Inspired by Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous, The Xcerts frontman, Murray MacLeod, and pop wunderkind Paul Steel have teamed up to form side project, Cold Crows Dead. The result is an edgy, ethereal concept album about murder, the underworld and the darker side of life. CALM met with MacLeod to find out more…
In between touring with your band The Xcerts, you’ve managed to make time for side project, Cold Crows Dead, with producer/songwriter and friend to Brian Wilson, Paul Steel. How did this collaboration come about?
MM: Paul’s a good friend of mine, and it all started because we both loved Sparklehorse. I’m a massive fan of Paul and I always wanted to document our friendship by making music together. I never had the time because Xcerts are so busy, but when we came off tour, Paul and I started working on the idea, wrote a song and went ‘that was fun, let’s do another’. That escalated and we wrote a whole record.
So has this been something that has been on the cards for a while?
MM: We never planned on releasing a record, we just wanted something for when we’re old men, so we could say: ‘Look what we did when we were younger’, but our manager said we should probably do something with it and before we knew it, the music industry grabbed us by the collar and dragged us in.
You mention the influence of Sparklehorse on Cold Crows Dead. Was that the catalyst that got this project off the ground?
MM: Paul introduced me to Sparklehorse, telling me he was a fan and that I should check it out. I wasn’t that into it at first, but then I revisited ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and it just clicked. I then said to Paul, ‘we should write something like this’. I would never say that we are on the same level as Mark Linkous but Paul definitely brings out my weirder side and I bring out his more emotive side.
You used some quite unconventional methods when recording this album, using ‘found sounds’ and the like…
MM: We just drank a lot of white wine and then got really weird. He has so many instruments in his studio, we just tried everything. We recorded me under water in his bathtub and stuff like that. Paul’s wife walked in at that point and was like ‘what the hell are you guys doing??’ There were no boundaries. We didn’t think anyone was going to hear it, so we just did a load of tripped out stuff. It was nice to be creatively experimental.
It sounds like you’re really proud of this album. How does it compare to your work with The Xcerts?
MM: I’m way more relaxed with Cold Crows Dead, because it’s just me and my friend having fun. I really trust Paul when he works on a song and I’m not there, so it’s a lot less stressful. I’m maybe a bit more passive with it because it’s more of an experiment that my heart and soul. The Xcerts is what I’ve done since I was fourteen and every fibre of my being goes into that band.
Speaking of which, you’re touring the Cold Crows Dead record in December with The Xcerts as backing band.
MM: Yeah, it just made sense. They’re my favourite rhythm section of all time, so it seemed silly not to. We’re quite a tight knit group anyway, so they were cool with it. It would never get in the way of other Xcerts stuff, so it’s all good.
American poet and Beach Boys lyricist Stephen Kalinich features on the track ‘Man In Bleak’. How did that collaboration come about? Did you get to meet the great man?
MM: Oh yeah, we’ve hung out. It was crazy. Paul knows him because of the whole Beach Boys connection and talks to him regularly. That whole LA scene and Beach Boys community are all aware of Paul, and so Stevie and him have worked together before. I luckily got to hang out with him on a handful of occasions.
Did he have any good Dennis Wilson stories?
MM: He does, but I didn’t ask him about it. He just kind of tripped out. We would be having a normal conversation about women and love and stuff, and he would break out something so poetic and profound. A really amazing man. He’s lived a life, that’s for sure.
Do you and Paul split music & lyric writing equally?
MM: Paul produces and writes the music and I write the music and do all the lyrics. It’s funny because it’s a true labour of love writing lyrics for The Xcerts. I really take my time and beat myself up about it, but with Cold Crows Dead it was like a stream of consciousness. Paul would be cleaning up a vocal take or something, and I would write the lyrics while he was doing that, so each one took about ten minutes. I didn’t realise how bleak they were until I had to write them out for our sync company. I just thought ‘What? They’re really dark’.
That mix of uplifting and ethereal music, combined with dark lyrics is a very powerful thing, and is also something that Sparklehorse did so brilliantly…
MM: We never intended it to be that way, it just happened. I like how dark the lyrics are, because I had a story in mind and when I read it all back, the story made complete sense to me.
So it is a story based concept album…
MM: I see it as a kind of musical. Basically, man has murdered his wife and is then swallowed whole by the Earth and sent to the afterlife. In each song he meets a different group of people, so each track is a different scene.
Do you play it in sequence at your live shows?
MM: We’re thinking about it. We’ve only played five shows and only twenty-five minute sets so we haven’t really fully discussed it but that was the plan. We might be bored if we do that, though, which is always a worry.
Do you find it easier to express yourself through your lyrics, than face to face?
MM: Exactly that. I bottle everything up and tell myself I’m fine and then six months down the line I have to run home and be like ‘oh god, everything’s gone wrong’. For me music is like free therapy. I get to write down every thought, every aspect of my life. Maybe that’s why I write more melancholic songs. I’m a happy person day to day but if I didn’t have this outlet I think I would be riddled with insecurities.
I suppose the difference is, though, that you then throw these inner most thoughts out to the world. When you’re performing, do you switch off to the lyrics?
MM: A little bit. From night to night there will definitely be a few lines where I really think about it, and it transports me back to the period that I’m writing about, but performing live is just a massive release. I get to go crazy. I love travelling and meeting people and getting to play these songs night after night. It’s cathartic.
You’ve toured with some pretty big names – Biffy Clyro, Frank Turner…
MM: Yeah, we’re mates with Frank – he’s a lovely guy. He’s really hard working and doesn’t stop. He’ll be working right up to the point he goes on stage. Even if he plays in a 2,000 capacity venue, he goes out and speaks to everyone. I’ve never seen anything like it. Touring is a really good release. Because you sweat so much on stage, it feels like you are literally pouring something out. Physically, something is getting released. It’s tough, because as men, we’re proud, and that’s why I think people find it really hard to speak about issues they have. I guess we’re meant to be like ‘It’s cool. I’m fine.’
Some guys feel that by putting their hand up and saying ‘I’m feeling like shit and don’t know if I can deal with things right now’ they might be seen as being less of a man somehow…
MM: I think that that is why music is so great because they hear or see a guy being emotional and genuinely saying ‘this has happened in my life, but I’m OK’. I had the exact same thing when I was younger. When I was 16 I was diagnosed with Crones Disease. At the time I was like ‘I’m going to die. This is it’. I had no idea what the illness was, but then I was sitting at home ill one day watching MTV2 and a news item came up saying that the band Glassjaw had to cancel their UK tour because their lead singer had Crones, so instantly I was like ‘whoah there’s someone else out there with this’. It’s that feeling of not being alone and that there are other people going through the same thing. Everyone has problems.
What advice would you give to a guy who was struggling with his own demons?
MM: The world is a beautiful place filled with so many beautiful things. Don’t let self-doubt cripple that. It’s a BIG world. Escapism is really good. I live in Brighton, so for me just walking down to the beach and staring at the sea is really calming. Confiding in someone is important too. A lot of people say talking helps, but it really does.
So what’s next for Cold Crows Dead? Is this going to be a one off project?
MM: We wanted to do an 80’s record next, like a John Hughes/Breakfast Club style 80s. Cyndi Lauper for men. I love Lauper, but talk about sexist! Girl’s Just Wanna Have Fun? I mean, what?? Either way, we’ll definitely make another record. That’s the great thing about Cold Crows – if nobody cares then that’s fine, since we just enjoy making music together. I hope people do care about it, of course, but it’s not like Paul and I are going to break up the band if they don’t!
You don’t want to immediately follow your inaugural tour with your farewell tour, after all…
MM: Exactly! With Cold Crows Dead, we’re not that fussed about touring, but will just keep making records in a Sufjan Stevens kind of a way – release records and see what happens. We’ll keep experimenting with the modern age of the music industry. It’s all there for the taking.
Cold Crows Dead ‘I Fear A New World’ is out Dec 2nd on Ray Gun Records
Check out www.coldcrowsdead.com for more…