To be really blunt about it, the musical vehicle known as “the band” falls into one of two distinct categories. On the left hand side are the experimental groups, fiddling their way through vast walls of sound and into the ears of record-store employees. Opposing them on the right are the groups with their sights set squarely on the mainstream.
There’s also a rare breed, however: the band who on the precipice of both worlds, adept at experimenting yet capable of doing so in a way that is couched in classic pop songwriting. Nirvana are perhaps the best example of this, having spearheaded a new genre into homes around the globe. Then there’s the Velvet Underground and My Bloody Valentine, two unapologetically individual yet interminably classic groups.
“They write in the pop song tradition but they’re doing something interesting with it,” explains Chris McCrory, frontman of Catholic Action, of the latter two artists. The band are releasing their debut album In Memory Of and it exists on a similar plane to these unique groups – accessible yet riddled with depth, structured with pop intentions but detailed with darker, more immersive tones. In a way, the album is both a breath of life and the last gasp before death. More on that later though...
Formed from the Glasgow DIY scene, the band was initially McCrory’s solo project. Having played drums in Casual Sex (the best Scottish indie band since Franz Ferdinand, says the Guardian) and recorded a bunch of records in his home studio (most recently he’s worked with Siobhan Wilson, who was awarded 6 Music’s album of the week), Catholic Action began as a studio project – a way for McCrory to note down his personal experiences through music. Later, as things picked up, he brought in members Ryan Clark, Jamie Dubber and Andrew Macpherson, completing the band.
“Being a producer, the things that excite you won’t necessarily excite other people,” says McCrory of his approach. For him, it’s about marrying intricate elements with the more palatable side of writing songs. Prior to recording In Memory Of he spent a lot of time with Robert Fripp and Brian Eno records, obsessing over the sound of a sustained guitar. “There’s a part where it goes on forever. I wanted to figure out how he did it.” Parts of Eno’s other project, Here Come The Warm Jets, also inspired the single “L.U.V” – a track McCrory describes as bordering on “glam rock”.
In Memory Of gives the impression of a band who comfortably straddle these two opposing worlds, the experimental and the pop. The recording process, however, is another story – and nearly lead to the band’s early demise. “It was really hard at times; it was basically confronting musical demons,” explains McCrory. The band sat at a cross-roads. “Do you want to sell loads of records and be really popular? Or be more true to yourself and make no impact at all?” Their co-producer Margo Broom (Fat White Family, Goat Girl, Dead Pretties) played McCrory the Radio One A-List and he broke down into tears.
“I was already pretty unhappy and running from other things when doing that session and it really set me off. But to an extent, it made me figure out Catholic Action.” He credits Broom with forging the group. “She broke us down into our constituent parts, the bones, and challenged us come together in a way that was cohesive. It’s just a really fucking hard thing to do when you’re already basically in a crisis anyway. I thought we would irrevocably fall out, but we didn’t.”
The band emerged from the ashes of the record, born anew. That’s part of the reason behind the album’s name, In Memory Of and its floral, candlelit artwork. “It’s basically a death shrine, to the band,” says Chris, pointing out his communion photo among the flowers. That’s not to say the album isn’t a celebration, because parts of it are. Lead single “Propaganda”, which tells the story of a night out, rushes along on the fumes of an evening just passed. “Talk about my heart ache, my heart but my head aches,” he sings, travelling at a break-neck speed.
And then comes the crash, the slower more reflective songs, the process of inner-exploration. The album is constructed in a way that rewards with each listen. “I like finding tracks deeper in albums, the one that won’t be talked about in the press – I wanted it to be connected to that,” explains McCrory. One example of this is the song “The Shallows”, which is centered on the town McCrory grew up in – a place called Erskin, where there’s a big bridge, an infamous suicide spot. McCrory remembers spending time on the beach there, where it wouldn’t be uncommon to find washed up shoes.
The track perfectly captures the experience of growing up in a nondescript suburb, floundering around with nothing to do, frittering away your time on anti-depressants. But despite its subject matter, the song builds toward a celebratory rise, detailing how salvation can be found among these dark moments. And it’s here that the stark edge on which Catholic Action stand is most evident – drawing upon the past, but looking toward the future; bringing meaning to forgotten moments and flipping them into something positive; sitting somewhere between two places. “I wanna give myself to you; but I don’t wanna give myself to you,” sings McCrory on “The Shallows”, among the turbulence.
In Memory Of is, in McCrory’s words, “a collection of things”. There’s light-hearted adventure (“The Real World”) and ruminations over self (“I’m Doing Well”), tales of nocturnal pursuits (“L.U.V”) and offerings of advice (“Breakfast”). Ultimately however, it’s the closing of a chapter and the birthing of another. Born from frustration and the past, the release of In Memory Of is testament to the future, the clearing of a path for Catholic Action to walk on down, intact and boldened by the journey that got them here. All that’s left is for them to decide what direction to head next – to the left, to the right, or straight down the middle.