Q&A: The Pictish Trail

The Pictish Trail aka Johnny Lynch is a curious character: Not just another beardy singer-songwriter, this Scotsman crafts weirdly beautiful songs on the spectrum between folk and electronic music from his secluded home on the small island of Eigg, using strange sound effects, harmonic vocals and his unique sense of humour. Backed up by bassist Suse and drummer Brendon, he wins the audience at cosy Schokoladen in Berlin Mitte over by storm with feet-tapping folk-rock ballads and melodies that linger long after. We had the chance to talk to Johnny before the show and ask him about his latest album Secret Soundz Vol. 1 & 2 (released on Moshi Moshi Records), running a label, and what it’s like to live on an island with ten times as many sheep as people…

IPD: Is this your first time in Germany?

TPT: It’s the first time doing headline shows. I’ve supported Malcolm Middleton and played in his band as well, and KT Tunstall. I had a lot of big shows in Germany with her. That was frightening, because it was 3,000 people every night and I was all on my own. I was really worried beforehand that the language barrier would be too much but it was not an issue at all.

IPD: So your double album Secret Soundz Vol 1 & 2 was released here a few weeks ago, but the first part was already released in 2008 originally. Are you growing a bit tired of it already?

TPT: It’s funny because I prided myself as being someone who is relatively prolific, I have written a long of songs but these 20 songs I’ve been performing for quite a long time. I’ve had other projects in between; I was in a band called Silver Columns and a lot of songs came in through that, so I’ve been mixing up a lot. Some songs are back from 2003, and I thought ‘People will be sick of these songs by now’ but then the album was released to a whole new audience, and it’s interesting to see which ones stand out as people’s favourites. Everyone’s got different favourites, I don’t know if that means it’s a bad album (laughs).

IPD: Your music can’t really be sorted into just one genre, there are so many different influences … Can you name a few of your favourite artists or records that have inspired you?

TPT: Well I run a record label and all the artists on that label, Lost Map, are a constant inspiration to me. I’m quite lucky that The Pictish Trail is just one part of what I do with music. I get to work on people’s records, I’m involved in getting them to press and radio, managing the label and all that stuff. So, Rozi Plain, Kid Canaveral, Tuff Love, all the bands on the label have been a big influence. But I’m also massively inspired by David Bowie, The Beatles, don’t know if you’ve heard of them … The Beta Band were a really big thing for me, they were kind of my punk movement when I realised that what they were doing with music made me want to make music. It’s just something so immediate and deceptively simple but really effective and beautiful. And I’m a massive electronic music fan, I’m a huge fan of Four Tet, Caribou and a lot of stuff on the Border Community label. I find electronic musicians’ approach to releasing music really interesting, the collaborative nature of recording is really cool, particularly the Four Tet stuff. I think he is a true pioneer in terms of recorded music.

IPD: Does a lot of your music just come from playing around with sound effects?

TPT: Yeah, a lot of it is just me on my own spending too much time with really bad broken equipment… (laughs) A lot of my equipment is quite old, but not in a vintage way, I just bought it six or seven years ago and it doesn’t work properly (laughs). I have never learned to play an instrument, I was never taught how to play guitar or keyboard, so a lot of my music and my recordings is based on trial and error. I don’t think I could work well with a producer, because I spend so much time trying to work out the parts… (starts singing a melody) Ah, no. (sings a different note at the end) No. (sings a different note at the end). Nah. It’s a lot of that.

IPD: So you’ve been releasing your own music forever basically, with your label. Now you’ve signed to Moshi Moshi Records, is that a strange feeling to be on someone else’s label?

TPT: It’s a relief. I’ve been doing this for ten years and yet a part of me thinks ‘God, maybe I’m the only person that likes my music’… So having Moshi on board, having their support has been a massive boost for my confidence. And it’s meant that I can take a backseat and think about the music and not about the marketing. Because it’s just embarrassing sending a press release to radio: ‘This is just a new album we’re putting out on the label… Oh yes, by me. Yeah it’s kind of good, really great actually…’

PictishTrail3_loresIPD: You live on the island of Eigg, but you’re not originally from there, right?

TPT: I just moved there; my girlfriend is a shepherd on the island. She used to be a journalist and then she took over her uncle’s farm on this island, and I went up to visit her and I was like ‘Oh my god, this place is totally amazing.’ It’s in the Inner Hebrides and it’s really beautiful, such a relaxing place.

IPD: Is it the typical green island with a lot of sheep and very few people?

TPT: Yeah, there’s about 800 or 1,000 sheep and there is 87 people. In fact Brendon, who plays drums with me, he’s from Eigg as well. He was born in Eigg and he has lived there his entire life.

IPD: Where did you grow up?

TPT: I grew up in Edinburgh, originally. I moved around a lot, my dad had a crazy job so we lived in parts of England for a while, and then we moved over to America and I did highschool there before returning back to Scotland. I went to university in Fife, I’ve been living in Fife for the last twelve years and then I moved over to Eigg about four years ago. And it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.

IPD: What’s the best thing about living on a small island?

TPT: There’s no distractions. Being able to experience just complete silence – nothing. At nighttime, it’s the most still, dark place I’ve ever been, ‘cause there’s no street lighting, no roads or anything, so you’ve only got the light of the moon. The stars just look incredible up there.

IPD: Does this place also play into your music? Does it change the way you record music?

TPT: It definitely encouraged me to do more, to have a set up in my caravan and it’s made me think about songwriting in a different way. When I first went there my mother had just passed away. I started living there the summer after she passed, so it was four months afterwards when the grief really hit me, but having that silence and no distractions just allowed me to come to terms with it a lot, and that really affected my songwriting. There was a real honesty that just kept pouring out. It’s a nice way to be able to deal with it. I think if I was in a city I’d be just going to the pub all the time.

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