Neill Dougan’s My Pilot have, over the years, been both a solo project and a band, a deeply personal vehicle that rarely appear live, but have gained ample kudos for Dougan’s inventive and sometimes leftfield songwriting. It’s been a long, long road between his earlier EPs – the most recent release was launched in 2015 – and a return with the album ‘Team Dangerous’, part of an ambitious project that could expand into a trio of records.
In this deeply personal interview Neill – who I used to work alongside at Alternatiev Ulster, though I’m not sure we ever met – talks about the themes behind his music, the family barriers that have delayed its production, and why he’s donating a portion of his profits to charity…
Let’s go right back to the start – tell me about the roots of My Pilot, and what you set out to do?
There was no big plan, really. I had been playing guitar since my early teens and once I got to a certain level of proficiency I found myself being way more interested in making up my own songs than learning other people’s songs. I’d also always harboured a secret hankering to be in a band but (bizarrely, looking back on it) I was always faintly embarrassed to admit to it.
That’s probably something to do with the environment I grew up in, which was a small town where I always felt creative endeavours were viewed as vaguely suspect in some way. Anyway, I was living in Dublin and at some point I just realised that there was no point being behind the door about it, and there was no point sitting on all these songs and doing nothing with them. Like I had written literally hundreds of songs at that point, though most of them were pretty bad. So I just decided to go for it.
I was also quite lucky timing-wise in a way, because the whole home recording boom was taking off around this time which made recording a lot more accessible to rank amateurs such as myself. My brother Connor was also a big inspiration as he got right in at the start of home recording and was making music that I was blown away by from the word go (he records under the names Defcon, AI
Messiah and Deathbed Convert and is on Touch Sensitive Records).
So I started recording songs, and had no more grand a plan than just to get some songs out on CD (people still bought CDs back then) and see what happened. I didn’t sell many but enough people seemed to like what I was doing to give me sufficient encouragement to try and make it a proper band.
How does today’s My Pilot compare to the solo version of all those years ago?
It’s pretty much the same insofar as the recordings are all me. In some ways I really want to move away from that and record as a band but in other ways it’s just easier to record on my own as I can work to my own schedule and essentially do what I like. But there’s a downside to doing all the recording yourself as well, as it’s a kind of isolated, hermetic experience and although collaborating creatively with other people isn’t something that really comes naturally to me (I’m kind of awkward about it) I have realised over the years that when it’s right it’s really rewarding and fulfilling.
The obvious difference is that once it became a proper band we were able to actually play live, which I’ve always had mixed feelings about (I’m not a natural performer) but again when it comes together properly is a pretty incredible feeling. The typical live set features songs that, oddly enough, aren’t on the album, and which are essentially band co-writes, borne out of riffs and tunes that we came up with from improvising together in the practice room. Because those are songs we wrote collectively, I want to record them collectively.
I’d also like to think that, although I don’t really consider myself a “producer” in any meaningful sense (like, if someone else asked me to produce their music I’d probably have to refuse as the way I work is embarrassingly basic and idiosyncratic), the new recordings are much better produced than the early stuff. They almost sound professional.
I understand the album’s been on the backburner for quite some time. What should we expect from it?
Yeah it’s taken a long time, much longer than I would have liked. I alluded to this in the press release that I put out when the new single came out when I said that some real life stuff happened that kind of prevented me from properly focusing on music for a while. I’ve been humming and hawing about how much I should say about this because there are other people involved who have a right to privacy and to not have me blabbing about their lives.
But I talked to my wife about it and ultimately decided that I could maybe, in my own small way, try to be an advocate for the person and the issues involved. In fact, my wife told me it was my job to talk about it. So, to be specific, my youngest son (I have two boys) is autistic and has some considerable additional needs. For example he’s completely non-verbal (or pre-verbal I believe is the preferred term) and when he’s going through a bad patch my family’s life is essentially put into crisis mode, with all hands to the pump to help him through it. And even the ordinary, day-to-day challenges of raising an autistic child can be significant. And I love him to bits, needless to say, and he’s great in many ways, but any parent of an autistic child will tell you that it’s not without its challenges and moments of heartache.
And I would also say that in terms of my own mental and emotional state I’ve spent a long time over the last few years struggling with trying to come to terms with the situation I found myself in, because everyone who has children has certain hopes and expectations for their kids and when you have a child with additional needs you find yourself having to recalibrate those, in some cases quite significantly.
So that is essentially the reason why it has taken me so long to get new music out. And on that note, I’ve decided that I’m going to donate 10% of any vinyl and cassette sales of the album to a charity called My Canine Companion, which has been of great help to us.
Sorry, that didn’t really answer your question but I wanted to mention it as I have been wrestling for a while now with how much to say about that if I was asked about it. To actually answer the question, I think there are some really poppy, catchy moments on the new album and also some weird glitchy psychedelic moments. There’s properly polished stuff and some scratchy, lo-fi moments. Some of it is quiet and folky and some is pretty noisy. Basically a bit of everything I like.
How does it feel to have it out in the world?
I’m delighted to finally have it out there after so long, it’s like getting a monkey off my back. As I mentioned before I also made the decision to get it pressed to vinyl, which is probably madness, but it’s been a long-standing ambition of mine to have an actual vinyl record out so I’m pretty chuffed about that. I don’t have any huge expectations for it but it would be nice if it found a little audience.
Tell me about a couple of tracks on the album that stand out to you, and what they’re about…
There’s an instrumental song on it called Mark E Smith Is Dead, I wrote and recorded all the main parts for that in quite an emotional state on the night I heard Mark E Smith had died (I added the drums later). I’m completely obsessed with The Fall so I was absolutely devastated when he died. That one just kind of poured out of me which was pretty unusual.
The other song I am probably proudest of is Nettle Soup. It’s basically quite a catchy song but for the longest time I had the idea that I wanted something unusual to happen in the middle of that song, and it went through a few iterations before I hit on the idea of the whole tune just breaking down in the middle into this weird, ambient drifting interlude. It took me a long time to get it how I wanted it and I’m really happy with how it turned out.
There are some field recordings and found sounds in there and it’s basically quite an unusual piece of music, I think. Also, the refrain that I’m singing in the weird interlude bit (“I will shoulder the burden, I will carry the load”) is something that came to me pretty spontaneously during recording and I think it’s probably informed by the stuff I mentioned above that has been going on in my personal life. In fact the middle section is directly inspired by “Chaos Of The Galaxy/Happy Man” by Sparklehorse and “Paintwork” by the Fall, two of my favourite songs.
Ripping off other artists is one of my main sources of inspiration. I put out Nettle Soup as a single and I’ll be amazed if it gets played even once on any radio show on earth, but the perversity and commercial suicide of releasing a seven-and-a-half minute song with a really weird middle bit quite appealed to me. I also did the video for that song myself and it literally took me most of this year to get it completed. I’m not a fast worker.
Is there a wider story or concept to the record?
Not really. There are themes of family life strung throughout it here and there but I wouldn’t say there’s a concept as such. I don’t want to explain too much about meanings and themes as I like to keep things as ambiguous as possible so that the listener ascribe can their own meaning to it. In terms of a wider story, I should mention that this is the first part of a projected three album sequence of interlinked songs. I already have the artwork, basic tracks and running order of the other two all done but getting this album to a point where I can release it has been difficult enough. God knows if and when the other two will ever see the light of day.
Your debut album got compared to OK Computer, which you understandably find quite funny. How do you feel about it at this stage, though?
Haha, that comment was from a review of our second (mini) album. I like to quote it as often as I can as it’s quite possibly the most hilariously over-the-top compliment I can imagine. That release (Welcome To Ireland) I don’t mind too much, as I was starting to find my feet production-wise, but the first album (For Winter) is really hamstrung by my lack of production chops. And the first two EPs I find just pretty embarrassing at this stage, I can’t listen to them at all, apart from the song Descendants off the second EP which my brother produced.
I was essentially running before I could walk in terms of recording and producing music. I’ve considered deleting the first two EPs from the online sphere but then I just thought, why bother. There’s no point being precious about it and someone else might like them. Also I still have a box or two of CDs I need to sell.
Who in the Irish scene is impressing you at the moment?
It’s an obvious choice but Gilla Band are really flying the flag for Irish music at the moment. They’re brilliant live and the production on their albums is incredible. Them aside, the amount of good Irish music about these days is insane so it’s hard to know where to start.
We played one or two gigs with Sun Mahshene, in fact we used to share a bassist, and they’re really good. Again, very powerful live. I really like Joshua Burnside, that dark alt-folk thing really appeals to me. I’m a big fan of A Lazarus Soul and Aoife Nessa Frances. I like Kean Kavanagh and a lot of the stuff on Soft Boy Records. I just recently got the new album from Myles O’Reilly and it’s very good. Touch Sensitive always put out good stuff, and the two albums my brother has made in the last couple of years under the names AI Messiah and Deathbed Convert are both spectacular bits of experimental, atmospheric electronica. He’s a proper producer, unlike me.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you’ve done a fair bit of music writing yourself over the years. With that in mind, how would you describe your music?
Haha, that’s correct, I used to write for AU and Thumped and a few other organs. I really enjoyed it but it kind of fell by the wayside. There’s only so much psychic space you can give to your various endeavours and when I had kids something had to give and I just couldn’t find time for music writing anymore. Hopefully I might go back to it at some point.
I’m far too close to my own music to try and describe it, I’m afraid. Every time I try I fail miserably, I don’t have the requisite objectivity. Kind of weird, noisy, folky, leftfield guitar music I suppose? Sorry, that’s an awful description.
What are the plans once the record is out?
Well, it seems like nothing I do is ever straightforward and, in an instance of unfortunate timing, my finally getting to a point where I can release the album has coincided with losing two band members. Our bassist and guitarist have both recently decided to pack it in so currently we’re reduced to me and James our drummer. So I’m actively looking to recruit new band members. Any bassists or guitarists out there who are reading this please feel free to give me a shout. I mean it.
Once we have a full complement of band members, the rough plan is to play some gigs, sell
the odd record, make some more albums, and repeat this process until we die.
‘Team Dangerous’ by My Pilot is out now.