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Neutrals: An Interview With Allan McNaughton

Photo by Jason Hendardy
5 November 2019

Photo by Jason Hendardy
Kebab Disco is the debut LP on Emotional Response from Bay Area trio Neutrals, following two well-received, self-released promotional cassettes featuring demo work (Promotional Cassette from 2016 and Promotional Cassette 2 from 2017). On their first full-length, the band hones lifetime loves of ‘70s and ‘80s punk and indie pop into energetic, bursts of twee-tinged post-punk that have garnered comparisons to Undertones and Television Personalities.

With the accompanying ‘zine/lyric booklet (enhancing the listening experience of the LP), the band describes a concept record with the first side of the record as “the art school suite”. The track sequence starts off in Glasgow, Scotland and rolls through tales of artistic jealousy, petty theft, late night psychedelic excursions, burgeoning romance, and subsequent betrayal. Leading off the LP’s second side, the protagonist has emigrated to the perceived mecca of San Francisco before being met by ghosts of the past, a shifting demographic, isolation and a self-satisfied post-counterculture consumerist class. While not strictly autobiographical, the LP is loosely based on the personal experiences of Scottish singer/guitarist Allan McNaughton (also of Giant Haystacks, Airfix Kits). 

Rounding out the band’s line-up is Philip Benson on bass (also of Magic Bullets, Terry Malts and The Cosmos), and Philip Lantz (also of Airfix Kits, Cocktails, Razz, Sob Stories, Sydney Ducks and Talkies), on drums. With the support of superb Arizona-based label Emotional Response, hopes are we will continue to hear Neutrals in the years to come.

Special thanks to Allan McNaughton for indulging my questions.

James Broscheid: Really happy to see Neutrals releasing a full-length! My initial impression of Kebab Disco is its tidier sound – less garage-y compared to the two promotional cassettes released in 2016/2017. Did the band alter its approach in the writing and recording processes for the new record? 

Allan McNaughton: The first two cassettes were recorded in our practice space by our drummer Phil Lantz on his 8-track tape machine. As such, those recordings benefitted (or suffered!), from a relaxed approach with no time restrictions per se. Phil is a wizard with his gear and we love how that stuff sounded, but I always think you can benefit from a second opinion. For the album, we had discussed various local options for recording (we’re lucky to live in an area with many experienced recording engineers and great analog studios), but eventually settled on Bart Thurber. He has an amazing pedigree of recording many of the best bands to come out of the Bay Area; from pop punk to power violence, up to and including all of Tony Molina’s solo records.
Working with Bart was a great experience and the fact that we were paying for studio time forced us to make sure we had practiced and could get the songs down quickly.
We recorded the initial tracks for 18 songs in one day, mostly first or second takes. We knew we didn’t want it to sound too slick and Bart got great sounds and was a genius on the mixing board. I should also give credit to the excellent mastering job by Timothy Stollenwerk at Stereophonic.
When you are used to bashing out songs in your practice room, once you record them you hear things you didn’t notice before. There are little bass lines and drum fills that add so much to the songs that I hadn’t really noticed until we were in the studio!

JB: It has been a couple years since the band released the excellent Promotional Cassette 2. What has the band been up to in the gap between recordings? I know you guys are involved with several other projects. Can you speak a bit to that? Is it difficult to find a balance as well as keeping other work unique?

AM: Mostly we have been trying to find time to record the album. In theory, we practice once a week but realistically we probably get together once a month. We all have very busy work schedules, relationships, pet responsibilities, etc. and “the Phils” are also both in other bands. When it comes down to it this is just a hobby, it’s real life that’s happening most of the time. When we eventually do get together, the best part of practice is after we play for a bit and are just sitting around having a beer, listening to music, and having a chin wag.

JB: Speaking of the promotional cassettes, a handful of songs have been (re)recorded for this album. Happy to see one of my favorites in “Motorcycle Cop” make the cut! Why were those particular tracks chosen (“I Can Do That”, “Missing Records”, “Swiss”, “24 Pictures of You”)? Was the band apprehensive at all about recording those tracks again? They came out pretty damn good on the cassettes but the new versions are flawless! 

AM: Thank you! As I said before, we recorded pretty much every song we knew at the time, including most of the songs from the demos. We didn’t know which ones would go on the album for sure at that point; we wanted to hear how they came out and experiment with the running orders, etc. We ended up with twelve songs in thirty minutes, and it came together in a way that made for a pretty cohesive album, I think. Some of the demo songs had to go on because they ended up forming part of the story arc of the ‘Art School’ suite on side A, and “Swiss” was a specific request of the label!
The thing is, we really did consider those promotional cassettes “demos”, not full-on releases. These days though, the internet has “democratized” demos in a way, and the accessability of cassettes vs. vinyl has lead to many bands releasing their albums on tape.
What’s interesting about how the record came together, is that it ended up being really poppy. We actually play a mix of sort of indie-pop songs and more punk/post-punk type songs, but the album came out slanted in the poppier direction. So we’ve been getting a lot of “jangle-pop” type references which I think makes us sound more twee than we actually are. The remaining songs from the session will be on an EP later in the year, and people might be surprised to hear something a bit more “punk” (at least for us…)!

JB: I understand you are originally from Glasgow and the record is a bit of a concept album in regards to your relocation. Can you elaborate on the transition to the Bay Area? What drew you to Northern California and how did you work through the acclimatization process? Does a song like “Hate the Summer of Love” sum up that love/hate relationship? Also would be fascinated if you could compare/contrast the differences between the two cities/scenes.

AM: Funnily enough, the ‘concept’ only revealed itself to me after we had recorded all the songs; as I played with different running orders I realized that there was a thread running through a chunk of the songs that I hadn’t necessarily realized as I was writing them. It’s not autobiographical by any means but it does draw somewhat on my personal experiences of Glasgow in the early 90s. The character in the songs basically needs to put a lot of distance between himself and Glasgow because of things he’s done but, with me I chose to come to the States in search of a bit of adventure. I spent my childhood leafing through BMX and skate magazines and dreaming of the promised land of California. Now I’m here. I don’t think it took long to acclimatize – I already had some friends here through the punk scene and I jumped right in to volunteering at Epicenter Records and MaximumRocknRoll. That led me to meeting most of the people I still consider friends here.
Hate The Summer Of Love” relates explicitly to the celebrations last year here in SF on the anniversary of the summer of love. I don’t have time to go into a whole rant but there was something gross about this place which is the most visible representation of the vast imbalance between the haves and the have-nots; patting themselves on the back for some celebration of ‘revolution’ that was really about flares, tie-dye and pot, ignoring any of the positive ideas or true radicalism of the ’60s counter-culture.
I haven’t lived in Glasgow for 27 years but I still have lots of friends there. It’s a gritty working-class city with a radical left-wing history and an active, supportive and creative music and arts scene. I sometimes wish I’d stayed around longer for those reasons.
However, outside of the creative/left wing bubble, I always felt a sense of general negativity among the wider population, at least in the West of Scotland where I grew up. When I was a kid, ambition, intelligence or creativity was something to keep to yourself. The nail that stuck up got hammered down. I do miss lots of things about Scotland: most notably my family, the sense of humor, and greasy chippy food.

JB: Coat-tailing off the previous question, how did the band first form? Has the line-up changed at all considering how difficult it can be to find like-minded/compatible musicians that fit the vision?

AM: It had been a couple of years since the dissolution of my previous band, Airfix Kits. (We didn’t really break up, but Phil Lantz left because he was drumming in too many bands, and the bassist (Alan Kasameyer), and I didn’t really try very hard to find another drummer. A year after he left we reformed for one more show and then Alan (yes, that band had two Allans and Neutrals has two Phils!), moved to Hawaii. I made a sort of new-years resolution that I was going to start playing music again. I jammed a bit with another drummer on some more overtly ‘post-punk’ angular type stuff. We’d asked two different people if they wanted to play bass and luckily Phil Benson agreed. He and I gelled musically pretty quickly but the songs took a much poppier direction once he joined. I’ve got pretty broad musical tastes and influences but limited range and I think I just sort of gradually started playing guitar parts that worked with the melodic basslines that he was good at. It wasn’t really working out with that drummer but luckily Phil Lantz was available again. He’s a great drummer to play with and his style just naturally fit with the sort of tunes we were coming up with.

JB: Emotional Response has released some killer records this year (Neutrals included!), with some Bay Area focus. How did the band’s relationship with the label come about? What does it mean to have a supportive label who are also musicians?

AM: It’s great! I can’t tell you how great it feels to have someone who is actually keen to share your music with the world. I’ve been lucky over the years to work with a couple of good smaller labels and I’ve put out a lot of my own records as well. I know how much work it is and I really appreciate Stew (Anderson) over at Emotional Response for everything he’s done for us. The man’s work ethic is insane!
Funnily enough, I wasn’t that aware of the label, despite the fact that I’d obviously been hearing Boyracer for years. A couple of friends (including the Phils) had put out records with Stew but, it was really the first couple of Typical Girls compilations that put the label on the map for me. I think we have Andy Human & The Reptoids, etc. to thank for the introduction – I think he was the first person to send Stew a Neutrals demo or at least recommend us to him.

JB: I really dig the cover art for Kebab Disco as there isn’t much head-scratching to figure out how it correlates with the music inside! Who is responsible for album artwork and can you discuss the process going from idea to final layout?

AM: Thanks! I did all the layout. Graphic design is sort of a hobby of mine. I know a lot of other people that would do a better job but I can’t afford to pay for it and I feel uncomfortable asking my friends to donate their skills and labor. Although I was really honored to have my friend Neil Davidson shoot a photo for the back cover (and sign some limited edition prints for customers of Monorail Records in Glasgow) and I only owe him a few pints!
I really wanted this album to feel like a punk record, or even a hardcore record. The initial inspiration for the cover was a really busy collage, crammed with images that reference the songs; something like Napalm DeathScum” or “From Enslavement…” or a CRASS record. It obviously evolved over the design process but yeah, all the imagery references stuff on the album. In general with Neutrals stuff, I’ve really been going back to a lot of cut and paste, Letraset, zine-style art.
If you buy the LP it comes with a 16 page zine of lyrics and stuff. I’d hoped to really cram it with content like a copy of Skate Muties from the Fifth Dimension (seminal ’80s UK skate/hardcore zine), but time got the better of me. All the artwork and writing should hopefully lend a bit of context to the songs. I really liked buying punk records when I was a kid that came with posters and booklets and stuff to read.

JB: Some of my favorite listening is currently out of the Bay Area – Smokescreens, Seablite, Terry Malts, etc. For your band, is there a collaborative effort in that area? Especially with San Francisco, how does gentrification effect how supportive labels/other bands are? 

AM: Gentrification is obviously a huge issue here – just like almost any city these days, but probably worse. There are still more bands and gigs than I can conceivably see in any given week, so the music scene seems surprisingly healthy. We are losing great, supportive venues at a depressing rate though. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few years. I dunno. I was speaking to a friend this morning who thinks he’s noticed that most of the young bands he sees – like bands with younger kids in them – are made up of city kids who grew up here, maybe with ‘cool’ parents, as opposed to before when the people who formed bands were kids who moved here to escape their more conservative hometowns and find a supportive community. It should be noted that Smokescreens are not in fact a Bay Area band. They’re gonna be rolling in their Dodgers snuggies if they read that!

JB: Thanks for the correction on Smokescreens – I always default to SF because Corey Cunningham is also in Bay-area based Terry Malts! How were the dates that you played with Seablite received? Would have loved to have caught the SF show and the roller rink in Seattle. I think Buddy Holly played roller rinks when he was starting out!

AM: Oh man, the roller rink show in Seattle was so fun! Every band should try to play there. The people who run it are really trying hard to get something good going there and it shows. Southgate Roller Rink. It’s in a neighborhood in the south of Seattle called Rat City.
In terms of attendance at our shows generally, whether on tour or at home, I would say they’re nothing to write home about. The good thing about going on tour with another band is that you at least have some supportive friends in the audience! There were maybe a dozen people at our show at Jankuland in Tacoma, WA. It was still really fun, and such an amazing place. It’s a combined vintage clothing, antiques, and record store. A lot of us are record collectors and we all picked up some heat there (and at Daybreak in Seattle)!

JB: Can you discuss some of the band’s influences over the years? Are your influences primarily derived from life events?

AM: I don’t know if the band has influences per se. The songs mostly just pop into my head almost fully formed. The sound that emerges musically is a distillation of my rudimentary guitar playing and a lifetime of listening to lots of different pop music. I can only really play one way and I can’t really sing, but I enjoy doing what I do. It’s corny to say but while it makes me really really happy when other people like it, I don’t expect it. I’m genuinely surprised.
We don’t really ‘jam’ much in the practice space, we mostly just refine and improve the arrangements of the songs I write at home, with the Phils adding their bass and drum expertise.
Musically what we end up playing is not really what we mostly listen to or even what we really talk about amongst ourselves. But I think it’s the sweet spot between all our combined tastes.

JB: I was excited to see the band hitting the road last June to support the record’s release alongside another favorite of mine, Seablite. Any chance Neutrals, will add some more dates? Maybe Southern California/southwest (please! please!)?

AM: This will almost certainly happen.

JB: With an abundance of resources in the Bay Area, what was it about Burt Thurber that appealed to you and the band? The Tony Molina stuff is brilliant for sure!

AM: His name is just part of the fabric of the Bay Area underground scene. Phil had worked with him before I think, on an old band called Cosmos. But he just has an untouchable reputation. Plus he was available and affordable!

JB: Did the extra pressure from paying for your studio time yourselves help or hinder the creative process during recording? Any “happy accidents” in the studio that you decided to keep in the final mix?

AM: I don’t know about pressure, but working with Bart definitely helped: He got great sounds out of our gear right from the start, and knew when to say “you could probably get that a bit better” after a sloppy take.

JB: Back to your earlier comment, I am glad you brought up the twee comparisons with the new LP. The demo tapes have harder, DIY/garage edges to them whereas Kebab Disco comes across with a more poppier sound. Was that a conscious decision going in to record or was that a by-product of production?

AM: We still have that side to the band, it’s funny but if you enjoyed this album for the poppier moments but came to see us on a night where we played more of the punk-sounding stuff you might think you’d got the wrong band. Of the songs we recorded, these are the ones that worked together as an album. We’ll have an EP out later in the year that will sound a lot more punk.
Twee/jangle-pop/_C86_ are terms that are getting thrown around a lot these days in regards to bands like ours. I didn’t really pay much attention to that stuff at the time – in 1986 I was fully into whatever American punk and hardcore bands I could find, like Agent Orange, Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, Minutemen, Dead Kennedys, Misfits, Minor Threat, 7 Seconds, Naked Raygun etc. Stuff you could skate and BMX to! The twee/indie stuff just passed me by or went over my head. I wish I’d known about that stuff at the time. A bit later I saw and heard local bands like the Stretch Heads, Dawson, and Dog Faced Hermans and that was my introduction into noisy bands like Bogshed, Big Flame, A Witness etc. Of course, it would be impossible to overstate the influence of John Peel in all this as well.

JB: The fact that the record comes with a zine really does harken back to a day of listeners really consuming records; making it an experience with a combination of music, artwork and thought-provoking supplements. Are you worried about the shorter attention spans of the instant gratification public nowadays? Not necessarily those buying Neutrals records but in general?

AM: Oh, I worry about a lot of things nowadays! I’m not a luddite and I certainly embrace technology in a lot of ways, but I do think social media is dragging the public discourse into a dangerous place. In terms of attention spans, I’m not sure if they are getting shorter: people seem eager to consume long form television series for example, or podcasts. Those are two art forms that have really benefitted from widespread technological innovation.

JB: Finally, I had no idea there was a celebration last year “remembering” the Summer of Love. Sounds like it was more a costume pageant than anything else. Funny, I just saw “Gimme Shelter” again for the first time in a long time recently and some pundits credit The Rolling Stones gig at Altamont in 1969 as the definitive “death of rock-n-roll” moment. They obviously are oblivious to the last 50 years in music! Does this speak to more larger issues in a society of headline blurbs and “seen to be seen” as opposed to an in-depth understanding of what issues/history are/were actually about?

AM: I’ve still never seen Gimme Shelter but you can’t trust music documentaries. They are good for seeing footage of bands but they’re almost always flawed. The punk ones are the worst. The first half ends with Johnny Rotten on stage saying “Ever feel like you’ve been cheated?” Cut to: the opening chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with a voiceover: “And then, along came a little band out of Seattle called Nirvana …!”

For more information on Neutrals, check out:
Emotional Response


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