If you haven’t already heard of him, Mancunian-based musician Minute Taker, aka Ben McGarvey is not only the latest one-to-watch on the Northern music scene, but he has also found the time to lead the ‘digi-folk’ revolution with his glockenspiel and synthesiser in tow. Gabriella Swerling catches up with him for what turns out to be an unexpected counselling session.
Minute Taker is a multi-talented singer-songwriter and producer whose otherworldly beats have garnered comparisons with the likes of Björk and Bat for Lashes. Ben McGarvey is an unassuming yet charming Shropshire-born lad whose peculiar and haunted imagination is unveiled only when he performs under his pseudonym. Bizarrely, Minute Taker and Ben McGarvey are somehow the same person.
It is precisely this Jekyll-Hyde-esque polite shyness and creative genius that makes Minute Taker’s latest album, Last Things, released 15 April 2013, all the more intriguing. He released his first album Too Busy Framing in 2008 under his own name, and against his gut instinct. “I just didn’t really feel comfortable when it came to promoting it,” he says. “I think because my music is so personal, by using my own name I just somehow felt too exposed, so I decided to find a stage-name that I liked instead.”
After years of indecisive procrastination and existential torment, Ben McGarvey could only come up with names of death metal bands that already existed in the Netherlands.
His ‘eureka-moment’ came whilst working a string of mundane office jobs. He amused himself by creating sound effects from office stationary, crowd noises and computer sound-effects – all of which feature on Last Things. It was this preoccupation with the monotony of the daily grind that was the deal-breaker. “I decided that I liked the idea of making music that was quite ethereal and magical out of everyday concepts and even actual everyday sounds.
“So I decided to look for a name that could be simultaneously perceived as mundane and fantastical and it turned out it was staring me in the face; I work as a minute taker! It can be a guy sat in a meeting or an almighty time lord reaching down from the sky to steal minutes! Haha! Or even a song, it eats away the minutes as you listen.”
Minute Taker is revitalising folk music – and not in the moth-eaten-peasant-waistcoat kinds of way like say, ahem, Mumford and Sons. Last Things is sleek album loaded with the digital intimacy, hypnotic motifs, story-telling charisma and lo-fi ethereal loneliness that twenty-first-century folk should embody. The promo singles ‘Merge’ and ‘Let it Go’ earned a wealth of positive reviews from alternative music magazines, whilst ‘Somewhere Under Water’ was short-listed for Mojo Magazine’s 2011 New Voice Award. A pioneer of the folktronic scene, Minute Taker’s latest album tracks a story of digitised loneliness and introspection.
“When I’m on a creative streak it’s great as my head is full of ideas for melodies and lyrics and it all comes together into songs, which is a really euphoric feeling, but when it goes away I often find myself feeling quite lost and, if I’m not careful, I lose all sense of purpose.”
The clear threads that run throughout the album are the emotive melodies and existential themes. Layers of floating vocal choirs, glockenspiel inflections and found-sounds form an ambient and often otherworldly back-drop.
‘Somewhere Under Water’ and ‘Tin Box’ are particularly gothic songs. He sings with the pain and insight of a tortured poet. There is something special about ‘Tin Box’. It carries the supernatural harmonies of a hymn, and resonates throughout the mind, as it would do a Church hall. But why all this darkness? Why is he inspired by the macabre?
“I’ve always been drawn to quite dark content in music and film. I’m fascinated by how a certain lyric or line in a movie can resonate with my own darker thoughts. I like the idea of trying to unveil the things that most of us probably feel quite regularly but can’t discuss because it’s not thought to be socially acceptable or moral.”
He speaks with the anguish of someone who has been there – someone who has delved to the very depths of depth – and come back to sing about what he saw, like some sort of techno-prophet.
“There has to be light in there too though. I’m not interested in a dark room but I am interested in a dark room with a glimmer of light shining in. I’ve been fortunate enough in my life to have never suffered real hardship like so many people have, yet I’ve spent quite a lot of my life feeling quite sad. Ironically, as dark as they are sometimes, my songs are often the light for me.”
All songs on the album are connected to endings. Whilst writing these songs over the last few years, as Ben McGarvey was battling his demons, Minute Taker became stronger and more confident.
“I’ve been struggling to find my way in the world as I guess a lot of us are, especially when you don’t manage to find yourself in the right job or the right relationship, loss becomes a part of daily life and you have to make sacrifices to get yourself back on the right path. This album is really all about learning when to let go of things that aren’t working out whilst trying to keep dreams and ideals in sight.”
It is precisely this sense of loss, and being lost that Minute Taker conveys in his music. Last Things is a ghostly album. Its ethereal desperation is only heightened by its use of synthesisers and his very, very beautiful voice.
No doubt this is why he enjoys singing a cappella in his live sets. What with loop pedals overdubbing harmonies and different vocal parts, he ends up technically accompanying himself with his own voice, (recorded moments before). Such digital wizardry enables the multi-instrumentalist technophile to bridge the gap between pre-recorded sound and live performance. The result is a chilling concoction of impressive vocal talent, lyrical insight and dreamy synth. He lures us into his world with magical electro-chimes that echo the repetitive thud of syncopated beats.
Since the young Minute Taker began tinkering on his family’s battered piano which lay forgotten in the basement, he knew that he wanted to make a living from music. Like most creative souls, he’s had to succumb to the reality of a monotonous day job to pay the bills. “So I often feel like I work two full-time jobs which can be really exhausting and frustrating.” When he was finally drawn to Manchester by the almighty pull of its historic music scene, his digital wizardry really took off, and Minute Taker began to establish himself as a Manchester staple. Growing up, his favourite Mancunian band was Lamb:
“I loved how they sounded like little haunting folk songs that had been battered and distorted with almost industrial sporadic break beats and synth parts.”
He also cites The Smiths as another of his musical influences, and especially the “poetic frankness of Morrissey’s lyrics.” He is particularly interested in alternative female singer-songwriters such as Tori Amos, Kate Bush and PJ Harvey, and enjoys how their lyrics can take him away to another little world for a few minutes.
Minute Taker’s own poetic lyricism transforms him into some strange, otherworldly folktronic hybrid – think a James Blake soundtrack to a Tim Burton film set in the future where Rodriguez and Jonny Cash become musical time-travellers. With aluminium guitars and tin foil hats. But it was all a dream.
Minute Taker is currently working on his next concept album, but that doesn’t mean that Ben McGarvey is taking a break any time soon. Ben is writing the music for a very dark stage musical (naturally) called HOAX in collaboration with graphic novelist Ravi Thornton and director Benji Reid in which Minute Taker will be performing alongside the actors.
Whilst Minute Taker sings his heart out on stage, it seems that all those years Ben McGarvey locked himself away in his bedroom and basement to practice, practice, practice have paid off. His novel approach to leading the folktronic revolution is a nuanced depiction of the current state of man. He has made music out of a glitching computer and beautiful looping melodies to create an emotional, magical and eerie response to the now through musical schizophrenia. Ben ends on a note that is typical to his humble, open and emotional character. “I feel like I’ve turned the interview into a counselling session! Haha.” But Minute taker just keeps on playing.