Composer, producer, arranger, viola player and multi-instrumentalist, former member of Durutti Column, co-founder of Factory Classical, John Metcalfe is classically trained but steeped in club culture. His fifth album Absence is shaped by the presence of vocalist Rosie Doonan, bassist Ali Friend (Red Snapper) and drummer Daisy Palmer (Mesadorm), but also presents a very personal expression. AJ Dehany met up with him to talk about life, love and loss.
John Metcalfe’s fifth album Absence is concerned with themes of loss and survival that resonate beyond personal expression into an empowering connection with human empathy and dignity. He has previously described it as being about “how we go through the process of losing people, the imagined conversations we have with those people once they’re gone.” As a body of work it has some of the characteristics of a song cycle, or even, dare we say, a concept album. Is it a concept album? “No,” he laughs, “but it looks alarmingly like one doesn’t it?”
The album has a wide range sonically and emotionally. At its heart you could call it expansive chamber pop with bigger beats, a kind of ‘chamber dance music’ with contemporary classical resonances. The ancient sound of long strokes of the viola contrasts with electronic processing on the vocals that give them a strange otherness, which has the additional effect of embedding them so the lyrics aren’t foregrounded as they are in most vocal-led music. Sparkling textures combine electronic dance rhythms and layered arrangements to evoke an ethereal atmosphere—glitteringly glacial, and just a little bit heroic. It’s moving but never morbid or maudlin, with a steely dignity to its treatment of themes of death and survival. It is shaped by Metcalfe’s own experiences, including the early death of his father and the suicide of a close friend in 2014—which, he maintains, you don’t need to know about to appreciate the album.
“In some ways I think it’s essentially because I’m deeply uncomfortable talking about this kind of thing. It can come out as moaning or mawkish or self-indulgent. If it’s open enough people can attach their own narrative to it, which is why I have really tried to be careful with the lyrics. I’ve always been a bigger fan of instrumental music. If someone is expressing something about their life and wants to do with poetry mixed with music, that’s fine. Most of the time I just wanna be kind of left alone to respond to the music. I saw a Brian Eno quote: in some ways, not always, lyrics can debase the mystery of what the music is doing. I agree with that to some extent.”
For Metcalfe, being situated at an intersection between classical, pop, dance and electronica is creatively empowering but hard for some audiences and critics to situate. He benefits from an understanding relationship with the Neue Meister label. He says “I have forever shot myself in the foot because lots of people have said ‘John, lose the fucking drums! Do that thing that you do well and then people will get it.’ But I love drums. I used to play drums in a shit band at school and I just love them. I love dancing, not so much now but I used to go out clubbing a lot. And if i meet a good drummer like Daisy Palmer and they bring it I’m not gonna put my hand up to that.”
He was born in New Zealand, the son of an Englishman he describes as a “Ten Pound Pom” who became one of Godzone’s leading tenor singers, which led to the family moving to England. After his father’s untimely death, John went off the rails but got into music college in Manchester. There, he joined Vini Reilly’s Durutti Column and got involved with Factory Records. He initiated the Factory Classical sub-label, with a distinctively punk attitude to selecting challenging repertoire and presenting it using in-your-face production techniques.
“This was always intended to be a hard-core statement of ‘Fuck off, this is classical music. These are young British classical musicians who are really good at what they do and care about it, and they’re not making excuses for the music. It’s gonna be challenging. We’re not gonna patronise you; it’s gonna be a bit of a hard listen in places.’ Thankfully, because it was on Factory and because Peter Saville did the design I know a lot of the Factory cataloguers will have bought it. Tony Wilson was great taking it on. He saw an angry young man and thought ‘I’ll let him have a bit of a leash on this’ and I think to a degree it worked. It changed, went a little bit strange, but then of course the whole thing went bankrupt anyway…”
Much of his bread and butter today comes from his string arrangement work, with artists including Blur, Morrissey, and Bat For Lashes. This grew out of working with Vini Reilly and Durutti Column in Manchester, but almost by accident. “I did a little bit of arranging on Without Mercy but didn’t play on it, and then guitar on Other machines—but in a way that was never arranging: I’d just turn up. Vin would say ‘Right, here’s the tune’ and I’d do a couple of takes and they were kind of improvised and he’d go ‘That’s great!’”
The album Absence has another notable absence: of the guitar. Its presence on the previous album The Appearance of Colour showed more obviously the strong influence on him of Vini Reilly. He says, “Vini’s never far away. That record was a kind of acknowledging of the huge influence that Vini’s had on me.”
The album Absence is an album for people rather than about specific figures. He says, “We all carry shit with us, some really hardcore fears about life, particularly death, so when it happens to us—ask anybody in this room, they would rather it would not have happened. How we respond is how you go about surviving and getting up in the morning. How you overcome those things from a musical point of view, it’s like, if somebody said to me ‘Go away and write a collection of songs about that,’ how on earth would you set about doing it? The reason why I’ve had the temerity to attach those big things to this stuff is because it just seems to happen.” He concludes with a laugh: “At the end of the day it’s always about a musical process: does it sound good?”
AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk
Absence is available on Neue Meister: https://neue-meister-music.com/en/releases/absence/
The album is launched at the Playground Theatre on 7 February: http://www.john-metcalfe.co.uk/#live
Video from previous album “The Appearance of Colour”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=69Zz8W2NwJg