Interview: Acid Cannibals / The Cosmic Dead

To spread both positivity and awareness of how to get to that better place. A better place that's achievable for all of us in a very real way.

Acid Cannibals, the high octane duo who mix insane punk rock energy with a sense of fun and positivity, and psychedelic powerhouses The Cosmic Dead. Aside of both being brilliant bands both live and on record they have another thing in common in the form of guitarist James T. McKay. Gavin Brown caught up with him for a chat about both of those bands, their history, recorded output, what it’s like to pull duties in both bands on the same night and what is in store next for them, as well as what music has influenced and shaped him, memorable gigs and on the road mishaps, the vibrant music scene in Glasgow (and a whole list of bands you need to check out) and a whole lot more in an entertaining and very informative chat.

E&D: How did Acid Cannibals get together in the first place?

James: I hope I can phrase this well and keep it faithful to reality as we both remember it! Marley and his (former) partner had a burnout and he called me saying he wasn’t having a great time so I said, ‘right! Woodlands Warehouse in ten minutes!’ and in twenty minutes we were rolling and a tumbling with the set up you’ll be familiar with if you come see us now. I’d just quit a band or two as well and in the downtime between Thisclose and Cosmic Dead tours, I wasn’t doing too well with the lack of nightly jams that are required to keep the wolves from the door. My future as I expected it had been pulled from under my feet somewhat with various other happenings…. We both needed something new, refreshing and high N R G!  It was in a lot of ways just that simple, but it’s not my place to say how accurate a picture I can paint!

E&D: What was your mission with the music of Acid Cannibals?

James: To spread both positivity and awareness of how to get to that better place. A better place that’s achievable for all of us in a very real way.

E&D: Who are some of yours and the band’s biggest musical influences?

James: I think it’s safe to say that we’re all at the point where musical influence is an oddly primary-school stage of how we reference the shaping of our creations. I know how that sounds and it’s not what you think, I just can’t figure out another way to put it. Musical influences are the first big drink of water of the day and whether I like it or not, I’m operating from a point somewhere around the ‘just before dinner’ stage of the day.  I’ve been in such a weird place this last few years and there came a point I figured it was a concussion, but now it’s just normal everyday functionality and I’ll never stop feeling vaguely dizzy all the time. As a result a lot of bands blend into one continuous listening experience for me, a never ending party wherein if it’s not a bit camp and silly then i’m probably not having a good time. Catch me on my days of sprawling out across the floor trying to cool my skin down on the hard wood of 40 Tantallon Road and you’ll likely get a vastly different impression though. If you require a primer then use the fuse, best illustrated by a chonky frame of Big Business, Melvins, Discharge, Judas Priest, Venom, MC5, Stooges, Part Chimp, Sleep, Hawkwind and Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. Dougie and Glenn have probably just as much musical influence. These are all starting points for me personally.

E&D: The members of Acid Cannibals are also in/have been in the likes of Cosmic Dead, Droves, Old Guard and Thisclose. Did you bring elements of your otter bands to Acid Cannibals or is it a completely fresh thing?

James: You can’t escape the fire, no matter what terms it comes to you on.

E&D: With being in other bands, is it difficult fitting everything in with other commitments?

James: It can be, but ultimately in your life if you want to make something happen then you’ll make it happen. No one is 100% on top of things 100% of the time and that’s quite alright. Creativity and operating as an artist is a struggle no matter what you do or who you are, but it’s up to you to will an achievement into existence and each of us is responsible in working together to make a better future that can provide the platform from which to launch from.

E&D: Acid Cannibals have released two brilliant EPs, Why Not Every Night and Horny For Tomorrow. What has the reaction to them been like?

James: The reaction has been super cool! We received a lovely piece of positive feedback recently when this super sweet journalist referred to our output as ‘two brilliant EPs’ and you should just see the look of sheer GLEE on my face!

E&D: Are you working on new material at the moment?

James: Always.

E&D: Have you got any plans for a full length album at the minute?

James: That is our main concern right now. We’re having to turn down so many incredibly cool offers that I swear, a couple of years back I’d have nibbled your nipples off to get a taste of,  but for every show or party you take on there comes a certain amount of space in your head that becomes reserved for that ride. There’s only so much space in there and we’ve done a lot with this band in a small amount of time! To focus on the main party is requiring a lot of self control.

E&D: As well as being extremely energetic, your music is packed full of positivity as well as humour. Would you say that these are all vital components of the Acid Cannibals sound?

James: I’d say these are vital components of just staying the heck alive! If I’m doing the best I can for the active participants in our party then the experience of being around me is something akin to what you describe. I just want to see happiness in others. I’m genuinely sorry I’m not always at my best, I really am. I feel bad for everyone all the time and fall into the self indulgent trap of blaming myself and you can say what you want but the pressure never ever lifts. Until it does. Then it’s time to PARTY!

E&D: You just played at Supernormal Festival. How did the show go?

James: Incredible fun! Supernormal is one of my favourite outdoor festivals ever. Every single person who attends is both serving and leading a wonderful cause. I think this was my 6th or 7th year and while there is always a fear that it’ll explode into something bigger than any of us are happy to count ourselves part of, I’m super glad to see that the curators have done the best job imaginable. It really is the multi media arts festival that we need right now. We just wish it was 100% vegan.

E&D: What about your hometown Glasgow show at Bloc. How was that?

James: It was a last minute booking to try and drum up some funds to help us break even on the journey to Oxford and back! We had decided in the run up the album recording that we wouldn’t play too many shows, especially not local shows, but the opportunity came along and it felt like the energy beacons were shining juuuussst riiiiiight for a wee show at Bloc on a Thursday night! The staff are so lovely and enthusiastic and the engineer’s run things to such a tight schedule, it always feels like a shot of cooling air into the eyeball on a stinking, humid day.

E&D: You played at the Renegades Of Chunk show in Leeds at the end of August with Bong, ItoldyouIwouldeatyou and many others. How was that show?

James: I’ve been hoping to play this festival for years and it didn’t disappoint. Chunk are a community centre which hold an incredible amount of influence in that special strip of England we could refer to as ‘the South of the North’ and it’s incredibly inspiring to see how they operate. Acid Cannibals had a perfect time slot in that we were on somewhere around the middle of the bill, so we had a hungry and energised audience looking to boogie. Sadly, The Cosmic Dead were amongst the bands who had to follow Cattle and by that time the audience and staff alike had been stimulated into fetal positions by all the excellent teeth-rattling frequencies being blasted throughout the day. Something similar happened the next day at It Came From The Sea in Margate. Acid Cannibals once again had a great relaxed slot somewhere just after the halfway point in the program and there was a lot of energy and rejoicing with little pressure. Some hours later the Cosmic Dead took the stage (this time after the untouchable Luminous Bodies) and the audience were doing well not to be curled up with comfort blankets.

E&D: With The Cosmic Dead and Public Service also on the bill, is it hard pulling multiple duties on the night and is that something you’ve done before?

James: It’s an absolute joy to be so in demand! I never dreamed I’d be shown such kindness and I’m truly grateful for every opportunity to feel alive! I’m not sure how Marley feels, but I’m sure it’s much the same as myself.

E&D: You’re also playing the Brave Exhibitions Festival on Newcastle with Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, Earth and Big Joanie. Are you looking forward to that?

James: Without mashing words; this truly is a November to remember.

E&D: How did your recent UK and European tour go and what were some of the highlights?

James: It was utterly joyous and until the end, we had little to no friction. The van requiring a service resulted in the last few dates being canceled and as it turns out, it was a 2 minute job that the mechanic simply didn’t want to have to deal with us. A lesson I learned very recently on a Cosmic Dead late-summer tour is that if the mechanic is blowing you off…. you stand there right in front of them. Politely, of course… but you still refuse to leave. You have to. You only get things fixed by standing your ground and showing that you need the service that only they can provide. A lot of folks look at you and decide they don’’t like you. You represent something to them and they’ll be damned if they are going to help YOU go out and live your best life. So you have to stand your ground / be polite but firm / be nice but don’t back down.

E&D: You unfortunately had to cancel the last date of the tour in Nottingham. What happened?

James: Well, that’s the sad part really. A valve came loose somewhere in the van, so the warning light wouldn’t go silently into the night… resulting in the last couple of French dates and English dates being canceled and a big, cold and long drive back to Glasgow. It was a sad end to an otherwise most triumphant tour. One day, I wish to capture what should have been the vibe to end all vibes.

E&D: How was playing Desertfest back in May?

James: Y’know, I’m glad you asked because it was genuinely uplifting and ran smoothly with some of the nicest staff and crew I’ve ever dealt with. Our message really came across and the audience was on our side. It was delicious to share the stage with our long time hero-friends Headless Kross.

E&D: What are your live show plans for the rest of the year? Hopefully another Nottingham show!

James: Aside from Brave Exhibitions, we’re taking a break. Life is interesting for all of us and the future will unfold as and when it feels the need to.

E&D: How did your tour with Lightning Bolt go last year?

James: Slightly less enjoyable. Seeing Lightning Bolt in small venues and getting to interact with them was a new experience. I think we both consider them an influence and defining factor in our development as humans with creative kinks, but various things happened that were unenjoyable. One thing that stands out was that my partner at the time (Sarah from Fallope & the Tubes / Tights / Droves and various other 100% essential projects) who had come along as merch engineer and mosh artist had her bag stolen from the van when we first arrived in Manchester. We searched for ages but quite like myself (for better or worse) , she is a total vibe-bringer and her demoralised and heavy emotional state became our emotional state and it was the defining point of the evening. The frustration, confusion and hurt of having a bag with all your clothes and small valuable possessions in it just completely bulldozes a person and we all felt it so deep. There was no way to make it up to her, but I felt that I had to say onstage that this had happened a couple hours previous and that to help, we’d be donating all our merch sales that evening to buying her new clothes (literally all her shirts, cool trousers, socks, underwear etc were in that bag, most were totally irreplaceable really) and the audience really seemed to respond. They responded pretty clearly though with the zero merch sales. That was really disheartening and it just goes to show that a sold out audience of clapping sympathisers often doesn’t actually mean anything. Another thing perhaps, We got kicked off the bill of the Glasgow show for organising (a month at least in advance) an afterparty with us DJing a fun collection of tunes. The afterparty was forced to cancel and we got kicked off the bill because it was seen as a bit cheeky, I think. So the tour organisers, who were totally on our side, had other venues on stand by to move the show in protest. I might be wrong but I think we as a band did whatever we could at that point to keep the peace. The story itself was worth having ‘Local punks land once in a lifetime tour and get kicked off of their hometown show for organising an afterparty’ was fine by us. Ultimately, we got re-added to the bill less than an hour before doors and there were no issues. I actually had to go DJ a wedding while Lightning Bolt were playing in Glasgow, so I ended up having a brrrrilliant time with Demelza at the Oran Mor. The reception was held in the attic venue space, which has its whole ceiling as a mural by one of the greatest Scottish artists / authors of all time. His name is Alasdair Gray and you should read Poor Things + Something Leather + Lanark in that order and then explore his other books. You know though, I’d like to point out that one of the greatest moments of my life was Marley calling me while I was on a tour of Portugal with The Cosmic Dead and hearing his voice go ‘Jamesy. We’re touring with Lightning Bolt.’ I’d like to point out that the Old Empire / Brooklyn Sound crew were absolute gems and Josh and Max are especially gorgeous. They looked after us well!  I think I attract friction / naughty trouble wherever I go. It’s a lot of fun for the people around me for a while and then when the novelty wears off, as is the constant inevitable; then I only feel bad for the folks deluded enough to try and stick it out. Apologies where they are due. Life’s for learning. I learned that recently. Hopefully for one of the last times…

E&D: What are Acid Cannibals tour essentials? Things you can’t hit the road without having.

James: There are no essentials but the instruments, the bodies, the amplification and the vibes.

E&D: What makes a great gig for you?

James: See above! I also like a system and engineer who aren’t afraid to match levels with the drums. YO FRANCE & OTHER INFAMOUS SQUARES! STOP ASKING US TO ‘TURN THE DRUMS DOWN! I mean come on, have you ever heard the phrase ‘if it’s too loud, you’re too old?’ well how about ‘If it’s too loud, maybe heavy music that has a focus on the physical impact of soundwaves just isn’t your actual bag of chips?’ Eh? Considered that? Huh? France? Pffft, if that is indeed you’re real name.

E&D: What has been the best gig that Acid Cannibals have ever played and what made it so special?

James: The first gig, hosted by Freakender Festival in Glasgow. It’s especially special because people were coming up to me in bars for months afterwards singing chorus melody/lyrics mash ups at me. That hadn’t really happened before and will likely not happen again. Hmmmm. Also Nottingham at Stuck On A Name studios. Andrew Morgan and everyone involved are owed a great debt by every soul in Nottingham for the work they do hosting these DIY events. DAMN they make me feel good!

E&D: What was the first album you ever bought and what effect has it had on you as a musician?

James: Bought? I believe that’s impossible to tell. And I might have told this story before, but I’m going to choose to retell in an abridged format the following. When I was 10 years old my youngest older brother Craig Mckay moved out to go work at Gleneagles Hotel. He left me a selection of tapes that I was able to gain access to as I graduated to living in his room in the family house in Tullibody. The clear winner for cover art hit me immediately and it was Master of Puppets. 2nd place was a totally different beast but just as worthy and influential on me was KIll Em All. I think their hammer covered debut had less of an immediate impact on me because it had so much warmth and joy in it compared to Master of Puppets. Master was stark, cold and unnerving and at times felt so… ‘adult’ in it’s heaviness. You might hear more of Kill Em All in the music i make, but Master Of Puppets will always be that ‘1st heavy album to make you want to jump through a window’. “aaahahahahahahaahahahaaaaaaaaaaa” is still the best bit.

E&D: What was your musical upbringing like?

James: Honestly this could be the longest story so I’ll keep it short. Aside from the aforementioned Metallica tapes, my brother also left me the complete Nirvana (aside from Nevermind, I assume he took that with him), Danzig 1 and 2 (I still prefer 1) and various other tapes, including Guns N’ Roses and other late 80’s / early nineties gems. I think he’d moved on to things more relevant to his own age group / friend group by that time (97/98) and was heading off to see Oasis at Loch Lomond and hitting up ecto-raves and enjoying that rich cultural landscape, but I might be wrong. Going further back though, my most formative experiences would have been from my parents. Both are very musical, with my dad being the instrumentalist. I joked in an interview years ago that my mum was the foremost Disco & Glam DJ in the Clackmannanshire region in the early 70’s but I think I made that up for my own amusement.

My dad gave my folk, blues, rock, skiffle and proper 60’s vibes. He was the one who first shouted on me from downstairs (I would have been 7 or 8 and in bed but not sleeping… never sleeping… rarely sleeping when it was dark) and Woodstock was showing on late night tv. We sat and watched the whole thing and my remaining memory of it revolves around 3 things. 1 – Canned Heat. Perfection. This performance is absolute perfect boogie. Boogie isn’t exactly rock n roll and it isn’t exactly blues… but it’s made for dancing to and to avoid disappointment, should never be confused with its cousin, the vaguely dreaded ‘boogie woogie’ that your man Jools just can’t stay the heck away from)  // 2 – Santana (DAMN on absolute all levels, I say again DAMN!) and then thing number 3… the crowd. I knew from that moment… maybe I’d known before then? I knew I just knew! The way you know about a good melon… i asked my Mum the next day, ‘Mum can I have long hair?’ and she said… you know what she said? Hahaaaaa, ‘not til you are 12.’ Well, 12 years of age came along and she’d forgot but I hadn’t, that might sound silly but Woodstock as a film profoundly changed things for me. It allowed me to paint my colours onto some great glass flag so I could better understand the way the sun shines. Maybe, just maybe, my father knew what he was doing. Born in 1950 to what could be described as the ‘slums of a Glasgow suburb’ and eventually joining cadets and later the army, craving as he did the order and brotherhood and opportunity to GTFO of the general vicinity, it’s easy to imagine him as a youngster listening to these records and wishing he too was chilling on some San Francisco street corner or trying to catch a lift to Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York in 1969… I dunno, maybe he sensed something in me and shouted me downstairs to see if it would benefit me. My mum, directly and in roundabout methods, extended to me the music of her youth… the early to mid 70’s working class escapist soundtracks. As a wee person and still now more than ever, Glam and Disco have me right in their pocket. Both are immediate and regionally specific takes on dance music, designed for moving your body to. Disco being a dance evolution of a NYC-centric marginalised people and Glam definitely coming from no-nonsense working class, post-industrial areas of the proto-Airstrip One landmass. Oh, and to paraphrase the lady herself, she gave me my ‘Country Heart’. I mean, I’m pretty sure she’s not the only factor there, but whatever the implications, she turned me on to the painfully relatable everything of ‘Walking After Midnight’. So in a very real way, I can blame her for my tattoo of a burning church with ‘TOWNES’ across the doorway. Ha! There we go.

Big thanks need to go out to my recently sadly departed Uncle John Craig. As well as being a cool dude who had a heart of gold, he also gave me the Queen Greatest Hits 1 CD when I was 8 or 9 years old and that completely changed my outlook. It would be a couple of years before I could identify the buzz I got from the camp theatricality and it might have been even more years before I could really appreciate the next level musicianship and composition at work from the fellas but damn, on such a root level the vibe spoke to me. Thanks to the fella himself. His funeral was quite recently. I got a new coat for it, a smart looking waterproof number. The sort of jacket i always refer to as a ‘funeral coat’. I think you know the type. It’s plain and formal enough to wear to any sort of family gathering that requires a long black jacket with with the sort of shoulder definition that shows respect but keeps away from screaming ‘We march at dawn.’ I was reminded of the time he gave me the Queen CD when I put the jacket on last night to try and endure the heavy rain and in the pocket found the wee booklet they give you with the hymn lyrics printed inside and his photo on the front. It was quite a fun photo. Whomever chose it I think must have enjoyed its laid back and sunny atmosphere and felt it appropriate for a funeral. I like that about my family. Endurance through humour and fun!

E&D: What was the first gig that you ever attended?

James: Brian May. Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. 1998 with my dad and Andrew Watson. It was glorious.

E&D: What has been the best gig you’ve ever seen?

James: Vomir. 13th Note. Glasgow. 2009. The fest was called Glasgow Implodes and was hosted by Al Mabon of At War With False Noise records who was very instrumental in the release of our first 7”. BONUS PRIZE – Robert Marley now plays drums in the band AL MABON sings for. They are called Coffin Mulch and they are perfect.  Also, I reckon pretty much every Kylie Minoise show was the greatest ever as well.

E&D: What is the music scene like in your Glasgow hometown and what bands could you recommend to us?

James: Oh heck yeah! It’s incredible. At times there is almost too much happening, there are pop bands everywhere but y’know, that’s actually great and I totally respect a lot of the acts who have been influenced by CHVRCHES, Frightened Rabbit, Twilight Sad etc as they are all mostly lovely people and doing the things they love to do! I sincerely look forward to seeing bands influenced by FREE LOVE (FKA HAPPY MEALS), Sacred Paws, Kaputt, Bossy Love, Fallope & The Tubes, Hairband, Joyce Delaney et al. I believe they’ve already had an influence but I can’t wait to see/hear what happens next. Don’t get me wrong, I think Stanley Brinks (Berlin based Songwriter, one of the greatest of ours or any other generation along with Freschard and also the Wave Pictures, who are English but don’t hold that against them!) was next-level nail on head when he sang “The radio sucks balls. The radio… Sucks balls! The radio.. SUCKS BALLS, I don’t relate to any of the music that they’re playing at all. but I get by with a little bit of you, alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, ephedrine, and orange juice….”

That reads too heavy for me. I’ve sang that song 326 times. At LEAST. The radio is mostly terrible and as funny as it is as a refrain, the lesson we can take is that at least we have each other as humans. If we can relate to each other on a basic social level (and yes we can!) then anything can be a treat. Maybe that’s why I love pop music so much. I mean, only if it’s from Scotland. If you come at me with that Southern Morrisey or Futureheads rubbish I’m likely to feel sorry for you. But who cares what I think, I don’t even agree with myself some days.

Non-pop bands from Glasgow and even outside Glasgow you need to know are as follows: Bratakus, Brain Anguish, Droves, Curdle, Graham Costello, Kabobo, Huntleys + Palmers, Dom Jolly, Irma Vep (he lives in Glasgow now. shut yo face), Kaputt, Howie Reeve, Ubre Blanca, SECURITY, IDEAL, Dead Otter, Headless Kross, Cartilage, Cutty’s Gym, Cop Graveyard, Death Bed, Bell Lungs, Las Mitras, The Bucky Rage, Scuffed Leg, Songs of the Old Country, AMOR, Gay Panic Defence.  

ALSO, pretty much anything on Night School records, Monorail Records… it all touches my nerves. these are just some of my favourites. Glasgow is such a rich and diverse artistic landscape. I’ve been given the oppertunity to move away so many times. Often for love, often out of desperation and recklessness but… I can’t help love this big beautiful village of disparate peoples. Hahaaaa!

E&D: What would you recommend for a music-centric visit to Glasgow?

James: Come hang out with Jamesy. 40 Tantallon Road. We’ll do some things.

Photo credit Demelza Kingston

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