Grawl!x, aka Derby multi-instrumentalist musician, composer and filmmaker James Machin, is about the release his third album, Appendix via locally-based label Reckless Yes. Like the others in the trilogy it explores themes of death, dying, and grief but in a way that brings out both the fragility and strength of living, and stretches beyond morbidity.
Chatting to Sophie Sparham he explains more about his process as a songwriter, his influences and working with other local musicians and how album four is already underway.
Appendix is is your third album as Grawl!x, do you feel you know what you’re doing?
Yeah, I guess so. I was in a band before (My Psychoanalyst) and that was a lot more instinctual and doing whatever we fancied, but since doing Grawl!x I try to be a bit more discerning and planning things these days. I try and arrange things more and it’s been fun.
There’s something very unique, different and pure about your sound. Where would you place yourself on the genre spectrum?
One of the few reviewers we’ve had called it ambient indie, which I thought was about right. It’s a difficult genre thing. There’s certainly not a genre that I’m trying to be like from song to song you just go with what you like. With Grawl!x there’s a sort of hypothetical sound that I’ve got in my head, but I think ambient indie covers it.
I first heard you playing a gig in the Old Bell a good few years back and I remember being surprised and excited by what I heard. Where does the idea for your sound come from?
One thing I try and do from album to album is explore the idea of creating a mood.
I usually pick a theme and try and think what the theme would sound like. You try to make the album fit a certain kind of idea, theme and mood and try and make that fit in it with the hypothetical idea of Grawl!x.
So with this one, there’s a lady called Grouper, who makes ambient, droney, dreamy acoustic stuff. Its got a beautiful mood to it. She was a big influence on the record.
And what is the mood and theme for this album?
Not to get too morbid but the theme of the album was death. Death is a pretty dark subject matter but I wanted to make it a bit more celebratory in places. I didn’t want to go too solemn or goth rocky, which is what I think of when I think of death and heavy metal. So there was certain things that I tried to avoid but also certain things that I tried to go for as well.
I really like the cover, and now you’ve said that it works well with the theme.
All the three records covers have had flower pressing covers which have been made by my aunty – Aunty Anna. She’s got this draw full of dried out flowers from the ’70s that her and her mum used to do together. It did occur to me that the cover had a slight funerial look to it, which is good.
What elements of death did you want to cover when writing?
I should be honest, it didn’t start out as that, I just started writing songs. Then I put them all together and realised how often I used words such as dead or dying. Then I was like oh, ok it’s about that. The single we realised recently, Don’t Do It To Yourself is about suicide or people who are thinking of that sort of thing.
It’s a beautiful song.
People have been very complimentary of it. Danielle (Cotterill, also of labelmates Pet Crow) does a great job, it was a fun day filming for that.
With that song, I was inspired by the Carole King song, You’ve Got A Friend. I thought about that when I was writing it, I was thinking of doing an updated version of that, in that song, as was customary at the time, she was doing veiled references of people having trouble. I think in Don’t Do It To Yourself, Danielle says at one point ‘I know you’re thinking of killing yourself’ which isn’t like me to write so direct lyrically.
I don’t know if themes of death and dying came across in the other songs at all? Personally, I’m agnostic and have an atheist attitude about that sort of thing, so there’s nothing in there about the afterlife or God. It’s a very mysterious thing isn’t it death? But it’s going to happen.
There’s lots of mythologies around death.
And I think the criticism of that kind of thing is that death is not an open topic culturally, as you get labelled as morbid, but discussing it makes you appreciate life more.
I think music is a perfect medium to explore that…
I’m a big fan of the show Six Feet Under, that explored death well. In movies and films death is not given enough importance. People just die in a movie and people don’t think twice about it. It’s not explored in a philosophical way.
I’m not suggesting that I’ve done that. I’ve tried to make it as ambiguous as possible so people can make up their own mind. I think there’s a time and place to be direct, you can also end up being cryptic and unnecessarily esoteric, but I think most the time, to me, it’s more interesting to write in a not obvious way; to write a puzzle.
I’ve always written like that, right from the start. When I was a teenager, fifteen or sixteen, Polly was one of my favourite songs. It’s like a little jigsaw puzzle, the subject matter isn’t nice, I had no idea what the song was about when I first read the lyrics, then I found out and thought oh that’s horrible, but clever!
With the mood of the record I wanted to write something a bit eerie and detached and spooky about it. I like spooky things and eerie things. Arvo Pärt was another influence he makes these beautiful, but creepy neoclassic minimalist pieces of music. With every album I try to have a soundbite in my head to explain where I’m coming from. This one was what if Arvo Pärt wrote pop songs.
So how does Grawl!x work? Are you a band, solo?
It started out as a solo project and since then people have been coming in and out (as well as Danielle from Pet Crow the album also features contributions from Haiku Salut, Richard J. Birkin, and Shelley Jane Newman) but its kind of settled on four people now.
I write pretty much everything and come up with most of the ideas, but the band is me, Lee, Robbie and Rich – who run Snug Records in Derby, where the album was also recorded. It’s kind of becoming like a band, and the next record we’re going to do is going to be much more like a band still.
You’re already planning your next record?
We’re in the process of recording it. I’ve had it in my head for a few years now, the next one is about love and friendship. It’s going to be more upbeat!
Grawl!x will be supporting VLMV at Dubrek Studios on Saturday 24 March 2018 – event details here – and launching his album at JT Soar with support from Natalie Evans, Umbilica and spoken word from Charlotte Emily Anne Dunn on 7 April 2018 – event details here.