So Much to Answer For: Tombed Visions' David McLean

You'll rarely see him at the front of the stage, but Tombed Visions label founder and solo artist in his own right David McLean is becoming a vital force within Manchester's fractured music scene

Feature by Simon Jay Catling | 03 Feb 2015

Forget your lead roles, it's the supporting cast which often shapes and nuances life's narratives. Just ask Liverpool International Music Festival – their 2014 programme featured Minor Characters, a live culmination of a project that saw artists such as NOTOWN Records’ Luke Abbott and recent hell-in-a-synthline producer East India Youth undertake the task of creating music based around their favourite cameo players. Meanwhile, in a Manchester music scene more disparate and cluttered than perhaps at any point since the dawn of counterculture, it's those same cast members who are thriving. For David McLean, the fissions and discordance of any real unified sense of movement has been a happy hunting ground; the Tombed Visions label founder, promoter and musician has been able to leave footprints in several territories, unconsciously pulling things together again as he jumps between drifting masses.

Originally from Bletchley, near Milton Keynes, McLean’s first main impact upon Manchester was as part of promoters Fat Out Till You Pass Out, whose championing of the more outré ways in which bands can push decibel levels culminates yearly with Fat Out Fest, held at Islington Mill and boasting past headliners such as Melt Banana, Lydia Lunch and Årabrot. That’s just scratching the surface, though: primarily a saxophonist, but by different turns a guitarist, pianist and producer, his many collaborations include (but aren’t limited to) joining Mill-based sonic chameleons Gnod on tour, playing full-time with Sways Records’ Birthday Party-influenced French pop provocateurs Naked (On Drugs), and forming meditative drone duo Stushevatsya with Callum Higgins of Sacred Tapes – a cassette label who recently put out, among other notable releases, a set of noise musings by 65daysofstatic’s Paul Wolinski.

Then there’s his solo material: Punctum, which surfaced on Gnod’s own Tesla Tapes label in 2014, appeared live at Manchester Art Gallery as part of Video Jam's first takeover; and as the more free-form Aging, his last album, Troubles? I Got A Bartender, came out just before Christmas. There’s an obvious question to be asked: where does he get the energy for it all?

"The pursuit really is just to grow and see what can be achieved with different sets of people” – David McLean

“Someone else was saying this to me, ‘You get around don’t you!’” he laughs as we meet in Soup Kitchen. “For me though it’s a hobby, some enjoyment out of work that provides some great opportunities. It doesn’t mean I don’t take it seriously, but the pursuit really is just to grow and see what can be achieved with different sets of people.” McLean’s insatiable thirst to engage in his surroundings musically is influenced by his older brother who, as a promoter, revitalised Milton Keynes' dormant commuter drone with a flurry of DIY shows that pulled in strands of the DIY rock community from around the UK and Europe, including bands like That Fucking Tank, Bilge Pump, The Ex and Zu. His individual projects vary hugely even within themselves – take Aging: self-deprecatingly put down as McLean's “lazy attempt at writing ghosts of songs,” it’s arguably his strongest guise.

His first release under the name, the sparse utterances of I Swear I Saw Her Halo, came out in early 2013, acting as both a document of its creator’s explorations into the timbral nuances of the piano, and a self-styled homage to the revolutionary jazz label ECM. It differed hugely to its follow-up which, based around guitar and drums, came out sounding like a mix of early-90ss slowcore mangled into a deconstructed set of whisky-soaked instrumental blues, titles like Vampire Body Blues and Lit Too Soon only furthering that notion. “It’s my white middle-class version of blues,” he laughs modestly when The Skinny brings up Troubles? I’ve Got A Bartender. “I was drinking a lot at the time of the record, and you know when you’re approaching your 30s and you’re like, Fucking hell you’ve got to stop hammering it so much’ – not that I have – all the titles are around that. But I think both releases share a maudlin link in their sounds. There’s a sadness in a lot of my stuff and it’s not something profound that’s pouring out of my soul, it just feels like there’s a lot more reality to that sort of stuff, rather than tweeness and very sharp kind of sunny music – not that I dislike that.”

When put together with the cold, machine-dictated techno of Punctum as well, it makes for a markedly sprawling canon. “I think it comes from being a bit ADD and just getting obsessed with one thing for ages before moving onto the next thing. My brother used to call me a fadster,” he grins, before reflecting further “but it also comes from being in a lot of bands when I was younger and just needing to abandon that whole set-up. Being in a band represented to me this kind of closed space where you think this one thing and you can’t explore anything else. There’d be times where I was like, ‘What the fuck am I doing? I’m just playing a riff a certain amount of times to go into another thing. This isn’t interesting!’ I’ve a freedom now, and I’m really lucky that bands like Gnod and Naked (On Drugs) share that and allow me to ride over the top of them and pretty much do whatever I want – plus there don’t seem to be any other saxophonists around here! I’m getting these gigs by default!”

Then there’s his limited run cassette label, Tombed Visions. With a name taken from a line in Ted Hughes’ poem Two Legends, it initially started as an umbrella term for McLean’s own music before growing organically as friends, some of whom had similarly dispersed from Milton Keynes' post-Millennial fulcrum of activity, got back in touch. He’s known Circuit Breakers – a brilliant two-piece from London in the mould of politically disillusioned anarchic synth industrialists from the late 70s like Cabaret Voltaire – since he was 16. Duke of Zuke, whose melancholic looped guitar evocations Apnoeic was released in December, goes back even further. Another friend, Remember Remember’s Joseph Quimby, has a solo album out through Tombed Visions this spring. “It’s one of the best things about running the label, having these friends who give you their record and it’s like you’re discovering a whole different part of them you never knew," he remarks, a sentiment which echoes repeatedly throughout our conversation.

Together with the likes of Liverpool trio Ex-Easter Island Head’s prepared guitar minimalist polyrhythms and Toronto multi-instrumentalists I Have Eaten The City (the first act actively sought out for the label beyond his peers) and their Equatorial-referencing expansions on Secret Paths, it makes for a diffusive roster, bonded by a shared sense of working at the periphery of various styles and aesthetics. Key too are the artwork and packaging, designed by twin brother Lewis McLean. “Lewis is integral,” he confirms. “He’s almost like the secret collaborator for each release.”

Packaged in over-sized boxes, so as to emphasise Lewis’ frequently fractured collage pieces, there's a pleasure in providing something “that takes up a certain amount of space in people’s habitual surroundings." There’s also the tape itself. “There’s this almost kind of underlying tragic quality to them,” he ponders, “the fact they distort and start losing their sound quality. I like the fact that when you buy a cassette release and you get a download with it, it’s like you’ve got two versions of the record, two different experiences.”  

The new year already promises the release of at least three new Tombed Visions tapes by the summer, the likelihood of some shows with Gnod and the beginning of a new band, Lake of Snakes. Oh, and he’s already started recording a new Aging album. More pressing though is a short tour as part of Charles Hayward’s Anonymous Bash, a live collaborative project with the This Heat drummer born out of a residency at Islington Mill. It’s the type of set up meant for such a wandering soul, a chance to support and strengthen the role of others while being allowed to run off in his own direction – a minor character, but a vital one, within Manchester’s musical fabric.

David McLean's duo, River Slaughter, play Fuel on 13 Feb; he'll perform with an ensemble for Video Jam at the reopening of Whitworth Gallery, 14 Feb, and Lake of Snakes support Dope Body at Islington Mill on 15 Feb.