How Kitten Pyramid became a family affair

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When Kitten Pyramid careered into our world in December 2013, the Burton-On-Trent group were a breath of fresh air – a guitar band with a vast musical palette whose weird compositions and deep concepts brought them under our brolly, but with their indie rock hooks and joyful singalongs they could appeal to Joe Public, too.

The brainchild of frontman/guitarist Scott Milligan, the line‑up fluctuated between five and 14 people, there were visuals for every song – such as initial single English Rosa, which featured late Procol Harum guitarist, Burton local and Pyramid pal Dave Ball as The Grim Reaper in the video – and the stories were personal and historical epics that constituted 2014’s striking debut album, Uh-Oh.

But after 18 months of zooming around the UK playing quirky events in different configurations, and in spite of enthusiastic previews/reviews in the general music press, Uh-Oh had only shifted 100 copies and the Pyramid was in danger of collapsing. Then a lifeline appeared in the form of former punk and new wave songwriter-turned-BBC 6 Music presenter Tom Robinson.

“There was no cronyism or nepotism,” laughs Milligan from across a meeting room table at Prog Towers. “I just did what he recommended on his tip site, Fresh On The Net, to try and make our CD look professionally plugged, to get noticed. We sent it out to 50-odd people – radio producers, magazines. One time it worked.”

Credit where it’s due – before Prog got our mitts on ’em, Kitten Pyramid’s first bit of radio airplay came one morning via Chris Hawkins’ 6 Music show. “I was in a caravan, on holiday in Wales, at about five in the morning when we heard English Rosa. Then a week later Tom started playing us as well. I emailed him to say thanks for supporting us, and that was the start.”

In early 2015, when Milligan heard that Robinson had gone back in the studio to record his first album in 19 years, he emailed him to ask how it was going. To his great surprise, Robinson direct-messaged him on Twitter with an offer for Kitten Pyramid to support him on his autumn tour.

“That was mind-blowing,” Milligan laughs. “I’d always dreamed of touring, and this was a really big break, so I was jumping up and down thinking, ‘How do we do this?’”

For Milligan – a teen poet who’d fallen into doomed Oasis and Stereophonics-style ventures but got a second wave of creativity at 40 as a family man with a day job at a graphics firm – this was an excellent reason to get excited. But when he told the other four KP members the news, he didn’t get the reaction he expected.

“I’d waited a long time for this moment. But the rest of the band were like, ‘Oh.’”

There was no big falling-out, it was just lousy timing. Diary dates clashed, holiday leave had been used up, a misunderstanding led to one bandmate’s departure. Milligan found himself temporarily solo – until his son Thomas Marson, a drummer, stepped in.

“I was in this spiral of hell,” Milligan sighs, remembering the prospect of recruitment. “Even though we had a fair bit of time, you’ve got to find the right personalities and they’ve got to make all the dates. We tried a few people and it didn’t really work out, and Thomas was in the background saying, ‘If you want me to do it, I’ll do it.’ It was like, ‘Why didn’t I think of that before?’”

I’d waited a long time for this moment. But the rest of the band were like, ‘Oh.’

Aged 21, Marson had never been in a band before. His tastes are satisfyingly left-of-field, favouring electronica and post-rock – he introduced his dad to a whole new range of music divergent from the Nick Drake-Randy Newman-David Byrne axis that is Milligan Sr’s admitted comfort zone.

As a duo, and with Robinson’s mentorship, they went down fantastically on each night of the tour. “It was a bit daunting for the first couple of shows but it was the gentlest introduction you could wish for,” Milligan grins. “Tom introduced us on stage every night and his audiences were just lovely as well. They really, really like Tom so they’re good to us on his recommendation.”

In the three-month stint between London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in September and Cypress Avenue in Cork in December, copies of Uh-Oh flew off the merch stand and there was even some collaboration between the Kittens and the Big Cats. “We got on great with Gerry Diver, his producer, who’s an amazing violinist, and also Lee [Forsyth-Griffiths, guitarist] came onstage to do Whale with us,” Milligan says.

The KP set needed a tune-up, and on Robinson’s recommendation a five-track EP of new and revisited tracks (such as ever popular shoutalong Whale), emerged last September with contributions from Prog regular Matt Stevens and, posthumously, Dave Ball – titled High Five Scuba Dive.

Milligan’s long-standing muse is his late uncle Stefan Baczyk, a Polish immigrant and an artistic individual who struggled with paranoid schizophrenia. “I’ve always wanted to make a film about him,” Milligan nods. “He was one of the first people who made me think differently about how things can be, a musician and a very creative person - the rest of my family weren’t like that. Most of my songs were about him anyway, so I thought I’d combine music and film.”

The video for High Five Scuba Dive depicts Baczyk’s first day as an ice-cream man; sadly unsuccessful as he succumbs to his condition and takes to his bed, leaving the new business to languish.

“Seeing the ice-cream van in our driveway, and people coming up asking where he was, it was kind of my first realisation that my uncle wasn’t very well,” says Milligan. “He’d be super high one minute, excited and laughing, then laconic the next. That’s where the title comes from.”

With Tom Robinson's band

With Tom Robinson's band
(Image: © Sue Robinson)

In an effort to channel the impression left by his uncle’s illness, Milligan played a tour of psychiatric wards in 2014, including St George’s Hospital in Stafford where Baczyk was treated.

“Music is incredible, incredibly powerful, and even to this day the therapeutic benefits of it are quite staggering,” says Milligan. “The idea of that tour originally started because St George’s were looking for artists to come in and perform. Playing Fire, which is about Stefan, in pretty much the same spot where he’d been interred, was really weird but lovely. I know it sounds really cheesy, but I felt like he was there as well.

“Mental illness has loomed large over my life,” Milligan adds.

This isn’t because of his own susceptibility – if he feels low he turns to songwriting for succour. But son Thomas has recently undergone treatment for anxiety and after a colleague at work had a breakdown, Milligan found himself guiding his sympathetic but stumped boss on the matter. “I went, ‘The Samaritans!’ – you can ring them any time if they’re having an episode right there. You hand them the phone and they can speak to somebody. They don’t have to say who they are, and they can just unload all their stuff.’”

On tour, Milligan was encouraged by Robinson to speak to audiences about the story behind High Five Scuba Dive. “Tom said to me, ‘Explain what all this stuff is about.’ I was like, ‘Have I got time?’ and he went, ‘Yeah, they need to know.’”

As Kitten Pyramid’s second album gestates, they will use 2016 to craft “a five‑star, award-winning masterpiece: otherwise I won’t release it,” Milligan laughs.

Under a working title of Fridge Magnet, new compadre Gerry Diver is producing, in a multitude of studios from Rockfield to Abbey Road, and many will be involved – Matt Stevens again, Knifeworld/Gong/Guapo chap Kavus Torabi, Brit folk star Lisa Knapp and keyboardist Duncan Gammon from Schnauser, with “lots more guests planned”. There won’t be any gigs, only Milligan’s feted DIY videos to distract him – he’s made a doc about KP on the road with Tom Robinson that stops by The Samaritans’ Luton office for a chat with volunteers.

A one-man creative whirlwind, Milligan’s vision is really all about family legacy. “I want to make something that generations later they’ll say, ‘Look what this guy created,’ and do what Stefan did for me. If there’s a future artist in a grandson or whatever else, they’ll watch it and they’ve got somebody to talk to. I’ll still be around to bore them to death about my tour with Tom Robinson!”

High Five Scuba Dive is out now via Kitten Pyramid’s Bandcamp page.