Part Timer is the self-deprecating nom de plume for John McCaffrey, a Northern Englander now residing in Melbourne, Australia. To some extent it’s an accurate name, his musical time limited as a father of two and occupational therapist who works with people with brain injuries.
“There’s nothing like people with damaged frontal lobes to make interactions interesting,” he offers. “You get such great experiences that you just can’t replicate in any other setting.” Yet McCaffrey views his other life – his music – as a reaction, an escape from his daily life. “It’s a way to lose yourself from all that shit to be honest,” he laughs. “I guess making music is a lot scarcer in my life, a lot more of a rare activity these days. When I get the opportunity to do it it’s a bit more valued because of that.”
Given his remarkably prolific output it may come as some surprise that these days it’s about putting the kids to bed and grabbing every opportunity to retreat to the ‘man cave.’ “I’m not a wood worker, I don’t do any of those kinds of things. It’s my little seal-off, to get in there and get in my own head. Get into the music work.” When he does strap himself into the cave his sounds don’t betray any of the stressors of his other life. What inevitably comes out is pure, gentle and highly balanced. There’s a stillness to the music of Part Timer, compositions crafted via a series of often-tentative gestures that all conspire together to resonate with melancholia and emotion.
“I think that comes from the way it’s made to be honest,” McCaffrey suggests. “It’s just a sedentary paralysis, just sitting in front of the computer. I don’t really understand how people can make upbeat electronic stuff that’s pounding club friendly when you’re essentially in your spare room tapping away on your keyboard. It makes a lot more sense for me to make something a lot more sedate.”
McCaffrey began making music in the UK as part of the duo Clickits who had the honour of having their debut EP released as the first in the catalogue of the influential (though now-defunct) UK label Moteer. Ultimately McCaffrey believes that it was all about geography. Growing up in Accrington “a very small village part of a small northern town, there wasn’t a whole lot going on there,” he offers, “so even if you’re remotely like-minded you gravitate towards one another.” The one person he gravitated to was Johnny Russell, with a shared love of the fractured electronica released on the Warp label. “Andrew Johnston lived very close to Johnny and Andrew Johnston is the Remote Viewer. We would drink at the same pub and we would chat with him. And he and Craig [Tattersall] would talk about starting up the Moteer label. I don’t think they had any concrete plans, but me and Johnny thought ‘why don’t we get something together and give them to Andrew’, which we did over a couple of months. They liked it, and it became the first release on Moteer. It was a 12-inch. A little-heard EP. Then there was the Many Fingers release which was the first proper release, I think we were just a bit of a test.”
“We were both really excited about it,” he continues. “Johnny’s an intense little guy. It came out just after I moved to Australia within the first couple of months of me being here. I received second-hand stories that in a fit of peak and artistic anguish over this release he actually went into the distributors and asked for all the remaining copies so he could burn them. I don’t know why. He’s just a bit of a lunatic.”
These days McCaffrey is a little circumspect about Clickits, suggesting that it wears its Morr Music/City Centre Offices influences on its sleeve. In 2005 they would release Express Gifts, a full-length album despite McCaffrey’s relocation to Australia, with each of the duo creating five tracks separately. It was during this time that the seeds of Part Timer were planted; inspired to some extent by the musical culture shock that was Melbourne.
“It was hugely different,” he reflects. “When we first got here I was quite blown away, especially in Melbourne by the indie twee, rocky, very guitar-based kind of music. In those days I was very electronically inclined in my listening. And I found it quite strange to come somewhere that it was a rarity to get an electronic gig, and exceptionally rare for an international electronic act, especially one of the obscure ones. I think in some ways, moving here kind of influenced the music I was making because of the guitar influence that was happening here. I was still very much in an electronic headspace in the first couple of years of being here. In that time we made the Clickits album then slowly but surely got into the guitar.”
But McCaffrey isn’t your typical guitarist. He’s much more interested in mood and texture than technique. In fact, true to form he may also be the most self-deprecating guitarist you’ll ever come across. “I think I’ve probably always harboured a secret desire to be an axe master, and rock it out Yngwie Malmsteen style,” he laughs before continuing more seriously. “I think there’s a certain mood to the acoustic guitar, there’s a certain feel to those kinds of sounds. I think after subjecting myself to a lot of electronic music for a good number of years I started to want to return to some more natural sounds and incorporate that with the more electronic sounds.” His playing is often quite repetitive, subtle, restrained, simple lines, free from any excessive flourishes.
“That’s because I’m not very good at it,” he laughs. “I could not play you a tune from start to finish. Even if it was the same riff over and over. I’m awful. My process is to record quite a bit and then stitch it together on the computer. There’s no way I could play a coherent tune for anyone. Even after several years of making guitar-based music.”
It’s this combination of brutal honesty and self-deprecation that makes a conversation with McCaffrey so refreshing. “I’m happy to tell people that,” he reveals. “I think that what happens with the Part Timer music is that secretly it’s electronic music. I know it has an acoustic feel to it, but it’s all stitched together and modified on the computer, that’s where I do my work on it.”
“That’s the beautiful thing about working with computers isn’t it?” He continues. “It gives you the opportunity if you’re prepared to spend the time to put anything together. I certainly wouldn’t be able to make music without the computer; it’s a tool an organiser, and a contributing factor. I consider the stuff I make to be computer music.”
Part Timer’s first LP appeared on Moteer in 2006; continuing his ridiculously prolific reputation his second album Blue appeared just a year later as Japanese label Flau’s second ever release. “I seem to release a lot of stuff early on in label catalogues,” he reflects, “it’s like ‘oh we need some artists,’ it’s the only way they accept me. I’m a kick-start a label kind of artist.”
As for Blue, McCaffrey has some reservations. “It’s a weird one for me,” he offers, “there’s lots of bits and pieces chucked together. I don’t think it’s as coherent as Real To Reel.” But you can’t listen to McCaffrey; Boomkat described it as “treading that fine line between lonesome acoustic composition and delicate electronic tampering,” whilst The Silent Ballet called it “a buffet of tracks that are as confident as they are fragile, calling upon folk and electronic experimentalists to create something intimate and sincere.”
Yet it’s his most recent work, again with a new label, this time USA’s Lost Tribe Sound, which McCaffrey views as his most accomplished. “Real to Reel is the sound I envisaged for Part Timer,” he explains. “It took shape over a few years. I compiled it down from my favourite tracks over the last few years. I’m the happiest with that one. I think it hangs well together.” It’s a lush album, with gentle acoustic guitar lines and those ever present Part Timer dusty soundscapes over which Nicola Hodgkinson (The Empress/Hood) and his wife Danielle sing. In fact it’s an album that features more vocals than ever.
“I’d love to work with vocalists a little more when I get some time and just do entirely a song-based kind of album. I’ve always liked music with vocalists. I don’t necessarily trust myself a lot to commit my own vocals all that frequently to record.”
Part Timer isn’t McCaffrey’s only nom de plume. He can also be found as Upwards Arrows and Scissors and Sellotape. In fact he has an imminent release for Scissor and Sellotape on the Frac-ture label. It began as a request from frequent collaborator, Melbourne multi-instrumentalist Heidi Elva, to record her playing piano in a church. “Heidi had befriended the vicar. His piano was out of tune, she got him a piano tuner and she asked if she could come and record some piano, he said yeah so we went in there, sat there for three hours and played, recorded some bits and pieces from around the place, and it was a huge sample library from one three hour sitting, and it forms the basis for all the tracks.”
“Okay. I’m an absolute asshole,” offers McCaffrey electing to come clean. “The idea was to go in there and record Heidi playing some fairly straight simple piano melodies and then afterwards I’d go in and add a bit of ambience to them and edit out some duff notes and add a little bit of pixie dust.” But it didn’t go entirely according to plan.
“I got the recordings home and I just couldn’t help myself, just chopping it stretching it, totally re-arranging phrases,” he laughs. Within the space of two days I had three tracks. So I sent them to Heidi and she was like ‘No that’s not what I wanted at all.'”
“She was all about the ambience of the church, recording it really quite simply and having the feel of the tracks, and I just totally obliterated that and made Part Timer with piano. I think I hit a creative down at that time and it was a real burst of inspiration to make music again I guess. She didn’t want to stand in the way so more power to her, but she never did get her clean recordings.”
Scissors and Sellotape began on Craig from Moteer’s craft label Cotton Goods, as a limited edition of 100 EPs made out of hardback books and other curious materials with a real handmade aesthetic. “It was a bunch of field recordings taken on honeymoon and I just chopped little loops out of it and stuck it all together. It wasn’t a composed process I suppose. I didn’t play a guitar line seventeen times and choose the best one. I just got the field recordings and chopped those into loops and stuck them together in different ways.”
Yet this isn’t the end of his musical personalities, it seems the more you scratch the surface with McCaffrey the more projects appear. When he is contacted a couple of days after our initial discussion he jokes that’s why they call him the onion. “Not because I have so many layers, but because I smell and make people cry.”
Upward Arrows is less melodic and more drone-based, a pseudo-classical and experimental side to his personality. It’s something that he has hinted at more recently in his Part Timer guise, yet it’s fully explored under his other moniker. The project emerged after being offered a release from the Under the Spire label, which at the time was more drone focused.
“I’d been listening to a lot of modern classical/droney stuff,” he offers and I fancied giving it a go, so made those tracks. Since that I’ve done a few remixes as Upward Arrows too, as I quite like the process of stretching sounds and sticking big reverby washes over everything.” Speaking of remixes he’s created something of a niche for himself as a remixer of choice for your dreamy pastoral indie folk music, everyone from The Declining Winter to Tokyo Bloodworm, Children of the Wave, Underlapper, even US cellist Aaron Martin, whose remix turned into an ongoing collaboration.
“The two releases with Aaron Martin are essentially remixes that got out of hand,” he reveals. “On both occasions Aaron sent me stems for a number of his tracks to see if I wanted to remix one. Then I just got busy and remixed everything he sent.” The first release was a limited double 3-inch CD on Mobeer called Seed Collection. One disc contained Martin’s originals, the other McCaffrey’s remixes. The second release was on Under the Spire.
“Aaron had released an EP called Grass Wounds – then he sent me the stems. I remixed them and the label released the remix EP as Grass Rewound (my terrible pun of a title).”
So why all these different guises?
“It’s when I don’t want to knock out another ‘folktronic lay back and cry to yourself thing,'” he laughs. “That’s when things don’t fit into that Part Timer sound I guess so I stick it under different artist names,” he pauses for a second seeming to reflect on this before adding, “my break core stuff is very little known but trust me it’s groundbreaking.”
Part Timer’s Real to Reel is released through Lost Tribe Sound.