Part Timer is John McCaffrey, a Melbourne based musician who specialises in gentle melancholic music that merges electronic tendencies with a distinctively analog feel. In the past he has released his music on Moteer, Flau, and Lost Tribe Sound amongst other labels, though his most recent album, the lush evocative and aptly titled Interiority Complex is self released via Bandcamp. We first spoke to John 11 years ago when he released the exquisite Real to Reel (Lost Tribe Sound) where he spoke of his work as an occupational therapist, sneaking in music making after putting the kids to bed and his early musical life in the North of England. You can read that here. After being captivated by the stately beauty of Interiority Complex we felt like we had to reach out again for a short pulse check
Cyclic Defrost: Where did the name Part Timer come from? Was it a self fulfilling prophecy or does it say something about how you approach music in general?
John McCaffrey: I decided on Part Timer as a name because it seemed to reflect the reality of how much time I had to devote to music. When the first album came out about 16 years ago I was spending a lot more time making music than I do these days, but at the time it felt like I was just fitting it in around other life commitments. In the last 16 years, those other commitments have only multiplied and the name becomes more relevant than ever.
Cyclic Defrost: Do you have a preferred way of working? I get the sense that music creation isn’t necessarily a daily or even weekly activity for you.
John McCaffrey I sort of get creative in fits and starts. I seem to go through fallow periods where nothing of any consequence gets made – 8 bar loops that don’t seem to lead anywhere – but then I seem to have more inspired times when I feel more capable of generating interesting ideas, following those ideas and finishing tunes.
Typically I try to do some music related activity at least weekly, but it’s usually an hour or two here or there. Gone are the days when I could make something from start to finish in a single sitting.
Cyclic Defrost: Has the purpose or the role of creating music changed for you over the years? You’d previously spoke of it as a bit of a retreat from your life?
John McCaffrey: I think it still fulfils that purpose. Music making, whilst very important to me, seems somehow disconnected from all the other facets of my life. It exists as it’s own little bubble in which I’m able to lose myself periodically. The music making process, and the results of it, represent a very different part of me than is usually on display to the world. I like having an activity in my life that doesn’t involve social interaction… where its just me, the computer and whatever comes out of that insular process.
Cyclic Defrost: How do you go about constructing your music? Does mood come first and you find sounds to fit, or do you noodle until it sounds right or is there a more structural approach that you take?
John McCaffrey: There’s definitely a palette of moods and sounds that I’m attracted to. The feeling and the sounds go hand-in-hand. I generally start out by playing around on the keyboard and capturing whatever I’m doing. When I hear something that sounds like the seed of a tune, I might try it across different instruments to find what fits and to get the right tone. From that seed there’s a few routes I might take. Either building on it and expanding the original phrase, feeding it into some effects to generate a totally different flow, or resampling it and going from there. I like to let each piece sort of dictate it’s own trajectory – I just do what feels right for the original idea.
Cyclic Defrost: How long did Interiority Complex take to create? Did you know you were making an album?
John McCaffrey: It probably took about ten months to put together. I certainly had it in mind to do another album after last year’s “Reaching Ends” tape/digital release, but it takes a while to build up a collection of tunes that feel right together. I try to create, then curate. It seems that the best approach is to generate as much as possible (which is inevitably not much!) then spend a while just listening on morning walks or in the car until I get a sense that there’s enough music that sits well together.
I feel that making an album is becoming a bit more difficult these days. The way music is consumed now means that people seem to listen to playlists or single tunes rather than absorbing a full album. I’m definitely guilty of this to some extent. The age of streaming has whittled down my attention span somewhat, and the general pace of life seems to make it hard to commit to REALLY listening to a full album. However, when there’s enough time to properly engage with a full-length release it’s incredibly satisfying to be immersed in a singular artistic vision for an extended period of time. It’s a much deeper and more rewarding experience than dipping into and out of a variety of artists’ catalogues.
Cyclic Defrost: It’s so gentle, sedentary, nostalgic, and melancholic music. Where do you think this comes from?
John McCaffrey: Those descriptors are pretty apt. Music that sits in that kind of space has a particular magic to it. I love to hear music that evokes a kind of wistful melancholia, it just speaks to me. I’m not really someone who revels in nostalgia in my day-to-day life, but there’s a special quality to music of that nature that tickles that part of my brain. Artists like Boards of Canada really opened my ears to that kind of sound – sepia-tinged recordings infused with the ghosts of abandoned formats and defunct technology. I fell in love with the Ninja Tune label back in the late 90’s. So many of their artists had audible vinyl crackle, and a kind of foregrounding of incidental, format dependent sounds. It’s a grounding experience listening to that.
I also listen to a lot of ambient music, and there’s a stillness about that genre that I adore. It is meditative and touches on the interior experience in a way that other genres don’t. It’s like the aural equivalent of a Mark Rothko painting. Deep, and kind of timeless. I try to capture a bit of that in my music but with a brevity and melodic intent that isn’t necessarily a hallmark of the genre.
Cyclic Defrost: You talk about Interiority Complex feeling structurally different from your previous releases. Now that a little bit of time has passed why do you think this is?
John McCaffrey: I changed my DAW in September last year. I went from Acid Pro to Ableton. I had been using various iterations of Acid since about 2003 right through to 2021. Now, Acid isn’t a very good DAW, but it’s the first one that I learnt and it seemed to suit me fine. However, every program has its own workflows that are kind of implied by their structure. I think that Acid lends itself to loop based composition. Ableton, on the other hand, is a much freer program – there’s a lot of tools for introducing randomness, variability, and change. Of course, my approach still favours loops and repetition, but the possibilities that are afforded by Ableton mean that these loops can evolve, there can be subtle variations throughout phrases that repeat, and there’s more opportunities for happy accidents.
A number of the tunes on Interiority Complex make use of some of these features of Ableton in such a way as they could never be rendered again in the same form as they exist on the album. That’s an important change for me and it means that the tunes are less rigidly structured. As I come to appreciate the possibilities afforded by the program, it means that my approach to making tunes can also evolve and I’m certainly hoping to incorporate more of these processes into future music.
Cyclic Defrost: Strings play a really important role in your music, and are particularly prominent on Interiority Complex, what attracts you to the string sound, what do you think they do for your music?
John McCaffrey: There’s such an emotional warmth to the sound of strings. The deep resonance of a cello underpinning a musical phrase or a soulful violin note sounding above it. There’s a kind of humanity, an expressiveness to the sound, that just communicates a depth of feeling that I think is hard to match with other orchestral elements. Even though the strings on Interiority Complex are all kontakt instruments, rather than performances by players brought in for the tunes, they still seem to bring this warmth to the music, and set a tone in which I’m very interested.
Cyclic Defrost: I was pretty taken with ‘False Start’. Initially due to the literal false start in the song, which feels quite abrupt, yet the warbly piano tones are so seductive that its impossible not to get drawn in. Can you tell me what factored into your thinking about how this piece was constructed?
John McCaffrey: I put it together like all the other tunes. Just sort of finding my way with it. I remember that I recorded the piano part then chopped it up and put it in a drum rack rather than in the sampler within Ableton. I then pitched different parts of it and played it like a simple beat. The abruptness you refer to is because of the clean cut I made to the original recording. I like that effect because it sort of highlights the electronic part of the composition process. It introduces the artificiality into what is otherwise quite a warm, organic sounding part. I’ve recently been listening to a couple of albums by Tomotsugu Nakamura who applies a similar abruptness to his pieces…quite jarring cuts to an otherwise flowing piece of music. It’s a fascinating effect and kind of jolts your ears, refreshing your attention as it proceeds. Lovely stuff, well worth tracking down.
Cyclic Defrost: What do you think Part Timer music is for?
John McCaffrey: I mainly listen back to it on a morning walk around 5am or in the car between appointments. I guess it’s ambient in the sense that it could soundtrack any number of mundane day-to-day activities…but I think it works best over headphones – there are little details and a depth to the sound that benefit from being piped directly into your head! I don’t really know. It’s intimate, but also has some bigger sounds happening in there. It’s ‘in-between’ music – taking bits from ambient, electronic, indie, and modern classical. I suppose the kids call it ‘liminal’?
Cyclic Defrost: Do you feel connected with the current music scene in Melbourne (or elsewhere)? Where do you think Part Timer fits in?
John McCaffrey: I wouldn’t be able to tell you the first thing about the music scene in Melbourne. Pandemic aside, I haven’t been to a lot of gigs in the last 10 years. I think the last time I went out was to a Tangents gig pre-COVID but had to leave before they came on (the babysitter’s time was up). I’ve booked a ticket to see Andrew Tuttle at the Melbourne Recital Centre in August. But aside from these rare outings, I don’t really know ‘the scene’ in Melbourne (or anywhere else for that matter). I’m not sure Part Timer stuff is really the kind of thing to play out at a gig. I’ve done a couple of live performances over the years but have never really been happy with how I’ve translated my recorded output to the live context. I think Part Timer is really home listening material. Ideally in Winter.
Interiority Complex is out now. You can Find it here.