If you fancy a career in the music business, Francis MacDonald would be a fine mentor: he’s usually got umpteen spare careers on the go.
Drummer for Teenage Fanclub (and previously BMX Bandits, Alex Chilton, Dan Penn…), label boss, producer, manager of Camera Obscura and The Vaselines, soundtrack dude and now classical composer, MacDonald wears more hats than some horrific two-headed Pharrell/Jamiroquai beast.
His debut classical album, the self-explanatory ‘Music for String Quartet, Piano and Celeste’, features the composer on the latter two instruments and members of Glasgow string orchestra the Scottish Ensemble on, um, strings.
It’s a lovely low-key minimal thing, most of which could be subtitled ‘poignant moment in David Tennant drama,’ which isn’t a dig: that’s the kind of setting these compositions were created for.
A Teenage Fanclub update to come, but first, how’s he coping with the indie/classical switch?
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Does this industry take a bit of getting used to?
I’ve had my nose pressed up against the glass of the classical world for the past few years, but I’m very aware that I’m not classically trained and I’m coming at it from a different angle. Actually, probably a lot of the hang-ups are in my head, it’s possible to build stuff up and think ‘I’m not worthy.’ But Classic FM have picked up on a track from the album, given it a few plays, so that’s very validating, you take confidence in that.
Did you just ‘hire’ a string section for this album, as a band would, or was it more collaborative?
It was more like that. I’d already recorded the piano, in the studio where Mogwai made their last album – we really only had the one day in the studio and time was quite precious. They were very respectful of the music but sometimes I was a bit out of my depth, they’d say ‘what do you want us to do Francis?’ and I’d go ‘well, you know that bit in ‘Adagio for Strings’ where it goes really high and all jingly,’ and they’d say ‘oh right, well that’s vibrato…’ They really helped me, but I think they really enjoyed the music as well.
So, this album generally – and excuse the Fanclub pun - what was The Concept?
Ha! Well Teenage Fanclub were on a bit of a break so I had some time, and I’d been doing some music for filmmakers and a few television things as well; it’s an area I enjoy and want to do more of, but there often isn’t the budget to record with real musicians for these things [Macdonald got a handy grant from Creative Scotland for this album]. So I wanted to make a record that’d be a standalone listening experience, that hopefully people would enjoy and kind of works, but also I thought it could be a bit of a calling card for TV, film – almost to say, if you’ve got a budget for real strings, this is how it could sound.
It’s a nice business to get into.
Yeah, I had a song in a film and an advert, and I enjoy that. Bands used to be at a crossroads with all that stuff, but now it’s ‘right, where do we sign?’ – people need an income. If you take away all the income bands generate from other uses of their music, it can make the difference between having a career and not having one, being around to make a new album or not.
Have you done much dedicated soundtrack stuff before?
Last year I did music for a TV series called Commonwealth City, about the Commonwealth Games coming to Glasgow. It was quite a deprived area of Glasgow that was getting spruced up, Velodromes building, tenement houses being pulled down – I worked with the director on that which was really good, as that was original music-to-picture for a lot of it, footage of a family being forcibly evicted from their home in the middle of the night, it was very dramatic.
Doing soundtracks is a useful process – it forces you to be quite disciplined.
You’re absolutely right. I’m actually quite good at wearing different hats – when my role is to work with Camera Obscura in a management capacity, I’m not in there in a creative capacity at all. Or even Teenage Fanclub, playing the drums, they don’t need me piping up saying ‘I’ve written a song’, so when I’m doing music with a filmmaker I know when to bite my lip. There’s definitely a bit of ‘check your ego at the door.’
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How did you get into band management?
I’d done the label Shoeshine Records since ‘96, and one of the biggest artists we worked with was Laura Cantrell, we brought her over and John Peel was playing her a lot, we built up a fanbase. I was doing a lot of things there, so by the time I met Camera Obscura, at a little gig in Glasgow, I got the sense that they were looking for a bit of advice, we had a chat and I realised there were some things I could do. They’re lovely funny people, that seemed to go well, so then The Vaselines approached me, they were about to do their reunion album with SubPop and needed a bit of a hand, and that felt very comfortable as well.
Onto Teenage Fanclub then, how did you end up joining/leaving/re-joining?
I played on the ‘Catholic Education’ album right at the start, I’d been in a band with Norman and Raymond before that, so when they started doing demos they asked if I could drum on them, but I was at university and determined not to drop out of the course, so I played on seven tracks of the album, but I didn’t even do a gig with them, I was just there for the recordings.
Then around 2000 the drummer’s stool was vacant again and Norman said ‘do you want to come to Japan?’ so I haven’t looked back. I’ve been with them longer probably than anyone, but I missed out on the glory years of Grand Prix and Bandwagonesque. Every once in a while someone will come up and say ‘I saw you with Nirvana in Barcelona in 19…’ ‘No, it wasn’t me.’
What’s the Fannies situation now?
We’re still together, and working on a record that we started in France two years ago, the end is nigh with that, so it should be done soon. Hopefully it won’t disappoint. I think people are glad we’re still around. It’s reassuring isn’t it? Like Coronation Street.
Words: Si Hawkins
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Music for String Quartet, Piano and Celeste is out now on TR7 Records. Visit www.francismacdonald.com for details.