There's a lot to be said for perseverance. Manchester-based quirkball, Ben McGarvey, has spent more than half his life making music in his bedroom and, despite false promises and initial efforts from a couple of labels along the way, he's had to resort to releasing his debut album, Too Busy Framing, on his own five years ago. It was an ambitious folktronica record, full of layered vocals, intricate melodies and – on one of the tracks, 'Lust' – a rhythm section created almost entirely from the sampled grunts of two men locked in carnal frenzy on film. As far as debut albums go, it remains an underrated hidden gem and continues to age rather well.
Since then, McGarvey has been working hard on follow-up, Last Things, which is finally coming out next month under his newly-adopted pseudonym, Minute Taker. Joining forces with members of his side project, The Spiels, he has set up a record label, Octagonal, under the auspices of which his new music will now see the light of day.
When I mention the turbulent time he's had trying to get a record deal, his face betrays exasperation. "I think the problem is that people have good intentions and make a lot of promises that, in the end, they just can't keep," he says. "It's frustrating when music is so close to your heart and you work so hard to forge a career doing what you love. Industry people come out of the woodwork and say they'll do things which they just don't follow up on and I don't think they realise how devastating it can be for an artist. Over the years, I've come to the conclusion that the best way forward is to do as much as possible by myself, so that's what I do. The most important thing to me is to make music and put it out there and then move on to new songs. As long as I'm doing that then I'm basically happy."
McGarvey, who plays piano, guitar and glockenspiel, first began writing music at the age of 12. "I wasn't really very interested in music until I was about that age, when I started tinkling on an old piano we had in the basement," he says. "Our neighbour was a piano teacher so I took a few lessons but found myself not really enjoying it when I had to read music. So I just got to grips with the basics and then decided I'd start writing my own songs. My piano teacher had a sequencing software on his computer and used to let me spend hours on end putting songs together using cheesy midi sounds, which to me - at the time - sounded glorious. I recorded about 20 songs in a couple of months and decided to give tapes of all of them to everyone I knew for Christmas. Years later I listened back and was mortified because they were so bad [he laughs]. At least I was quite prolific in my terribleness, though."
McGarvey has worked hard at improving on those efforts, however, and ended up studying popular and contemporary music both at college and, subsequently, university. "I still primarily play by ear, though," he says. "Reading music has always seemed to make me switch off the intuitive side of me that creates music. I've got a fairly good ear and, for the kind of music I create, I just don't think sight reading is necessary. It's a good job as well because one page takes me about an hour," he laughs.
Having ended up self-releasing Too Busy Framing, I ask him what that experience taught him about the music industry. "Well, it was a mixed bag, really," he says. "In some ways I was quite surprised and flattered that I managed to get a handful of good reviews and press features, even though I didn't have a record label backing me. I just wrote to music magazines explaining that I'd put out this album and I'd really appreciate it if they could consider reviewing it. I didn't hear back from most but the odd one actually paid attention. It also taught me how the industry is very focused on release dates and I really shot myself in the foot by basically putting the album out before I started sending it off for reviews."
With Too Busy Framing coming out under his real name, I ask what made him decide to use the nom de plume, Minute Taker, for the new album. "I never really felt comfortable using my own name," he explains. "I've always found it really difficult to promote myself and force my songs in people's faces, especially as my songs are usually so introspective and personal. I think using my own name just made it that much more difficult so I decided I'd use a pseudonym and I'm really glad I did because I find that side of things quite a bit easier now. Besides, I was tired of spelling out M C G A R V E Y in interviews and people referring to me as Ben Mugabe."
So where does the name Minute Taker come from? "I spent so long trying to find a name to use," he says with reflection in his tone, "and everything I could think of was already the name of a goth metal band in the Netherlands. I know a lot of artists and bands tend to use two random words that they like or maybe a phrase from a song they like but I really wanted to use something that had personal significance for me. I'd spent a lot of time doing office-based temp jobs and minuting meetings was a big part of that. I like the name because you can take it in more than one way – it kind of sounds simultaneously mundane and fantastical - either someone taking notes in a meeting or perhaps an almighty time lord reaching down a big hand from the sky to steal away our minutes. A lot of my songs are inspired by mundane, day-to-day things and I love the idea of making something magical and otherworldly out of these things that would, otherwise, just get me down."
Last Things was a long time in the making. I ask McGarvey whether he considers himself to be a perfectionist. "Yes" he says decidedly. "I drive myself insane and find it very difficult to let go of songs. There's just always something more to do!" And at what point did he know that the album was done? "I think there comes a time when you think, you know what - I need to move on now," he muses. "I don't think songs are ever really finished and I think that by playing them live they still continue to evolve so it's really about accepting that the recording is just a snapshot of how the song was at that time - It's not the end per se. Easier said than done, though!"
The original title for the new album was End Songs but then McGarvey felt that a lot of the tracks were competing to be the last cut on the album. He explains: "I had this vision of it being a whole album of final songs. It's really all about the last things we face on a day-to-day basis, from the smallest to the largest degrees of loss, whether it be the end of a relationship or letting go of a dream. I changed the name to Last Things somewhere along the way because I felt it gave it more of an apocolypic feel, with Last Things having roots in the Bible's Book of Revelation. It all sounds very bleak, doesn't it?," he laughs, "but I think my aim in creating these songs has been to capture the beauty that is often inherent in loss and the absurdity that often arises along the way when we desperately attempt to cling on to the transient."
Our 405-exclusive session of 'Somewhere Under Water'
One of the best moments on the album is the ballad 'Somewhere Under Water', seen here in an exclusive live session recorded especially for The 405. The song was inspired by the end of a relationship during the time he started writing the new record. "I was in the process of a breakup and was feeling very disillusioned with relationships in general," McGarvey says. "It was one of several songs in which I explored narcissism and the pursuit of ideals in a relationship. The premise is that both partners can never quite find what they are looking for because they are, each, actually seeking their idealised self in the other."
Lyrics and the way that they enable story-telling are, naturally, pivotal to McGarvey's creativity. His previous album included 'Disjointed', a song he wrote about Fred and Rose West, which was, ostensibly, sung from Fred's point of view. "I think I am very inspired by the darker side of the human condition," he admits. "You know - the things that people can't really discuss in day to day life because it's a bit taboo. 'Disjointed' is from my perspective as someone who, at the time, drew a parallel between the story of Fred and Rose and my own relentless search for a partner, using people along the way to satisfy my needs before dismembering their characteristics and casting them aside when deciding they weren't my Rose." There's a pause and McGarvey then adds: "Gosh, that makes me sound awful, doesn't it! This is why I write songs about these things instead of discussing them during coffee breaks at work."
On 'Merge', the current single from Last Things, McGarvey is singing about loving someone to the point of wanting both your bodies to morph into one. You could imagine this track having a very graphic video. I ask McGarvey what his concept for an accompanying visual for this song would be, if money were not an object. "At the risk of being too literal," he says, "I would actually quite like to see two people's bones entwine and their flesh crawl over each other until they are one big disgusting lump of humanity. I guess that's just the romantic in me," he giggles. "But, actually, the song is really about how we can only ever get close to one another up to a point because we are confined by our earthly bodies. It's about that feeling you get when you are so overwhelmed by emotion towards someone that you want to just disappear into them. It's that frustration that you have with these boundaries between you. I guess that's the concept I would like to emphasise in a video but I haven't quite figured out how to, yet."
'Merge' is also usually one of the stand-out tracks in McGarvey's live set, which can never be described as dull. A lazy comparison here, in terms of what the Minute Taker live experience most resembles, would be an Imogen Heap show. There's a continuing building of layers and sounds right before the audience's eyes (and ears) and a constant move between the various instruments and pieces of equipment, which McGarvey surrounds himself with. "I often get a bit bored when I go to a gig of an artist I'm not familiar with and it's just a guy and a guitar or a girl and a piano for an hour," he says. "Even if it sounds quite beautiful, I find my attention wanes pretty soon. I much prefer seeing different approaches to different songs and different instruments. So this is what I aim to do in my live set and I think that was very much inspired by artists such as Bat for Lashes and PJ Harvey, whose live sets are varied and exciting to me in that way."
There is also a distinct sense of comedy to McGarvey's live persona. He is goofy, chatty and hilarious. "My songs are often very dark, at least in terms of the lyrics," he says, "but as a person I am actually quite outgoing, quite clumsy and a bit of a clown. So I like bringing this dichotomy to my set and it seems to draw people in. I do tend to make my shows ridiculously complicated for myself and when I convey to the audience what I'm going to try and do this seems to add and element of excitement. And then, of course, if it does go a bit wrong they are there with me and it all hopefully adds to the entertainment."
McGarvey makes prominent use of a loop-pedal during his gigs. I point out that, for some, this may seem a bit KT Tunstall circa 2005. He laughs. "Yes, good old KT really brought the loop pedal into the mainstream but I think it's since become commonplace with a lot of artists," he says. "The great thing about it, especially for artists like me who focus a lot on the production of the songs, is that it provides a bridge between recorded and live sound, so it allows for a live set to become a series of recordings, created live on stage before the audience's eyes. It works really well for some songs but not for others and I think there's a fine line between effective use and overuse. I tend to create one in every five or so songs live on stage solely with the use of the loop pedal and then for the others I use the pedal in places, such as looping up vocal harmonies at the start of the song and then bringing them back in later on, played against pre-prepared beats, synths and that sort of thing. At the end of the day, for me it is all about the songs and the technology is there to aid the songs but not to be the primary focus."
Our 405 exclusive for 'Heart'
One such loop-pedal-assisted extravaganza is McGarvey's cover of Pet Shop Boys' 'Heart', which he has also recorded as a live session for us. I ask him why he picked that song to cover. "I have always been a big 80's fan," he says. "When all my school classmates were listening to Blur and Oasis I was listening to Erasure, Pet Shop Boys and Alison Moyet. Needless to say, I wasn't in the in-crowd. 'Heart' is a really strong song with a great melody but the production is very much of its time, which leaves scope to re-create it with a completely different soundscape."
With Last Things finally out of his care, McGarvey is now free to move on to the next project. I ask him what that might be. "Well, I have a lot of songs left over from the last few years that I decided weren't right for this album so I think I'll be looking to finish these off and release a couple of EPs," he says. "I'm actually also well into writing my next album. It's a concept album." Oh, here we go. A concept album! "It's something I've been meaning to move into for a while. I plan to write the whole album first and then record it in a short space of time, which is something I've never done before. I'm also writing the music for a stage musical by graphic novelist, Ravi Thornton, which I'm very excited about. I will be creating the music live on stage with my loop pedal, piano and vocal harmonies, which will accompany the actors, who will be singing the lead parts. Alongside that, I will be continuing to write and record with The Spiels. We released our debut EP earlier this year and plan to release our next one in the next few months."
Well, as the saying (kind of) goes, when life gives you apples, make a hearty strudel. Ben McGarvey would have liked for Last Things to have the backing (and, no doubt, marketing budget) of a major label behind it, but the lack of such support has ultimately meant that he worked harder at perfecting the record and putting his all into it. The end result should easily ensure that Last Things is not the last thing we'll be hearing from him.
Last Things is released on 15th April on Octagonal Records. For more information: www.minutetaker.net