Time Bandits: Remember Remember on Forgetting The Present

As time and geography conspire against them, Rock Action sextet Remember Remember pull off an unlikely victory for grandiosity

Feature by Jazz Monroe | 03 Jul 2014
  • Remember Remember

It’s Wednesday evening and Graeme Ronald, a video game sound designer by day, is trying to relax. He’s in Nottingham, his grudgingly adopted hometown, where a stray job application landed him this March. Early evenings are a rare cool down period but tonight he wolfs down some Spanish rice and veggie sausage and fires up Google Hangouts to talk Scotland’s most grandiose rock band while huffing an e-cig.

“Making this album, all the smokers in Remember Remember jumped on the electronic bandwagon,” Graeme muses of his latest instrument. “It's vape-rock, vape-prog,” adds synth wizard Tommy Stuart, grinning through fake smoke. “Not stoner music, none of us are into that.”

Spirits are nonetheless high for the ensemble’s new LP. Their third album for Mogwai’s Rock Action, Forgetting The Present fleshes out questing instrumental songs composed for a string of performances at a planetarium, film festival and ice rink. It seems apt, given the recent shakeup, that the music feels so mind-windingly unsettled. Although wordless, themes of lostness and impermanence meander through the mist.

“There is a search in the music,” Graeme agrees. “Two things I really like in music are repetition and sudden radical change. You express something internal you can't quite find words for. That sense of journey is a definite theme that I've felt in myself, after years trying to figure out where I'm going.”

Those uncertain travels cover serious ground. In 2006, the multi-instrumentalist began Remember Remember as a solo project buoyed by favours from friends. Without a drummer, percussion was staplers, coffee spoons and scissors. After an auspicious debut LP, the setup expanded fast until 2009, when Yann Tiersen took a punt on the then-septet and offered a vital UK support slot.

“This is vape-prog. Not stoner music, none of us are into that” – Tommy Stuart

Support swelled and permanent players now populate the group’s ranks. For Graeme, who previously did time with Multiplies and The Royal We, Forgetting The Present finally establishes Remember Remember as a complete unit. “My original concept was a band that anyone could be in,” he explains, “and anyone could come and go whenever they wanted to. But now, with everyone who’s still in the band, I'm just really happy they stuck around, you know?”

In a video-chat window beside Graeme’s and Tommy’s is percussionist Joanne Murtagh, leaving absentees Joseph Quimby (guitar), James Swinburne (sax and keyboard) and drummer Andy Brown to round out the line-up. Throughout the chat, Tommy, an art gallery’s technical manager whose latest exhibition scored five stars in The Times, entertains himself by teasing Graeme, the band’s long-suffering uncle figure. (Imagine a friendly child terrorising a cat with a nerve disorder.) Asked about the rest of the band’s creative input, Tommy jests, “Are we allowed to answer that Graeme?” Graeme can barely contain his laughter.

During these exchanges Joanne stays low-key, sometimes chuckling privately. She has a fond look on her face like, 'Come on boys.' Outside Remember Remember, Joanne teaches percussion at a primary school. “Children can be very excitable and a bit mental,” she says of the day job, “so it’s good practice for looking after all these guys.” Coincidentally, a disused primary school hosts the band’s Glasgow rehearsal space, an abandoned classroom decorated by a taxidermy warthog and old nametagged coathangers, which looks out ten-foot windows and over a screaming twelve-lane stretch of the M8. It’s from this elevated position that Remember Remember do their dreaming.

“A lot of rehearsal rooms are dark windowless boxes,” elaborates Tommy. “Ours is this huge bright space. The M8 was there through the whole genesis of the album. There’s a wall of photographs of children's puppies. Every time I see them I think, 'All of those pets are dead now.'”

Tommy paints a vibrant picture, but it’s hard to suppress a pang of disappointment. Shouldn’t music like Remember Remember’s be recorded in an ancient desert cave stacked with animal skulls? “There's always that disassociation,” concedes Graeme, smiling. “My wife talks a lot about how, being a big Mogwai fan, when she eventually met the guys she was disappointed they weren't 10-foot giant barbarians, because that's what she'd pictured from the music.”

“I once saw Iggy Pop,” Tommy recalls, “and he had a walking frame to help him after he'd been onstage. And he put his radio mic in the little basket on the front of his Zimmer.” “But that doesn't spoil any illusions,” contends Graeme. “That just makes me love him even more.”

"It's worth trying to make big statements, even though it's economically more difficult” – Graeme Ronald

The title Forgetting The Present, which references an obscure performance instruction Satie scribbled on a score, represents, in Graeme’s words, “our battle with the real world... if that’s not too grandiose.” Thematically, it’s a fantastical rejection of the limitations that restrict artistic idealism. “We're a six-piece group with a lot of analogue equipment,” he states. “We purposefully avoid using software instruments. We don't make life easy for ourselves.”

“I was talking to [Rock Action labelhead] Craig [Hargrave],” he continues, “discussing booking agents. We were straight up told by a number of booking agencies that, due to the difficulty of transporting people, they're only taking on duos and solo acts. It's harder and harder, when you're not making a great deal of money from music, to actually do something, especially on a large scale. And we tried regardless, which is what the whole Forgetting The Present notion is. It's worth trying to make big statements, even though it's economically more difficult.”

“You can assume the computers give you unlimited options for everything,” explains Tommy, “and you can tweak every parameter infinitely, choose from a million synthetic marimbas. But if you say we can just use that marimba, limit your variables, it's always gonna be better.”

Sure enough a new aliveness penetrates Forgetting The Present. Like predecessor The Quickening, its songs apply old eastern scales, post-rock structures and krautrock propulsion to the entrancing minimalism of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. But here it feels urgent and proud, almost regal. Within the listener there swells an unshakeable urge to travel in time and overthrow monarchies. Lead track Magnets has an air of ambient mysticism, its eerie medieval undercurrent gracing the fringes of David Bowie’s Berlin period.

The record materialised at Castle of Doom, a studio co-owned by Mogwai and in-house producer Tony Doogan. It’s cliché to hype the Scottish music scene’s camaraderie, but few bands illustrate it like Remember Remember. Featured on earlier records were Graeme’s Multiplies partner James Hamilton, now of Errors, and beloved songwriter RM Hubbert. Via longstanding member James Swinburne, a sometime Belle & Sebastian collaborator, that legendary group’s rehearsal space is also open to Remember Remember during downtime. “Oh, and we got Stuart Braithwaite doing handclaps on the first record,” remembers Graeme. “Which puts me in mind of the Beach Boys getting Paul McCartney to chew celery on Vegetables.”

To minimise studio costs the record’s two week gestation involved serious time in a booth strewn with e-cig supplies and marker pens. Says Tommy, “We recorded the album twice as fast as we would've had we been smoking.” “In the past we've never had music left over,” Graeme goes on, “but this time we had some from the time we saved not having fag breaks. I don't think it's too grand an exaggeration to say that recording this album saved our lives. It's saved me some money, anyway.”

What went on the whiteboard? “The whiteboard's a sacred thing,” Tommy asserts, “it's not a thing to be abused. I mean, that's our ticket to ride. It's such a privilege to be able to record in a proper studio with a proper Tony – none of your pretend Tonys. We were very conscious of making the most of our time, and making good on our record label’s trust.”

“That's the thing,” Graeme agrees. “When someone is essentially paying you to do this, that's one situation where it's like, 'This is alright,' y’know? We complain about how hard it is, but that's one real amazing advantage. We have a label that pays for us to record, which is something that should never be taken for granted.”

“The first week was really intensive,” Tommy recalls of the period. “I think Joe Quimby, the guitarist, won the prize for most first takes on the final record.” “Everyone got rapped on the wrists when they made mistakes,” adds Graeme, grinning. “Joanne got her teacher voice out and chastised us.”

The result is a refinement of the traditional style of 2011’s The Quickening. But as much as it evokes various folk musics, Forgetting the Present feels pan-global, its roots interweaving under the ocean and connecting continents. The result, intriguingly, is a music of homelessness; its worldly influences surge together and whip up an aural hurricane, whisking you away and into the ether. Is there a political or social frustration driving the band?

“Well, we’ve got a pretty strong sense of what's not cricket,” offers Tommy, before Graeme finishes, “But I don't think any of us are out there protesting. Still, some of that awareness is reflected in the music. There's anger, there's frustration... I’m just not politically and socially aware enough. Although I'm angry at injustice and a lot of things about the way the country is, I don't really do anything about it. But the last thing I would want is for the music to be considered just background music, passive.”

“I suppose,” Tommy continues, “that in repetitive music, or progressing music – not progressive, that's a dirty, stinking word – there’s that idea that you repeat an action or you repeat a day or you repeat a process. But you try and do it better the next time, see what the difference is, do it again. And then over time, you think you're doing the same thing but you're not.”

“You've progressed,” Graeme concurs.

“And sometimes it's a bit more productive than constantly changing direction.”

On record these journeys lead, eventually, to a sort of melodic settlement, even if it’s a long way from home. “You try and make something beautiful,” summarises Graeme. “There's a lot of chaos, and by organising music, arranging music, for me it helps deal with the chaos. And hopefully for people hearing it, they're finding something that speaks to them. Often things aren't clear, but maybe you hear some music you relate to – you're communicating with people in that way. Making the world make a bit more sense.”

"Besides," Tommy concludes, “you've got to listen to something while you're plotting to change the world. These revolutionaries, they need good cooking music.”

Playing Kelvingrove Bandstand on 1 Aug as part of Commonwealth Games 2014. Forgetting the Present is out now via Rock Action http://rememberrememberband.blogspot.com