By Kieran Webber
Tucked away in the furthest shores of the Outer Hebrides lies an artist named The Sea Atlas or Calum Buchanan to his friends. He carries a sound similar to the likes of Ben Howard, which is no surprise as he comes from similar stock, though probably slightly more hardy due to his bitter location in the Scottish Isles. The brooding folk sounds are nothing short of beautiful, yet have an element of pain and haunting that flows through the music like the ebbing tides. Recently he has released his new single ‘Ripped Jeans’, taken from his forthcoming EP which is set for release later this year.
Listen to ‘Ripped Jeans’ here:
We caught up with Calum to find out more about life in the Outer Hebrides, his music and his surfing!
CLUNK: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions! How are you and what has this week bought you?
Calum: I’m good man, been a pretty chilled week so far, was doing some boat work at the start of the week, just general maintenance stuff, started writing and recording some stuff that might be out towards the end of the year and fixed a couple surfboards for a friend.
CLUNK: So how did you get into music and what/who influenced you?
Calum: I come from a really musical family on my mums side, her uncles in the 60s played with everyone, my grandad actually kicked Eric Claptons guitar Blackie over at a show once. So it was always going to be something I’d get into. Musically I listen to such an eclectic mix of things, everything from indie rock, death cab, The national, Ben Howard to more ethereal stuff like Sigur ros and CJ Mirra to some electronic stuff like Flume, Chet Faker and Sylvan Esso then to the far end of the spectrum of heavy metal, bands like Parkway Drive, Trivium and Black Sabbath. I just like sounds, and different interpretations on how to make music.
CLUNK: When did you start making your own music?
Calum: It’s always been something I’ve enjoyed, from the moment I picked up the guitar I was always trying to come up with my own little songs, but that was mostly due to an inability to play other peoples songs when I was learning. Then in the last couple of years I’ve really got into music production and recording so I’ve really been able to experiment with sounds and sort of put my own wee mark on a sound that I like!
CLUNK: You live in the Outer Hebrides which is pretty isolated from the world, how do you cope with that? What is life like for you?
Calum: Cigarettes and coffee, haha only kidding. Yeah it is pretty isolated out here, and there are times you get pretty lonely and you think it would be great if there was a small village pub or you had a girlfriend or some people your own age in the village. But normally when I get like that I’ll head into my studio and write/record music, so that takes my mind off things a lot of the time. But I love it here, this is my home, this is where my family is from, I just know this is where I belong. And when I want to see people that’s normally when I’ll head out on tour with the band and I get to see lots of people in a single hit, then run back home and hide away for a while.
“I love it here, this is my home, this is where my family is from, I just know this is where I belong”
CLUNK: Have you always lived there? If not what was the attraction?
Calum: When I was younger we were back and forth from the island with my Dads work. Lewis to Singapore to Lewis to Aberdeen and back to Lewis, then the last 5 years I was in Aberdeen doing the whole uni thing and city living. But about a year or so ago I moved back here and I’ve not looked back. This is definitely home, where I’m from and where I belong.
CLUNK: Can you explain to us a standard day for you?
Calum: It really varies, when I’m home, I’ll get up in the morning, have some coffee, then do any jobs that need doing on one of the boats or round the house or croft. Then do some admin stuff on the music front, gigs, twitter posts, all the now necessary parts of trying to make music haha. Then when that’s all done I’ll head up to my studio and just start playing about for any new ideas, and if there’s any I’ll follow them through. If I’m working on something I’ve previously started I’ll just get working on structures and instrumentation on the recording until I’m fairly happy with the sound. Then get it down as quickly as possible while the inspiration is still there. Normally I’ll work pretty late up there, till maybe 2 or 3 in the morning. Some days though if the surfs really good I’ll sort of push all of that stuff back and just have a chilled day surfing, get up early, find a spot, have a surf then some lunch, maybe another surf then back home. Then if I’m away on a boat job, that’s just a long day of driving and making sure nothing goes wrong with the boat haha.
“Some days though if the surf’s really good I’ll sort of push all of that stuff back and just have a chilled day surfing”
CLUNK: Living near the ocean and working directly with it must affect your creative process, if so, how?
Calum: Yeah it does in a way, I’m fascinated with the weather fronts that pass over us up here, not in a nerdy way like “ohh I think that’s some cummulo nimbus clouds” or “the isobars are dropping again”. It’s more the patterns and rhythms of the weather I like, like going from these high pressure calms to these apocalyptic-esque gales to a brief respite then round two of the storm. I feel like that’s almost a song structure, and I really like songs that have soft quiet bits and heavier louder sections, its almost like its taking you on a journey. You also have the difficulty of recording up here with storms trying to rip houses from their foundations, trying to record without the sound of rain, hail or wind bleeding into the microphones can be difficult, especially in the winter. Sometimes the effect can be cool, like a total Bon Iver in wilderness vibe, other times you just want a decent studio sound like other bands get with mainland studios haha.
CLUNK: Has there ever been a moment where you’ve been scared by your surroundings?
Calum: Not really, in awe of it definitely. When the winter gales hit I love going for a drive along the cliff tops near the house just to watch these mountainous waves rolling across the Atlantic to then finally hit land and dissipate in a cloud of sea spray and sand. You sometimes get a little stressed/scared if you need to get off the island for work or a gig and the ferries aren’t going, but that’s the only thing that’s really scary up here.
CLUNK: As Cornish boys we have to ask, how is the surf up there?
Calum: Oh that would be telling… Let’s just say, the thought of leaving here for different waves doesn’t cross my mind often… maybe for warmer water sometimes…
CLUNK: So you do surf then? Any other water sports?
Calum: Yeah, I surf a lot, just picked up a wee 5’6 twinnie so been very keen to get out in everything on that, you know what it’s like with a new board, you think it can take on the world! I quickly found its limits though haha. In the summer I also do a bit of sea kayaking and on the flat days I’ll wakeboard with one of my friends, I use a surfboard for it, as I don’t like not being able to move my feet, so it’s not technically wakeboarding, but it’s fun when its flat.
CLUNK: Can we expect a tour of the country soon?
Calum: It’s in the pipeline, I’m desperate to get down Cornwall way with the band. Mostly so I can surf and eat pastys in-between gigs! South of the border still feels very far away for an islander, so I’m just trying to find the courage to pull the trigger and hopefully find a few new fans. But it’s scary booking shows in places you don’t really know anyone. Empty venues are scary things, but it has to be done.
“I’m desperate to get down Cornwall way with the band. Mostly so I can surf and eat pastys in-between gigs! ”
CLUNK: How does your live performance differ from your recordings?
Calum: Live definitely has a lot more energy, almost like you’re fighting for your life on stage. Plus in the studio I play and write all the parts, but the band take what I’ve written as a rough guide and just make it bigger and better. I should really get them into the studio with me on the new material I’m working on haha.
CLUNK: Which do you prefer, playing live or recording?
Calum: I love both equally, playing live the adrenaline and energy is so infectious it’s impossible to describe, four dudes looked in sync playing sad songs and people responding to it, there’s no greater high than live music with your friends!
But recording in the studio is exciting and relaxing for me. It starts of almost like a diary of what’s going on in my life and that gets a lot of pressure off of you in the basic song. Then the fun begins adding the other bits to the song, and it never turns out the way you had planned in your head, so at the end of it you’ve made something unexpected, and you sit there thinking, I’m the only person to have ever heard this and it sounds cool, I cant wait to share this with people, I hope they like it!
CLUNK: Do you have any interesting/funny/gnarly stories to share with us?
Calum: I’ll tell you about the time I got my biggest barrel at well over double Thurso east. I was playing a festival in Aviemore and met some surf friends who said Thurso would be pumping the next morning, so I raced back to Aberdeen after playing and loaded my land rover with a couple new boards I’d never surfed, a 6’6 rusty traveler and a 7’2 pyzel padillac. Slept like 3 hours, got up at 4, then motored up to Thurso from Aberdeen, All the while drinking red bull by the gallon. Made it to east carpark around 8am. The place was packed, 40 guys in the water, most with their own photographer. I Jumped into this bright white wetsuit, waxed up the padillac then ran down the reef trying to photobomb any waves acting like this massive neon yellow and purple board was a “fallic instrument”.
I Paddled out at the second peak not wanting to get in anyones way, maybe just take the odd wide one with a bit more north in the swell. Maybe about 20 minutes into the session I’ve not caught a thing. All the while the river was pushing me out past the main peak where the locals were spending most of the time screaming at you Cornish boys, somewhere I didn’t want to sit in the get up I was in. Anyway, I’m watching back, like “sweet that guy did a big air, wow look at the spray off that guys turn”. Then these 40 guys just start paddling in the direction of scrabster. Whats going on here?! I turn around, the horizon is black. Horns going off in the car park. OK cool, lets give this a go, so I’m paddling on this board I’ve never even caught a wave on at the biggest I’ve surfed east.
“lip comes over me and I’m stood upright, all six foot of me in this barrel”
Paddle, paddle, paddle, paddle, ok I think I’m on, pop. Oh *expletive* this is a big wave, bouncing down the wave, its so big there’s smaller waves on this wave (I should add, I’m goofy footed so I’m doing most of this wave blind). Get to the bottom, looking up at this 16ft face and all I’m thinking, if I just get a good pump here and aim for the shoulder we’ll be fine. Bottom turn, nailed it. So I’m where I thought I needed to be to make the shoulder, looking at this vertical wall running 20ft ahead of me, the next thing I know, lip comes over me and I’m stood upright, all six foot of me in this barrel, the farm and castle at east disappeared, thurso itself couldn’t be seen.
I’d always been told to aim for the church spire to get out the barrel here, so I’m racing down the line in this barrel totally lost. Next thing I know **woooosshh**, chandeliers pouring down on me, I’m out. I cannot tell you how much my friends hated me after that wave, one of them had just got out of his suit, seen that wave, got back into a sodden Patagonia suit, paddled back out just because he couldn’t take I’d got that wave. So that was a pretty good day!
Keep up to date with The Sea Atlas on the following: