Mr Diagonal | Interview | Exclusive video premiere of ‘Maybe I’ll Build a Boat’ taken from his 5th album, ‘North Pacific’
Mr Diagonal (Glasgow/Brussels/LA) will be releasing ‘North Pacific’, his 5th album on July 23, 2021, in two formats: CD and message in a bottle. Today we are premiering his music video for single ‘Maybe I’ll Build a Boat’.
Filmed on location at Brussels’ most beautiful beach, ‘Maybe ‘I’ll Build a Boat’ is an ocean dream of a tropical Christmas. Accompanied by his private string orchestra, we enter Mr Diagonal’s snow globe, to savour for a brief moment a topsy-turvy world. Directed by Mr Diagonal with the help of two pros from the RTBF (Belgian national TV): Ridha ben Hmouda (camera) and Edouard Laloy (editing). Always the purist, the special effects are strictly analogue (meaning home-made snow-flakes, and his flatmate with a lantern and a fishing rod).
“‘North Pacific’ is not a full-on orchestral pop album, it’s more of a beach orchestra on walkabout”
Are you excited about the new album?
Mr Diagonal: Oddly enough, yes. I know for most people making albums in 2021 is pretty irrelevant. The format is completely outmoded. But I remain attached to the idea of 12-song universe that you can live in for a time until it becomes part of you. I’ve been through all the usual phases with this album, including the one where you hate it, you want to bin the whole thing and never make an album again. But finally I’m pretty pleased with the result. It’s not a perfect album, but it comes close to my initial conception, and I’ve become fond of it. And I think it’s both in and out of phase with the zeitgeist in a nice way.
I really enjoy the cover artwork of your latest album, ‘North Pacific’. Is there a certain story you want to tell with it?
Initially I didn’t want to make a cover at all. The plan was to release the album only as a message in a bottle, with a treasure map as a download code. But my press agent said he needed promo CDs, so I ended up making a full digisleeve format with booklet.
Usually I dislike CDs, but this time I’ve appreciated the format for the first time. Just before it goes definitively extinct. The cover itself is fake photoshop. Meaning it’s 100% analogue special effects that end up looking digital. There is a real photo in a real snow globe, which is photographed on a real enlarged photo of a beach on which my kids have written “North Pacific” in real sand. The hand appeared as an accident, and I decided to keep it coz it had a Pink Floyd-y kind of vibe. The inside artwork is a progressive de-mise-en-abime if that’s the right expression, meaning you zoom in progressively until you find the original photo of Mr Diagonal on his washing machine, on the CD itself.
Take a moment to talk about music that’s had an effect on your sound.
All my influences are thoroughly digested so they’re maybe not immediately obvious. My first hero was Igor Stravinsky, as much for his moustache as for his music. Nothing for me comes close to the prismatic complexity of ‘Le Sacre’ or ‘Petrouchka’. Then when I was a teenager in Glasgow in the 80s I got into our local heros: The Pastels, Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream et cetera. While I don’t listen to this kind of stuff any more, I think they taught me that you don’t need to be a great singer to be a great singer. Since I’ve been in Belgium (over 20 years now) I’ve been heavily influenced by chanson Françoise, especially the older stuff 1930-1980s, both for the quality of the lyrics and the orchestral arrangements, which are an art in themselves. Having said that ‘North Pacific’ is not a full-on orchestral pop album, it’s more of a beach orchestra on walkabout.
Black Light Orchestra is such an interesting project. Tell us about its formation and how the project evolved?
We started Black Light Orchestra as a Christmas pantomime in 2006. We got a grant of €1500 (which seemed like a fortune at the time) from the commune of Ixelles and a theatre to play in, as part of their festive programme. I honestly don’t know what they were thinking of. The result was the ‘Red Rabbit Revolution’, a completely bonkers musical comedy with a highly esoteric storyline involving a Red Rabbit, a giant Mickey, the Great White Worm and various other cartoon villains and mystic monsters. I remember at one point out flautist Quentin was inside a Red Rabbit costume, inside a giant carrot, inside the the Great White Worm, form which he had to hatch to do battle with the evil Mickey. It was all highly archetypal or something. Or course with a budget of only €1500 we had to do everything ourselves, so there were umpteen very complicated costume changes, mostly in the pitch dark. Oddly enough my dad, who seems completely indifferent to everything I’ve ever composed, loved it. Where do you go from there? Japan of course. We took off on a Japanese “tour” which only had two dates when we left Brussels. 3 weeks later we had played 10 wig-lifting shows and made a 45′ rockumentary for Japanese national TV. The japs totally got it, whatever “it” was. The great thing about BLO was we kept the audience guessing. They could never quite work out if we were a cabaret act, a chamber music ensemble or a party band. I was working with four top-notch musicians (Quentin Manfroy, Yannick Dupont, Eric Bribosia, and Gregoire Tirtiaux) who could pretty much memorize a symphony on first listen. But they devoted all their talent to being silly. In the end, just before it imploded, BLO had become a 5-man festival. The Black Light Connection was the sum of all our parts and possible permutation. So the evening would kick off with Schmetterlink, a hyper-romantic duo I’d formed with Greg (me on Fender Rhodes, him on double bass for the occasion) and end at 5am with Gurkentopf, which was Quentin and Eric doing an 80s jukebox thing with a Casio VL tone and a recorder. Unfortunately, holding this mass of talent together in an organized and lucrative way was beyond me. Black Light Orchestra never officially split up. I’d say we are on permanent vacation. Maybe one day we will rise from the ashes. Meanwhile I still playing with Quentin and Yannick, when I can get hold of them. They both play on ‘North Pacific’.
“‘North Pacific’ is mainly a guitar album”
What usually influences your songwriting and what’s the typical creative process for you?
The process depends on the song and the instrument. On the piano I kinda know what I’m doing, so I can consciously manipulate harmony and structure, play around with inversions and that kind of thing. On the guitar it’s much more intuitive as I really don’t know what I’m doing. Moreover I de-tune the instrument so I don’t have any habits to fall back on. ‘North Pacific’ is mainly a guitar album, and nearly every song has a different, one-off tuning. This makes it a bugger to play live; and if I forget the tunings I’m stuffed. In fact today I have no recollection of how to play most of the songs on the album. I write a lot traveling. I have a gorgeous little guitar I bought in Bolivia in 2012 that I take everywhere. This has become my main working instrument and features a lot on the album.
Songs come about in 3 main ways:
a) A title or a phrase pops into my mind, which contain the seed of the whole song. There’s then a period of incubation, followed by an obsessive phase which takes over my whole life. After much sweat and anti-social humming this yields the fair version, which may still be revised and perfected, for weeks of even years to come. The whole thing often feels like solving an equation, in the sense that I feel there’s one right answer waiting to be found. After I’ve found it I often lose interest in the song, even before I get round to recording a decent version. This is a bad habit I need to deal with.
b) Someone gives me a text and I write a melody around it (usually on the piano). This is the quick option. If you have a poem you’d like to set to music (for a modest fee) I’m your man.
c) I’ve received a few songs in dreams. These are very special gifts. The last one was called ‘A Black Bow-tie’, it was a surreal after-dinner song sung by late middle-aged men accompanied by bizarre actions. I have recorded a decent version of that. A couple of years ago I dreamed a children’s opera, and retained from the dream the title and a complete song called ‘Writing in the Sky’.
Tell us about your years in Japan …
I went to Japan for the first time in 1991 on a romantic misunderstanding, and ended up busking in the Tokyo metro to survive. I spent the entire winter without natural light, waking up at dusk and playing until the metro closed after midnight. But there’s a whole world in the Tokyo metro: department stores, noddle and curry bars, yakusa, irate station masters, Israeli street sellers, and especially drunken salary men wanting to sing ‘Let it Be’. After 6 months I got a lucky break and was offered a job as a cocktail pianist at Awashima hotel. This was on a private island bought by the director of a Tokyo bank as a vanity project for his retirement. He had build a pink hotel and filled it with western ornaments: hand-made furniture from Venice, Rodin sculptures, Dali paintings in embossed gold, and a few ornamental foreigners like myself. I had a business card, a hotel uniform and a boss. I was given a bit of leeway as a hippy foreigner; but I made one unforgivable mistake: I declined an invitation to play bridge with my boss. A month later I was out of a job and on the plane home. Since then I’ve been back to Japan 6 times, each time a new adventure.
How did collaboration with Damien Rice come about?
I suppose it was in 1997 or 8, before Damien was famous. I was at Findhorn, a new age foundation in the north of Scotland, a kind of spiritual Butlins as Ringo might say. I met Damien on a tour of the foundation. We got chatting and he said he was a musician, so we kinda bonded. At that point he had just quit his Dublin band Juniper, which was on the verge of hitting the big-time with a major deal with Sony. He felt trapped, and just walked out, to everyone’s consternation. He was completely unknown in Scotland at the time, he was just a nice guy with a great voice and some lovely songs. We played a gig together in Universal Hall, the foundation’s pentagonal concert venue. I accompanied him on clarinet and piano. It went well so we hit the road together and busked on high streets down the east coast, me wearing a red rabbit costume (it’s a long story…). We collected a lot of mushrooms (the edible kind) in the Grampian forests. He stayed the night with my folks in Glasgow, and then we went our separate ways. I still get a mail from him occasionally, usually from a plane heading for a sold-out stadium in Argentina. He’s a sweet guy.
Where was your latest album recorded? It will be available on CD and as a message in a bottle? Do tell more.
I was recorded all over the place. Many songs started as 4-track cassette demos, some of which I’ve kept for the album. Others are demos recorded in Yannick’s tiny sitting room, some of which turned out better than the studio versions. Other songs were recorded in a proper studio (Pyramid in Brussels). A few in my bedroom, one on Chinguarime beach on la Gomera. The strings were recorded later, in another studio. As the album is a kind of travelogue I thought the variety of sounds was quite fitting.
It will be available as CD (limited edition of 500 copies), message in a bottle (200) and as a key-ring with download code. All these formats should be up and running on bandcamp and my website 23 July. Eventually I’ll get round to a cassette version too.
The idea of the bottle is that after you download the album you can
a) make an origami boat from the treasure map using the private video link
b) reuse it as a whisky flask, an ornament on your fireplace, or buy a new download code and throw it back in the sea.
This distribution strategy should let me reach new markets in unexplored territories.
The album itself is quite complex. Was it difficult to get all the material together?
It was like a jigsaw puzzle. It took about three years for all the pieces to come together. The final piece only came after the album had been mastered. I dreamed I was listening to the end of the album, and I heard a certain sound (I won’t give the game away). I woke up, recorded that sound and called the mastering engineer. He redid the master to include it (on the CD version only).
Would you mind telling us who all are part of the album?
Mr Diagonal: voice, guitar, piano, bass guitar, sax, percussion
Yannick Dupont: drums, percussion, moog, marimba
Quentin Manfroy: bass guitar, contrabassoon, bass flute
Guests: Maia Frankowski (violin), Ingrid Schang (violin), Nicole Miller (viola), Annemie ‘Branch’ Osborne (cello), Ben Carmona (guitar solo on Red Lighthouse)
Engineered and mixed by Alex Davidson
Mastered by Frédéric Alstadt at Angstrom Mastering
Is there anything I’ve missed?
I love your magazine. The interviews are really nice. It’s good to know there are still people with curious ears out there. You could mention that I do home concerts. Also launderettes. But I’m not on Facebook, you’ll have to email me. Or send a message in a bottle. I don’t really do social media, or Spotify, but I have a mailing list and a fan club. You’ll find all the links on my website mrdiagonal.com. After ‘North Pacific’ I’m finishing a new pop musical, a kinky black comedy called ‘Donuts’. I’m looking for a theatre to put it on, and/or a film director. And a communist millionaire to produce it, preferably Jewish and single.