The Scotsman Sessions #396: Hank Tree
The abandoned frontier town has been an atmospheric trope of westerns for the past century but was a harsh reality for entire communities across the Americas. Ex-State Broadcasters guitarist Fergus MacDonald was so affected by the ghost towns of the Atacama Desert while living in Chile in 2014/15 that he wrote an entire album of meditative indie folk and post-rock on the subject, titled The Big North and released in his semi-solo guise as Hank Tree.
MacDonald took years to research and write the album, delving into primary sources, first-hand testimonies and academic studies to explore themes such as migration, technological advances, the impact on natural landscapes and building communities in inhospitable places.
“What first grabbed me about the area was how extreme the region's collapse had been,” says MacDonald, “that you could go to the driest place in the world and find abandoned towns with shops, theatres, factories, swimming pools and rows of houses completely empty and exposed to the elements. As I learned more about the history of the area it became a mild obsession.
“The sequencing of the album is intended to present a simple narrative structure, starting off with the sense of hope that was stronger when the area's industry was flourishing and migrants were moving there from all over the world. Ultimately the industry and communities went into a steep decline and this is reflected later on in the album when the tone is darker and more discordant.”
“As the second song on the album, Jokes is very much in the hopeful end of the record,” says MacDonald. “It probably is the closest I've come to writing a romantic song... so far, anyway. I picture the couples who took the huge leap in moving to this remote environment and the sense of togetherness that can come when a decision like that is made by two people.
“It's been a long time now since I've been in Chile but I like to try and maintain a connection with the creative people over there. It's the place where I first had the confidence to share my songs with other people and I'm very grateful to those that helped give me a foot up, particularly producer Roy Macdonald and the Uva Robot label.”
Hank Tree has evolved from a solo project into a live concern, with the addition of Shearer and Bart Owl of eagleowl/Broken Chanter to the line-up, and support slots with King Creosote and Alasdair Roberts, but it’s a pliable project, with MacDonald also touring a solo classical guitar incarnation.
“I enjoy the freedom of feeling like Hank Tree doesn't need to be a typical band with one particular sound,” says MacDonald. “Exploring different avenues by taking on different roles across different releases is more interesting to me.”
Hank Tree play Broadcast, Glasgow, 4 February; Old Toll Bar, Glasgow, 18 February; Leith Depot, Edinburgh, 2 March; and Old Hairdressers, Glasgow, 3 March. The Big North is out now on Olive Grove Records, https://hanktree.bandcamp.com/