Listgeeks Feature #12 – Rick McPhail (Tocotronic, Glacier)

Rick McPhail is a Hamburg-based American musician best know for his contributions as a member of the acclaimed German band Tocotronic.  Having joined the band in 2005, Rick (playing guitar and keyboard) has helped to push Tocotronic’s music sonically, and adds a dynamic, compelling presence to their live performances.  When he’s not busy touring and recording with Tocotronic, Rick runs his own studio and releases albums (accompanied by a host of talented friends) as Glacier (of Maine).  His new album, “Above and Beside Me,” which is his second full-length, is an expansive, stylistically wide-ranging collection of beautifully constructed songs played and captured on analog equipment.  A seriously eclectic range of influences, ranging from Genesis and My Bloody Valentine to 70s space rock and Elliott Smith, are evident in Rick’s unique, evolving sound.  We’re grateful he took the time to talk with us about Tocotronic and Glacier.  Be sure to check out his Listgeeks lists after you’ve read the below interview.

Listgeeks: How and when did joining Tocotronic come about? Were you a fan of the band’s earlier work?

Rick McPhail: My girlfriend grew up with Dirk, our singer.  In ’99 she got me a job selling t-shirts for them on their k.o.o.k. tour.  I had heard them before but wasn’t really a fan until having to hear them every night on tour.  At that time I was still listening to a lot of noisy stuff and didn’t feel the need to hear what I considered to be the German version of Pavement.  But on tour, the music really grew on me and I started to really respect and appreciate what they were doing for German music, which sucked pretty much at the time and continues to until this day.  Anyways, because the record had a lot of synths on it (and I was quite the synth freak at the time), they eventually asked me to play keyboards for the festival dates in 2000.  Then I ended up playing 2nd guitar and keys for the tour of the next record (the white one).  Because a lot of the keyboards on that record were too difficult for me to pull off (with my limited ability and the fact that they wanted the songs to rock a bit more live), I ended up playing guitar about 50% of the time.  I think this gave the band, and Dirk especially as singer/guitarist, a greater sense of security on stage – having a second guitar – and I guess they decided there’s no turning back, so they asked me to become a permanent member in 2005.

LG: It seems like you guys fairly consistently release an album every couple of years . . . is there a pre-defined pattern to how you work, or is it mostly about getting the right songs together, whenever that happens?

RM:  Dirk usually writes the songs quite quickly, often in between tour dates of the record before.  He records demos with acoustic and vocals and sends them round.  Then, after touring, we usually take a short break and then get cracking on the next one.  All three last records were recorded pretty much live with hardly any overdubs, so everything really has to sit before going in the studio.  We practice in my studio at home so we can always do quick demos and hear if the songs work and practice to them alone.  After about 3-6 months of practicing and arranging we go into the studio and record.  We usually book 14 days, but every record has gone faster than the one before it, 10 days the first, I think 7 the second and the last one took maybe 5 days.  The last 3 records have gone very quickly, and we’ve hardly taken any breaks (there are always summer festivals and benefit concerts, etc.) so this year we finally decided to take a sabbath and not play at all.  We have met, though, a few times already to talk about the next one and to look at a studio as well.  We start practicing again in December.

LG: Up until now, Tocotronic has largely made guitar-based records, though the various side projects have taken other directions – can you imagine that changing with future releases?

RM:  I don’t think so.  I think the band did a lot of its experimenting with electronic music 10 years ago with k.o.o.k., the remix album and the white album – plus the side projects from the others are all quite electronic as well.  I think we all feel quite comfortable in our skin as an independent rock band.  First of all, it’s quite a wide genre, and luckily Tocotronic never really stuck themselves to one sound or influence.  A Tocotronic song may have many influences but I believe we have a distinct sound that people always recognize.  Second of all, I think that after almost 40 years of indie/post punk it’s shown that it has held up to the test of time – especially after everybody in the 90’s was shouting how guitar music was dead etc. – I don’t see it dying anytime soon, and if it does, Tocotronic has always completely ignored the trends so we’ll probably keep on even when noone wants to hear it anymore.

LG: As an American in a band best known in Germany/Europe (even though you’ve been in Hamburg/Germany for a long time), you’re sort of between two worlds.  Do you think this “between-ness” influences your approach to making music, either with Tocotronic or your own project, Glacier?

RM:  I think the main difference between the American and German approach is that Germans like to talk about things much more and Americans just do it.  I can imagine, before I joined the band, that the guys probably talked 75% of the time and only played 25%.  I think now it’s probably the other way around.  In interviews it’s still difficult to talk about the music because journalists focus very heavily on the lyrics – because they’re in german – and one often has the feeling that they wish for you to explain every detail.  This is often quite tiring because, first of all, I didn’t write the lyrics and, second of all, there’s no cliff note version of the lyrics.  I often have the feeling they’re afraid that they might misinterpret them, but that’s the point – they should have the guts to build their own opinion.  I mean, you would think that’s why they became music journalists, right? As far as being between two worlds, it doesn’t phase me too much.  I was always an outsider, and now I’m outside two worlds instead of just the one.  It’s something that obviously bothered me a lot in my youth, but at some point in life you grow up and accept who you are.  I tried to fit in and become a number but I always stuck out and voiced my opinions openly.  I’m just really lucky now to have the perfect occupation for it.

Glacier (of Maine) – “This is Not About Love (Act II)” from the album “A Sunny Place for Shady People”

LG:  You recently released your second Glacier full-length, “Above and Beside Me,” which has a more expansive feel, both production-wise and thematically, than “A Sunny Place for Shady People,” your first album. How was the process of making this record different from the first album?  Will you be touring to support the release?

RM:  I guess you could say “A Sunny Place” was the first time in my life that wrote “serious” music and lyrics and I had to get a lot out of my system. Lyrically, it’s all very personal and self-reflective, and actually has a lot to do with my having to deal with being a nerd in my youth and my obsession with fantasy/sci-fi as a way of escapism.  It had actually started out as sci-fi rock opera or concept album, but at some point I got stuck in a rut with the story and thought, “Wait this is all ridiculous anyways, this is – or really should be – about me” – so at some point I turned it aound.  Musically, I felt the need to try out a lot as well and quite possibly overdid it throwing in everything but the kitchen sink.  After having to record everything live with Tocotronic on the last few records, I really started to appreciate the dynamic and the limits or dogmas that we set for ourselves that way.  So I decided to incorporate more of that in the new Glacier record – finding a lot of inspiration in limiting the band instrumentally (especiallly the keyboards).  It’s not all the original backing tracks, but playing the backing tracks live as a band does a lot for the dynamics, especially the drums.  Thematically, it’s definitely more open as well, when writing lyrics I often start with a few words and see where they take me.  It’s much more fun – whereas concepts can be a real pain most of the time.

Glacier (of Maine) – “Athens to Roam” from the album “Above and Beside Me”

LG: The track “Flanders Revisited” references the WWI poem, “In Flanders Fields.”  The lines “The ones who sent you there/they’re far away, their sons don’t bear/the weight you hold” – for you, does this sentiment especially resonate in the context of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Listen to the album “Above and Beside Me” on Myspace

RM:  I’m so glad you recognized it! I came real close to changing the title, because I was afraid that everyone here would think I wrote a song about Ned Flanders, from The Simpsons.  This was the only song I sat down and wrote with a concept in mind.  After seeing the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young film Déjà Vu, and especially after the scene where Neil Young gets interviewed and asked why he wrote “Living with War” when he already had “his” war with Vietnam (and why we wouldn’t leave this one for the younger generation), he answers that he did at first but no one said anything.  This really compelled me to write something, because even though there are German troops in Afghanistan, nobody really cares about the war here.  Because of Germany’s history, most Germans have a healthy, extremely anti-military point of view, but that also includes not caring about the soldiers over there –  because they volunteered for it.  You could say this in theory about the Americans over there as well, but it’s not so simple black and white.  Most of the troops there are reservists or National Guard because, after the Cold War ended, the active military cut back so extensively.  I feel for those people because I don’t think when they signed up that they expected to have to go to war.  In any case, after I decided I would like to write something about the wars, it was hard to come up with something that didn’t seem cheesy.  I was actually watching a Peanuts episode with my son where they ended up in Normandy, and then in Flanders, where Linus then recited the poem “In Flander’s Fields,”  I cried, and immediately knew that was it.  I then sat down and wrote the lyrics like a mantra so that they repeated over and over again in the song.  It was important for me to have this repetition because of the déjà vu of “history repeating itself” or what you could even call “neverending story.”

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