The Mad Dalton
Peter Sumadh is writer, poet and musician, "The Mad Dalton”. He released his eponymous EP, “The Little Belfry” in November last year. I caught the video for the title track and we connected with the view towards working on an interview. It only took a few months but here it is. Peter was born in Dundee, Scotland to an English Mother and Trinidadian Father. He moved to Canada at the age of seven with his first guitar that had been given to him by a neighbour. When he left home in his early teens, he had already begun writing poems, songs and short stories, returning first to England, then his native Scotland, and now, Belfast.
This interview was recorded at The Black Box in the Green Room, during a busy Wednesday lunchtime. We sat down with a few beers, notably the Magic Rock IPA on tap and a White Hag oatmeal chocolate stout. Tasty stuff. We talked inspiration, new music, Belfast, future ambitions and absinthe. Enjoy.
DB: So we’re presenting a track “En Cavale” or “On the Lam”. A previously unheard, as of yet unmastered english version of the track (below) for our readers with the french version above. Given the direct translation, who is the character on the run and what’s the story behind the track?
MD: Well, like a lot of the songs I’d write, there wasn’t necessarily a premeditated story. It’s a track that sort of came into it’s own through gestation and continuing to develop that character. Although, it may have started out as something that was sort of autobiographical, I think that it turned into something very different. In this case, it isn’t so much what the character is running away from, but what they are running towards. The song is a journey from a certain point of isolation, maybe, to a place where there’s a relative safety. The track itself was started, believe or not in the wake of the 911 tragedy.
DB: So it’s actually been around for a while and just never got recorded?
MD: Yeah, I mean lines appear in my notebooks and will get used a lot later on. That’s the great value in gestation. I don’t really think too much when I’m writing my songs to be honest with you. Songs themselves, drive that process and I believe too much thought can encumber a song. This, for me, is an example of something that started off with a random line. Ultimately the track will have many interpretations. That’s the great thing about the way people hear and see things. How the song starts and ends, I guess there’s a bit of a twist without giving too much away. I hope people get that.
DB: Obviously you recorded in French. Where did that come from? Why’d you want to do that?
MD: This being one of my early songs and with it being a story, you know it’s not a top ten single. Let’s face it. (Laughing) I’m pretty clear that that’s not my audience you know? So with it being a story and having a kind of literary aspect. That’s where my background lies. I thought, because I speak French fluently I wanted to explore where a song could go. You know, I’m under no illusion that I’m going to make any money off selling music at this stage in a way that’s going to support me. As part of my creative journey, getting it into French was a really cool thing to do. I really admire a lot of French writers, part of my creative exercise was still remaining true to that side of things.
If you look at French chanson, for example, I think there’s this great story about Mick Jagger talking about the French. And him saying, “You guys just stick to making wine, and we’ll stick to making rock ’n’ roll.” So, Petula Clark, Serge Gainsbourg, Johnny Hallyday are examples of great French musicians. Obviously Petula Clark was English but what I’m trying to say is French chanson has a great tradition of lyricism, whereas maybe the music is secondary. I sort of thought, I’d try to have those words that access the chanson tradition but maybe have some music that’s kind of different, and edgy. It has this sort of distorted accordion in it.
DB: And that’s Scruffy?
MD: Yeah, That’s Ciarán “Scruffy” Gallagher. That’s my accordion he’s playing by the way. (Laughing) Well, because we’ve got that accordion on there, people hear it and they think France. The boulevards and all that sort of stuff. So all those sort of things made me want to push this out as a French version and see where that could go.
DB: You recently took a trip to France, what went down?
MD: Well it all started pretty innocently. I wanted to go out there because initially because in this sort of age of emails and things like that, I really wanted to get some feedback on the song itself, in person. My idea was just to go out there, armed only with my song, en français, and make sure some francophones would have the opportunity to hear this. So I thought it’d be cool to go out and meet some people. Another reason is that there was an exhibit in a gallery in Belgium that I really wanted to see. I also felt fairly shocked, as I’m sure many others were about the attacks that took place in Paris. There was and is still a state of emergency and partly just wanted to say, “Fuck You” to those DAESH, ISIL murderers, just showing some solidarity. I was really fortunate to be invited to stay as a guest in Charleville for a few nights. I got a chance to visit the Bataclan in Paris afterwards which was really fucked up & incredibly emotional.
DB: What was the exhibition you went to see?
MD: The exhibition was a one off that ran from a very short period, November to January. It was an exhibition on the life of the French poet, Paul Verlaine, who died in the late 1890’s. The central point of that show was a gun that he had used, bought in Brussels, to shoot the French poet, Arthur Rimbaud. It had never been out on display before, so it was kind of cool. I’m a fan of Rimbaud and that story in particular so I’m glad I had the opportunity to see it.
DB: Rimbaud has been a great source of inspiration for your writing. You’ve spoken about him before in your own blog. His work has inspired both visual artists and musicians for over a century now. What drew you to his creative output?
MD: I think in a lot of ways, I’m attracted to anybody who’s a sort of, rebel or somebody who’s trying to do things differently. I happened upon Rimbaud but I’d say I was more attracted to the person rather than the work. As much as he and many other poets are an influence, I admire more how they got to the point that they were able to create the work that they did. I think that’s more important to me in some ways. His story is quite extraordinary. We’re all attracted to those stories. I haven’t written a song about him, you know? I was writing poetry when I came upon him and I actually discovered him through poets like Ginsberg and reading William Burroughs, because he influenced them. As one of the first poets to write prose petty he was certainly very influential but I think he stands alone and always will stands alone. He’s influenced a lot of different musicians…
DB: After doing some swotting up, it seems he battled with his self-expression, choosing to ‘settle’ as opposed to pursuing his writing after a short period. What do you make of those challenges in society today and have you struggled with that? The idea that you can’t do what you want to all the time, having a regular job or maybe that your creative passion is the side car to the motorcycle?
MD: I think creativity, if you nurture it properly and you feed it, just like plants, it’ll grow. I guess if you take it for granted, it’ll leave you too. So, it’s about finding a balance for sure. I’m fortunate to work in several mediums. I like to write short stories, poetry and music is my main focus at the moment, but I’d say that my job is a sidecar to it. My creative existence, is of paramount importance. How do I find a way to do that? I suppose there’s a lot of tricks that you have to play on finding a way to get that fit. It’d a discipline but I’ve also been nurturing it for a long time to get to this point. It’s getting into good habits. I’ve only released one EP. Before that, I had a lot, a lot of poetry that I was just content to write for the sake of writing, which a lot of people think is crazy.
DB: You have to do those things for yourself sometimes…
MD: Yeah, I mean it all comes down to why are you creative? Is it self preservation, do you want to create to get yourself out there, do you want your face on the cover of a magazine or do you want the other trappings that come with that in this day and age? Those aren’t really the things that interest me. I think being able to have a creative existence is important but I’ve come to the realisation in recent years that you have to get it out there. That’s why I’m actually releasing stuff now. The vehicle of music comes with a much quicker gratification than writing a novel. I don’t know too many people who read books now man, I know you do but with music, people can hear it and say, this made me feel like that…
DB: Yeah I think Steven Butler spoke about that in his chat. It’s interesting to think about the immediacy in response that you have with listening to music…
MD: People can make their mind up pretty quickly, whether they like something or not, whereas writing a book is like taking a giant slab of marble and chipping away at it. For me though, it’s all about writing and playing at the moment. A song to me is different from poem. They’re distinct mediums. We’ll see how these things develop. It’s an exciting journey. The reality for artists now is that it doesn’t pay the bills. If you want to go mainstream , you’re compromising your creative integrity in a lot of instances so each artist has to ask themselves those questions.
DB: As a response to the work you’ve put out there and as a result of those influences and inspirations, you’ve been asked to perform for the Rimbaud & Verlaine Foundation in London alongside Preston Reed and Diana Jones. How does that feel?
MD: I don’t think it’s really sunk in to be honest. To be asked is a huge honour just as it was off the back of the relationship with that foundation to be able to stay in Rimbaud’s old home when I went out to France. It’s all pretty surreal and an extreme honour. I better not get drunk for it ey? (Laughing) I’ve never played a gig in London. So it’s a notch on my bedpost man. It’s funny because all of this is under the guise of the Rimbaud & Verlaine Foundation.
As far as I’m aware the only invite that Rimbaud ever got in his short life as a poet was to this famous French poet’s dinner in Paris. He basically showed up with all of these dominant poets of the time. These guys who clearly fancied themselves. Rimbaud was 16 at the time and his reaction to attending this night, “Les Vilains Bonhommes” or “The Evil Gentlemen” was to say “merde” after everything they said. Just saying “You’re shit.” “Shit”. (Laughing) So he ended up stealing a sword cane from one of the poets who was there. He actually ended up attacking one of them with a sword. It’s like the Rolling Stones or The Beatles having a party and The Sex Pistols being invited, just attacking them with fucking broken bottles or something. So this was the impact he was trying to have. Obviously, I’ll be treating my invitation with much more respect than that. (Laughing)
DB: You’ve previously drawn some parallels to the place where you lived most of your life, Toronto, Canada in writing before and Belfast. Having been here for over a decade now, do you feel more at home here or what is the concept of “home” to you? What do you think about when you think about Belfast?
MD: Well, Belfast is home to me because home is just where you’re at. For me, it’s just wherever you’re living. I feel more at home here than I probably ever did in North America. In terms of why that is, in many ways I do feel like I’ve spent a lot of my life in a state of culture shock and with moving around a lot when I was younger it’s made it quite hard to latch on. I’ve always been pretty transient, but I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I have Belfast. 13 years now. I think most people I’ve met feel a love hate relationship with their hometown and that’s a pretty normal thing. I can’t really say I have a hometown. I just never really felt that I could fit there. I always felt that there was some sort of arcane pressure to try and have to aspire to be something that I didn’t want to even come close to.
It’s hard to feel comfortable or "at home" in a place that has no qualms in exploiting you for every pound of flesh it can get it’s hands on. If to achieve the dream of the New World…Canada, America means you have to be exploited then I don’t know how much I can fit into that type of society where information is constantly geared towards getting you to think that way -there’s something way too sinister & unsettling about it all. Of course it’s inevitable wherever you are these days but I guess I feel exploited to a lesser extent on this side of the pond & definitely less bombarded by these capitalist & corporate values. Belfast is built on blunt truths. I think that’s a useful place to work from, where you know exactly where you stand. I guess I’ll stay here for as long as that remains the case.
It’s kinda cool to just be able to fuck off to France for a weekend too. If you live in Canada the only place you can fuck off too for a weekend is Canada. Belfast is an exciting city though. There’s a lot happening here, I’m really proud to be able to put out my first record here. I’m hoping to put out more and I like writing here. The future is bright here.
DB: How do you see the way music is here in Belfast? I mean, there are gigs on every week but they’re not necessarily well attended…
MD: Yeah, it’s a small city but it’s a good base for a lot of things. In terms of how it’s consumed. I’d be lying if I said I spent a huge amount of time listening to and checking out every band from here. I check out what I can but I’m not really watching to see what other people are doing. That’s probably because I’m not from here and I don’t feel “at home” in that sense. If there’s a scene in Belfast then I’m probably not the best person to comment on it, however, as somebody who makes music without worrying too much what other people are doing, it’s vibrant. There’s some great talent here yet at the same time people struggle to do what they do here. Many have been doing it a lot longer than I have and in that time, things have changed. The playing field is much different.
Some people buy EPs, some people will listen Spotify, some people will just pirate shit regardless, but that’s the same everywhere. People like Ciaran Lavery, Michael Mormecha and Loris, Duke Special and many others getting out there is great to see. It’s great to have Neil Young coming to town and playing his first show here. I’d love to open up for him, it’s never gunna happen but you know.
DB: Well I guess that bleeds into the next question about your musical influences. Do you want to talk about that a little? You’ve been compared to Tom Waits before.
MD: Yeah that’s crazy.
DB: What kind of music do you listen to as well?
MD: Yeah, that’s a good question. I really really like the new The Cult album and people are going to think I’m a dick for saying that but I got tickets for their next gig. They were one of the first bands I ever saw in Toronto in the late 80’s. I don’t listen to a lot of old bands that put out new albums, that’s a bit kitsch but their new album is a good rock album. My favourite band of all time is a psychobilly group from Canada called The Sadies. They’re kind of a crazy mix of country, surf and psychedelia. Love them. They do A new Year’s gig in Toronto every year and it’s one of the biggest things I miss about there, other than the Ethiopian food. (Laughing) The other band who’s way way up there and that I first got into really heavy was the Roger Waters Floyd. You know Roger Waters has a dark, sardonic wit and I really respect him as a writer and for his outspokenness politically, especially. So Floyd would have been a real big influence.
Certainly, recently, the back catalogue of the band Sparklehorse. Mark Linkous died about five years ago and I’d missed all the shows he did in Toronto. In about 2006, they were releasing the last album and I bought tickets for their 3 shows in Dublin, 1 show in Belfast and their show in Glasgow. I wouldn’t even be able to afford a ticket to their show in Canada and that’s another reason I love living here. Because you go to those shows in Toronto and it’s full of fucking hipsters and you go here and people just dig the music. The people who should be at the shows are at the shows.
I met Mark Linkous and I was really really lucky to do that. I actually became friends with his mum after he died because I wrote a little article and shot a video about my experience meeting Mark and she read it and got in touch with me. So that was incredible. Sparklehorse are great because they’re not so genre specific. That’s what’s great about writing music. It’s not pre meditated. The absence of thought in that process is so important.
DB: Yeah you don’t want to box yourself in…
MD: Well I’m not going to do it..
DB: People like that familiarity. It’s human nature to compare I think or make reference but you don’t want to stifle what you’re doing by saying you’re just going to make this type of music. Other than your London show you’ve got to plans to play in Canada soon, right?
MD: Yeah, the plan is that myself and Scruffy are gunna go to Canada and play some more low-key gigs. It’ll be a little more stripped down. We’ll be playing a few clubs and cafes in Toronto, Hamilton and we’re hoping to play Peterborough maybe Montreal. Just to launch the EP a little out there as a taster for the second EP which we’re hoping to release later this year. For me, it’s a bit of a homecoming gig in a weird sense just playing Toronto, seeing a few of my old buddies. We’ll see. (Laughing)
DB: What other future plans are there then?
Well we’ve got a gig in The Empire on April 7th. We’ve got the gig in London the week after. Before all that happens though we had a band rehearsal last night and we’ve got about 8 new songs that we’re working on. We’ll be going into the studio mid-March.
DB: And the sound? Has it changed?
Yeah, I’d say it’s more acoustic. More stripped back. There’s no trombones, no brass. It’s gunna be a bit more raw. We’re also kind of waiting the weeds a little bit ‘cause we have more than half of the LP recorded which won’t be released until 2017. The EP will hopefully released in September and from there recording final songs for the album. We’ve got a few video projects in and around the songs for the LP that we’d like to get out there. Hopefully, there’ll be some festival dates in there as well.
Obviously I’ve got a day job so if I had more time I’d definitely like to get out some self published poetry at some point. That’s really important to me so that people understand I come from a literary background. Before the EP I had the third draft of a novel written and that’s not going to go away so I want to get that out there. I don’t want people to think oh he’s a rock guy and now he’s trying to do a fucking book. I don’t want to be that schlep. Other than all that, I’ve got an absinthe collection that’s been going since it was illegal in Canada. There’s around 45 bottles now.
DB: Jesus. And what’s the plan with that?
Well, there’s somebody who wants to shoot a documentary where I go to France and try it for the first time ‘cause I still haven’t ever tried it.
DB: Another future escapade…
MD: It’s all about the escapades. The escapades make it all worth while.
DB: Well if you find a good absinthe let me know. Back in the university days, we used to have a game playing pool in Lavery’s. This was when it was like a dungeon. forfeits were shots of absinthe and it was horrible.
MD: I think there’s a lot of stuff that looks good to drink but it’s not. Another interesting thing about absinthe is that for years, before they were really able to start synthesising DNA, they thought the reason absinthe fucked so many people up was because of it’s relation to THC. They thought it was the combination of the anise that in high proportions can supposedly become hallucinogenic. So I’ve studied it but never tried it. Thujone is the active ingredient in wormwood which is the active ingredient in absinthe and they thought thujone was a cannabinoid but it’s not. It’s not. You’re just gunna get fucking hammered. Thujone is a step away from going completely fucking nuts. It’d be a good name for a band, The Thujones.
DB: Haha okay, well I’ve just realised we’ve been talking about absinthe here, so thanks Peter.
MD: Yes, thank you buddy.
Here’s a couple of upcoming dates where you can catch The Mad Dalton performing. April - Thurs 7th Empire Music Hall // Monday 18th London - Kings Place. Click through here to pick up the EP. Cheers for reading.