Perpetually inventive and perhaps Scotland’s most charming musical duo, Post Coal Prom Queen are back with their new project, Music For First Contact, a space opera birthed in Edinburgh’s casually groundbreaking Hidden Door Festival. We caught up with PCPQ’s Lily Higham and Gordon Johnstone to find out what on earth is going on with them this time.
Can you tell us a bit about the genesis of the album’s main idea?
Lily: We were reading a science fiction trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, the science-fiction novel by Cixin Liu. We loved it. It was an amazing lockdown read. It really inspired us. We wanted to write something about the Dark Forest theory that is in the books, where it’s kind of like a game theory strategy around: if you hear from aliens, if we get the signal, should we respond to them and hope for peace and collaboration, new science in the universe? Or because of game theory where they’ll most likely want to attack us, so that we don’t attack them first: should we not reply, because they’re more likely to be aggressive than not?
So we took this idea, and we wanted to do something with it, we weren’t sure what, until we were doing a show with Hidden Door in one of their creative collaboration projects. The room [in Edinburgh’s Old Royal High School building] is this big, oval debating chamber, which made us think: okay, we’ll do some kind of debate and voting thing. And also, at one end of the room are some big chairs that are kind of like a Captain’s chair and First Officer’s chairs – like, commanders and a switchboard with a load of buttons and a map. And we thought: okay, this actually does look a bit like a spaceship. Let’s use this, if we’re going to do it in this space, let’s not waste the chance of being in a venue playing a gig and somewhere that looks like a spaceship. So that made us set the story on a spaceship.
Throughout the day, we had lots of propaganda posters up in the corridors, of whether people should vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to replying to the aliens. Then the audience could vote for the outcome of the story. And those things come together to explain the story of it.
The genre of the music came from that we just wanted to do something new. We’d done Music for Hypercapitalists, which was hip-hop. Music for Megastructures was instrumental electronic. And we thought okay, what have we not done yet? Opera? Yeah, let’s try to find a soprano singer that wants to do some fun stuff. And we met Stephanie [Lamprea], the soprano, and then went and found other musicians that we thought would be really cool to work with.
I gave Stephanie this really shitty score. She played it flawlessly. Basically, she played it as badly as me, absolutely perfectly. I said, ‘We’ve got you on board to play it better. If I wanted somebody to play like an asshole, I would do it.’ So that was a learning curve for her because she was used to getting sheet music and playing it perfectly.
Gordon: When we said to David Martin, the Creative Director of Hidden Door, that we were gonna do an interactive, operatic referendum on first contact with aliens he just looked so tired and went, ‘Okay, fine. Yep, you can.’ The reason we do the things we do is because nobody stops us. At some point, somebody will stop us, but they haven’t yet.
The whole Scottish identity part came about because we can’t really have a show about a referendum in Scotland with a bunch of Scottish people and not have it in some way relate to 2014. Rather than skirting around that we just lean really heavily into it.
So on the ‘Yes’ side of the propaganda – on the side of making contact with aliens – were utopian and reckless, in a way saying: ‘Yeah, fuck it. We’ll do it. Shitebag if you dinna,’ and ‘it’s gonna be fun, it’s gonna be great.’ And then the ‘No’ side was completely opposite. They were saying: ‘Vote no! Everything’s scary, you should be scared of what you don’t know, you should be scared of foreigners’, that kind of thing. It was a parody of the really heavy handed propaganda that both sides used. Although it is important to note that we fall heavily on the ‘Yes’ side of both the independence referendum and also in making contact with aliens, which is one of those sentences I didn’t think I’d ever to say – PCPQ makes that happen. [Laughs]
I hear you have a project soon with Edinburgh College?
Gordon: Yeah, the students invite bands and do live film sessions with them. So they invited us, which is very nice of them. We get a couple of free live videos out of it, which is nice. It’s an opportunity for us to do some different things. We’re going to do a cover of a 2010 YouTube mashup of ‘Fix You’ by Coldplay and ‘Toxicity’ by System of a Down. It is as ghastly as it sounds. We’re not so sensible. But yeah, it’ll be good fun.
Do you tend to make your own videos?
Gordon: The last two videos are ‘Free Radio Phobos’ and ‘Wheeling Through The Void’ ones. They were a lot of fun to do. For ‘Wheeling Through The Void’ we were blowing vape smoke through bubble fluid, making these big opaque bubbles that would burst and smoke. But the thing is, we’re not vapers and Lily filled them directly on the filament. So then when I tried to breathe in and get the smoke going, it just tasted like fireworks and death. It was so horrible. I had a hacking cough for weeks. We learned something that day.
Lily: Next one, we want to use slime.
Gordon: Oh yeah, we’re gonna do slime for the next video because slime mould makes an appearance on the song – like early 90s Kids TV.
Photo credit: John Farrell