Sketches for a movie: Interview with Gnac's Mark Tranmer
by Anna Battista
Marcovaldo lives in a tiny loft with his wife and four kids. They all sleep in the same room, when they can sleep that is: outside their window there is a beautiful moon which, to their delight, inspires in each of them different dreams, but, unfortunately, on the top of the building in front of their window there is also the nasty neon light of a cognac advertising billboard, of which they can only see the 'GNAC' part, that blinks every few seconds blinding Marcovaldo and his family's astral dreams. Exhausted by the continuous light, Michelino, Marcovaldo's kid takes his sling and breaks the nasty 'GNAC' moniker, so that they can finally look at the stars outside, at least until another cognac advertising billboard is put in its place and the 'GNAC' starts blinking and blinking once again in Marcovaldo's starry night. This is more or less what happens in Italo Calvino's story 'Luna e GNAC' ('Moon and GNAC'), included in his book Marcovaldo, a collection of twenty sketches about this working-class character. Our hero works in a factory and lives with his family in an industrial town that has swallowed the life of its inhabitants burying it in a cast of concrete. Marcovaldo is poor, can't afford a holiday nor enough food or decent Christmas presents for his kids, but he's got a big heart that allows him to be moved by the seasons changing and by nature trying to make its way back through the grey industrial town. Hence it is a joy for Calvino's character to find mysterious mushrooms growing in a flower bed, to help a plant growing up taking it out of the factory to take a breathe of fresh air or to go fishing in a nearby river. Little matters if the mushrooms are poisonous, the plant will grow too much before inevitably withering and the river is polluted.
If you're wondering where I'm aiming at, well, it's easy, I'm aiming at talking about Gnac; that is, Mark Tranmer, who took inspiration from Calvino's tales to name his band. "I like his stuff, especially 'Baron in the Trees' and 'Marcovaldo'," Mark explains, though the biggest influences on his band are "Life, love and loneliness."
Mark has just released Gnac's new album, Biscuit Barrel Fashion, his third one, on Poptones, though he's got quite a few records out. "I started home recording when I was 17 years old, on 2-track reel to reel," Mark states, but it took him ten years before releasing a proper record. Indeed Gnac's story is rather long: Mark's first track was recorded in 1996, but his first music efforts were released on a 1997 compilation, An Evening In The Company Of The Vespertine, more singles followed on Earworm and Liquefaction, though his first album, Friend Sleeping, released by Vespertine, came out in June 1999, followed by Sevens (Rocket Girl), a miscellaneous collection of his 7" and new tracks, released in November of the same year. But Mark didn't work only on Gnac: in fact he devoted his time also to another band, The Montgolfier Brothers.
Though Mark doesn't seem to have a particular hero since, as he states, "Life has too many dimensions for one single 'hero'", he likes Baden Powell and Franšois De Roubaix but also mentions Ennio Morricone among his favourites. "'The Sicilian clan, for example is a great soundtrack," he enthuses, so Mark will probably be happy to know that the Italian soundtrack composer was awarded in June the prize "Giovannini 2001" as man of the year by an association based in Rome. Mark's also a Vini Reilly fan, but don't ask him which Durutti Column track he likes best, "'Sketch For Summer', 'Sketch For Winter,' 'Portrait For Frazer,' 'Response,' 'Second Family,' 'Never Known,' 'Lisboa,' 'For Collette,' 'G & T,' 'Lips That Would Kiss,' 'Les Preger's Tune.' That will do for now!"
Like Durutti Column, Mark is based in Manchester, so he gives us a few tips about its scene: "I know Roger Quigley's other projects, including a band, Lovewood, for whom he drums and singer/songwriter Mark Collinson (Roger manages him and Mark is a great songwriter) and a great instrumental project of Dave Sherman, Transfiguration, who have just released a new album called The Alpha Tapes on Mini Tenor Records of France." And for what regards the British music scene in general, Mark adds, "I like Plaid at the moment and that's about all I can think of and I like Ian Masters who always manages to do something unpredictable." But while at home he listens to "Baden Powell's Brazilian guitar, Michel Legrand's Legrand in Rio, Kraftwerk, The Colourfield, Kim Hiorthoy and Francois De Roubaix."
Biscuit Barrel Fashion contains fifteen postcards or, more aptly, sketches: they say that to write "Marcovaldo" Italo Calvino went around with his block notes writing down the imperceptible things that happened in an industrial town. On the contrary Mark just managed to transpose in music the thousand nuances hidden in his soul and in his mind, no matter how difficult it was since, as he claims, "There is immense joy for me in the so called 'difficulty' or 'challenge' of recording new stuff. I love the process of recording, but the most tricky track was 'The Neen Scene'."
Mark defines his music as "Melodic, mischievous, playful, emotional and evocative," and claims that, "A nice tune, a good set of chords and a nice blend of timbres" are the characteristics that make easy to spot a good track. Mark's list of preferred pieces of equipment is probably as long as the Durutti Column's favourite songs and he summarises it by stating, "My Roland products are all great. I have a lot!" His list of fave tracks on his own album is shorter: "This week I like the title track and 'Superintendent Battle Arrives'ůbut next week it will be different ones." Though in the striped lilac and white inside cover of Biscuit Barrel Fashion Mark thanks a bunch of people, he doesn't dedicate the album to anybody in particular, "The last album has various dedications, and I have just been writing a new song dedicated to someone I met in Japan recently."
Biscuits Barrel Fashion was released on former Creation supremo Alan McGee's, new label, Poptones: "He heard The Montgolfier Brothers album, via a Belgian friend," Mark explains, "and he emailed us as a result. We like working with him, he is good at what he does and he is good fun to go on tour with. I like The Mad Professor and A Quiet Revolution on Poptones." Poptones has also been known for its Radio 4 club nights in Notting Hill, but Gnac has never appeared there to do a bit of DJing: "I probably could if I wanted to, but I don't really want to DJ there. Actually, I have never DJed but I would in the right environment," Mark concludes, pausing to enlighten us on The Montgolfier Brothers. "It's a collaboration between me and Roger Quigley (of 'Quigley' and other musical projects). I heard his contributions to 'An Evening In The Company Of The Vespertine' and Roger heard mine. Probably on the same day we each rang Richard (a mutual friend who put the Vespertine compilation out) and I said 'I like the music of Quigley' and asked 'Can I do some guitar for him?' Roger enquired about Gnac saying he liked the music a lot. So it was inevitable that we got together to form The Montgolfier Brothers and to write the album Seventeen Stars. Since then we have played a lot of gigs all over the place, from Manchester to Tokyo. By the way, our live guitarist -- Otto Smart -- is fantastic as a guitarist and as a person -- and Otto also makes records under the name The Otto Show. They are great records and he is looking for a deal. The Montgolfier Brothers are currently recording their second album for release on Poptones 'Sometime In The Future'."
Another interesting aspect of Gnac's music is that Mark has collaborated with a few artists: he provided the music for the artist Vanessa Beecroft's wedding and also collaborated with Miltos Manetas who commissioned him "The Neen Scene." "I did a web search for 'Gnac' and his name came up with a link to my site. So I emailed him, out of curiosity. It all went from there, really. I like him, and his oil paintings, a lot. He is a very innovative artist."
Mark is open to further collaborations with other artists, but above all with directors: Gnac's music would be perfect for movie soundtracks. "I'd like to make music for anyone who wants to make a film based on a Murakami or Calvino book. I like movies from Jacques Tati and Luis Bu˝uel, then Betty Blue by Jean-Jacques Beineix, Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract, Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon and Robert Day's The Rebel. Besides, Gnac's music is scheduled to be used as the soundtrack for something about David Hockney. Last year Gnac was used on a documentary about the author John Le Carre."
Gnac's melodies also appeared on quite a few compilations, released on Vespertine, Earworm, Acuarela and Rocket Girl among the others, but another compilation is in the works. "Later this year or early 2002 Gnac will release a compilation on Poptones with some old singles, some songs that have never been on CD before and some previously unreleased stuff. I am working on the running order at the moment." Meanwhile Gnac released on April 30th on Octane Grammophon of Finland (firstname.lastname@example.org) a split single featuring the band Smooth Operator and more work awaits Mark. "We are not touring at the moment. We are in the studio working on the new compilation and new Montgolfier Brothers album." And yet, you might be able to catch Gnac playing in Sweden, in Norrkoping at the end of July, or The Montgolfier Brothers playing in Italy, in Ravenna in July. "Gnac played twice in Spain in Autumn 2000 in Barcelona (BAM) and Santander," Mark underlines, revealing that there are quite a few countries he'd like to bring Gnac's music to: "Italy is high up the list. I've been to Udine and Rome and I loved them both. South America, and Japan again would also be good. The general response of the audience to Gnac's music was pretty good, although because it is quiet music, there is sometimes talking in the song performance, except in Japan where the audiences were superb!"
"Stanotte sarÓ di nuovo una notte di GNAC", "Tonight will be another GNAC night", Marcovaldo sadly mumbles when looking at the luminous phosphorescence of the cognac billboard obscuring his dreams. I'm sure he would have loved to have a Gnac night if only he had heard Mark Tranmer's music.