Once in a even less then a blue moon a writer or musician will come along who is pretty damn special. If you're really lucky you might chance across one of those geniuses once or twice in your lifetime. In some ways it's a lot like getting hit by lighting; at least in the bolt out of nowhere way that lighting hits you and perhaps in the way your world is turned upside down leaving you gasping for air, or the reek of ozone sizzling in your nostrils as the air around is charged by their brilliance.
I first ran across Aaron McMullan on the pages of Blogcritics.org where he publishes missives and musings on life, music, and all other manner of strange and wonderful things. There aren't many who can carry off the style of narrative that Aaron uses without the stink of self-indulgence rearing its ugly and scabby head. Being subject to that curse myself, I'm grown adroit at spotting it in others and was quickly made jealous by his ability for selfless creation.
An artist looks to replicate archetypical moments in life that all of us can relate to, or at least understand, at an emotional level. He can be talking about his job or his girlfriend for all it matters as long as he relates it in a way that allows the viewer, listener, or reader to have their moment of understanding the experience in their own heart. Aaron's writing is filled with those moments, so even when he writes about places and people unfamiliar to any but him we understand what he's going on about.
Therefore it was no surprise that His disc Yonder! Calliope? was replete with songs of a similar nature. The good people at Ex Libris records, who have produced this disc, sent me a review copy, and after I had listened and written to the best of my ability about it, I wanted to hear what Aaron had to say about the disc and the whole question of inspiration that he had raised with the title. (Calliope being one of the muses – feckless, fickle creatures of creative energy who when the mood strikes them will fill an artist's ear so full of an idea that they won't sleep until they have written, painted, carved, sung, or whatevered it out of themselves).
So I fired off the questions that are forthcoming via email and most generously he has responded with wit and intelligence in his own inimitable style. So read, enjoy, and get to know a little bit more about the man behind Yonder! Calliope?
Tell us a little about your relationship with Calliope- inspiration – the muse- what's your source – where does it come from.
Well, the thing about Calliope is that she’s a tricksy sort of article all round, and inspiration, or sources thereof, can be terribly fickle. I’m sure you’re aware from your own writing – what has the brain in raptures one day, inspiring no end of song and verse and prose, might scarcely inspire a 32-character TXT message the next. A cigarette raised to a mouth on the street outside a café, an old drunk fella crying on a bench at four in the afternoon in the middle of the street, the way some lass or lad has his or her hair done one morning, the reflection of the KFC on the river – these things, and the associations they bring with them, they maybe burn the backs of the eyes for days and there you are hunched over the guitar or the notebook or the keyboard or whatever, and then, by God, before you know where you are you’ve forgotten all about it.
Now you can’t sleep a wink because of the track of a tramline in Dublin or the purple lights shining off some building or other, or what some lass said to you in queue in Tesco. It’s a terribly selfish thing, I suppose. You spy something, or something spies you, you wring from it what you can – be it a song or a painting or a story or whatever – and then it’s abandoned, or at least it shrinks back from the surface. But in saying that, there are constants, I think, that are simmering away back there all the while. Certain tenuous links things have to certain core obsessions that cause that snare to spring in the first place.
For me, those core obsessions involve coming to terms with my past, for one thing, and also a fascination with the kindsa lives folks live when they find themselves in situations where nobody knows them and they have the freedom to either adopt some wonderful façade for a while or maybe dispose of the one they’ve been wearing aforehand. Turmoil is consistently inspiring, be it of personal nature, or of external nature, like maybe I hear of some poor bastard in Basra catching a bullet in his ribs.
People usually associate inspiration with positives. “That flick were right inspiring.” But the negative can be just as much, maybe because of a desire to make sense of it, or maybe from anger at certain things, or frustration or disappointment or whatever. In fact, to be honest, the more horror I encounter the more inspired I feel. I’m at my most productive, I’ve noticed, when I’m feeling worst. When that old Black Dog, as Churchill had it, is gnawin’ away at my shoulder. And of course certain ladies provide constant inspiration. Isn’t that why anybody does anything, at the end of the day? To impress some lass or to make some other lass say, “why the fuck did I leave him?” Sure we wouldn’t get out of our beds, bejeesus, if not for them.
I took a stab at trying to interpret the title of your disc in my review – but it was coloured by my views on the subject – What was your intent with the title Yonder! Calliope?
Well, the title refers again to that uncertainty about where inspiration’s gonna come from next, if indeed it comes at all, and refers also to the years I spent chasing Calliope in and out of bars and police cells and nut-houses and temples and chapels and churches. A lot of the songs deal with the results of that prolonged hunt, from analysis of it all now that I’ve crawled out the far-side of it sober and reasonably stable of the head and with enough strength about me to turn a clinical eye on it. “Yonder! Calliope?” barks the twenty-year-old me from a hospital window or wherever. At the time you never really know for sure, but looking back she suddenly appears in the midst of that car-park or hedgerow like a tiger’s face rising out a Magic Eye picture. I couldn’t see her then for I hadn’t the right eyes in the head. Jesus oh I sound the wild pretentious fuck here.
One more about the lady inspiration – was there any particular reason you chose Calliope instead of Eros or any other of the Muses?
Calliope’s the one I’m most keen on courting because she’s the one who’ll have you shittin’ epic poetry from now till doomsday if she takes the notion. But I wouldn’t kick Polyhymnia off my shoulder, either. The muse of sacred verse, amongst other lyrical arts. Sacred verse… That’s what everyone aims for, I think.
Switching tracks here some. William Golding once talked about living under threat and how that affects writing (he was referring to 1950's US and the threat of nuclear war). You grew up in Northern Ireland, which has known its share of volatility to say the least. Are you aware, or do you think that has affected your work, and if so how?
Well it’s hard to say one way or the other because Northern Ireland is all I’ve ever really known, volatility and all. It’d be much easier for me to gauge the effects of something half ways alien to me on my work. But being born and raised here shaped my politics and my worldview and what-not, and all of that bleeds into whatever you’re doing either consciously or otherwise, and especially so when what you’re doing is so explicitly based on personal history. But I will say that I’ve rarely went anywhere near any Across The Barricades type stuff. I’ve rarely mentioned The Troubles explicitly, although I suppose bits and pieces of sights and sounds that I was exposed to because of such are on evidence in some of the songs; bits of "Don’t Think I’ll Sleep Tonight" or "Blue From Black", for example.
Do you think there is such a thing as a distinct cultural voice in Ireland? I don't mean the new age Celtic nonsense or singing old rebel songs while drinking Guinness in some pub in Boston, more along the lines of Joyce and other crazy poets. Do you feel any connection to anything like that?
Well there’s a lyricism in the banter about these parts that you’ll find seeping out the pages of anything James Joyce or Brendan Behan or Flann O’ Brien ever etched, and certainly I’m inspired no end by those same rhythms, by the blathering I might maybe hear friends gettin’ on with at the bus-shelters or the bars or the taxi-stands of a Thursday eve or wherever. And I don’t think any Irish reader could swallow a page or two of, say, At Swim-Two-Birds or The Quare Fellow or, Heaven’s almighty, Ulysses, and not feel a connection to it in some way.
But the thing is, for me, anyway, writing now, as much as those blessed Holy bastards are heroes one and all, I feel myself cursing them every time I go to pen a line. There’s a statue of Joyce off O’Connell Street in Dublin, and I dunno how anyone who’s ever tried to write anything on this island hasn’t been kept awake with the urge to run down there and batter the fucker senseless. You can’t read that Molly Bloom spiel at the fag-end of Ulysses and not be simultaneously set afire with the desire to write somethin’ yourself, song or story or whatever, and yet also knackered with the crippling realisation that really, all that needs to be said has been said, and certainly no Irish writer I would wager will ever come anywhere close to the lowliest syllables on those pages, so why bother? Well, lot o’ keyboards in the world. Someone has to click and clack.
Has it had any influence on your music or your writing?
Unconsciously, probably that Irish Voice, whatever it might be, it’s probably seeped in over the years. And the geography of the place, too, is also incredibly important. Lyrically, the record is almost a map of my hometown; those songs refer to incidents that took place on certain streets, people I’ve met in certain taverns and cafes, churches I’ve thrown up in… If I can detach myself long enough to not worry about how I should’ve written this verse different or how that line was fluffed a bit, I can wander right from the poultry factory at one end of the town to the show-grounds at the other. Even bits that deal with Dublin or wherever, which is a good 120 miles removed from my doorstep, they’re filtered through how I feel about those places whilst sat in this particular estate. Course, it’s doubtful anyone else, whether they live here or not, will get that from it, but for me it almost runs like a travelogue. It wasn’t intentional, mind, but that’s how it worked out.
Jumping around again now – Are you able to point to some time in your life that you knew you wanted to be doing whatever it is you're doing now?
I can’t remember ever wanting to do anything else, but at the same time, I can’t remember ever really thinking I could get off with it, either. I still don’t know if I can, but I feel a bit more confident. I was gonna join the marines at a time, mind, which probably wouldn’t have been the wisest career move what with me being the size of a streak of wet shite and about as much use in a fight as a willy in a convent, and also being a big pink pacifist lefty faggot or whatever it was John Wayne called me in a dream one time. I doubt I would’ve gone far. But the career advisor folks at school wanted something on that paper, and I very much enjoyed the music of the Doors at the time, and we all know you can’t walk three foot if you’re a marine without tripping over the top of a Doors song. I grew out of that, thankfully. The Doors, I mean.
This is the end of Part One of my interview with Aaron McMullan, come back tomorrow to catch the rest of it.