Catholic Action on debut album In Memory Of
We speak to Catholic Action frontman Chris McCrory about recording the Glasgow band's debut album, In Memory Of
Picture the scene: a young band, relatively unknown in the States, walks offstage after a well-received show in downtown LA. A silver-haired gentleman walks up to the four members and tells them, "I loved it!" The group in question are Catholic Action, and the man paying the compliment is Seymour Stein – a music industry legend who discovered some of your favourite artists of the late 20th century.
The Skinny has asked Chris McCrory – frontman, guitar player, producer – to name one moment which sums up the freewheeling journey Catholic Action have been on since we last spoke back in the summer of 2015. In a couple of years they've risen from Glasgow buzz band to Radio 1 playlist regulars, earned a celebrity fan in Rita Ora (naming a single after her helped), all the while keeping a firm grip on creative control.
"We formed to play gigs for fun and just put out music on cassettes for our friends," McCrory tells us while taking a break from preparing for the band's first headline tour of central Europe. "The way we formed, we didn't think there would be anything else. But then managers and agents started getting in touch and very quickly we were dragged from Glasgow to do things up and down the country and were told our songs could be on national radio. It was strange to go from recording songs in your bedroom to a situation like that."
McCrory formed Catholic Action in 2014 with old pals Jamie Dubber on bass and drummer Ryan Clark, with Andrew Macpherson joining later as lead guitar. Fast forward three years and they're rubbing shoulders with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Stein. "That was pretty fucking mental," McCrory laughs. "He told us how he had signed Aztec Camera and Belle & Sebastian. He was being very modest just to mention those two bands... It was the second time we'd been out to the States this year, having played SxSW before. The other time we went back to LA and were talking to publishers and whatnot. We were rehearsing in the same building as the Foo Fighters."
McCrory tells this story not to name-drop, or show off his well-used passport, but as a means of illustrating how a fiercely determined glam noise rock band from Greater Glasgow can take on a global industry on their own terms. "To me, the real achievement is when I can pick up the singles we've put out, or the test pressing of the album, and think: 'we fucking did this, we're here!' That's what matters. And to know there are people out there who enjoy this just as much as we do."
"I had to make the record on my own terms"
New music fans across Scotland and beyond are likely to have caught Catholic Action live several times already. They seemingly tour constantly and yet never appear jaded or lacklustre on stage. Their polished yet spiky songs often take strange turns that leave them somewhere between FM pop stars and fuzz rock antiheroes. They've been compared to everyone from Sparks to '70s glam titans The Sweet. Breakfast, one of the stand-out tracks on their debut, offers this insight into their working: 'Clasp your hands and promise motivation / The solemn swear to channel your frustration,' McCrory sings. What sounds like a straightforward chorus-and-verse guitar number explodes into life with a bridge so epic it should be sung in cathedrals.
Catholic Action at their poppiest – like album opener and live favourite L.U.V. – make it sound all effortless, but in reality it's the result of hard work. McCrory earned his live chops playing drums in cult act Casual Sex (2013's Bastard Beat EP is required listening for fans of the Glasgow scene) and is a respected producer in his own right – among his recent credits is Siobhan Wilson's 2017 LP, There Are No Saints. But knowing your way around a mixing desk doesn't necessarily make it easier to record your own music.
"I had to make the record on my own terms," explains McCrory. "I would say I listen to experimental music. My favourite album of all time is Loveless. My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth and Pavement are my favourite groups. You might not necessarily be able to guess that listening to my band, but they all balance melody, pop structure and experimentation. Listen to an MBV record and you can get into it from a muso point of view, enjoy the production, but underneath all of that is there still a pop song. That's what I want to do with Catholic Action, to enjoy it from both sides."
When The Skinny last spoke to the band, the frontman was already talking about having the LP in the bag, so why has it taken this long? "I wanted to do a record, but I wanted to do it right," he says. "In 2015 we had an album of stuff that we had recorded in my house." It would have been easy for McCrory to simply release it on Fuzzkill, the Glasgow micro-label run by Ross Keppie that oversaw their initial singles, but the band were keen to take advantage of the opportunity to test themselves in better-equipped studios. And the end result will still be featuring on Fuzzkill after all. "Our label has sub-licensed the album to Fuzzkill, and they're going to do a limited run of cassettes. Ross has always been great for us. We don't want to forget that or where we came from."
On creating In Memory Of
McCrory, keen to get an outsider's perspective, enlisted the help of Margo Broom (Fat White Family) as co-producer on the album. "I could have produced it myself, but the thing with Margo is she pushes us out of our comfort zone. I was literally in tears at points," he tells us. "There were points where I thought I couldn't continue with the record. But the reason I like working with her is she challenges you.
"We could have went into the studio and made a pretty standard guitar pop record. I could do that in my sleep. But Margo didn't want us to do that, as there is so much of it out there and a lot of it is quite boring. So it was challenging but ultimately it was a rewarding experience, and we're already working with her again on tracks that could end up on the second record.
"She made us less rigid, and [helped] redefine what the band is. I don't think I can define Catholic Action completely yet but maybe I will in a couple of album's time. She wanted me to figure out where I wanted to take the band – which to me is to make music which can be played on the radio but also enjoyed as a record listener. A lot of stuff on the record is quite trashy. Margo played me the radio A-list, and the idea of making stuff like that was soul-destroying. I would rather be a producer and work with other people than put my name on something I don't like
"Margo defines our relationship like a modern-day version of Brian Eno and David Byrne. We sit and have long conversations about things and then go and try it in the studio the next day. Music is so niche, and stuff on the radio is so fucking bland, that I think it's important to tell people why they should listen to your band. Guitar music needs to be more creative in general. Look at modern hip-hop production. Margo put the Kendrick Lamar record on and it blew my mind. It's so creative but also incredibly popular. There's no reason bands with guitars can't do that. That's where my head is now."