Jamie McCarthy was born in England in 1963 of working-class Irish parents. His earliest musical experiences were the soul and pop music his three sisters played around the house along with the Irish traditional music that his parents loved to listen to and which he learned to play both from records and from hanging around in pubs in Co. Clare in Ireland when he was way too young to be really be allowed to.
After being in a couple of bands as a teenager, in 1983 Jamie went to study music at Leicester Polytechnic. Having been rejected by five University music departments, it was pretty much the only place that would accept him, but he landed on his feet: the head of department was the composer Gavin Bryars and other members of the music department included composers Dave Smith, John White and Christopher Hobbs, all associated with the English Experimental music scene and Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra. Dave Smith in particular introduced him to the experience of listening to and performing in music by Cardew, La Monte Young, Harold Budd, Terry Riley and the earlier works of Steve Reich and Philip Glass all of which were formative influences on his own compositions. Whilst at Leicester, Jamie was also profoundly influenced by the Free Improvisation course he took with saxophonist Evan Parker.
Gavin Bryars, who had recently been signed to the record label ECM and who had just come back from Munich loaded with armfuls of complementary CDs, grabbed Jamie one day and said ‘Come in to my office. You have to listen this!’ It was the album Tabula Rasa by Arvo Pärt and Jamie was absolutely gobsmacked by it. He went on to write his undergraduate dissertation about Pärt and his music, being lucky enough to be given the chance to travel to Berlin and spend a few days with Pärt and his family going through scores and recordings and interviewing Arvo. The interview was, over the course of several decades, published in London, New York, Moscow and Budapest upon the recommendation of Arvo himself. Pärt’s music became an incredibly strong influence on Jamie’s own work. The use of the same musical material being played against itself at different speeds in Pärt’s Cantus has been a particularly foundational technique used in many different guises in many of Jamie’s works, most notably in his durational piece Stilled from the 2000’s, the longest performance of which
(with the performance company Fevered Sleep) lasted twelve hours.
After college Jamie played violin, recorder and tuned percussion with the Gavin Bryars Ensemble for a couple of years and began to work on collaborations with dance and theatre practitioners, which were to become a central part of creative life from then on. Alongside his creative work he was involved in Left Queer politics, being one of the writer / publishers of the Lesbian and Gay Leicester freesheet and one of the co-organisers of the first Pride march to take place in Leicester (in 1987). He also continued to perform Traditional Irish music, combining this with his political activism when he supported the Wolfe Tones at the Highfields Workshop and spoke as a representative of the LGBT group Left Out, who along with Sinn Fein had been banned from speaking at a local event.
A brief return to London in 1987 - 1988 saw Jamie working for a year as a gay men's outreach worker at the Greenwich Lesbian and Gay Centre in Woolwich and at the same time training on the Community Programme course at Community Music in Hoxton Square, which was run by improviser / drummer John Stevens. There he was was introduced to Steven's
Search and Reflect approach to music workshops; an important foundation for his later educational work.
In the late eighties and nineties Jamie lived in Liverpool where he formed the live music and performance ensemble HUB along with the composer Jonathan Raisin. With HUB Jamie produced two pieces Wake and The Convention of Angels Part1: Lucifer which combined live music with spoken word performance and video projection and featured the political drag poetess Chloe Poems (aka Gerry Potter). Lucifer reflected his experiences of the AIDS crisis and the loss of close friends.
Jamie was also a founding member of the Liverpool Music Collective and played fiddle, tin whistle and sang with The Brehon Laws, a band way ahead of their time in combining Irish Traditional music with Left, Queer and Irish politics. Jamie continued to be involved in Queer Politics outside of the band, being part of the activist group Liverpool Lesbian and Gay Action and was active in organising the first Pride Festivals in Liverpool in the mid-nineties as well as participating in ACTUP actions in Manchester.
In 1996 Jamie fell ill with severe Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which was to last in an acute form for about eight years, (although in some respects, CFS still, many years on, affects the day-to-day functioning of his life). At the start of his illness he couldn't listen to any music at all as it overloaded his nervous system. Eventually though, he was able to cope with gentle sounds and began to use multiple mini-disc players to make non-synching loops from old recordings that would run in and out of phase with each other for many hours, creating a subtly-shifting sound environment to live within. The flat he lived in at the time faced onto Upper Parliament Street in Toxteth, Liverpool, (a busy and sometimes noisy thoroughfare) and the loops were designed in such a way as to neutralise some of the sound frequencies of the traffic on the street outside, thus making a sort of sonic bubble. This essentially utilitarian approach to working with sound proved to be the foundation of what was eventually to become his style of ‘symphonic drone music’: sound pieces that are designed to function in a way that’s more related to the changes of weather systems or cloud formations than to traditional musical structures. It’s true to say that living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome profoundly altered Jamie’s sense of time-scale and rate of change in his work.
Returning to London in 1999, Jamie very gradually started to work again, despite still living with Chronic Fatigue. He began to teach at London Contemporary Dance School, where, eventually, he became Head of Music, a post he held for a few years before returning to teaching as a freelancer at the school. He continued the collaborative work with dance, theatre and the visual arts that is so central to his creative life and also collaborated musically with Daniel Lea of LAND, both on independent creative projects and with Dan’s music production company Golden Hum. He was also lucky enough to spend eight joyful years touring the world as a violinist with Canadian Queer band The Hidden Cameras.
In the mid 2000’s Jamie worked under the name Doghead, self-releasing two albums Dogs by Jamie and Hallelujah is the Day of Ending. At the end of the decade Doghead morphed into a live act Dog of Hearts who gigged mainly around London and instituted The Kennel Club where they performed to small audiences in people’s homes, sometimes with projection, video and other elements of performance.
Since the mid 2010’s Jamie has released his 'symphonic drone music' under the name CERFILIC.