Music, Venue

Interview from a Distance: A talk with the genre-blending Popcorn Fiend

Popcorn Fiend, real name Michael MacLennan, is a Glasgow-based electronic artist whose debut album Distance is available now. The album is a truly impressive body of work, drawing on a vast array of influences from Queen to Squarepusher to King Crimson, all to illustrate an emotional journey. It was released on the 18th of September, and you can listen to it on Spotify here and Bandcamp here.

Who are some of your greatest influences?

I mean, music was really important to me growing up, and I remember the first time I heard music as a child it moved me very much– growing up my mum’s favourite band was Queen. It was such a pivotal thing, I remember listening to Queen in the car a lot just driving about, and I’ve always returned to them. There was a phase when I was at school when they weren’t cool anymore.

When I went to university in Aberdeen, that’s when my tastes really opened up, and I got into more experimental music, my tastes broadened enormously… There were music stores, there was one called “One Up,” I’d go in there and whoever was at the counter that day would be putting on their personal choices, I discovered so much new music through that. Bands like Pixies, Mr Bungle, Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, and some older music like King Crimson, Frank Zappa… Pop music as well, it would all be kind of mixing in, it was all really important… It influenced my life. There were so many different types of music that I’d listen to, and from that, Popcorn Fiend was born, very much from that idea of trying to incorporate a number of different things– which is probably why Distance doesn’t fit easily into one bracket. That has its advantages and disadvantages.

Cover art for Distance, credit: Popcorn Fiend

I had trouble pinpointing it myself as well!

It’s funny, I don’t do that on purpose! When I was writing the songs I did have some genres in mind– something more electronic, something more dance, something more rock, more indie. I guess I always liked the idea of introducing unexpected twists, or elements that then transform what you listen to.

With the album itself, the tracks were written over a number of years, at different locations… “The Fourth Wall” is described in the press releases as a much more minimal electronic track. I was thinking of Factory Records, Joy Division… That sort of thing.

But then I’d be listening to other things– “Bear on Bear” is much more industrial, big beat… And then I kind of listened back to the tracks and thought “this could make an album” after writing some music to link it up– the album is a sort of journey.

The visuals of Distance are really strong– would you describe yourself as both a visual and musical artist?

In terms of creating things I definitely think very visually, and I’ve made and produced a lot of videos as well as photos… I think when I was writing the album, particularly with “The Fourth Wall” I had a strong sort of visual element in my head of how the video would appear… Ironically the video doesn’t actually appear like the visuals in my head, but it was still something that influenced what I was doing– they ended up influencing each other in this case. Using the beat syncing and kaleidoscope, trying to go quite psychedelic, purposefully very hard-hitting, sometimes quite confusing… Confusing sounds quite negative here but I mean it positively.

One of the things when I first finished the album was I really wanted to produce videos and the album artwork that represented the journey, the photos and recordings I took were taken as I was writing these songs, they all have a meaning related to what the track is, then the videos were all produced whilst I was in lockdown, then the visual album was meant to represent that journey. Much of it was recorded in the Highlands where I grew up.

What are some of your favourite releases from this year?

I’ll just have a quick look at my Spotify, I actually have a best of year playlist…

This year I was meant to be seeing Squarepusher. His new album, just I think he’s such an amazing artist who’s done so many things and then transformed himself so many times over the years. And I think his recent album is great. I think my favourite new artist I have heard is a band called Black Country New Road. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them before… The single “Sunglasses.” I remember I heard “Sunglasses,” I think on Radio Six music without knowing who they were, and it just absolutely blew me away.

Also, there’s a bagpiper called John Mulhearn, who’s released an album called The Pipe Factory. And my relationship with the bagpipes is a complicated one. I can see myself doing a pipe band and I love it many ways but I can see why people are turned off by the bagpipes, but what John Mulhearn did with it… This almost Ambient drone you know, this amazing ambience and reverb and drone. He’s done something with bagpipes I would never have expected so I’d recommend it even to people who aren’t pipers.

Michael MacLennan, credit: Michael MacLennan

How did moving around from place to place affect your creation of music, particularly the time you spent in Austria?

I find it quite disruptive. I think that’s one of the reasons that the album took a long time is because when I moved from place to place, there’s a lot of just the practical elements, you know, moving your stuff and settling in, all those elements which can take weeks and months to do… the songs took longer to write but more than being in those places, then there’s different psychological places I was in.

I think they really helped in terms of inspiring me being from Highlands and Scotland and then moving to places like London, you know, as you can get, and then moving to Salzburg in Austria is a whole different experience. And it’s interesting because in terms of the Highlands and Salzburg in terms of scenery, there are actually some connections and there’s actually some Celtic connections there as well. But then you feel removed from everybody so I felt more isolated, which in some senses, I think probably informed the fact that as you said, it’s hard to pin the album down. Because we’re coming together, getting more than I wasn’t, you know, it wasn’t like I was listening to, or going to live gigs and seeing particular types of artists. So, it was very much by myself doing my own thing.

How would you say lockdown affected your musical process?

Basically, at the time lockdown happened, the album recording had pretty much been completed. But we were just getting into the mixing and mastering stage with Dave. So, the plan changed very much, because I would have gone to see him. He lives in Glasgow too. So, I would have gone over and we would have been done that process in person. So instead, we had to figure out how to do that separately. So, though they’re mixing and mastering it, I didn’t see him across this year. I only met him in person just the week before last week, the first time in 2020, which is bizarre.

I think we managed to find a way of doing that, that worked really well. And we were obviously using the internet heavily in terms of file swapping and trying to do video calls and trying to work things out. And I think it’s well, people finding a new way of working for obviously, some things you may not be in the same room as somebody. But, it can give you the space to be able to think of something without feeling as much pressure on you. And I think that can lead to some positive results.

Do you think you’ll be doing any gigs soon?

I think I hadn’t even thought, you know, by the time I finished recording the album, I was just then thinking about the mixing, mastering. And that’s when we went to lockdown. So when we’re looking to launch it, I knew that we wouldn’t be able to do it with a live band. Something that when we’re able to do is an album relaunch at least some months down the line.

It’s really interesting. It’s the first time for you know, I guess all of us releasing things, and then not being able to perform live… I think that it’s a different experience than performing in a room and then playing those tracks and seeing how people respond to those. I’ve seen some good examples of other artists doing live streaming events on social media.

How is it working with David R Simpson of CHVRCHES?

It’s a really inspiring experience. So, I’ve known Dave for well over fifteen years, before, he really gotten to what he’s doing as a producer and composer, when he was performing in metal bands, and he was always exceptionally talented, musically. And it’s all been really great over the past few years to see him with CHVRCHES.

When I was getting kind of towards what I consider to be the closing stages, I really wanted to make sure that I did it properly, this time around, and he was the first person and really the only person I thought could help me. Basically, as a relationship where he’s somebody who I think is a great friend, a really good person to spend time with, even if I wasn’t able to do so in person for this experience.

Michael MacLennan, credit: Michael Greig

What about the drummer you worked with, Ross Rankin?

So, “Bear on Bear” was written specifically with Ross in mind. That was the first song that was written. And searching for names here in Glasgow, which is why it’s funny in terms of how that starts, the album is like, it’s a process of not being back here. And when I wrote the song, me and Ross, were doing a kind of a two-piece band, we played a couple of live gigs. And I basically, in my mind, I had the idea of doing this kind of big kind of electronic, almost industrial sounding a bit more… almost euphoric, I guess.

I was thinking I could write something on top as a tempo, then he could just produce a beat for some sort of drum track. Ross is amazing, talented, adaptive, and can be very aggressive in what he does. And when I see him in his element, I just find it to be a joy.

What are your favourite live shows that you’ve seen?

I would say seeing Squarepusher for the first time. I ended up seeing him I think perform three times in the space of a week… There’s a festival called All Tomorrow’s Parties. And I went to the weekend when it was Mike Patton and the Melvins curating there and I think that whole weekend is probably one of my favourite ever gig experiences. And I remember seeing Squarepusher at the forum there and what he was able to do electronically with the bass guitar absolutely blew my mind.

I guess seeing Radiohead as well. And I remember seeing Radiohead in Edinburgh at the Corn Exchange, I think that was around 2003 or 2004. And just seeing what they were capable of, and what they did was just absolutely stunning. Like, I think that’s something that I’ve really missed during this period is being able to go to a gig. And even if you like an artist, or if you like the band, that they can perform, and they can create something in that moment, that is beyond any expectation you might have.

As you’re quite a visual artist, are there any films or TV shows you’d say influenced the creation of Distance?

Definitely, when I was in Salzburg and doing quite a lot of music there, I was watching the last series of Twin Peaks. David Lynch would definitely be somebody that I’ve actually been revisiting a lot during lockdown. I love this singular vision that he has, and the fact that he’s able to go to some very surreal places, but then address some really weighty issues. I think sometimes he doesn’t get enough credit. I think sometimes people see the more bizarre things that he does and don’t recognise that a reason that works is because there’s issues he’s dealing with trauma and other sorts of really significant emotional issues that he addresses. So yeah, I think he’s definitely somebody that I would point to.

You can listen to Popcorn Fiend’s debut album Distance on Spotify here and Bandcamp here. Featured image credited to Michael Greig.

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January 2022
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