XpoNorth: Lional on swapping Inverness for LA

Lional recently left the Highland capital to play shows in the Californian sunshine. But how did they manage it? By making their name at XPo North, of course

Feature by Chris McCall | 02 Jun 2016

When unsigned Scottish bands announce they have a gig on the west coast, they usually mean somewhere like Greenock. Lional are no exception. Until recently, the furthest this four-piece group from Inverness had travelled for a gig was Irvine. That was until they were invited to perform in Los Angeles. 

Last month Lional swapped the Gold Coast of Ayrshire for California, performing at the MusExpo industry showcase. The 12th annual event, which is supported by the likes of Larry King and YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley, welcomes more than 100 artists from around the world for a three-day series of seminars and performances. The invitation to attend was quite an achievement for a band who were barely known outside of their home town until the release of their first single, Season of Salt, last November. "The event is literally in Hollywood so it's a bit of a dream come true for a band from the Highlands," admits singer-songwriter Joshua Mackenzie, who takes a break from rehearsals to speak to The Skinny a few days before he's due in LA. 

For the benefit of those yet to make their acquaintance, Lional write atmospheric indie-rock that calls to mind the likes of Interpol or Beetlebum-era Blur. What sets them apart is Mackenzie's rich voice and his methodical approach to songwriting, which has won fans like Jim Gellatly and Vic Galloway, as well as fellow Highlanders Neon Waltz. The group are also unafraid to share some choice covers with their sizable online following, as recently demonstrated by a fine reworking of the Depeche Mode classic Enjoy the Silence.

Lional started life as a "thrashy three-piece" in 2011 but have since evolved into something much more satisfying, with Ross Haddow on bass, Gordon McKerrow playing keys and Russell Montgomery on drums. "The first incarnation of the band rehearsed on and off for a year or so before I had the courage to sing in front of an audience," says Mackenzie. "In 2013 we got Russ on board, and at the beginning of 2014 Gordon, who has always been a close friend, finished his time at art school in Glasgow. After he returned to Inverness I felt we needed another layer – so he joined to play keys and add some harmonies."

So how did this group get an invitation to LA? The answer lies in part with their long-running association with XPo North. Lional first played at one of the event's showcases back when it was still known as goNorth. It was through meeting Alex Smith, one of XPo North's organisers, that the band were able to jump across the pond. "He has been helping us out and keeping an eye on our progress for a while now,"  adds Mackenzie, "and decided after the success of our debut single, and our growth as a band in general, that it was worth putting our stuff over to his contacts at Musexpo. Thankfully they liked what they heard and decided to invite us over. We are all absolutely buzzing.

"XpoNorth has been priceless to ourselves and many other local bands over the years," he continues. "There's a disconnect with the music scene in Inverness and the rest of Scotland, but XPo North bridges that gap for the few days it's in town. Whether it be the seminars, that give up to date advice on how to promote yourself effectively, with all of today's rapidly changing platforms, or the window of opportunity that's granted to bands who will be seen by some of the industry's most important people, it is absolutely vital to the music scene up here. It brings this town to life for a few days."

Each Lional member calls Inverness home, but only Mackenzie has not lived elsewhere for university or college. The youngest in the band at 23, he purposefully chose not to begin the usual four-year degree treadmill and instead devoted his energies to playing music and sharpening his songwriting skills. This persistent and single-minded approach gives Lional the look and sound of a band who long ago cracked the industry and are confidently thinking about album number three, instead of their second single.

The capital of the Highlands may be only 170 miles from Glasgow, but as anyone who has driven the torturous A9 road north will testify, it may as well be 500. This poses problems for Inverness bands who are booked to play Thursday night shows in places like Ayrshire. "You just have to lump it," Mackenzie states, matter-of-factly. "We're used to heading down to Edinburgh or Glasgow. But the one time we did have a wee reflection on what we were doing was when we were coming back from Irvine. We were a wee bit delayed, and in total it was a nine hour round-trip to play for 29 minutes for about 60 people."

Even that journey is child's play compared to the commute their friends Neon Waltz are forced to make. The six-piece all live in and around John O'Groats but still play regular shows across the UK on an almost weekly basis. This hard work has paid off, landing them a deal with Atlantic Records, and a burgeoning reputation at home and further afield. It's proof, if any were needed, that you don't need to live in Glasgow and spend four nights a week in Sauchiehall Street dives to win attention for your music.

"We have a mutual friend with Neon Waltz who heard us randomly, and noised up Jim (Gellatly) about us, which got us some attention down south – as in the central belt, of course," Mackenzie laughs. "They are well on their way, they're a few notches above us. We see ourselves as being from a remote part of Scotland, but they've got it 10 times worse than us."

That's not to say that Inverness is some kind of musical backwater. Far from it. The upstairs live room of Hootananny's, a pub in Church Street, is the beating heart of the city's live scene, while the 1000-capacity Ironworks offers regular support slots to local bands when major touring acts arrive in town. "Bands up this way can be a bit naive on how to promote themselves – and I only say that because at the beginning we were like that too," Mackenzie explains. "Saying that, everyone, for the most part, has been incredibly supportive of us, and being a band from Inverness gave us the luxury of honing our sound and getting tight, before releasing a finished article."

By the time you read this Lional will have returned from their Californian sojourn and will be looking forward to playing the event that provided their first stepping stone. One question they're undoubtedly going to be asked more than once during XPo North is: when can we hear more music? "We are actively writing and recording at the moment and have a good bunch of songs ready to go, but it's likely we will build steadily with an EP in the summer," Mackenzie explains. "We have enough songs for two albums, but we have seen other bands over the years release albums prematurely – expecting everyone to suddenly take notice, and then they don't, and there's nowhere to go from there. 

"I think we'll build our following a bit more first, though I have no doubt that we are capable of making a great album when the time is right. There's no shortage of material so there would be no hint of filler." With that kind of self-confidence, Lional are sure to be a hit in California.

Read more about XpoNorth 2016:

• Art and design: XPoNorth's design programme
• Books: LG Thomson on Northern Noir
• Fashion: Jewellery designer Heather McDermott
• Film: Filmmaking in the North of Scotland
• Music: Lional on swapping Inverness for LA
• Tech: How a solo developer won the 2015 Moray Game Jam

XpoNorth runs 8-9 Jun, Inverness: xponorth.co.uk