Remember Remember: Graeme Fears Satan
Satan isn’t the first word that jumps to mind when you meet Graeme Ronald. With his brown stripy jumper, thick-rimmed specs, and slightly shy way it seems unlikely that he’s dallied too long with the dark side. But Ronald, whose second album under the Remember Remember moniker The Quickening is imminent, is a man well aware of exactly who has the best tunes.
“Since I was kid I’ve always had this fascination... I mean, I didn’t have a particularly religious upbringing or anything, but I was really scared of the idea of the devil. There was all these rumours which went around my school – they began when people started playing with ouija boards and that – that if you say the lord’s prayer backwards the devil will appear. That scared the crap out of me when I was kid, and I’ve always been kind of obsessed with the idea of demons and possession.”
Ronald is talking through new album track A Larger Demon, which isn’t just a sad, piano-led piece of instrumental music, but a perfect place to start when you’re trying to get your head around Remember Remember's world. You see, Ronald hasn’t deployed the idea of Auld Nick on his latest album for the sheer hell of it, but to deliver part of his wide-ranging vision, linking this new record with the last.
“The demon is literally me. A Larger Demon is an anagram of my name. The other song on the first record is called And The Demon Said. When I wrote it I was working with another band called Flying Matchstick Men, and I fell out with them quite badly. I wrote that piano piece while not having that great a time, and that was my response – a very passive-aggressive reaction – saying this is my side of things and calling myself the demon in a way. I thought since both songs are both piano pieces it might be good to have some demonic link between them.”
Although far from demanding his work be taken seriously (his album title The Quickening is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the second Highlander movie starring Christopher Lambert), Ronald is keen to show that his work has thematic and musical depths that are worth taking a moment or two to consider. It’s been like that, he tells me, from the start. Kicking off in 2005, the former bassist from cult Glasgow scenesters The Royal We made an early name for himself playing live, alone, save for a guitar, a loop pedal and a collection of toys and other household bric-a-brac which he would cajole into music. From the start, it seems, Ronald was thinking big picture:
“With a debut album you’re trying to make as big a statement as you possibly can. I wanted to get as many ideas as possible on there. I had songs which featured all the kinds of unusual percussion: scissors, cutlery, coffee spoons lighters and matches. Then the last four songs on that record combine into one. I wanted to say that anything can be an instrument. There were some pretensions towards classical music. It was trying to do grand things but on a budget.”
Ronald understands that instrumental guitar music is a strange beast; some post-rock, progressive, or whatever you want to call it, bands can deliver emotional knock-outs almost at will, yet a slight air of suspicion still surrounds lyric-less guitar music, as if the idea of the front man or woman is so hard-wired into the album and gig experience that we have to fight to shrug it off. Ronald has thought hard about the topic.
“When you’re in a band and you’ve got a singer the focal point is there instantly. It’s not that the music doesn’t matter, but you can get away with the music being less interesting if you’ve got a guy or a girl singing really good lyrics. If it’s a song, and it’s got lyrics, then there’s someone trying to express something very definite. A lot of the bands I love, I don’t even think musically they’re that great. Someone like Smog or The Silver Jews.
“A big part of the reason I do instrumental is that I’m not a particularly good singer and that I don’t write lyrics. I see myself as a composer and that’s what interests me, combining melodies and harmonies, and instruments and sounds. That’s my way of expressing myself where someone else might express themselves in lyrics or whatever. I say what I need to say through sound.”
As you’d expect from listening to his two albums and one EP, Ronald has little time for adding a singer into the mix for the sake of it: “I don’t really like the guest vocalist thing,” he says. “It was quite a 90s trend; Death in Vegas and Massive Attack even, getting in guest vocalists and it seems like you’re just trying to sell the song by putting someone famous on it.”
But if someone had a gun to his head, who would he choose? Brian Wilson or fellow American singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston, he laughs, before straightening up: “In all honesty, if there was ever going to be singing in Remember Remember songs I’d like to think I’d be doing it myself, because if it happened it would be because I felt I had something to say.”
Although augmenting his seven-piece band (fleshed out by the likes of Divorce tubthumper Andy Brown and Take A Worm For A Walk Week frontman Joe Quimby) with a lap top computer for his latest live show, Ronald is equally feisty about his peers who rely too heavily on the pre-recorded backup, arguing his own machine is just there for the piano sounds: “I never wanted to use a laptop on stage, because I found that quite boring. Going to see someone play and it’s just a guy sitting behind his laptop. I used to be, not a purist, but I think everything you hear should be generated live.”
Ronald’s artistic single-mindedness is laudable, but principles don’t exactly pay the electricity bill. Despite being signed to Mogwai’s Rock Action label, Ronald says he doesn’t earn enough to live by making music alone, and like most other musicians, writers and artists working outside the mainstream he does what he has to to get by. “Temping, flyering, bar work, you name it,” he nods resignedly, before confessing an occasional fleeting desire for a more stable lifestyle.
“The plan was always to be an English teacher,” he smiles. “I’ve got halfway through filling in the forms for teacher training god knows how many times, but then I always put it aside and think 'maybe next year.'”
A steely belief in the value of his music has helped keep those forms unfinished, which repeated listens to The Quickening will make you thankful for. Although he may not have the devil’s presence, Ronald certainly has some of beelzebub’s fire, and he might, just might, have some of his tunes as well.
“When you make instrumental music you feel you have to defend it. You have to explain why you’re doing it. Even though there’re no lyrics in these songs, they mean a lot to me. I’m expressing myself; it’s more vague than saying 'this is exactly how I feel', but something comes out of me. It’s important to say 'this isn’t just background music, and it isn’t just some little ditty that I’ve written, this means something.'”