to focus on it properly and it took shape. It started out as recording songs I had been carrying around for a while, then it became about recording songs about a breakup and then it became about recording songs about loving again. So by 2015 I had a pile of songs to pick from and sequenced ten of them into an album about a relationship that begins and ends. They sat “mostly done” aside from strings and details and mixing which somehow took me another 3 years. And then for whatever reason it took another year after that to actually get it out. Trying to figure out how that’s possible as I write this, damn I’m slow.

What does your arranging process look like? Your songs often have pretty meticulous arrangements, with parts that interact across multiple instruments (eg. the string parts and time signature changes on 'Juniper Tree'), and it's hard to even think how you would arrange the songs! How do you approach building a song?

My process varies a lot, so it’s hard to say. Songs often start as a voice memo of a melody or line that comes to me as I’m walking around. [I just checked, there are over 1,500 of those things! Most of it is really embarrassing.] But where it goes from there — 'Juniper Tree is one I remember clearly'. It started out one day in 2014 as just acoustic guitar and singing. Then my friend Emily Zuch came over and added some harmonies. The next day I added piano and tambourine. I knew I wanted to add a solo of some kind for the middle 8 but it just sat with strummed chords for years. I tried so many times to come up with something but it never felt right, and the time signature change also makes it weird. Meanwhile I added some other keyboard stuff and my friend Ryan McPhun added drums and bass. Eventually I came up with a string part that seemed to be okay and then I added the electric to play off that. So it wasn’t easy and in the end I feel like it was just luck. Same goes for most of my songs. I should also say that the real master of arrangements and interplay between instruments is Jonathan Bree, so I guess I aspire to reach his level in some way.

Loving Echoes is such a personal record, I've heard you say it's pretty much autobiographical. How does it feel listening to it now?

The main thing I hear are all the details I would change! But aside from that I think the process of recording the songs was cathartic so it relieved me of the pain where there was pain or doubt where there was doubt etc. Hearing them I can still remember how I was feeling but I don’t feel those things all over again. I also feel relief that I actually finished and released the album. It will be interesting to listen to it in 5 years or something when I can listen to it in a less technical way, or at least that’s what happened with the Tokey Tones records — I could appreciate them more musically with distance from the person I was.

What do you think of the 'twee' label people applied to you (either to Lil Chief Records as a whole or the Tokey Tones)? Do you think of genre very much?

I can’t say I really think of genre as I’m writing and recording, aside from wanting my songs to not all sound the same. As a consumer of music I am all over the place and there aren’t many “genres” that I haven’t been into or appreciated on some level at some point in my life (I have a recurring nightmare that someone will unearth an awful 4-track cover I made as a teenager of ‘Killing in the Name’). I still like a lot of “twee” music. I just don’t like that the term has come to mean saccharine and something to be dismissed for many. I think we’ve “grown up” over the years but it’s understandable why it would have been applied to early Lil’ Chief releases, and the Tokey Tones in particular. Back then we were interested in making “pop” music in the 60s sense of that word, and we still obviously have an emphasis on melody driven music rather than say rock bands, but that’s not because we don’t like rock (at one point we were close to creating an imprint for bands that we liked but didn’t fit the aesthetic we were going for, but we were overcommitted as it was). Anyway, if people give my music a chance I’m happy, whatever they want to call it.

That was definitely what drew me to Lil' Chief Records as a kid, I loved how melodic everything was and it really felt like pop music from a parallel dimension or something. Also, I wanna tell you that videos for this album are beautiful, especially the most recent one!! It seems everyone on Lil' Chief has their own distinct video style. How do you approach your videos?

In a very disorganised and chaotic fashion! I am just lucky I have friends and a partner who have been able to help. It may be kind of obvious but the main thing with my videos is that I decided it would be easy to give them a unifying aesthetic if I just shot them all on a format that imposed one — and loving the look the Valencian director Rosalía Hernández got on Super 8 for a short film, I asked if she would make the first one for ‘Your Kinda Love’. I also find it similar to the way I record music in some way, in that I don’t add many effects in “the box” but record most things through a tape echo or whatever (which was a bit painful for Ryan when it came to mixing). The other thing I guess is that I have been adding links between all the videos in the form of characters / costumes that Emily made for me. So in ‘Your Kind of Love’ you see flashes of some of the characters that appear in ‘Not Exactly Deep’. Then that has a bunch of other characters. ‘You Are the Substance’ features a version of another character from ‘Not Exactly Deep’, as does 'Juniper Tree' with my friend Jenny Picken. There are one or two more videos to go from the album but I will probably kill the connection thing after that.

I'm amazed to hear that the effects weren't done in the box… that makes the production of it so much more impressive. Are you working on a new album? What direction is it taking?

Yeah I am, and I just pray that it doesn’t take me as long as Loving Echoes. I have a lot of outtakes that are contenders but need finishing, and I have been continuing to write and record new ideas. I guess it will end up sounding kind of similar but I don’t see it having a concept at this point as thematically it is all over the place. Ryan is likely to be as heavily involved as he was with the last album, along with a lot of the other people that contributed to it, but I’m also keen to bring some other people in like I did with the recently released ‘I Never Will’ which featured Brian Beattie, whose work with Bill Callahan and Daniel Johnston I am a fan of. Maybe you’d like to add something along the way too? Another idea I have, which probably won’t happen, is to release an EP of some super old songs that I never finished that are closer to the Tokey Tones and might not fit on a new solo record. We’ll see.

That sounds exciting, and I would love to add something if you wanted me to!! And lastly, what have you been listening to / reading / watching at the moment?

Hmmm, well today I have been listening to the Microphones in 2020, which has sent me on a trip back to all the early Phil Elverum albums that were so influential for me. Otherwise I have been going through a bit of a quiet period where I don’t listen to much — except for the playlist I made for my 6 month old of random songs that have inspired me, which I have been playing on repeat since he was born to try and brainwash him. He is very into ‘God Only Knows’, so that’s a good start. I listen to a lot of podcasts, all the usuals, though lately they just remind me of how grim things are out there. I don’t really stop enough to sit down to read so usually listen to audio books these days — Phoebe Judge from the Criminal podcast has been reading Agatha Christie novels and other public domain mysteries which I find very calming! Julie and I have been rewatching The Wire and we also just watched Brave New World, which I can’t say I recommend.


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