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February 14, 2005 | by  | in Features |
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GRAMSCI

If you thought that Gramsci’s music sounded like it was made by someone insightful and intelligent… Well, then, you’d be right. Tessa Prebble talks shop and philosophy with singer/songwriter Paul McLaney.

There is nothing you could possibly find to dislike in Paul McLaney, the frontman and founding member of Gramsci. He’s intelligent, well spoken, thoughtful, genuine, and incredibly down-to-earth. His approach to music has a definite philosophical angle, and his dedication to his craft is exemplary. I’d go so far as to say there probably aren’t many musicians out there like him; he is in it for the music, not the money or the fame, or even the women. . “I think bands sometimes make the mistake of disappearing up their own arses”, he says laughing, “and they make this music that people feel they’re not qualified to listen to. I want the guys I went to school with to get my albums”.

McLaney was born in England – the soft English lilt piping down the phone line attests to that – but has lived in New Zealand for most of his life. He grew up listening to his father’s record collection and discovered quickly that music was the only option for him. “When I got old enough to sort of understand that you could make music I dove straight in there, and there hasn’t been very many days since then when I haven’t picked up my guitar, I always knew it was what I wanted to do, it wasn’t really a choice, it was just the way it was”. Listening to Gramsci’s albums, it is clear that McLaney was right. His life appears to have been steadily working its way to its current state, and not without premeditation. Everything he does, it seems, has one aim in mind: To make good music, without all the bullshit and glamour that’s usually attached to that endeavour. Not many musicians, for example, would sit through five years of a law degree in order to learn the ins and outs of the music industry. “I never wanted to be a lawyer, I knew what I wanted to be when I was thirteen, but I also knew that if I was serious about it, and I was going to put that much effort into it, that some understanding of the basic ownership principles was worthwhile”. Now, despite what you think about Gramsci’s music, that’s dedication. In the same vein, McLaney established his own record label Ma(c)hine in order to truly own his music, and not have to compromise his craft. “It was just a way of maintaining all that intellectual property in one space without it being a personal thing”. McLaney is cutting no corners, he has got all his bases covered.

Before Gramsci’s first two albums, ‘Permanence’ and ‘Object’, McLaney released two solo albums, ‘Pedestrian’ and ‘Prayer Engine’. It was only when he met producer and guitarist David Holmes at a party in Napier that Gramsci, as a collaborative effort, was born. McLaney, maintaining his humble, down-to-earth persona, tells me he always wanted to be in a band, not remain a solo artist, it was just a problem of finding the right people. “I mean I wanted to be in a band, the problem was it took so long to find the players and lock down into a cohesive unit. A lot of bands come about because they need a drummer, and your mate down the road is a drummer, its not about any kind of musical allegiance its just about the necessity of having certain musicians. I didn’t want that”.

So McLaney forms a collaborative group, and then names it after an Italian Political Philosopher: “Antonio Gramsci invented the word ‘hegemony’, and wrote about strategies of revolution involving changing an existing power structure, or ‘hegemony’ from within instead of replacing it… Around this time I was pretty underwhelmed by radio so I thought, I can either just go and form the most weird, esoteric band in the world and never try and get my music out there or I could make music that I enjoy, and it could still be on the radio”.

‘Permanence’ and ‘Object’, are hauntingly beautiful albums, seeming to improve with each listen, making each time feel like you have found something new. McLaney’s vocals soar and fall with ease, and his lyrics reflect his attitude about songwriting. “I have to have a fairly strong response to a situation, rather than just writing a song for the sake of it. For me, the way I sing, I have to really mean what I’m saying to sing it”.

Listening to Gramsci doesn’t bring up many parallels. I tried to find a band or singer they sounded like, but I was failing. The answer seems obvious now, after talking to McLaney: “My influences, well, I guess I just desire to hear something new really, I mean I guess the usual suspects like Radiohead, Led Zepplin, David Bowie, you know the great bands who are trying to push the envelope. You can hear it in their music, you couldn’t accuse those bands of being copies of anybody else, that’s what inspires me. The idea of Bowie is quite influential, he’s just constantly reinventing, he’s a big advertisement for the fact that you don’t have to just keep regurgitating the same thing”. I had been having trouble finding a similar band, because, and I can say this without doubting I might be making it up, Gramsci doesn’t sound like anything else. Even each Gramsci album doesn’t sound like the last. McLaney’s songwriting, like Bowie and Radiohead before him, is constantly evolving.

With this ever-changing sound, the upcoming Orientation gig, which will be followed hot on the heels by Gramsci’s third album release ‘Like Stray Voltage’, promises to be something new and original. McLaney speaks excitedly about their new album and the performance that we will be treated to. “I think fans of Tool and Simon and Garfunkel are going to get it, basically if you’re into guitar you’re in for a treat, because I don’t think there’s anyone playing guitar like Dave in this country, I mean, the guy’s bringing seventeen pedals with him”, McLaney laughs, “ I think fans of music, and fans of guitar, and people who want to see something a bit new are going to like it”.

I don’t know about you, but after hearing what McLaney has to say, and hearing his first two albums, I am definitely not going to miss seeing Gramsci play this orientation. McLaney, like his music, is an original.

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