When Luke Sutherland formed Rev Magnetic to release his first self-generated music for more than a decade, the former driving force behind Long Fin Killie and Bows as well as sometime collaborator with Mogwai had a story to tell. Given that the Scots-African composer and singer has also penned three novels, the most recent of which, Venus as a Boy, was turned into a stage play for the National Theatre of Scotland in which Sutherland appeared alongside actor Tam Dean Burn, this should come as no surprise.
As audiences for Rev Magnetic’s two shows in Edinburgh tonight and Glasgow next week should recognise, the band’s resultant Versus Universe album and new single, Schoenberg in America, tells a story that only Sutherland could conjure up. At the heart of Versus Universe’s narrative is a middle-aged woman whose astronaut parents disappeared in the early days of a space programme launched in the late 1970s by a West German company in what was then Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo).
The woman’s response is to move to America, where she finds salvation in prescription drugs, nature and music. Over its eleven-track song cycle, Versus Universe charts her journey through a fizzy mix of post-rock guitars, R&B and lush shoegazey dreamscapes that conjure up a series of sense memories en route to redemption.
“It charts the moment she leaves Africa and goes to America,” Sutherland says of Schoenberg in America, which follows the release of Versus Universe last summer. “It’s about leaving the past behind and the impossibility of getting away from yourself.”
Musical reference points for the record come from a diverse landscape that mixes up a mesh of My Bloody Valentine and Lemmy-era Hawkwind with ABBA, Vaughan Williams and Stravinsky. As an adopted child of colour who grew up on Orkney, such a melange in part reflects Sutherland’s own response to his sense of displacement.
“I think a good way to start writing any narrative is to draw on one’s own experience,” says Sutherland, “but I also wanted to stay as far out of the prism of that as possible, so the story is semi-fictional.”
So, while Sutherland categorically doesn’t have astronaut parents, there are similarities between him and his creation in Versus Universe. This is particularly prevalent in terms of his relationship with music as a form of salvation.
“When I was five or six, my family moved from Lincolnshire to the Orkney Islands, and that was a real baptism of fire,” he says. “I struggled to find my space in the social fabric, and I did that through the land, the sea and music. It was initially all about metal and classical stuff from my dad’s collection, AC/DC and Stravinsky, and then from my uncle I heard Hawkwind, Can, Brian Eno, and of course all this is going in. At the same time, I’m trying to deal with what’s going on outside the house as a child of colour, so when people asked me, as they did all the time, where I was really from, my answer was about the sound world as much as anything. It wasn’t escape. It was me trying to find a space in this mono-cultural world outside, that I could call home.”
This manifested itself creatively in the early 1990s, first with Long Fin Killie, then with Sutherland’s debut novel, Jelly Roll, written while recovering in hospital following a road accident while the band were on tour. Two more books, Sweetmeat and Venus as a Boy, followed. Musically, Sutherland teamed up over two albums with Danish singer Signe Hoirup Willie-Jorgenson as Bows. He also began appearing with Mogwai, and released three albums with To Rococo Rot’s Stefan Schneider and composer Volker Bertelmann as Music A.M.
Early sketches for Versus Universe first evolved a decade ago during down-time while Sutherland was on tour abroad with Mogwai. He eventually drafted in bass player Audrey Bizouerne, who appears on the record, plus drummer Sam Leighton and guitarist Gregor Emond to play it live.
“The album is quite dense,” says Sutherland, “and if you have the chance to listen to it properly, it will return on that investment. In terms of playing it live, it’s much more immediate. The stories are still there, and the emotional drive is still there, but it’s a much more physical and visceral expression.”
Outwith Rev Magnetic, Sutherland continues to work with Mogwai, and has provided scores for contemporary dance, including Curious Seed’s Herald Angel winning And the Birds Did Sing. Sutherland also worked with writers Agustina Bazterrica and John Burnside as part of Edinburgh International Book Festival’s Throwing Voices project. With all this activity across different artforms, does Sutherland still find salvation from music as he and his character in Versus Universe does?
“Oh, yeah,” he says, his voice going in on itself as if it’s just stumbled on a sense memory. “We had our first rehearsal after Christmas, and I really felt it. You know, I’ve been lugging my own gear around for thirty years, and the prospect of having to begin another year with that wasn’t something I was particularly looking forward to. But then, we say hello, we set up, and we play, and as soon as we do that, I’m away. This is exactly why I do it. There’s still a reason why.”
Rev Magnetic play Sneaky Pete’s, Edinburgh tonight; Hug & Pint, Glasgow, January 29. Schoenberg in America and Versus Universe are available now on Rock Action Records.
The Herald, January 25th 2020