Gordon Mackenzie breaks down the brilliance of New Album Aphorisms

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By Lloyd Wakeling

Listening to Tragical History Tours new album Aphorisms, isn't easy: Lyrically or musically. Slowly but surely, it digs it's heel into a sensibility you probably never even knew you had and, whether this is good or bad, it will wake you or numb you. Strong lyrics and stretching vocals, inhabit the very air that fights itself to be heard or inhaled and with no excuses or apologies, it enlightens, with words that actually mean what they say without the confusion that many artists bring to their songs. Derrick means everything he conveys and you quickly realise that underneath the picking and the melody of the guitar, he has something very relevant, topical and heart wrenching to portray, resonating with anger and desperation but ultimately with a plateful of hope.

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He is the true minstrel, a man with a voice, a man who wishes to be heard, but you know he could quite easily sit in a room alone and listen to himself because he believes passionately in what he has to say. Each track strips bare a recognisable musical history, exposing influences real or maybe imagined and with this intimate look into the soul of Derrick Johnstone, all is still not as rosy as we might be led to believe...and I for one applaud the honesty.

We caught up with Derrick to have a chat with him about his new album

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What were the main influences for the lyrical content on this album?

This record is largely the culmination of all the lessons I've learned over the last fifteen years of writing, performing and living life in DIY punk on the Tragical History Tour. I've always been interested in songwriting as a form of storytelling and, for me, playing music is my meditative space, Writing and performing music marries these two things and this record is influenced very much by my own experiences of transformation over the last fifteen years. It sounds self-indulgent but this album is very much an exorcism for me, an albatross that I've needed to toss into the ocean for sometime. Lyrically, my early influences were Jack Kerouac, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Johnny Cash, Leadbelly, Social Distortion, Nirvana, before delving deeper into politics, philosophy and DIY punk culture. This record is somewhat the existentialist meditation upon self-determination, an attempt to somehow make sense of chaos.

Did you find it easy to separate the producer from the artist?

My friend John Harcus of the band PMX produced the record and did an absolutely incredible job of doing so. We've been friends for almost twenty years now and it was an absolute pleasure to work with him. He challenged me in ways that nobody else could, to think about things differently and to challenge myself. At the same time, it was the most natural thing in the world. John was instrumental in shaping the sonic of this record, indulging my ideas and bringing a wealth of knowledge and experience to songs we both know intimately. In that sense, there is no real separation between producer and artist, we were immersed in the experience together. It was a beautiful thing.

Do you enjoy the process of song writing or do you prefer the experience of a live gig and the audience?

Both are parts of the whole, to me there isn't really one without the other. I've been playing music for over twenty years now, it's an intrinsic part of my being, my one true constant. For me, music is a way of processing thoughts, feelings and emotions, mostly in an unconscious way. It's often only after the song has been written that I begin to make sense of what I'm getting at. I tend to write in stream-of-consciousness, just pick up my guitar, start strumming, hollering and see what comes out. Oftentimes the songs essentially write themselves. Sometimes it clicks right away and it's the most amazing thing, other times it can be frustrating. However, much as I love writing songs, it's the sharing of them with people that I love most; to look people in the eye as I'm screaming my heart out and to give myself to the experience. At the heart of it, I yearn for connection.

Are you continuously writing or do find you down time?

I don't know what down time is. We run a label (Make That A Take Records) and a venue (Conroy's Basement) in Dundee, I play in a punk rock band (Uniforms) and am involved in a lot of community projects and groups, so I'm generally writing every time I get a minute to sit down and play guitar. When the creative streak is hot, I tend to write songs front to back pretty quickly. There are a couple of songs on the record that were written in twenty minutes, yet there's a couple of songs I've wrestled with for years. I've always got ideas swimming round me head, bursts of songwriting some kind of primal creative response, an expulsion of internal noise and psychic chatter.

Do you thrive on getting the essence from your lyric as opposed to filling a song with words?

Song, not self. Sometimes the song demands an explanation, other times it needs to breathe. I'd like to think I've learned to pace myself slightly as I've evolved as a human and as a songwriter but I fall short of my ideals, as there are two thousand words on this record. I'm interested in narrative, confession, jokes, splatter-painting, crossword puzzles, deconstruction, redemption, exploration, experience, stories. I'd be reticent to say I thrive on anything but I try to respect the song, not feed my ego.

What is your ultimate goal....or is there one?

What are goals but distant illusions we create for ourselves? I aim to be a positive force but I am a deeply flawed human with my own struggles, so getting through my day is my primary focus. I believe in the right to self-determination but, beyond ideology and philosophy, I'd like to share my music with as many people in as many places as possible, to share thoughts, ideas and experiences. Love is the ultimate goal, right?

Are you happy?

I try to accept reality as it presents itself to me and believe in the interconnectedness of all things. Without darkness, there is no light. Happiness is fleeting and transcendent, where there is love there will be loss. I'd like to think I'm happy but accept that often I am not. I know my depression well. I laugh ten thousand times more than I've ever cried. I'll take it.

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We caught up with Derrick to have a chat with him about his new album

What were the main influences for the lyrical content on this album?

This record is largely the culmination of all the lessons I've learned over the last fifteen years of writing, performing and living life in DIY punk on the Tragical History Tour. I've always been interested in songwriting as a form of storytelling and, for me, playing music is my meditative space, Writing and performing music marries these two things and this record is influenced very much by my own experiences of transformation over the last fifteen years. It sounds self-indulgent but this album is very much an exorcism for me, an albatross that I've needed to toss into the ocean for sometime. Lyrically, my early influences were Jack Kerouac, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Johnny Cash, Leadbelly, Social Distortion, Nirvana, before delving deeper into politics, philosophy and DIY punk culture. This record is somewhat the existentialist meditation upon self-determination, an attempt to somehow make sense of chaos.

Did you find it easy to separate the producer from the artist?

My friend John Harcus of the band PMX produced the record and did an absolutely incredible job of doing so. We've been friends for almost twenty years now and it was an absolute pleasure to work with him. He challenged me in ways that nobody else could, to think about things differently and to challenge myself. At the same time, it was the most natural thing in the world. John was instrumental in shaping the sonic of this record, indulging my ideas and bringing a wealth of knowledge and experience to songs we both know intimately. In that sense, there is no real separation between producer and artist, we were immersed in the experience together. It was a beautiful thing.

Do you enjoy the process of song writing or do you prefer the experience of a live gig and the audience?

Both are parts of the whole, to me there isn't really one without the other. I've been playing music for over twenty years now, it's an intrinsic part of my being, my one true constant. For me, music is a way of processing thoughts, feelings and emotions, mostly in an unconscious way. It's often only after the song has been written that I begin to make sense of what I'm getting at. I tend to write in stream-of-consciousness, just pick up my guitar, start strumming, hollering and see what comes out. Oftentimes the songs essentially write themselves. Sometimes it clicks right away and it's the most amazing thing, other times it can be frustrating. However, much as I love writing songs, it's the sharing of them with people that I love most; to look people in the eye as I'm screaming my heart out and to give myself to the experience. At the heart of it, I yearn for connection.

Are you continuously writing or do find you down time?

I don't know what down time is. We run a label (Make That A Take Records) and a venue (Conroy's Basement) in Dundee, I play in a punk rock band (Uniforms) and am involved in a lot of community projects and groups, so I'm generally writing every time I get a minute to sit down and play guitar. When the creative streak is hot, I tend to write songs front to back pretty quickly. There are a couple of songs on the record that were written in twenty minutes, yet there's a couple of songs I've wrestled with for years. I've always got ideas swimming round me head, bursts of songwriting some kind of primal creative response, an expulsion of internal noise and psychic chatter.

Do you thrive on getting the essence from your lyric as opposed to filling a song with words?

Song, not self. Sometimes the song demands an explanation, other times it needs to breathe. I'd like to think I've learned to pace myself slightly as I've evolved as a human and as a songwriter but I fall short of my ideals, as there are two thousand words on this record. I'm interested in narrative, confession, jokes, splatter-painting, crossword puzzles, deconstruction, redemption, exploration, experience, stories. I'd be reticent to say I thrive on anything but I try to respect the song, not feed my ego.

What is your ultimate goal....or is there one?

What are goals but distant illusions we create for ourselves? I aim to be a positive force but I am a deeply flawed human with my own struggles, so getting through my day is my primary focus. I believe in the right to self-determination but, beyond ideology and philosophy, I'd like to share my music with as many people in as many places as possible, to share thoughts, ideas and experiences. Love is the ultimate goal, right?

Are you happy?

I try to accept reality as it presents itself to me and believe in the interconnectedness of all things. Without darkness, there is no light. Happiness is fleeting and transcendent, where there is love there will be loss. I'd like to think I'm happy but accept that often I am not. I know my depression well. I laugh ten thousand times more than I've ever cried. I'll take it.