Sermon on the Mt. Doubt: an interview with Leo Bargery

Eight bands will be performing at From Night ‘Till Morning, Last Night From Glasgow’s showcase on the 24th of January. Mt. Doubt, one of the four bands signed to the crowdfunded, not-for-profit record label, is one of these. After two albums and multiple singles and EPs, Mt. Doubt are preparing to release the track “Headless”, out on March 6th and precursor to their third record, which will be out in October 2020.

In the spirit of the Celtic Connections festival, which celebrates traditional folk music from Scotland while simultaneously drawing in international acts, Leo and I discussed “Scottishness”, cultural heritage, the digitisation of music, and what this means for consumers and musicians alike.

Leo, me and a very good boy.

Isabella: Media coverage of your music and sound has often involved an emphasis on your Scottish heritage. It seems to be a defining part of the image and identity of the band. That being said, do you feel a distinct drive to integrate “Scottishness” into your music?

Leo: No, I don’t really consider it that much to be honest. Those labels make you feel sort of included, which is nice because there’s such a big Scottish music scene, and you become part of it. But when people use words like “atmospheric” and say it’s Scottish, it doesn’t really mean anything. They’re not really tied to a geographic location… If it came from somewhere else, you would just use different words. (I look confused, Leo elaborates) Basically, if you went into it blind, you wouldn’t necessarily see those images or hear those parts of music. (I get it, we continue)

I’ve never really listened to “Scottish” music, the traditional folk music; things like rock pipe bands I don’t like that much. Maybe I have a bit of a biased view. I’ve not looked into it, so it’s probably a bit ignorant of me, but it’s not a sound I try to integrate into mine.

“…when people use words like ‘atmospheric’ and say it’s Scottish, it doesn’t really mean anything.”

I: Yeah that’s fair enough, makes sense. This weight placed on national heritage then, does it help, or hinder you?

L: There’s not necessarily a hindrance but perhaps a mild limitation. It’s easy to be content in that small field, to feel like you’re doing all right in that area without expanding outside of it. Which isn’t meant to sound ungrateful, it’s great that’s its there, but for all the benefits it can become a bit restricting.

I: Celtic Connections as a festival does a pretty good job of taking the concept of “traditional” music and linking it to acts from all over the world. What has the festival done for you in particular?

L: I mean for us as a band personally, it’s been great because it gets lots of people interested, it provides a good platform to perform, and it brings in music from around the world to Scotland. I remember seeing this band Calexico (US), who brought in musicians from all over, places like Mexico and Wales, and did a lot of genre shifts throughout the show. Having that showcased in the city is great for music fans.

I: An article you featured in talks about cassettes and digitisation. Apart from the fact the only ones you own are “Stephen Fry talking about wizards” – which completely resonates with me by the way, those stories are like a familiar, auditory hug – I wanted to ask you about digitisation. Musicians tend to be quite divided on the topic, oftentimes along generational lines. Thoughts?

L: As a consumer of music it’s undeniably good to have that resource there. Since the age of 13 I’ve been compulsively buying tons of CDs and records, and I’ve always done that in tandem with listening and streaming music. When I was younger I would go to my friends’ houses, clear out their parents’ collections into carrier bags to take home and put them on my iTunes. But I’ve always somehow been paying for it, I’ve never even illegally downloaded music! Not necessarily out of principle, but for fear of ruining my laptop…

“…people want short bursts of what they want, without having to work for it.”

And well, all the music you want, when you want it, is there; but that’s also the downside. Netflix seems like a good comparison: people want short bursts of what they want, without having to work for it. Not that they should have to work for it, but I don’t know how many people sit down and actually really listen to a whole album and analyse it. That experience is being eroded a little through constant availability.

From the perspective of a person who’s being listened to, it’s different because you’re creating a physical product that you’re really happy with, and in fact not that big a percentage of your audience will engage with that. So there’s a whole package, a whole level of resonance and meaning that they’ll miss out on. That’s why LNFG is great because they’re trying to make it more financially viable for musicians and bring out physical copies, but when you initially go into it, you’re kind of accepting that you won’t make any money of it. I certainly never expected it to be financially fruitful.

“…there’s a whole level […] of resonance and meaning that [the audience] will miss out on [without a physical copy].”

I: Let’s talk about digital versus traditional sounds and instruments for a second. Your next single “Headless” incorporates a bit of an auditory surprise around the 3min30sec mark; tell me about that and your next release!

L: Well it started as a bit of a joke. We were putting our friend’s saxophone on another track, and we asked him to play a bit for this song, and well, it sounded good so we just went with it. There’s something about instruments like that where they feel very “live”. I mean, it’s obviously a traditional jazz instrument, but there’s something about the way he played it that added something extra. Up until then the song’s quite moody, and it brought this weird spike to it.

“We wanted to have more of these little extra elements in the new release; we wanted it to be more interesting and more thoughtful, more textured.”

We wanted to have more of these little extra elements in the new release; we wanted it to be more interesting and more thoughtful, more textured. Kind of like those songs you listen to all the time, and then don’t for about 3 years and when you come back to it you’re surprised with a bit of synth in the background. It’s also a lot of fun to work with all these different sounds.

When it comes to the technical side, cheap and good quality production means it’s quite easy to make something that’s not good sound good. I mean we’ve put out music before that’s not really ready, but we did because the production made it sound okay. Having that mastery of instruments [like the saxophone] then makes the difference. There’s a proficiency there that can’t be made up through technical efficiency. It’s not some kind of magical quality but the time and work invested that makes it stand out.

“It’s not some kind of magical quality but the time and work invested [in learning an instrument] that makes it stand out.”

I think having the technological equipment, cheap, at your disposal, after a while, can lead to your music falling flat in a way, just because it makes it easier. Kind of like how the concept of “Scottishness” can start out as a benefit and become a hindrance. If you’re just in it for a pop banger, some cash, then people are gonna know and it won’t last. It’s fine, but there’s no durability to that, really. There’s also nothing wrong with using technology as your driving force, that’s something completely different. Using it to make yourself sound better, to paper over the cracks – and I am someone who has done it, there’s nothing wrong with it – but eventually you want to be able to progress beyond that point.

“Using [technology] … to paper over the cracks … eventually you want to be able to progress beyond that point.”

At this point Leo and I get side-tracked fangirling about The National, long, extended gigs by the likes of Amanda Palmer and Nick Cave, and eventually find our way to the question: what is the fundamental message – if there is one – of your music?

L: Well I never sit down and think what do I want this song to be about – maybe I should – but I write a lot, I have notes everywhere. Then I read through them, scribble through the shit, slot little pieces together and the song kind of just happens, without it ever being a matter of “I need it to be about this”. It’s predominantly autobiographical, which is a little narcissistic, but it’s cathartic.

I: The song “Tourists” is about technology, Instagram, social media, and the like, right? I mean I try to limit my feed to animals and cartoons, but it’s difficult not to get caught up in comparing yourself to others… Are there similar issues when it comes to streaming music, do you find yourself counting or comparing online plays?

L: Yeah, recently bands have been putting up their “most played” from Spotify, and I know bands that have so many plays online but couldn’t sell tickets to a gig – similarly how you can make it look like you’re doing really cool things when you’re not.

“…next thing you know you’ve been scrolling for an hour and you’ve wasted your life in bed for an hour because someone took a photo on a mountain.”

The technology thing, it’s not a new idea… Without it, it’s so much easier to have your little goals, to focus on you, but now you have this strange, idyllic point of view where you’re like “imagine living like that” and next thing you know you’ve been scrolling for an hour and you’ve wasted your life in bed for an hour because someone took a photo on a mountain.

Although we happily carried on discussing the pros and cons of Instagram, Tinder, the meaning of life and everything beyond, we wrapped up the official part of the interview at this point, lest it continue ad infinitum. You can listen to Mt. Doubt on Spotify and catch them on January 24th at the Blue Arrow where you’ll be able to get yourself some particularly resonant merch.