The pseudonym of Derby musician James Machan, Grawl!x, first came to our attention back in 2014, through the exquisite melancholy of his debut album Good Grief. That album was the first part of a trilogy of records which explore the Kubler-Ross Model of Grief. This month has seen the release of the second part of that trilogy, his new album, Aye!
While Good Grief explored denial, on Aye! we find James moving through the model quickly and settling on acceptance. The album was inspired by a friend who’s method of dealing with grief was very different to James’ own: “Whereas my response to that would have been to mope around, his was to say ‘YES’ to whatever came his way. An affirmative attitude, that I admired.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly the resultant album is sonically and lyrically very different to it’s predecessor, whilst Good Grief was a brittle and haunting collection, Aye! is an altogether more direct and upbeat collection. A record of two halves, the opening half of the album is the most upbeat and poppy music he’s ever made, taking in the bristling dream pop of Frontispiece and the sun-drenched tropical beats of Pando. The second section though is more contemplative and electronic-led collection, laden with spectral synths and pulsing drum-machines; it might not be as immediate as the opening half but it worms it’s way into your mind, and in closing track Gumption a collaboration with fellow Derby-based, glitch-pop trio Haiku Salut, he saves the best to last.
Aye! was written over the course of a few months in a church in the Derbyshire countryside. A place of great solitude, and a place for quiet contemplation; within it’s walls James discovered an upright piano with a simple note attached, “This Piano was Meant to be Played” and in James it found a willing player. The resulting album, is a masterpiece a meditation on the aftermath of grief and the difficult process of life going on.
James was kind enough to answer our questions, further explaining the concepts and recording of Aye!, discussing why he’d like to collaborate with Missy Elliot, and admitting to being a control freak.
FTR: Who what are/is Grawl!x?
Grawl!x is more-or-less me; James Michael Machin, a chap from the Derbyshire hinterlands who makes electro/acoustic/ambient/indie etc. musical shizzle. He also makes it with lovely other folks who are kind enough to lend their ingeniousness whenever possible. These include: Robin Newman, Leigh Dawber & Rich Collins. There are others.
FTR: What can you tell us about the recording of your new album Aye!?
Well, it’s the follow up record to one we done last year called ‘Good Grief’. It was recorded in the same place, a lovely little recording studio by the name a Snug. Got ten tracks on it.
My auntie Ann Murray, did the cover; a flower pressing she made especially out of dried orchids she & her Mum made that she’s had in a drawer since the 70’s.
FTR: You’ve spoken of Aye! as a concept album relating to the Kubler-Ross model of grief? Could you explain that?
Well in the Kubler-Ross there are five stages of grief. (As evidenced in many a sitcom.) These tend to be:
When having a look-see at the some a the lyrics on the record I found they all seemed to fit the theme of acceptance quite well. In keeping with this motif, expect three more albums along the lines of the other stages. (‘Good Grief’ being the first; which is kinda about denial). Fun times.
FTR: How does this album relate to your last record?
Well as I say, it follows along similar lines of dealing with losing something/someone. That one also had ten songs on it. & a flower pressing by my Auntie. Plus, I say the word ‘Aye’ quite a bit on ‘Good Grief!’
FTR: Sonically it seems a very different album to its predecessor, considerably more upbeat say, than Good Grief. Was that a conscious effort?
I suppose it was. Actually, it was a friend a mine who suggested I should do something a little more radio friendly an all that. While I didn’t necessarily, entirely stick to his suggestion I did like the idea of it being a mite poppier.
FTR:You’ve described Aye! as a record of two halves? What was the thinking behind that?
Well, the album consists of two batches of songs which were written a couple of years apart. The older ones were a bit more poppy & the newer ones were more electronic-y. So I figured kinda splitting them in half would be just dandy. Plus, I’m so old I still think of records in terms of Side A & Side B a la many a cassette tape I purchased all those moons ago.
FTR: What inspired you to explore grief on these records? There’s obviously a universality to that emotion, do you think it’s important art explores the subject?
Absolutely. Indeed art, specifically music is probably one of the things that can aid best when facing that kind of thing. Grief is kind of cerebral & so is music. Hence why music is used as a form of therapy for many people, myself included. I hope it doesn’t seem vulgar or exploitative to touch on these subjects. I’m very aware people have been through a lot worse than I have. It’s just something that I’m drawn toward for some reason.
FTR: You worked with Haiku Salut on this record, how did that come about?
We’ve done quite a bit of stuff on each other’s records in the past. Felt right to do it again. We keep talking about doing a collab album at some point but until that transpires, guess I’ll just have to make do with the occasional dropping of a beat hither ‘n thither.
FTR: Would you like to collaborate with them again? Is there anyone else you’d like to work with
Rather. There’s an experimental band called Black Spring who I think would be fun to do some stuff with. Me & Liza from Menace Beach keep going on about doing something. Dream would be Emma Kupa perhaps or Alanna Mcardle from Joanna Gruesome. Failing any of them, I’ll just settle with Arvo Part or Missy Elliot. Bought her record today as it happens.
FTR:What’s the Derby music scene like?
Ooh it’s just lovely. We all tend to hang out & chinwag ‘n such. Cracking to discuss ideas with folk who kind of have similar passions. Plus the bands are pretty great too. Then of course, I am slightly bias.
FTR: Why do you make music?
Heavens. Well, why do anything? That might sound facetious but I think you do eventually have to figure out at some point what you actually want to do with your life. Thankfully, my decision has seemingly been made for me as making music is just something I kind of have to do. Otherwise I’d go a bit spare. Apologies if that sounds a mite grandiose but I’m being quite sincere. & apart from my friends & family, I don’t really have much of a reason for being here. So I guess it’s more of a necessity really.
FTR: What are you inspirations? Was there anything in particular you were listening to when you wrote this album?
Mostly, people I know & my own interactions with them. There’s a couple of folk in particular who are a constant source of me coming up with stuff. I realise the term ‘muse’ is probably unbearably pretentious & the individuals in question would likely be mortified if they knew I kept writing songs about them. For that, I can only apologise & explode like a bally balloon.
FTR: Is this album coming out on a label or as a self-release? Do you think labels are still important in the modern music industry?
This will just be a self-release. I certainly think there are things one can do on a label that you would struggle to do independently. It depends on what you want to do I suppose. & how many people you want to reach. However you certainly don’t need lots of money to make great music. Especially now.
FTR: Will the album be receiving a physical release? Are physical releases important to you? Do you buy into the vinyl revival?
We’ve done a limited batch of CD’s, pretty old school. Couldn’t really afford Vinyl this time around; plus a few folks were asking for something on CD.
I own a record player as it goes. I think it’s interesting that a lot of folk are now insisting on some kind of physical format, in the face of ubiquitous digitisation. There is something satisfying about a physical artefact that you just don’t get from clicking download. Perhaps it’s something quite old fashioned & probably slightly stubborn. How long it lasts for is anyone’s guess. From a musician’s perspective though holding your own vinyl/CD is a pretty amazing feeling.
FTR: What are your ambitions for this record? Do you think a career in music is feasible?
I would certainly like to think so. Depends on whether folk like what I do ultimately. If they don’t then that probably won’t stop me. Ambitions are just to get it out to as many folks & get right on with making another one. It would be nice if folk like it though.
FTR:You’ve previously played in the band My Psychoanalyst, how is it different doing your own project as opposed to being part of a band?
Well you lose a little of the camaraderie I suppose. Not that I don’t have that now with the aforementioned chaps but My Psych was a lot more democratic. Though truth be told, I am more of a control freak than I let on. With regards to music at least. So I like doing my own thing too.
I miss jamming. That were fun. There are ideas you can get & places you go creatively that you just never would have dreamed of doing when you’re on your own. In other news, the sky is blue.
FTR: Why did you choose the name Grawl!x?
It’s an illustration term for when a character is swearing in a speech bubble. Eg. $%#=#!!*)(. The insinuation of sequestered indignation seemed quite fitting.
FTR: What’s next for Grawl!x? Touring? Recording?
Yup, digits twixt we do a little tour. Then it’s onto album number three: ‘Appendix’. Oh & hugz. Lotsa hugz.
Aye! is out now – you can get your copy HERE.