Make-That-A-Take Records & DIY Music in Dundee
Make-That-A-Take Records co-founder Derrick Johnston takes time out of his busy schedule to tell us about the philosophy and philanthropy behind the prolific Dundee label
Starting out life in co-founder Derrick Johnston’s bedroom, through sheer grit and determination east coast DIY punks Make-That-A-Take Records now run their independent label from Conroy’s Basement in Dundee. Easily at the fore of Dundee's burgeoning punk scene, this year the label celebrates 12 years of being in business; MTAT are proud to have put on over 500 shows, as well as releasing a multitude of records across all formats.
We catch up with Johnston towards the end of August ahead of the label's Tins for Tunes matinee show – in partnership with Dundee's local foodbank – at Conroy's Basement, which opens its doors just in time to set up. Johnston's band Uniforms are playing tonight; the band’s bassist arranges MTAT’s extensive travelling discography and merch, as the drummer tests the sound and anyone who's free to lend a hand helps offload gear from the van.
Johnston tells us that the band had arrived back home late the night before after playing a show in Inverness, adding that "you wouldn’t do this kind of shit unless you really love it."
As we sit in the back of the tour van in the venue car park, Johnston describes how MTAT started. “We grew up in the country in Alyth [which] had a supportive traditional folk music community. Once they realised that we were interested in music, and that we genuinely cared, they were quite nurturing. I guess there’s a prehistory to Make-That-A-Take. You could say that we’ve been doing this for almost 20 years in some way, shape or form but it was really formalised in 2006 when we started doing things as MTAT.”
In the absence of any real scene that reflected their own experiences of growing up and listening to punk records, Johnston began writing music, performing in bands such as The Try Hards (2005-2007), Joey Terrifying (2008-2010) and Uniforms (2011-present). In the true spirit of DIY, the MTAT collective was formed out of necessity and they began putting on house shows and gigs as a way of putting out their own music as well as the music of their friends. "There was no master plan," says Johnston, "it was a case of nobody is going to sign us so let’s just make our own label and make music together.”
Part of the appeal of running an independent record label is that you don’t have to abide by anyone else’s rules or conform to a set way of working. This was an attractive prospect for the Perthshire punks who wanted the freedom to express themselves outside of the constraints of the music industry. “We were vehement about being punks when we first started," Johnston tells us. "The music industry is kind of a cesspit at times – fuck the music industry by design. The music industry didn’t want us and we didn’t want it. A lot of people think that punk rock is about gobbing, or the Sex Pistols, but that’s not what it’s about for me."
MTAT challenges this popular misconception by using the term 'punk' pretty loosely to describe a broad range of artists encompassing multiple sub-genres acknowledging their folk roots as well as indie, pop, metal and electronic. MTAT as a collective has really grown over the years, becoming a community of like-minded music lovers who support the view of punk rock as a way of making positive contributions to the world around them. "There’s lots of people involved now making music, art, zines and cooking," Johnston explains, going on to tell us about organisations such as "Food Not Bombs, Refugee Support and Leftfest... all of these things that are a real positive force. It comes from a naive notion of trying to build a better world and pouring love into all that we do, your community and the people," adding that "all you need to get involved is a willingness to do so.”
MTAT wanted to create a space that truly reflects the society of acceptance they wish to live in. They were able to achieve this after they secured the venue in Conroy’s Basement which has become a real home for the collective. In reference to the ‘Be Radical Spread Joy’ sign that hangs above the stage, Johnston talks about how the house rules are not intended as rules but as general principles to live by: “We try to reflect reality as it presents itself to us. It’s unfortunate that people think this is a radical idea. I think it’s wrong to be a bigot, a sexist and a racist – violence is unacceptable in our space. [The house rules] are not just something cute to put up on the wall, it’s because in the past there have been instances of violence, sexism and transphobia. The punk scene can be a gnarly shitty place full of gnarly shitty people. We just try to create a space where people feel comfortable enough to express themselves whether that’s on stage or in the crowd.”
With the opening of the V&A and other key developments within the city there has been more of a recognition of what Dundee has to offer culturally. “The fact that there seems to be a recognition from people is kind of lovely," Johnston says, "but also a little weird and absurd because we are just doing the same thing that we’ve been doing the whole time.” Johnston considers the real turning point for MTAT to be around 2011 when they hosted their 5th annual Book Yer Ane Fest, a three-day festival putting on bands from all over the world to raise funds for local charities.
For Johnston and the MTAT collective, lots of planning goes into curating BYAF. He explains that they've already sold tickets to people in “The Netherlands, Germany, there’s people coming from America, people coming from Spain. We have a bunch of international bands touring this year.” Putting on shows, writing and touring music is a key to staying well: “I’m not very good at doing nothing. I like to keep busy creatively, as my friend Chris Snelgrove said, ‘motion is the cure for grief.’ For me, the primary function of songwriting and music is just to get it all out there. [This motivates me] to stay well and to try and keep my mind together.”
Johnston evokes the Greek mythological figure of Sisyphus who pushes a heavy rock to the top of a hill and is doomed to repeat this action for all of eternity. Although running an independent record label comes with its challenges, Johnston recognises the importance of pausing to acknowledge all that Make-That-A-Take Records has achieved: “For a long time, it felt like pushing a rock up a hill. I’m not a nostalgic person and I don’t like to look back. We’ve done all of this really cool shit but I’m always interested in what comes next. This is the life we chose and if ever I become complacent about that then I know I have become disconnected and that it might be time to pause and reflect on what we are doing. I feel like I give part of myself but that’s nothing in comparison to what I get back."
Book Yer Ane Fest XII – Celebrating Ten Years of DIY Solidarity, 30 Nov- 2 Dec, Abertay Student Centre & Conroy's Basement, Dundee