We chat to Teenage Fanclub drummer, and classical composer, Francis Macdonald about his latest offering, Hamilton Mausoleum Suite
This interview originally featured in The Skinny.
“I haven’t really had anyone to show me the way, I’ve just been following my nose.” It might not be a usual trajectory – successful drummer to acclaimed instrumental composer – but over the past few years Francis Macdonald, backbeat of genre-defining Scottish pop-rock legends Teenage Fanclub, has eased seamlessly into the classical world.
An integral element of The Fannies, he also manages bands pivotal to the Scottish music family tree, The Vaselines and Camera Obscura. Then there’s his soundtracks for films and music for TV, from blockbusters to documentaries, gameshows and adverts. There’s art-crossover projects and work unearthing lost Hebridean songs; he’s also a teacher and a record label manager. But it’s Macdonald’s move into the role of classical composer that he’s becoming more confident and comfortable with.
The classical work has crept up on him, he admits, hands warming around a soya latte on a bright, chilly morning in a bustling Italian cafe in Glasgow’s West End. He suggests his interest was sparked through a combination of turning 40 some years back, reading a couple of articles or listening to Desert Island Discs. “I started revisiting classical tunes and I realised that I would have to make an effort to get to know this music, it wasn’t just going to come to me,” he recalls. “My background was always pop-rock and there were real false starts in the past with trying to get into classical music. But in the past few years I’ve just been open to it.”
In 2015 he released his debut neo-classical album Music for String Quartet, Piano and Celeste, which he says was an incredible learning process, leading him to decide that he wanted to be solely responsible for his own compositions. “Either you delegate or you try and learn what’s going on,” he states. “At the end of it I ended up doing something that a few years ago I would have thought I wasn’t capable of, I would have thought that’s the sort of music other people make, but I sort of bullied myself into doing it,” he laughs.
“I’m self-conscious about not being trained but no one’s told me I can’t do this music,” he adds. “I’m respectful of people that do have that training and education but I don’t want to be respectful to the point that I think myself out of having a go. If a punter hears a piece of music and likes it, they don’t know how that was arrived at and it shouldn’t really matter.”
Macdonald’s latest work, Hamilton Mausoleum Suite, is inspired by a unique historical landmark that’s punctuated much of his life. It’s a work of exquisite, emotive instrumental beauty featuring soloists from The Scottish Festival Orchestra. The pieces are blanketed in soaring strings, impish minimalism and mournful melodies that interplay with the elongated echo of the unusual space.
Once holding the record for the longest echo of any manmade structure, the Hamilton Mausoleum is both a symbol of familial devotion and a display of vulgar wealth and folly. There are whispering walls, Masonic symbols and tales of the 10th Duke who built the structure but died before seeing it completed. At one point he was buried in an Egyptian sarcophagus inside, and the story goes that his legs had to be broken so he could fit in it. Stone lions guard the back of it, and the structure now lies bare of human remains following flooding and subsidence.
“I’m fond of [the mausoleum] but there’s a bit of a glint in my eye as well about the whole thing,” Macdonald suggests. “It was a great focus to hang things on, and gave it all defined parameters and a story, I need that I think.”
The album was recorded in one cold autumn day in November 2016, with all participants in the one space and with minimal post-production edits. There was a lot of music to get through in a small time frame, so the five musicians worked hard in challenging conditions. “Right at the end when everyone had left I just had to walk around this complete darkness blowing out candles with the torch from my iPhone,” he recalls. “It felt like the end of a really special experience. To hear stuff in that environment was pretty special.”
Due to the unique nature of the building, Macdonald had to reiterate just how reverberant the room was. “If you just move your feet and stand that noise will go on and you have to stand still until it dies again. That gave the whole thing a bit of a charged atmosphere.”
He admits he’s still finding his way in the classical world, though feels on the right track, gaining more confidence with time and experience. With his latest work he was surprised that it sounded even better than he’d expected. “I was talking to Stuart Murdoch (Belle & Sebastian), who I think has often written his own string arrangements, and he said something about [having] these notes on paper and then [the musicians] start playing and it’s like they’re reading this code, it’s like a magical thing. I knew exactly what he meant. When they just look at black dots on a piece of paper and this music starts appearing and is played so well, it’s pretty special.
“I have to learn that if you’re going to write for these instruments you can’t be constantly surprised by the sound of one note on a violin, you’ve got to know what it’s going to sound like and maybe I’m getting better at that but it’s still a magical thing. Hopefully there will be more magical moments.”