During the summer between my junior and senior years of college, I spent a month studying abroad at the University of Stirling in Scotland. It was the first time I had been in a foreign country by myself, and I fell in love the same way every student studying abroad falls in love. (I made a conscious effort not to be annoying about it, but I did say “aye” instead of “yeah” for a few months after I came home.) I had new and wonderful experiences, of course, but even the most routine activities felt fresh again while I was there.
What struck me the most during my stay was the way history seemed to hang in the air around you. I come from Long Island, where you’re not likely to run into anything older than a hundred years without actively looking for it. But in Stirling, I could look out my bus window going into town for groceries and I could see a castle, some five hundred years old, looking down at me from the top of a hill. In a way, I felt like I was a part of something bigger, just by going to Tesco.
But perhaps that was naïve of me. As “The Merry Dancers on TV” illustrates, alienation from history and nature can be felt in even the most abundant places. Written by Stephen McAll, the Stirling-based singer-songwriter who fronts the band Constant Follower, “The Merry Dancers on TV” is a melancholy tune of modern isolation. “The merry dancers” is a Scots phrase used to refer to aurora borealis, or the northern lights. To see them “on TV,” then, is to learn what they look like without experiencing that sense of wonder; it is to see them without really seeing them.
“The Merry Dancers on TV” does not lecture the listener; it does not demand you put down your screens and Look Around You, Man. Instead, it’s simply a quiet rumination on how life has changed from five hundred–or even fifteen–years ago. We have the entire world at our fingertips, and yet none of it feels real.
What was the story behind this song? What inspired you to sit down and write it?
The “Merry Dancers” is the old Scots term for the aurora borealis, the northern lights. When they would fall over the islands, where my family are from, the oldies would say ‘look, the merry dancers are out’. The line which the song takes its name from was me thinking about a time friends of ours missed the merry dancers above their cottage one night, and as bad luck would have it, they were watching a documentary about the northern lights at the time. It made me think about how technology makes us miss so much of the natural world, and how this disconnect seems to grow. There’s another line, “how deep’s the hole in your couch” – that was something a colleague of mine used to say, meaning “are you lazing around, or are you living your life?”
Is there anything about the song’s composition that you’d like to point out?
I write the songs on my own and then the band work on their parts before I bring it all together. This is one where the band’s parts really make the final song. Kurd’s [guitarist Andrew Pankhurst] soaring slide guitar, Amy [Campbell] and Kessi’s [Kathleen Stosch]’s spectral backing vocals and Dave’s bassline just bring it all together. I co-produced the track with legendary producer and Shimmy Disc boss Kramer, it’s his final mix that gives the track its ethereal feel.
The music video has a nicely striking aesthetic. How did you decide to go in that direction for the video?
I live in Stirling, Scotland – half way between the big cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. It’s often overlooked but is a real cultural spawning ground – so many young artists doing interesting things. I wanted to work with young local artists on the films for the songs, and top of my list was animator Fiona Burton. I found that asking artists to respond to the music how they feel and doing my best not to get in the way of that, trusting in their creativity, brings the special results. Fiona’s incredible video speaks for her genius. I was blown away when I saw the first cut.
What are your ambitions for the future?
Our debut album [Neither Is] comes out on Shimmy Disc on the 1st of October and we’ve been lucky to receive support from the likes of KEXP, BBC 6 Music and WFMU. We’ll be playing some shows in support of that including a short tour of the US taking in next year’s SXSW festival and a number of other cities. Our first time in the US! We’ve almost finished writing the follow-up album and will begin to record that in the new year.