Pictish Trail on new album Thumb World: “I wanted to make the music as escapist as possible”

Fatherhood has concentrated the mind of Eigg-based musician and record label owner Johnny Lynch, who has a new album and a new perspective, he tells Fiona Shepherd

Johnny Lynch, aka Pictish Trail PIC: Stephanie Gibson

Welcome to Thumb World, a slightly surreal pop realm conjured up by Pictish Trail, aka Eigg-based musician and mogul Johnny Lynch, as a creative outlet for his anxieties about life, parenthood and everything.

His portal into this new technological dystopia was the single of the same name, an everyday tale of two astronauts enjoying sexual congress on the moon as one of them attempts to blot out the Earth with his thumb.

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“It’s not so explicit in the song but in my head that’s what it’s about,” says Lynch. “Thumb is a funny word. It got me thinking about how our opposable thumbs are what make us more highly evolved than other animals but we are slaves to the use of our thumbs on our phones.”

Lynch has become more conscious of time spent and lost – on phones, or otherwise – since becoming a dad. His son Arlo was born just after he finished recording previous Pictish Trail album Future Echoes while Thumb World came into being shortly before the birth of his daughter Ness. (As in loch? “As in monster!”)

Lynch’s partner runs a farm on the inner Hebridean island of Eigg so, when he is not off on tour, daddy day care is on him. “My entire life revolves around being a parent,” says Lynch. “That feeling of having time to yourself becomes a real luxury and you wanna make the most of it and not spend your entire time flicking through your phone and despairing at world events, which is what I spend most of my time doing.”

Turns out that time has not been wasted as it has inspired an entire suite of songs for Thumb World on subjects as diverse as alien abduction, dad panic and Donald Trump’s hair. It’s the indie electro anthology equivalent of the techno sci-fi series Black Mirror.

“Our vision of the future has been totally warped by our relationship with technology,” says Lynch. “In the 60s, 70s and 80s, hearing electro pop music meant envisaging a future where that’s what all music sounded like. There’s nostalgia for that time of simple electronics; now I don’t think anyone has a vision of the future that isn’t quite dystopian.

“That’s why the record itself is quite upbeat. I wanted to make the music as escapist as possible, so there’s a camp disco number on there, some big guitar moments so I could throw some shapes. The previous albums were all quite lo-fi. You can’t really dance to lo-fi stuff, and I want people to be able to dance at the shows, and they have, which has been cool.”

Lynch attributes his adventures in hi-fi to his co-conspirator Rob Jones, the Midlands-based producer and multi-instrumentalist with whom he recorded in a succession of short, sharp bursts over a six-month period. “It’s the first time I’ve given someone else a writing credit, because he was such a fundamental part of creating the sound and such a talented musician.”

Credit also goes to graphic artist, animator and computer game designer Davey Ferguson, aka Swatpaz, who created the colourful cartoon album sleeve of a mobile phone in the style of an arcade game, complete with whac-a-mole thumb. “It solidified the thoughts I’d been having about the record,” says Lynch, “but it was also fun, escapist and stupid.

“It’s nice to collaborate with people. I started out as someone who did all his own artwork and production, recorded at home and released on my own labels. The last few albums have been about me relinquishing control a bit.”

Although Lynch has been making music for the past two decades in relative geographical isolation – first in the East Neuk of Fife and now on Eigg – he has always operated within musical communities. He moved to St Andrews to study because his favourite group, The Beta Band, hailed from Fife and quickly fell in with the Fence Collective, helmed by Kenny “King Creosote” Anderson from the beautiful fishing village of Anstruther.

Lynch then took his experience from co-running Fence Records to Eigg, where he founded Lost Map Records and the biennial boutique festival, Howlin’ Fling, a truly joyous affair which has welcomed artists such as Beth Orton, Cate le Bon, Twilight Sad and KT Tunstall to the community-owned island.

Howlin’ Fling is resting this year but musicians still make their way to this Hebridean haven thanks to Lost Map’s residency programme, Visitations. Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle, Rachel Aggs of Sacred Paws and, most recently, alt.folk singer/songwriter Rozi Plain are among the latest intake to sample a slice of island life while residing and recording in a bothy close to Lynch’s home.

Lynch is also braced for a busy year of Lost Map releases by Perth-bred, Glasgow-based indie outfit Savage Mansion, spoken word eccentric Alabaster dePlume, aka London-based writer/saxophonist Angus Fairbairn, and an enigmatic country artist operating under the pseudonym AR Pinewood (real identity possibly to be revealed at some point in the future) – all handpicked and championed by Lynch.

“I’m just as passionate about music as ever,” he says. “I do live vicariously a little bit through the records we release. There is an itch that is scratched by releasing a psychedelic drone record by Free Love or an experimental electronic record by Monoganon or the French record of my dreams by Clémentine March [Lost Map’s most recent release, Le Continent]. I’ve always wanted to do a French record but never got round to it. She’s done it, that’s fine, I can live vicariously through that record.”

Lost Map is a scattered, diverse community, but it’s also a labour of love for Lynch, who invests all money made back into the label.
“I would absolutely love to get to a place where Lost Map could pay something,” he says, dreaming medium-sized. “It’s a lot of hard work. As a musician, there is only so much touring you can do. At some point I want to not be so reliant on Pictish Trail bringing in the cash. Otherwise, I’m going to have to be a f***ng farmer – I knew it, I’m trapped!” 

Thumb World is released by Fire Records on 21 February. Pictish Trail plays the Tolbooth, Stirling, 9 April, Beat Generator, Dundee, 10 April, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 11 April and Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 12 April, www.pictishtrail.co.uk