Rev Magnetic's Luke Sutherland on Versus Universe

Luke Sutherland, the imagination behind new project Rev Magnetic, talks about writer’s block, feeling like an anomaly and Versus Universe

Feature by Tony Inglis | 02 May 2019
  • Rev Magnetic

It’s unusually sunny for early spring in Glasgow. Outside, it’s one of the more volatile days in the city’s calendar, as football fans of different persuasions stream from the East End to pubs and homes with a broiling mixed set of emotions. Govanhill’s The Bell Jar is a placid sanctuary in comparison. Couples tuck into Sunday lunch and families grab a quiet drink while their young ones occupy themselves with board games and toys. Luke Sutherland is talking about support acts and how old fashioned it now seems to discover a band by seeing them open for another. "The last time that happened to me was seeing Animal Collective supporting Múm in London. I didn’t know a thing about them and god they took my head off," he quips.

And so it was, last May, that some, including this writer, saw Sutherland and his ceaselessly imaginative new project Rev Magnetic steal the show ahead of power-punks Superchunk at Stereo. Now Sutherland, a polymath and serial collaborator, is set to unleash his first album under this guise, Versus Universe. The story of its creation is spotted with trials and tribulations, a vehicle for what feels like a singular, heavy dose of magical realism.

Sutherland, it could be said, has been around the block. Best known for collaborating with Mogwai, while also bringing his considerable talents to numerous other projects, most notably Bows and Long Fin Killie in the 90s, his life has been tethered to music for around 20 years. He works in theatre, scoring intricately choreographed dance, and has published three novels, including the Whitbread Prize nominated Jelly Roll. This truncated list reels off the tongue; he seems to be an endlessly flowing fountain of creativity.

"About 15 years ago I just became completely blocked," Sutherland intones, not in a grave sense, as some artists might, but with acceptance. "I would laugh about this idea of block, talking like it’s tennis elbow or something – it’s like 'get over your middle-class sensibilities', it sounds so self-indulgent. And then I got it. I used to associate block with a blank page. But I think it’s possible to write thousands of words, as I did, and for them to amount to absolutely nothing."

Sutherland didn’t so much retreat into himself as spread himself out, finding working with other artists much more stimulating. It was the kernel of an idea that pulled him out of his funk. "The writer’s block extended to lyrics as well, but I wondered if a unifying concept, where I could just fill in the blanks, would help. That was a necessity because I just couldn’t do the work on my own. I needed a way around the block.

"I saw something on TV about rockets being launched from Zaire [now the Democratic Republic of Congo] in the 70s. It was one of those occasions when you come across a word you’ve never heard before and suddenly you hear it everywhere. It was almost like a spell."

Versus Universe tells the story of a woman, from adolescence through adulthood, whose parents are immersed in their work on the Congolese space programme to the point of neglect. This 'daughter of astronauts' pines for a parental love that’s not forthcoming. "She’s empathetic," says Sutherland, "one of those folks through whom the whole world passes unfiltered all the time. She feels everything."

To cope with her dysfunctional family life, she turns to things immediately available around the expat family’s central African home – prescription drugs and music – hoping to be, as Sutherland puts it, "smashed awake, blasted into consciousness." After her parents disappear, perhaps lost to the cosmos, our protagonist moves to America, studies, parties, embraces hedonism, rebuffs romantic advances, wallows in regrets and finds herself somewhat alone in this insular musical refuge she has created.

Actually listening to Versus Universe feels like submerging yourself in a fully formed consciousness, in all its chaos. Even within a single song, swirling dissonance can turn to breathtakingly beautiful eastern strings, for it to morph into jittery IDM drum programming by way of Japanese ambient, matched with Auto-Tuned androgynous vocals and trap beats, only to surprise you once more by crashing into skyward shoegaze. There are disembodied samples (A Minoutaur’s Mass), live choir singalongs and handclaps (Palaces), solos and hooks (Yonder (Là-haut)) and huge aching orchestras (It Shoulda Been You). Perhaps its closest forebear, if it has any at all, is Yves Tumor’s 2018 record Safe in the Hands of Love. That album shares few stylistic characteristics with Versus Universe – they are alike insofar as how unlike they are to anything else.

"You’re walking down the street. It’s a busy day in the city and you can hear a song played by a soundsystem from a pub at the end of a street," Sutherland says, as he tries to explain something of how this came about. "But it’s coming to you through the chit-chat, the traffic and maybe even filtered through three or four other songs coming out of windows. You’ve got this sense of this thing anchoring you to the end of the street and that’s what you’re tuned into, but it’s coming through all this interference. You’re kind of half hearing it, making up the bits you can’t hear. By the time you get to it, it’s nothing like you had imagined. There’s something tremendously exciting at being at the other end of the street, when you can’t hear it properly at all."

Throughout our conversation, Sutherland will describe this nameless character as an "anomaly", as he will himself. A black man growing up to adopted parents in Orkney, he spent his formative years searching for where he fit in. "I listened to music and read an awful lot. I was trying to expand my conception of the world and find out how much was in it, in the hope that I’d be able to find room for an anomaly, such as I felt myself to be in that context. The world was telling me that I was very much one thing, and I was looking for evidence that, no, actually I can be a million things."

When he finally found that in music, the homogeneity of the scenes he connected with meant he experienced pushback. "When I was at university in Glasgow, I practically lived at venues like the Barrowlands. There were many times when I would be the only black person in the room. I was once asked, in a perfectly friendly, non-confrontational way: 'Are you here for the music?' It was a white band, maybe a shoegaze band. I was constantly being asked, in one way or another, to validate my presence at these shows."

It's difficult not to draw parallels between this character Sutherland has envisioned, one full of longing, and his own life. He's a little more taciturn. "I think that where the daughter’s experiences and mine meet isn’t so much in the relationship with the parents," says Sutherland, a little blindsided. He speaks carefully. Sometimes he will halt a sentence midway to take a lengthy, considering, pause. "But, not to invalidate the relationships that one has, and that have been instrumental in making one the person who one is, and not to devalue the love, in a familial sense, that has contributed to it, I think that, in some cases, longing can be central, in an emotional sense, to an adoptee’s experience."

While the story may feel solitary and personal, Sutherland uses his art to spotlight numerous voices – 17 other people worked on Versus Universe. Live, it's brought to life by a full band consisting of friends and collaborators: Audrey Bizouerne, Sam Leighton and Gregor Emond.

The extremely unique and refreshing work of boundless wonder and creativity that has resulted renders Sutherland’s mind painted on tape, magnifying his musical heritage and reclaiming the styles he loves through the prism of his specific cultural experience.

Versus Universe is released on 10 May via Rock Action

Rev Magnetic plays King Tut's, Glasgow, 14 May, supporting Swervedriver