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Float away with me for a little while… Kevin McCormick’s Solitary Ambient Guitar Experiments
Minimalist ambient guitar music inspired by John Martyn, Erik Satie, Alice Coltrane, and Terry Riley.
Santa Cruz-based label Smiling C returns with another lost gem from the archives. If you haven’t yet heard Kevin McCormick and David Horridge’s Light Patterns, head there first for part one of this story…
In the late ’70s, far removed from the post-punk and new wave band scenes emerging in Manchester, Labour Exchange Office workers Kevin McCormick and David Horridge were quietly forging a path of their own inspired by the otherworldly sounds of John Martyn, David Crosby, Erik Satie, Terry Riley, Eberhard Weber, Alice Coltrane, and Ralph Towner. The duo would eventually present their meditative acoustic guitar experiments to the famous Strawberry Recording Studios (home to Joy Division, Durutti Column, The Stone Roses, many others) and land a release on Peter Jenner’s new label Sheet Records. The artwork for the album cover would be done by legendary graphic artist Barney Bubbles.
Following the release of Light Patterns in 1982, Kevin McCormick and David Horridge would go their separate ways with David moving away from the rainy city and Kevin diving deeper into solo work. The recently uncovered Sticklebacks presents McCormick’s bedroom studio tape material from 1984-1987. Recorded during the small hours, the album explores the sonic possibilities of a solitary guitarist equipped with just guitar, bass, a few effects pedals, and a violin bow. Rich with imagery, the layered guitars, evocative melodies, and waves of sound transport you directly into McCormick’s quiet world of little coves, mountain tops, empty lakes, and tiny fish.
Sticklebacks is available in our webshop: https://insheepsclothinghifi.com/product/pre-order-kevin-mccormick-sticklebacks-lp/
In Sheep’s Clothing’s Phil Cho spoke with Kevin McCormick over email to learn more about his creative process, inspirations, and life during this time.
Hey Kevin! How’s it going? Where are you today?
Hello Philip, I’m fine, I hope you are too? Today I am at home and it’s a lovely sunny day.
We’re big fans of your album Light Patterns and were excited to hear about unreleased material coming out! Can you talk about the period between recording the first album and Sticklebacks?
When David and I had finished recording Light Patterns, we stopped recording together and went our separate ways. I became more and more interested in how I could use effects to manipulate my guitar sound and voice. This was a time when effects were more basic than now and I found it very interesting to alter my voice and guitar lines with this minimal equipment. I had also become more and more entranced by ECM records, Alice Coltrane, Terry Riley, Pharoah Sanders etc. Essentially, what I would call Space Jazz!
Light Patterns explores the joys of two (guitar) voices coming together while Sticklebacks is a much more introspective affair. The press notes mention “introverted small hours.” When and how was this material recorded?
By now, my wife, Anni, and I had two small children, Julian and Jenny. In order to not disrupt our family life, I played and recorded in the small hours, at home, often entirely on headphones. Using a Teac Portastudio cassette recorder and a Stereo Cassette player, I overdubbed all parts. In a sense, I created my own world and, sometimes, I would get lost!
The layered textures and waves of sound you’re able to create with your guitar and effects are just beautiful… Can you talk about some of the techniques you were exploring on this album?
Well, I used quite old analog equipment most of the time; reverb, delay, octave and chorus units building beds of sound on which to release the melody lines. Most of the swells were controlled by the guitar volume knobs and not, as most people think, a volume pedal. At the time, I didn’t even know they existed. Now I do and I’m onto it! I sometimes used home made foam dampers on strings – a little bit Derek Bailey ( I wish, a wonderful English avant-garde guitarist).
The track titles are all quite visually descriptive. Do you tend to have an image in mind when writing?
Yes, absolutely. It’s almost always about a place or feeling. I would then try to record something that would always carry me safely back to those special times. They still do!
Judging from the album cover, it seems that literature, poetry, and the outdoors also played a part in this music. What were you reading and experiencing in your daily life during this time?
My reading focused around Alan Watts, Hermann Hesse, and Castaneda (although sadly maybe just a good story teller). Favorites were: Watts (Cloud Hidden Whereabouts Unknown), Hesse (Steppenwolf) and Castaneda (A Separate Reality).
Poetry: No favorites really other than Haikus.
I loved walking, especially with the family; often by lakes, rivers and the seashores.
My daily life was very busy: I had a full-time job (I had soon realized being an ambient musician didn’t pay the bills!), as well as bringing up a family, and being a totally obsessed musician. So quite busy!
There’s a heavy haze of nostalgia cast over "Sticklebacks.”
Empty lakes, nets, youth, tiny fish… What’s the story behind that track?
On sunny days, Anni and I would take Jules and Jen down to our local lake in North Manchester. The children would see who could catch the most sticklebacks and let them go, of course. It was a lovely, carefree time and one night, after our trip to the lake, the words and the tune all came together when I was recording. It reminded me of when I was young, playing around in our local park.
Lastly, Light Patterns included listening instructions “Put the album on, lie back and enter the land of no floors.” Do you have any words to share or listening tips for this album?
Maybe, put the record on and float away with me for a little while. This music’s made a long journey to get to you.
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