Minute Taker – Manchester-based and acclaimed alternative singer-songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist, Ben McGarvey – returns to Trafford’s 10-day arts-festival Refract with the world premiere of his new audio-visual show, Wolf Hours. He talks to Quays Life about being a daydreamer, his eclectic influences, and creating an insight, through music and imagery, into the struggles of gay people over the past century.
Why did you choose the name Minute Taker?
I used to work in offices for years while I was trying to figure out how to get my music career off the ground. I used to spend a lot of time daydreaming and coming up with ideas for songs. I worked for a while as a minute taker and I liked how the name sounded simultaneously mundane and fantastical, like someone taking minutes in a meeting or an almighty time lord reaching down to steel time (haha!), or perhaps a song taking the minutes away as you listen. I felt it summed my music up quite well, kind of otherworldly but inspired by everyday things.
How would you describe your sound?
Well I always struggle with this one because it’s quite eclectic really and doesn’t really comfortably sit in any one genre. I guess alternative singer-songwriter about covers it, although that is probably pretty vague! I would say it is quite haunting and ethereal at times, very much escapist music, with layers of vocals, piano, synths, electronic beats and distorted guitars.
What are your musical influences and how has your work developed over time?
My biggest musical influences I would say are imaginative artists such as Kate Bush, David Bowie, Bjork and Tori Amos but I’m also really into 80’s synth pop, and particularly for this project I have been drawing influence from artists such as Eurythmics, Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode, Yazoo and Fleetwood Mac. Visually this project has been very inspired by retro horror movies such as Italian giallo filmmakers like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. Also, Hitchcock, Kubrick, David Lynch and older surrealist filmmakers like Maya Deren.
I released my first album 10 years ago which was quite folktronic sounding with lots of acoustic instruments and weird samples of found sounds. Over time I would say my music has become more synth-pop orientated.
You are a multi-instrumentalist – how many instruments do you play?
Piano and voice are my main instruments. I also play a bit of guitar and glockenspiel. I definitely lean more towards piano and that’s usually what I use to write songs on. It was the first instrument I learnt and always was the one that came most natural to me. I think that’s often the way with people. Your musical brain moulds around whichever instrument you learn first. People who learn guitar first often seem to never quite take to piano in the same way, as I don’t with guitar. My brain always has to work harder to find the exact chord/sound I want.
What part do visuals play in experiencing your live performances?
Over the past few years I’ve been becoming increasingly interested in adding a visual dimension to my songs in order to further communicate the concepts I’m working with. I collaborated with an animation artist called Ana Staniank a few years ago on a concept album I wrote (but haven’t released yet) called To Love Somebody Melancholy. We toured that in 2014-15 and it was a really positive experience to bring that visual element to the stage when performing the songs. I’ve recently been getting into making my own music videos and this Wolf Hours project has been a way of collaborating with various filmmakers and animation artists for both the live show and music video releases too. This time the visuals are a very central part of the show and really I feel like I’m accompanying the films with music, as opposed to the other way round.
What is Wolf Hours about?
It’s designed to give a depiction of the inner worlds of gay men at different points in time over the past century in the style of dream sequences, as often used in films to give a sense of a character’s fears, anxieties, desires, etc. The idea is that it’s all the things that go through the mind as we lie awake at night.
Where did the idea come from?
I’d been wanting to create a show based on the experiences of gay men for some time now. Since I started playing the piano when I was 12 or so I have been using music to channel my feelings in relation to my sexuality. It was really a saving grace for me when I was growing up, often struggling to make sense of my feelings and getting very depressed I really wanted to develop visuals for songs I had written over the years, as well as new ones, to explore these feelings further, and learn more about how they connect with the experiences of other gay men at various points in recent history.
Are the stories, exploring the psyches of several gay men, based on real people?
The characters and their stories draw inspiration from real people and events but don’t specifically depict any actual real-life stories. Over the past couple of years I have been researching LGBT history, reading autobiographies of gay men, watching documentaries and more recently I have also been interviewing gay men about their own experiences. All of this along with my own personal experiences has inspired the content of the show.
How does your own life weave into your work?
My songs tend to be pretty autobiographical. Even when I write from the perspective of characters or about specific subject matter I still find my own experiences and viewpoints creeping in. I tend to find myself writing about things that have been in the back of my mind for years, like the ideas take quite a long time to form before they find their way into songs when they’re ready.
What do you hope people will take from the show?
I hope to draw people into the inner worlds of these characters and that the content will connect with their own experiences, specifically people in the LGBT community but also more widely, everyone. Hopefully it will get people thinking about the similarities and differences between the worlds of gay and straight people. I’m really interested in exploring feelings and stories that don’t normally get explored and doing that in quite abstract ways at times to connect with people in ways that are hard to do with words alone. I also hope to give an insight into the struggles of gay people at various points in time over the past century and highlight really how lucky we are now in this country with the level of acceptance we have reached and the freedom we enjoy.
How has it been to work with Waterside Arts?
Great, they’ve been very supportive of me as an artist and the project. I actually played at their Refract festival last year too, doing more of a stand-alone gig. That was the first time I’d worked with Waterside and it was a really positive experience, which was why I approached them about developing the audiovisual show for this year’s festival.
Are there plans to take Wolf Hours anywhere else?
I will be taking the show to London in Autumn. I’m planning on releasing the tickets next week. I may also tour the show. Right now, I can’t think much past finishing it in time for the Manchester premiere as there’s still a long way to go!
How does it feel to be premiering Wolf Hours as the opening to the Refract festival?
Great! It was very kind of them to put the first night of my show on the festival opening night.
Wolf Hours is supported by a grant from Superbia at Manchester Pride – what has that support meant to you?
It’s fantastic to get some support from a local LGBTQ charity and I’m honoured that they decided the project was worth contributing to.
Minute Taker: Wolf Hours is at Waterside Arts Centre, Sale, opening 10-day arts festival, Refract:19 on 18-19 July 2019.
Refract:19 runs from Thursday 18 to Saturday 27 July 2019.