It’s a great time to be making music, and a great time to be listening to music, too. Interview with Lawrence McCluskey.
Lawrence McCluskey is the brilliant mind behind Strawberry Whiplash and Bubblegum Lemonade. While Strawberry Whiplash is an indie pop band hailing from Glasgow Scotland, with Sandra McCluskey on vocals and Lawrence on instruments (10 albums with his label, Matinee Records, among LPs, EPs and collaborations), Bubblegum Lemonade is his own personal project (14 albums, among LPs, EPs and collaborations in Matinee Records).
Prolific and talented, The Echo Music interviewed via email to Lawrence (Laz) about his creative process with both bands, his insights of the indie music, and his new musical projects.
EM. When did you realise that were you going to dedicate your life to music?
LAZ. When I was in my late teens, I fancied the idea of being in a band, as it seemed to be a much better occupation than working in a factory. I didn’t have any creative input in the first few bands that I was in, The Jaggy Nettles, The Sherbet Fountains, The Badger Brothers, The Dilithium Crystals, and it never crossed my mind to write any songs.
EM. How did everything start?
LAZ. Eventually, me and my friend Dave Dunsmore started a band called The Spaceheads. We recorded music in his bedroom with a 4-track portastudio and a drum machine. Mostly, I would write the core parts of a song, the chords, vocal melody and the words, and Dave would fill it out with the drums and the bass etc. Other times, I’d turn up and Dave would already have a complete backing track recorded and we’d write something to go over the top of it. I learned a lot about recording instruments and programming drums from Dave. Dave, famously, went on to be in Tesco Chainstore Mascara.
EM. What are your musical influences?
LAZ. I like to listen to songwriters whose songs contain an idea, I’m interested in people’s ideas. Ray Davies, Debsey Wykes, Neil Hannon…
EM. How was the beginning with Strawberry Whiplash?
LAZ. When Myspace took off, around 2007, Sandra and I decided to record some demos in order to be part of the fun. We had absolutely no idea that anyone would be remotely interested in what we were doing, so it came as a massive shock when Matinee Recordings offered to put out some CDs. We were really shy at first, so had to be persuaded to sign up, ha!
EM. Where did you meet Sandra McCluskey?
LAZ. We met in a bar through a mutual friend, and the rest is history, ha!
EM. When did you decide to work together?
LAZ. Sandra’s always had a lovely voice, and we’ve been making music together for as long as we’ve known each other.
EM. How do you choose the name of the band?
LAZ. Sandra had the soft vocal sound of Strawberry Switchblade and I had the harsh fuzzy guitar tone of Meat Whiplash (both local bands), hence, Strawberry Whiplash.
EM. And about Bubblegum Lemonade… when do you decided to start the project?
LAZ. In the mid-2000s, I was gigging with friends in a band called The Search Engines (the least Googlable band name ever). As the band slowly dissolved, I started recording the songs that I’d previously written, and put them up on Myspace as Bubblegum Lemonade. At this point, I stopped writing ‘worthy’ songs and started to go for the Pop jugular. It seems to have been a good decision, ha!
EM. How did you choose this name for this project?
LAZ. Around this time, I had a The Mamas & the Papas greatest hits CD, and, when reading the liner notes, I noticed that Mama Cass Elliot had songs on an album called ‘Bubblegum Lemonade and Something for Mama’, I thought to myself, Bubblegum Lemonade, that’s a great band name, I’m having some of that. And I did.
EM. When you are going to create a song… where do you start? The music or the lyrics?
LAZ. That’s the million dollar question. Everyone’s different. Personally, I start with the song title, as that’s what a potential listener will see first, even before they have heard the song. It’s musical clickbait, I suppose. So, the first thing that I do is write the song title down on my white board, and if it draws me back, I’ll start to develop it further.
Once I have started working on the song, the title gets wiped from the board. Some titles have been on the board for years, not quite good enough to be taken further, but not bad enough to be scrubbed out. Two examples that are currently in creative limbo are ‘She Comes in Rainbows’ and ‘Requiem in Reverse’, they both have something going for them, but they always get left behind. I tend to get my song titles from magazine / newspaper headlines, or overheard conversations. Or I just pervert an existing phrase, ha!
EM. Do you believe in the inspiration or working on a daily basis?
LAZ. A bit of both, I suppose. If you put in the hours in the studio, then there’s more of a chance of something happening. But if you don’t have the inspiration or an established artistic process to channel your ideas, then the chances are that the finished product won’t engage anybody.
EM. Do you start to create a song with an instrument in particular?
LAZ. I always start with the acoustic guitar and my voice. Mostly, I’ll do a quick demo into my phone, just a bit of verse and chorus, nothing elaborate, it doesn’t have to impress anyone. This demo gets saved into a folder on my desktop, where it can languish for years before I come back to it. If it’s really cooking, I’ll get into it straight away. A couple of new tunes, ‘Set the Boy Free’ and ‘Me, My Selfie and I’ were completed within a week of having the initial inspiration. They are both coming out on a Matinee Recordings compilation, Matinee Idols very soon…
EM. What is the process to write the lyrics?
LAZ. The content of the lyrics comes from the song’s title. If a song’s about something specific, then the lyrics write themselves. I’ll sometimes write down a list of short phrases about a specific topic, and then form them into something that fits in with the top line melody. Tell the truth and make it rhyme, ha!
EM. Are you thinking about the album as a whole thing or song by song? If you are thinking in the album as a whole thing… which is the gravity centre of the album?
LAZ. A Strawberry Whiplash album will have a theme, which is revealed and developed during the long and slow period of the album’s creation. The SW albums take a long time to record, because I’m writing the songs for another person to sing. It can take a few goes to get the song’s key correct. In the initial phase of the recording process, I simply have a bunch of random songs, but about half way through I’ll see a theme appearing, and then continue to develop this theme. The first SW album, Hits In The Car, follows the story of a couple who first meet when their cars have a minor crash. Hence the intro song, Do You Crash Here Often? The second SW album, Stuck in The Never Ending Now, is about the coming of middle age and contemplating my own mortality. Cheery stuff. Bubblegum Lemonade albums are simply twelve of my best songs placed together in sequence. I’ll get towards the final stage of recording the album, and work out what’s missing. Normally I don’t have enough slow songs, so I have to write a couple of those. Unintentionally, each album has its own sound though. One reason for that is that I’m getting better at the technical side of recording as the years go by, I’m using much less reverb these days. I used to record the guitars with reverb from the amp, and then add even more during the mixing stage. Nowadays, I use as few software plugins as possible; Reverb and Compression (for vocals), Tremolo, EQ, and a little bit of Distortion on the snare or the bass guitar, to help them catch the ear.
EM. How do you order the songs in the album?
LAZ. I quite like the albums to start off bright in tone, and then get steadily darker as they go on. Also, mixing it up with fast /slow, up/down, flippant/serious, soft/hard. Throwing in a 3/4 time song also makes for variety. Song seven, which is at the beginning of the imagined side two, if the twelve track CD were a vinyl LP, has to be an up-tempo hit. To emphasise this, my most recent CDs actually have the songs listed in two parts on the back cover as if it were an actual two sided LP.
Recently, I’ve started deliberately coming up with songs that will sit in a particular place on an album. Hit The Ground Running, This Is The New Normal, Do You Crash Here Often? and Every Day The Sun Shines Brighter were conceived as songs to start an album. Last Weekend, Last Train To Clarkston, Don’t Get The Last Train, First Light Of Dawn, Mr Dreaming’s Bland House, and This Is All We Have, were conceived as songs to finish an album.
The next BL album, out later in the year, finishes off with a wedding waltz called, First Dance For The Last Time. It’s about a guy in his senior years getting married for the last time, hopefully. “You are my one and only, to me you are like a fine wine, nobody wants to die lonely, so let’s first dance for the last time, sha-la-la-la-la-la…”
Once the next BL album is finished, I’m going to continue working on my Christmas album, it’s called Laz Christmas. I’ve got four songs finished so far, and need to record six more. Hopefully, it’ll be out in the later weeks of November, 2017. I’m going to spend my summer holidays in Ibiza listening to Christmas songs, to get me in the zone, ha!
EM. How do you know when a song is finished?
LAZ. Ha, I was thinking about this the other day. I’m currently in the process of finishing off the fifth BL album; by getting Sandra to add backing vocals, and laying down some keyboards. I’ve decided that if I keep on trying to add musical parts, only to erase them immediately, because they get in the way, or the song doesn’t actually sound better with them, then it’s time to finish the recording stage and start on the final mix.
EM. Which is the most important thing that a song must have?
LAZ. It has to be able to engage the listener, so it should have a message, or be about something, or have a story to it.
EM. Which are the differences between the work with Bubblegum Lemonade and Strawberry Whiplash? How you decide to record one song with Bubblegum Lemonade or with Strawberry Whiplash?
LAZ. In the past, BL songs were flippant and Byrds like, and SW songs were about unrequited love and had a Mary Chain or Primitives feel to them, these days that distinction has gone. Both bands are now Byrds / Mary Chain sounding with flippant songs about unrequited love, ha!
EM. Do you have plans to release your albums on Vinyl soon?
LAZ. I’d love to have an LP released, but I don’t think that there is the demand to justify pressing them up.
EM. With which artist would you like to collaborate in an album?
LAZ. I do enjoy working on my own, doing whatever I want, whenever I want. But, there are a lot of people that I’d happily work with, maybe a female singer / musician, who’s voice would contrast or compliment mine. The last Mary Chain album was certainly enhanced by all the guest vocalists involved. It would also be great to work with someone who could arrange orchestral parts in a Baroque style.
EM. Which musician/group are you listening currently?
LAZ. On my 2017 playlist, I currently have; Astrud Gilberto, Franny & Zooey, Teleman, Winter, Utah Saints, Nina Simone, Mini Dresses, Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love, The Cottons, Biker Boy, The Divine Comedy, Louie Louie, Tinsel Heart, The Popguns, Agnes Obel, Ane Brun, Dory Previn, Bleached, Alpaca Sports, Fazerdaze, Girl Ray, Jay Som, Imaginary Pants, Pallenberg, Soccer Mommy, Leonard Cohen, September Girls, Alvvays…
EM. What are your perspectives about the indie music scene nowadays?
LAZ. It’s a great time to be making music, and a great time to be listening to music, too. I’m hearing fantastic sounding new recordings on a weekly basis. Unfortunately, nobody’s making any money from their music, but it’s been like that for decades anyway. Got an artistic bent, but it doesn’t pay the rent. Most of the class of C86 have now settled down and had children, who are starting to hit their teenage years, perhaps they will kick start another generation of Indie music? The future is bright, the future is Indie.