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.