London is often viewed as the home of the best contemporary music, fashion, and culture that this sceptred isle has to offer. It must be said, however, that this view is often given by Londoners themselves and at PlanetNotion we like to remember that there is a wealth of unique musical talent outside the M25. A case in point is the Manchester-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ben McGarvey who, under the moniker Minute Taker, has come to save you from uninspired lyrics and endless Dalston ‘90s RnB clubnights.
An impressive control of a powerful voice makes Minute Taker’s vocals soar above classical strings and piano, then dive into the hazy distortion of lo-fi electronica. His latest album Last Things is a beautiful collection of electronic-orientated pop songs that sound like old recordings that have been rediscovered and restored by a renegade computer; glitching and looping with the influences of James Blake, Vespertine-era Bjork and Thom Yorke. For proof of this, look no further than ‘Tornado’, which is available as a free download for PlanetNotion readers below:
We caught up with Minute Taker to find out about the musical scene beyond Zone 5, the cruel creative Darwinism of the song-writing process and an unfortunate bathtub experience all in the pursuit of art.
PlanetNotion: What’s your song writing process like? Do you write lyrics or music first, or does it differ from song to song?
Minute Taker: I tend to write little bits of melodies and riffs all the time and record them on my phone (which has recently replaced my clunky old dictaphone for this job) and I also write ideas for lyrics or just a general concept for a song on my notes application on my phone. Every now and then I listen back to all the recordings I’ve made and am amazed at how many there are that I have no recollection of writing! Some of them are barely discernible because I’ve woken up in the night with a tune in my head and recorded it before falling back to sleep and forgetting all about it by morning. When I listen back later, it often sounds like that guy who phones people up in horror movies and tells them they’re going to die. Some of the snippets sound pretty shite but then I listen to others and think ‘oooh I like that’. Then I start piecing the parts together and these eventually get married up to the ideas for lyrics and a song is born. I never really sit down and write a whole song out of the blue. Sometimes, I get pretty much the whole melody and chord structure straight away but the lyrics take me a bit longer. I have lots of unfinished songs for which I just sing gibberish, hoping that one day some lyrics will stick.
PN: ‘Echo 2′ was originally going to be on your debut album and was then dropped at the last minute. Why did you decide to give it an airing this time round?
MT: Well, I wrote the lyrics for ‘Echo 1’ and ‘Echo 2’ as one song originally and then decided they should be in two parts as I had two separate ideas for the music but using the same vocal melody. I wasn’t happy with the production of ‘Echo 2’ when it came time to release my first album, so I left it off. It actually wasn’t going to be on Last Things either, but then I decided to re-record the song with the new sound palette I’d developed over the course of recording the album. I felt it deserved a second chance as I really liked the song and I felt it would fit quite well conceptually with the album. The new ‘Echo 2’ is very different to the version I originally made and I’m really happy with it now.
PN: Similarly, ‘Alkali’ finally appeared on the 2012 EP Postlude after several years in the audio wilderness. How has it developed and how do you choose the final tracklist?
MT: I write a lot of songs and they are a bit like those baby turtles that make their way down to the sea in those David Attenborough documentaries- most of them don’t make it but the odd one does. Maybe it’s because they are stronger or maybe it’s because they just got lucky! ‘Alkali’ was actually always one I was pretty sure I’d put out eventually and was one of the first songs I made for the new album. It’s really not changed that much since I recorded it 4 or so years ago. I did two different versions; one for the Postlude EP which has a looped vocal intro, which is the way I do it live, and one on the album for which I added a string quartet.
PN: You are based in Manchester and have avoided emigrating to London, was this a conscious decision?
MT: I suppose in a way it was. I grew up in the countryside and as much as I love all that city-life has to offer I often find it a bit much. I can cope with Manchester but, as much as I love visiting London, I don’t know if I’d enjoy living there. I hope to try it one day though- maybe just for a little while to see how I get on- because in many ways it would be amazing.
PN: How do you feel about the contemporary Manchester music scene?
MT: As a consumer I think it’s really good. There are lots of great venues and most touring artists come here sooner or later so it’s all on my doorstep really. However, I think as an emerging artist it can be a bit bleak at times. There’s a real culture of these promoters who put these nights on with 3 or 4 bands and each has to sell 30 tickets to their friends or fans for a fiver a pop and keep about £1 of it for themselves if they’re lucky. Often no thought is put into the line-up so in the past I’ve been on right before a death metal band! And usually what happens is each band’s friends disappear after they’ve played anyway so you’re not really reaching new people. I’ve done all that in the past and it’s just left me quite dismayed about playing live so now I tend to organize my own gigs and have found this a much more positive experience. I really love playing live now. I do play other gigs but I’m quite selective about the ones I do.
PN: You also sing with The Spiels, how was this experience after working solo?
MT: Well, I started working with Ryan [fellow frontman of The Spiels] about 3 years ago at a time when I was feeling in a bit of a creative rut with my solo work and it was great because when we first met we chatted for hours on end about all these ideas we had for songs and soon found ourselves writing loads. Since then, we’ve become a five-piece band and each of the members have brought their own flavourings to the mix and it’s worked out really well. Collaboration is brilliant when you find the right people. There are times when I have to compromise a bit and this can be hard because I get such a fixed idea in my head of how I imagine a song to sound, but I think I get past this relatively easily because I know I have my solo project for being a complete control freak!
PN: The song ‘Tornado’ sounds a bit like classical music on crack, what was the inspiration behind it?
MT: [Laughs] The song is actually all about the gay scene and I really wanted to write a piano-based piece that was quite fast and elaborate with a sense of chaos like the tornado scene from The Wizard of Oz where the house is spinning in the air and the trees and cattle are circling around. The production is designed to be quite pop-orientated but in a more abstract way with beats and synths emerging in places, like bits of debris in the whirlwind, and then disappearing again into the distance. The problem is that I made it so complicated for myself that whenever I come to play it live my fingers start to shake and I want to just tap my ruby slippers together and wake up back home.
PN: The 2008 song ‘My Electric Wire’ unambiguously addresses a relationship between two men, when very few others did. Was this a conscious decision?
MT: No, it was really just one of those songs I had to write in order to come to terms with the heartache I was going through at the time. And it could quite easily relate to a heterosexual scenario as, let’s face it, breakups suck across the board. As much as I hate heartache, it does make for the best tunes.
PN: What’s the concept behind the styling for the Last Things artwork?
MT: The image on the water concept really stems from the story of Narcissus which I reference in ‘Echo 1’ and ‘Echo 2’. Narcissism and the pursuit of the ideal self in a partner are themes that I’ve explored with a lot of the songs on this album. You can never quite bring this ideal into focus because the ripples of the water distort the image in all manner of ways, leaving your mind to fill in the gaps. Jamie Alun Price, who took the photos, did a fantastic job of capturing this. We shot them in his bathtub. I was underwater fully clothed for about 3 hours coming up for air every minute or so. In order to get the best rippling effect on the surface I had to sink right down into the middle of the tub and put my legs up the bathroom wall. We had to have the tap on full blast and the water was shooting right up my bum! Every time I came up for air I was at such a funny angle that I’d have a panicky moment for a few seconds until I managed to wrench myself far enough forward for the water to pour out of me. The neighbour also came up to complain about water coming through the ceiling but it was totally worth it, though.
PN: You’ve covered tracks by artists as diverse as David Guetta featuring Sia, iamamiwhoami, and Tori Amos (which was a collaboration with Autoheart’s Jody Gadsden & Ryan from The Spiels). Who do you cite as your main influences?
MT: I’ve always been a big fan of female singers-songwriters such as Tori, Kate, Imogen Heap, PJ Harvey, Björk and Suzanne Vega. I would definitely say they are my main influences but I’m inspired by so much popular music, dating back to Billie Holiday’s recordings from the 1930s, which are in my opinion some of the best recordings ever made. I’m also a big Radiohead fan.
PN: Who is currently inspiring you?
MT: I’m currently loving Grimes. She sounds a bit like Björk, M.I.A. and Enya mixed together into a new delicious flavour of ice cream and it’s amazing that no one has ever come up with it before. I’m also loving iamamiwhoami who never cease to amaze me with the sheer brilliance of the tunes and their artistic vision.
PN: Can Londoners expect any gigs soon?
MT: Hopefully. I’d love to!
-Joe Preston Carroll
Last Things is released on 15th April 2013 and available through Octagonal Records.