C Duncan Interviewed: Bedroom to Box Office

We chat with Glaswegian virtuoso C Duncan about turning a one-man, one-year labour of love into an arresting, unmissable live act

Feature by Aidan Ryan | 07 Sep 2015

You wouldn’t have thought 150 people – seated, balancing drinks, applauders seemingly of the staid fingers-to-palm variety – could make this much noise. But some in C Duncan’s audience in Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts have both feet in the air as they explode out of their seats to bring the beaming architect of Architect, Duncan’s arresting full-length debut, back for an encore. He returns with a little wave, a boyish smile, and steals all our windpipes for a few minutes of snowflake silence during I’ll Be Gone By Winter. Wherever he will be this winter, we hope we’re in earshot.

Seven hours earlier Duncan steps off sunny Sauchiehall Street into the CCA atrium, having parked the band van, just now back from a show in Leeds, wearing a green and white button-up, a smattering of road-stubble, and an air of just barely credulous happiness with his new life, changed so much in the weeks leading up to Architect’s release just a few days before. He’s gone from waiting tables four days a week to gigging every night: The Lexington in London, Somerset House with Belle & Sebastian, the Latitude festival, then Bristol, Salford, Leeds, and now back home to Glasgow – though not for long. The driving’s tiring, he says, but each audience still stands out. "It’s weird," he suggests, sitting in the CCA café, one arm on the table and the other over his chairback, "watching people going to the box office, picking up tickets to see you.

"Why didn’t you give up working in cafés sooner?" he wonders now, with a laugh. The past few months he was promoting his album, building a band, and readying himself for the road, but he still wanted to keep his flat in Glasgow, to be able to pay for pints and shows. Now it’s pints and shows nonstop, and instead of collecting tips he’s collecting the road stories exclusive to touring musicians. And plenty of fans.

A multi-instrumentalist and the son of classical musicians, with a degree from Glasgow’s Conservatoire and ensemble and choir composition credits already under his belt, Duncan laboured on Architect for over a year, alone, in his bedroom, layering his voice into harmonies, approximating snare sounds with wire brushes on the back of his desk chair, layering synths, guitars, handclaps. "It was me just using whatever stuff I had in my bedroom," he says. "All my spare time I just spent doing that; I had real highs and lows, because obviously I was kind of isolated for a year."

"I don't know how it came together... it just has" – C Duncan

He talks about tweaking, working the intricacies of his pieces; inspired, he says, by the sort of subtle alterations in repeated patterns that he loves in contemporary classical music and in Glasgow’s architecture. "It gives you so much freedom to play," he says – demoing on his own, off a studio’s expensive clock; but bringing such a lonely year long labour to a live setting – and such intricate, precisely orchestrated, many-layered sounds to a four-piece band – seemed a massive challenge. But he constructed a band piece by piece, testing his sets onstage much the way he’d layered his original recordings. "I don’t know how it came together... it just has."

The songs "were very very different to begin with.  Just because we didn’t know what to do," Duncan says. The quartet – Duncan, Finn McCardel on keys, Lluis Solervicens on bass, Glynn Forrest on drums – have come closer to the sound of the album (and Duncan still seems a bit surprised), but the songs we hear live are more reinvention than reproduction. The album’s opener Say bursts out of an audible stillness, a soundspace like the resonant insides of a cathedral floating somewhere around Kepler 186-f. This doesn’t seem as powerful live, at the start of Duncan’s Friday night show, but quickly the bass and bass drum start a pulse that gives Say a second engine, throbbing behind Duncan’s melody. Suddenly it's a foot-tapper. With live drums Silence and Air takes on a new, even unsettling urgency; and the extraordinary track Garden becomes, as his closer, a song you might dial up to blast on your car stereo.

One might expect obsessive compulsive, even dictatorial behaviour from a musician who spent over a year sorting through files of individual drum hits to construct an album so breezily masterful that the word "perfect," applied to it, doesn’t raise any cynical eyebrows. If that alone makes one a perfectionist, then Duncan qualifies. But he's no control freak, conversational in-person and loose onstage, tuning his guitar during And I, trusting the band to carry it for a few bars when plenty of other performers would have stopped and started over. His work is as much the result of the composer's solitary concentration as of happy accidents: in each song some seed of intent flowers in chance discovery. "Whenever I start I’ve always got a very clear idea of … themes for the song, but not necessarily the mood, and then I start recording and then I find something," he says. "It’s very much an ongoing thing." This even includes "gibberish" – he cites the Cocteau Twins as an influence. "I love the idea of having words that kind of almost sound like things, you make up meanings to go with it." Though he doesn't think much of himself as a lyricist, it's clear that Duncan used a dash of jabberwocky-style melopoeia to great effect: it’s all part of the overall composition.

So are his striking paintings, aerial views of Glasgow framing car parks and overlapping motorways. He pairs each song with a different painting, projecting them behind the band, and the media interilluminate each other. The paintings, with all indications of messy human habitation abstracted into clean geometry, remind one of the unusual sense of perspective in Duncan’s songs, which can sometimes give ‘architect’ near-deific dimensions: these aren’t pieces rooted in the heat and dust of earthly troubles. It's strange music to come from Glasgow, where the beautiful casts its gaze on the sordid, caryatids looking down on broken Buckfast bottles glittering greenly. Architect often seems to come at it all from about 85 degrees.

"I wrote my first song on piano when I was 10 because I wanted to see if I could write music and how my melody would sound if I harmonised it," Duncan writes, a few days later. "Since then I have always had a need, I guess, to make music. I feel happiest when making music and a bit lost and useless when I’m not writing or don’t have a project on the go." It helps make sense of Architect: it’s less about Duncan working through emotions and "situations" than exploring the music as music, less interested in what things are than in the way they are, the way the world’s patterns in colour, shape, sound, and percussion repeat and change – and move us.

Because it's not emotionless: it is emotion, distilled to movement in sound. It’s clear on the lullaby Castle Walls, with harmonies to wet the driest tear ducts. There’s a similar moment in Novices as he plays it live to us at the CCA: when it’s over you can hear in the stillness that we don’t want to clap, for the first time that night. We don’t want to believe that it’s over. But the night does end, after I’ll Be Gone By Winter; a woman in the second row says "I feel privileged… I’m an emotional wreck."

Duncan is moving fast into a growing career and a flowering reputation. He’s still keen to return to contemporary classical at some point, maybe even pursue a PhD ("I’m always going to be on the edge," he says – though he might just be describing his pop) but now he has fans who’d mourn even a temporary absence – the way fans howl when he announces his "last song." He’s already demoing for his second album and hopes to be done by the end of the year, getting into the studio (with session players, this time) at the start of 2016. He mentions a string quartet – at which the mind goes rabid to hear how Architect might sound with a full orchestra – but right now it’s just an idea, "not set in stone," he says. The metaphor’s apt: masonry’s his thing, anyway.

C Duncan plays Liverpool's O2 Academy 2 on 7 Nov. Architect is out now on Fat Cat http://fat-cat.co.uk/site/artists/c-duncan