Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Lloyd Cole interview

Lloyd Cole has long since parted ways with his former band The Commotions, a band he started at a Glasgow University who had aspirations of making funk/soul music in the vein of Isaac Hayes. Cole’s white English heritage however blocked his access to magical cosmic funk but what was soul music’s loss was indie folk rock’s gain. He proved to be one of the truest owners of the title ‘songwriter’ and possessor of a voice that carries just the right amount of weight. His 1984 debut album Rattlesnakes has earned cult classic status and is celebrated today as an essential album in its field. Commercial success has since been in short order, but never has Cole dropped the ball regarding consistent quality in his work. On the eve of his world tour, Lloyd shares with me from his Massachusetts home, his often practiced pre-travel ritual:

“When you have to be away from home for two months and you can only take two guitars and one suitcase, you make every square inch count.” Lloyd begins in an accent that defies influence by his adopted US home of 20 years, “I’m actually a very anal-retentive person, so now I know exactly how long I’ll be away, I’ll start calculating how many clean pears of underpants that is because there’s never time on tour to do laundry.” I’m sure Lloyd is only half joking as he pauses for my response. His method makes so much sense. Its food for thought until the reality that here is an extraordinary writer of songs forcing me to contemplate a month of undies sets in. Changing tact, I bring up Lloyd’s last album of all new songs Antidepressant (2006) - a collection of sometimes melancholy observations with some of the artists finest writing in his long career. “I think that album was too depressing.” Cole begins with some irony, “It was written in Germany during the most freezing cold winter and really the whole album was about wanting to be anywhere else but Germany… in the winter.”

Although Lloyd isn’t terribly precious about his previous works, he has recently compiled a mammoth four disc set of never before released tracks titled Cleaning Out The Ashtrays. This meant painstakingly listening through boxes and boxes of tapes for the best quality material and chasing up labels to access their vaults. “I actually had to get somebody to do the chasing for me because I don’t have the patience to deal with that sort of thing. I couldn’t leave it up to Universal (Cole’s old label) to do either or there wouldn’t have been a box set. They don’t have a clue where any of my stuff is stored and I just know there’s going to be a problem with that down the line.” Lloyd has plans to release a follow up box set of rare material next year, but the vaults it would seem are in disarray. Surely a self-confessed anal-retentive’s worst nightmare?; “I sent them a box of demos in the early 90s and they’ve been in the label’s care since then but nobody seems to know what’s happened to them. I’d really like those back but I’m not optimistic at this point.”

The idea that there are dusty draws out there filled with unheard Lloyd Cole treasures is quite tantalizing. For the impatient collector though, there’s the extensive Cleaning Out The Ashtrays, and two recently recorded live albums he’s selling only from the gigs - The Folksinger volumes 1 & 2. The title and presentation of these works is Lloyd, a little begrudgingly, embracing his allotted place in the musical scheme. “I never had any ambitions to be the folk-singer guy at all but that is more or less how it is now. I’m up there on stage with my guitar performing acoustic songs only because it is the simplest way to do it.”
The teenage dream of a funk career must seem a long way away, but we are lucky that the legendary songwriter is still gracing us with his music at all. As one of an increasing number of musician golfers, Lloyd, not confident in his average to carry him to golfing victories, confides the only thing that he would give away music for is to be (gasp) a golf writer. Thankfully, his devoted worldwide fan base are keeping him from chasing that dream. The most dedicated of these fans are known as The Young Idealists who, by self appointment in most cases, have a role to play in the life of Mr Cole. “Some of them are giving so much of their time to make things that much easier for me. For example, I’ve got a guy who updates my mySpace all of the time and keeps googlemaps of everywhere the concerts are going to be. I really couldn’t do that stuff without his help. Plus there’s a team of probably 150 people around the world who are going to come along to shows and man the merchandise table and hang around for a chat after. It’s like a big extended family really. It’s a totally different world from years ago touring with The Commotions”.

His Australian Young Idealists can possibly look forward to the man’s interpretation of an AC/DC or Nick Cave song, as he’s been known to do live; “Yeah, just call out for them in the second half of the set.” Lloyd invites, “I’m sure I’ll get around to playing some of my Australian covers on this tour.” Cole’s list of artists who’s work he’s covered is immense, but so far he has resisted the almost expected official covers album; “You see, I’d love to do one but I need to make sure my careers in good shape first.” he laughs, “So if I have a hit album then I’ll definitely throw out a covers set immediately afterwards.”

Offering up sublime versions the Pet Shop Boys’ Being Boring, Marc Bolan’s Children of The Revolution and Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel, Cole has a fine ear for a well written song. I for one want a peak in his record collection before it’s any more depleted by his light fingered brother; “I’ll go to play something I haven’t listened to in years and find that it’s gone.” He reveals, “I think my brother helps himself to my records when I’m on tour.” Lloyd’s annoyance is minimal compared to his amusement at the thought. “Sometimes I’ve had to buy the same album five times and by then you just don't feel like paying for it. It’s like; (to imaginary record shop owner) ‘Can I just take this? I’ve already bought it a few times now. The artist has been paid!”


Lloyd's weblog is updated frequently and gives you all the info on tours and releases plus the chance to send messages directly to him (which he actually responds to)...

Monday, September 14, 2009

Johnette Napolitano (Concrete Blonde) interview


If Concrete Blonde had have been the fully fledged goth band in frilly sleeves they were often painted as, maybe they could have broken through commercially. Then they could’ve gotten on with pretending to be vampires and stealing fans off The Cure until they turned into a parody. The truth of Concrete Blonde however is far greater than their misconstrued image. In their first incarnation (1984-1994) they released five albums veering wildly through many different styles; peaking commercially on 1990’s reflective Bloodletting album and finishing on 1993’s flamenco-influenced Mexican Moon. Guiding the Californian trio was a passionate, raven-haired Italian-American named Johnette Napolitano. Totally uncompromising creatively and with a head for business, she was always destined to be passed over in a town hungry for the next big thing eager to sign on the dotted line.

The singer has imposed on herself a colossal work load - the kind that comes from knowing no other way to do things. Today, even as we speak Johnette is running between her home studio in Joshua Tree – where she has been pouring song ideas out into her personal recorder – and LA to master the new works for the third installment of her Sketchbook projects. These albums have been made independently and released through her website; “I’m more conscious of how people buy music now,” Johnette explains, “I wanted to offer something a little more so these CDs are going to be signed limited editions instead of just selling individual songs for 99cents.” There will be a major release next year, but for now Johnette is happy not dealing with labels. “It’s just that there are hardly any dudes in the business that you can just hang with and talk to.” She says, “It’s rare to find people who aren’t jaded by the business, and still love music. I’ve walked away so many times because I didn’t want to just churn out the music that somebody else thought we should be making. It has to mean something to me or else what’s the point?” Walking away sometimes meant from her band as well, Concrete Blonde fell apart in the mid-90s, weighed down by personal problems and malfunctioning relationships.

The second incarnation of the band (2001-2004) happened in the strangest of circumstances. During 2001 Johnette was plagued by horrific nightmares and an impending sense of doom which ultimately led to a frantic hunt for her former band mates. “I couldn’t get the thought out of my head that I was going to die and if that was going to happen then I was determined to finish what we had started as a band.” Johnette explains in chilling conviction, “I thought I wouldn’t see those guys again and we didn’t end on a particularly great note the first time so it was my wish to make it right with them.” As she describes the realization that her visions were a prelude to 9/11, the subject of Johnette’s ‘gift’ (she is a spirit medium) opens up. “I have never had such a vivid ‘warning’ before or after that period in my life. It was so extreme and I kind of cracked for a time because of these visions coming through of people falling from skyscrapers and mothers running from falling buildings with babies in their arms.” Despite some gruesome ‘information’ from the other side, Johnette maintains very pragmatic view of her gift. “Spirits make themselves known to me I think because sometimes these people need to feel connected to the living world for various reasons. You know, my father died recently and his presence was so strong just as it had been when he was alive, and so I took a lot of photos there in his house because I was so sure he would show up in them.”

Johnette’s father John Napolitano was an Italian builder working in Hollywood who hadn’t known what to make of his daughters musical career until a chance meeting with one of his idols. “My father built a pool at the house of Robert Cray (blues guitar legend) and my dad absolutely loved Cray’s music. One day Robert brought out an interview with me in the local press and asked my father about me and my band, and I think my dad just went ‘Oh wow Robert Cray knows who my daughter is, holy shit!’, and I think that was the first time my dad really acknowledged what it was I was doing. I’ll always be grateful to Robert for that.”

Any obvious gothic overtones in Napolitano’s work seem trite to mention, but Johnette’s eye is cast over all of her own and Concrete Blonde’s visual output, and the recurring theme of skeletons visible through the skin in her artwork and videos reveals a surprising foundation. “I’m from LA and there’s always been a strong Mexican influence there which meant a lot of traditions also remained like the El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) where people leave gifts of bread, liquor and cigarettes for the dead souls. I loved that they celebrated the spirit instead of mourning over the body.” Johnette elaborates, “The other thing that really cemented my interest came during the time we toured in Paris and I visited the catacombs underneath the city where the walls are just lined for miles with human bones and there are huge chandeliers and artworks made from hundreds of skulls.” Johnette continues breathlessly, “The overwhelming thing about it all was that there’s no black, white, male, female, gay, straight - it’s just endless rows of bones and that profoundly changed my outlook on everything. It really doesn’t matter you know dude, getting so caught up in each others physical differences when at the end of your life, your body just becomes this piece of rubbish, indistinguishable any other one.”

Recently Johnette moved to Joshua Tree – a Californian desert town – from her Hollywood birthplace. Despite the world famous city’s soulless reputation, Napolitano speaks affectionately of her Hollywood; “You have to remember I was born there, I didn’t get on a bus and go there to become famous.” She adds with some infectious laughter, “The Hollywood I know is Spanish and Italian immigrants, the old Mafia suburbs and tattoo parlors, where to go and how to get shit if you don’t speak English and of course, where to get the best pizza.” One Spanish immigrant in particular struck a chord with Johnette, the surrealist’s surrealist Salvador Dali, whom she pays tribute to on the track Riding The Moon from her new Sketchbook 3 CD; “Dali to me was an anarchist in his art and his life, and that’s such a beautiful thing to see. He knew how to communicate with and capture children’s imaginations in particular. Children have this really surreal view of the world which we all eventually lose, but Dali was somehow able to hold onto that all through his life.”

Johnette herself is a sculptor active in the Joshua Tree arts community where the one rule is materials from the local area only are to be used in the works as way of keeping a very old tradition alive. “When the Indian natives were in this area, they would live in the same place for generations and everyone from young children to the elderly made sculptures from whatever was available in their settlement. No one really traveled away from their community so these artworks were such a huge part of their identity.” It was her strong, arresting guest vocal on the Andy Prieboy song, Tomorrow Wendy that Australia really identified Johnette with in the early days. Although it was not a Concrete Blonde song, the cult hit forged a decent enough path for Johnette’s band to walk when they decided to focus on Australia as their first international destination to tour. “I really didn’t know what to expect going there. I do remember clearly walking around St Kilda at about four in the morning thinking how European it all looked.” She adds; “Plus Melbourne has a lot of Italians there, so I kind of felt at home!”

On this tour, her first visit in over a decade, Johnette will present a more stripped back affair. “I’ll be playing bass and guitar, while my ‘monster drummer’ Gabriel Ramirez keeps the beat.” She adds, laughing; “We’re calling ourselves Not Quite The White Stripes!” Ramirez played drums in Concrete Blonde 2002-04. “We’ve developed this sort of musical telepathy which has really come from playing together for years. He’s definitely my favourite person to play with.” This tour will only include Melbourne and Sydney because of Johnette’s commitments to several other music projects, most notably a tribute album to Morphine lead singer Mark Sandman who died on stage during their 1999 tour. “That’s just been completed,” Johnette tells me excitedly, “It’s me and Jim (Mankey – Concrete Blonde guitarist) and Tom Petersson (Cheap Trick bassist). Tom just ripped it up man, he was such a cool guy!” Their cover of Morphine’s Buena will be released as Concrete Blonde featuring Tom Petersson, but a full Blonde reunion is not on the cards. “If it happens it happens, but at the moment I’m kind of bored with even talking about it.” She adds with a final burst of machine-gun laughter; “I don’t ever plan stuff like that!”

Johnette was simply wonderful to talk to. She agreed to do two interviews (This is a composite of both) because her father had just died and she was still fairly raw during our first talk. Not only is she an amazing singer, she's got this rare, totally infectious energy just flowing out of her. A captivating speaker and easily my favourite so far.


You can follow Johnette's activities and buy exclusive music directly from her official site, here:
http://www.johnettenapolitano.com/Justify Full

Whiplasher Bernadotte (Deathstars) interview

From the often humourless Stockholm metal scene, Deathstars come shining through with their self-styled 'death-glam' sound. (Think of a nod towards KISS, a sideways grimace at Rammstein and a fart in the direction of Front Line Assembly… with glitter.) Since 2000, they have released three hell raising albums and are gearing up to make their first Australian visit, before which I sit down with Andreas "Whiplasher Bernadotte" Bergh (singer and hat wearer) to shine some light on the dark and glammy world of Deathstars.

"Our band is kind of like a circus in hell". Andreas begins with a smile in his deep, accented voice. "I think it's important to entertain and scare the hell out of people at the same time." As a youngster Andreas was fascinated by the look of Kiss and the elaborate staged horror shows of Alice Cooper. He says, "I was very attracted to these kind of theatrical displays that went hand in hand with the music, particularly in the late '70s and early '80s. Bands then wanted to shock their audiences and give them something more than just music." He adds, "I mean Alice Cooper's Welcome To My Nightmare live show was so incredibly dark but also very, very funny." Some humour wouldn't go astray in Scandinavian music, so is there room in Deathstars shows for the odd laugh? "Our shows are very dark", He says, dragging out 'dark' to 'daaarrk' as he continues, "We are not really able to have the theatrics because of how many shows we play. We sometimes have to jump straight off the plane and go to a club and start. It's that crazy at times."

Despite the hectic touring, it's a relaxed sounding Whiplasher speaking today; "I'm actually on holiday in Norway enjoying some good coffee and some sun. I'm having a little break before we devastate Australia." There's good humour in his voice as he tells me he has no concept of what to expect from our land or even how the band will be received. "I might get my board shorts on and have a run on the beach." He laughs, "I have only been to the airport in Sydney to catch a connecting flight to New Zealand back before the band when I was a documentary film maker."

Although Andreas has played in bands since he was 13, he sidelined in print journalism and documentaries to feed a few fascinations. "I spent some time with the Maori in Tonga. These guys lived in a deeply religious fishing community and I made a film about their lives, which I think will surprise a few people." It's always good to have something to fall back on, but Andreas sees his time making films as a guide to the use of powerful imagery and maintains an eagle eye over all of the band's promotional output. "I always work together with the photographers and video directors as a way of maintaining consistency in our own style."

The Deathstars 'look' is all five members in white face paint, black hair and military style uniforms with Andreas crowned by a marching band leader's cap. Topping off the look, he half glitters his face and carries a cane leaving no doubt as to who's wearing the pants. "I like to think I am the leader but I am really just a prostitute in this band." He says, giving a low rumbling laugh and the first indicator today of that booming voice heard on the recordings. Our talk turns to the roles of the other members of Deathstars on the album. "We have a very bad democracy in the band". He explains, "I write all of the words and Nightmare Industries (Emil Nödtveidt – producer, guitars and keyboards), who is the dictator, writes all of the music. That is how we have always worked since we were in bands together in our teens. It was also because up until this year we all lived in different countries. Now that we are all living in Sweden, who knows maybe we will write the next album with more input from the other guys."

The album they are touring is Night, Electric Night. Recorded over two years, it is essentially a darker album than its predecessor Termination Bliss (2006). "It is difficult to make happy songs about suicide". Andreas explains, alluding to Via The End, written about Nödtveidt's brothers' death. "Most of what I write about comes from our everyday lives, things that are real and have some sort of impact on us." Does writing come easy to the well tailored frontman? "I am writing all of the time. I enjoy it so much and I never have to really force myself to work on my songs… I am not a lazy songwriter." Andreas is very strict on what goes in and what stays out of his songs. "Nobody gets to see what I write until it is completed, I am happy with it and it is ready to go into the song, and nobody gets to see what I am not happy with." On this point, he sounds deathly certain. I wonder if Andreas happy then with his band being tagged as 'death-glam'? "Of course, and anyway, it is a name we came up with." I suggest you can attach the word 'glam' to just about anything, but what does it mean to him? "I think it tickles a nerve. It makes me think of a time when bands cared about their presentation and had a laid back, sort of chilled attitude."

With their striking image and powerful music, Deathstars have attracted the odd… well, odd fan to their fold, Andreas coolly discloses. "I met this guy in London who had his car all painted up in Deathstars artwork and he had gotten seven tattoos all over his body of us". Enough to either delight or horrify I probe, "Actually I found it very erotic." Another of those guttural laughs escapes Andreas's throat and he ads, "I'm only joking!"

(above) with Skinny Disco
(middle) with Whiplasher Bernadotte


Deathstars live in Melbourne 2009
venue - Corner Hotel (review)

If you could sum up the atmosphere of this wild night with a simple food analogy, imagine two ten tonne trucks carrying sides of freshly slaughtered beef carcasses crashing in a narrow back alley, exploding and instantly barbequing their contents. A fire truck then comes screaming around the corner, it's occupants emerge wearing steel plated armor and begin spraying the wreckage with hoses that disperse beer instead of water. This scene can be applied not to the Deathstars concert, which is still hours away, but to the streets surrounding the Corner Hotel which are filled with howling, crazed football fans. The desperately cold wind and lack of access to any venue seems to have created pockets of hysteria all around the place. The thought that there's going to be a very loud and fast metal band playing their first Melbourne show right in the middle of this fray is as frightening as it is exciting. I can't get the thought out of my head of someone running with particularly weak plastic bag filled with bricks just waiting for the inevitable tear. My photographer Fruitbat and I put off entering the venue for as long as possible, instead preferring to watch the scene unfolding at the stage door - which is a parade of black haired, black leather-clad gents carrying gear into the venue and us trying to work out who was in a band and who was a roadie. Supporting Deathstars are two new bands from the darker side of music, Familiar and INK who all up including the headliners and roadies equaled something like 20 dudes helping keep the black hair-dye trade afloat. Time to cue up, and oh boy do I feel underdressed. Nearly every fan has turned up in their best and blackest regalia from the standard platform boots and fishnets to, as a couple of girls had, some glowing blue balls woven into their hair.

The first support is Sydney band Familiar who have only been playing together for two months and to my delight, at least, the lead singer is Ashley Rothschild formerly of 90s synth-rockers Caligula. He's funny too making cheeky comments about 'panda-eyes' and general morbidness at Deathstars assembled followers. The band, although sounding a little unrehearsed, make a pretty decent start to the night with their power riffs and big chorus's. However, the second support band INK failed to keep the momentum up started by Familiar. The words 'earnest' and 'Nickelback' were muttered at the back of the room while they played their short set. Strangely, and amusingly the Deathstars current CD starts playing in the intermission while the headliners are getting pumped up backstage. Finally, the curtain parts and five heavily made-up men storm the stage as a chilling pre-recorded synthesised church organ replaces the CD on the PA.

Here are Deathstars; the accessible brand of industrial metal. The album their touring, Night Electric Night, is loaded with all the theatrical gloom references fully owned and paid for by Scandinavian bands. The themes are dark in the same way Batman is with its gothic loaded imagery and style. Sweden's Deathstars cater more to metal fans who love the massively exaggerated posturing and the bizarre clash of macho-campness that Kiss used to specialise in. They don't have a political edge and no matter how 『serious' they might sound on the surface – there's far greater absurdity underneath it all. Frontman, Whiplasher Bernadotte – a composite of a young Alice Cooper and a zombie military band leader - is tailored, uniformed and glittered, his unholy band in similar dress and white face-paint. Despite Bernadotte's commanding presence it's his lanky bass player, Skinny Disco who draws the most attention as he swings his two foot long dreads around and screams his lines into the microphone. His shrill squawks are responses to Whiplashers deep ballsy calls throughout the entire set. It's quite amazing how these guys can maintain their throat-shredding vocals unfailingly for the hour-and-a-half show. On stage it must be around 20 degrees hotter than the room as maintaining the well-tailored look is another matter - after only three songs, Whiplasher's disheveled hair is clinging to his face, he ditches the jacket and hat and has lost most of his glitter. I'll bet by the end of this tour he'll be going on stage in a wife-beater and trackies.

The story going around is that last night's show in Sydney was pretty average, but there's no evidence of sloppiness tonight - in fact it's almost impossible to fault the band at all. Whatever they were selling I wanted to buy it, and the beefy onslaught of (D.E.A.D.) The Mark Of The Gun, Tongues and Night Electric Night were some very tempting offers. The concert is both thrilling unrelenting but somehow the audience manages to remain fairly motionless – except for horns aloft and restrained clap-alongs - in which case Whiplasher's invitation for us to top two fans supposedly fucking in the moshpit at a concert in Madrid is unlikely to happen.

Trying to guess which songs are the fan favourites is impossible as everything receives rapturous cheers of approval, that is until near the end when the one I've really been waiting for, Blitzkrieg causes a near riot. It's now the mega-anthem end of the show and they unleash 『popular' singles Cyanide, Death Dies Hard and Revolution Exodus all in a row. It's taken most of the night but finally the room temperature has reached sauna level. Goths simply do not generate body heat. Whiplasher is stalking the stage drenched in sweat saying; 「Melbourne, you have a very strange climate!」

Depending on what you like to get out of a concert - Deathstars succeed absolutely as a live band. Personally, I like my shocking attention span catered for, eye bulging excitement from go to whoa, loads of visual stimulus and a sing-a-long part. They ticked all of my boxes tonight, plus if I ever find myself under a full moon in a frosty Northern European graveyard, Deathstars would be the only possible soundtrack.


Night Electric Night
Mark Of The Gun
Last Ammunition
Fuel Ignites
New Dead Nation
Trinity Fields
Blood Stains Blondes
Death Dies Hard
Revolution Exodus

Photos by me and Mary Boukouvalas

Fever Ray album review (2009) (unpublished)


Sometimes, amazingly, hype is actually not misplaced. In the case of Sweden's The Knife it almost defies belief that their last album Silent Shout (2007), a dark and uneasy listening venture, in contrast with so much dumbed-down over-hyped music, had became so widely applauded. The brother-sister duo made no attempt to follow up the multi-Swedish Grammy winning album, but instead retreated from the spotlight in a desire for anonymity. Vocalist Karin Dreijer was about to expand her family, and so decided that The Knife, for the time being, should retire. Stepping away from her brother and creative partner Olof, Karin discovered a new freedom to work without the boundaries automatically imposed by a split input. Post-natal, she found herself working tirelessly on what would become Fever Ray, writing in an often exhausted state between nappy changes, bedtime stories and bottle feeding. This situation, unique to new mothers, resparked Dreijer's creative drive into overload. All through this mainly solo effort, we are witness to the most powerful extremes of a writer pushing themselves to be entirely selfless while still absorbed in, and open to, their subconsciousness.

The haunting If I Had A Heart begins with an ominous mechanical humming reminiscent of German industrial noise makers Einsturzende Neubauten. It's quite a misleading introduction, but does set up the theme of vocal manipulation integral to the many moods weaving throughout the ten tracks here. If I Had A Heart starts out sung slinky and soft, artificially transposed to just below a natural human voice pitch, then soaring in a yearning, child-like soprano, highlighting Karin's arresting accent. Occasionally there are multiple Karins singing the same lyric all in different pitches, then layered to give a contrasting warmth when the music reaches its sometimes icy depths. In places it is evocative of glaciers and frozen lakes, the severe north Scandinavian weather garnering more than one mention. There are many and varied topics at the heart of the songs, but Karin writes mainly in an interpretive, sketchy manner. Much of what is said is second to how it's delivered. On I'm Not Done for example, Karin's vocal is down unusually low in the mix. The effect is of a voice drowning in the music's stormy waves, yet still determined to be heard until the final breath. As one of the most impacting tracks here, its heavy tribal conga drumming and amplified echoing finger clicks draw in the listener, forcing them not to ignore that fading voice in amongst the din. On most of the rest of the album, there is little urgency in Karin's delivery. She likes to stretch all her notes and often lets the instrumentation take over for several bars, when suddenly her unaltered natural voice reappears in response to a dark menacing robotic one. This gives the effect of a parent reading a story book to a child and doing the different character's voices – the creepy voice for the villain and the sweet spoken voice of the heroine. Karin, as the mother of two young children, perhaps has subliminally taken her role as the storytelling villain/heroine into the studio.

The album's first single, When I Grow Up, is lyrically a playful look at an untainted child's view of life's endless possibilities, and yet avoids sounding remotely sugary or schmaltzy. From first listen, Triangle Walks’ gorgeous Eastern strings and enchanting whistled melody will attach to your brain and sit in your ear until you're humming it over and over. Seven thrives on a cyclic, sexy looped beat awash with an eerie wind sound effect and gloopy synth line. It’s a wonderfully uplifting moment and brings an expertly placed mood shift to the proceedings. On the pulsing Concrete Walls, Karin experiments to the extremes of the voice-tone enhancer, creating a gloomy unsettling atmosphere echoing The Dreaming era Kate Bush. The contrast of a gentler sound and crystal-clear singing on Keep The Streets Empty For Me is sublime. This desolate hymn finely embodies the sweet feeling of an exhausted, relaxed state. Dry & Dusty is melodically perfect. It exists in a world beyond clunky design, effortlessly speaking from the subconscious. The album closer, the epic Coconut, is the hot spring in a freezing lake evoking some of Joy Division’s most shimmeringly beautiful moments. Portishead came close to this sound on their last release (on which The Knife's influence can be heard all over) but Fever Ray have nailed it.

This album will be enough to send many a worthwhile electronic act back to their studios with hands-in-the-air frustration at their own shortcomings. Fever Ray is the sound of an artist with a finely tuned skill in drawing on previous experience, while remaining full of fresh discovery. Dreijer sounds so focused and precise in her ambition to present otherworldly music, imbibing her interest in film noir. This breathtaking work will not only satisfy fans of The Knife, but also show that Karin is a powerfully unique talent, perhaps even more so than The Knife’s combined strength.

I'm calling it album of 2009... What I love about Karin is she puts so much love and care into her music. She doesn't just serve up any old shit and hope it sells enough copies to pay for itself!

Fever Ray review links (official website)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Fever Ray article (unpublished)

From The Knife to Fever Ray - the story of 
Karin Dreijer-Andersson.

Electronic music received a soulful boost at the start of the naughties by quiet and consistent achievers, The Knife. Where as Daft Punk and their peers before presented music with the emphasis on the machine and the synthetic, Sweden's The Knife, had the far greater ambition of adding a brain, a voice and broad palate of subject matter. Everything from references to their Nordic heritage to bulimia is sung over tracks carved with laser precision. Their unblemished musical legacy is set to continue with a new solo project for vocalist Karin Dreijer called Fever Ray. In the meantime, let's take a look back at the origins of this unique and unconventional duo, a brother and sister who created their own little world with the soundtrack as the beating heart.

In the beginning, two monkeys isolated themselves in a tiny cabin in the Stockholm wilderness with the intention of creating music completely uninfluenced by the outside world. They surrounded themselves with instruments both organic and electronic. There they stayed, learning the instruments and perfecting a sound all of their own. The boy monkey was named Olof and the girl was Karin. They were siblings who thrived in their isolation, only ever speaking in telepathy about their music. The sound of which was becoming stronger and more powerful than any words could hope to be. The monkeys lost all concept of passing time. How long had they been in that cabin making music? Neither one showed signs of having aged. Then one day a stranger arrived at the cabin. The stranger, a rabbit, was drawn to the sounds coming from within. So disillusioned with the music of the world, he cried uncontrollable tears of joy upon hearing the two monkeys' work. The monkeys introduced themselves. 'We are The Knife, we have been waiting for you".

The story of The Knife is one shrouded in fairytale mystery. Rabbits with heightened music appreciation is just the start. The reality is you can probably google their back story and find where Karin and Olof Dreijer were musically trained, how they got signed etc... However, listening to their music is an invitation into a very vivid world created entirely as an alternate reality. In The Knife's dimension, one foot must always stay in grim reality, while the other may wander into deep waters occupied by half-human beasties. Juxtapositions are important to The Knife as they present clear relate-able situations in the songs, but told by an alien observer. As with fairytales, which often use very human situations as their base and build around that using strange creatures as the storytellers. When Alice followed the white rabbit down the hole, it was the beginning of the journey we all go on. The journey called growing up. Lewis Carroll's story would hardly have become a classic, had it been told as a straight forward adolescent angst tale which is where The Knife come in.

Karin and Olof cast themselves as Wizards behind the curtain, allowing the image of two grinning monkeys to tell their stories from a fantastic and escapist angle, freed from limited realistic impositions. It may also have been a cheeky statement on how every chimp with a keyboard now is making 'arty experimental' (i.e. boring as shit) records. The rabbit, in the story of The Knife represents us, the eager listener in theory going to despair over the radio's terrible music constantly pouring into our ears. The rabbit is overcome by hearing them, and any music lover can relate to that first discovery of a band so amazing that it makes any music heard before seem like bad noise. The Knife confess that like many of us do, that they enjoy tacky pop songs and big 80s ballads as a way to relax after intense studio sessions. They even released a grand homage to Berlin's anthemic Take My Breath Away, a song which Karin would blast repeatedly on her car stereo while driving around trying to cure a bout of writer's block. Effectively that song's edgy but sweet simplicity was the contrast needed to push Dreijer out of her mindset. As a songwriter, she understands that to access her muse she sometimes has to sort through its cluttered room, allowing herself to get distracted along the way.

So what is it about The Knife's own music that prompts them to seek escape through somewhat bland pop songs? There is often many fine layers of dark underplayed synth bleeps and squeaks, clean razor-sharp beats, strings, echo effects and possibly The Knife's defining sound - their love of the steel drum. A wonderful contrast is at work when you hear this most tropical of instruments coupled with Karin's frighteningly low pitched affected vocals, and Olof's bleak synthesised strings. What observations are these monkey's are making that leave them needing a little 『dirty pop' to cool down after? Their second album Deep Cuts (2004) includes Pass This On, which deals with the possible subject of teacher/student sexual relationships. This is a good example of the Dreijers' interest in some bizarre and confronting topics. They do not however, wallow in macabre stories but simply walk through their landscapes, uncriticizing. As further proof of their detached attitude to the dark subject matter in Pass This On, the video humorously captures Olof in full drag miming to his sisters vocal while Karin hides amongst a crowd of solemn observers, seething and giving him the evil eye. Those monkeys weren't about taking themselves seriously, but the evolution wheel turned and the previously detached primates were soon to find themselves no longer simple observers but participants in the human experience deeper than they could have imagined.

The Knife had officially embraced their new found popularity and revealed to their increasing audience, a new evolutionary phase - two black winged bird-like creatures, who instead of isolating themselves from the world, took to the sky with their further evolved sound pouring out of their bodies for all to hear. The reality of Karin and Olof's mother passing away during the making of their triumphant third album Silent Shout (2007), caused the duo to focus on previously untouched, personal subject matter. On the frantic and gripping We Share Our Mother's Health these wounded birds mourn of losing the link to their ancestors through a parental death. The exploration of more relatable themes continued on the title track Silent Shout which had Karin and Olof immersing themselves into the world of adolescent fears and self-doubt. The topic of sex, the song claims, suffers from purposefully negative miseducation in Stockholm schools, designed to deter youths from experimenting. Hence the issue becomes one of paranoia at a vital stage in maturing. The Knife fairytale was by now a rather serious and even grim one, and coming close to chapter's end. They had evolved super fast and perhaps their ambitious 'flying beasts' weren't as sustainable as the curious grinning monkeys had been? Reality once again intrudes in The Knife's story and we find out that they simply grew tired of working together... for now at least. They wrapped up the first decade as The Knife with a brief series of incredible live showcases (appearing in concert as their primate alter-egos) before stepping back from the accolades and expectations to vanish for a while.

Karin decided to take one year off after having a baby (her second) but instead found herself writing constantly. That creative outpouring was the birth of a project called Fever Ray. The new mother found herself working throughout the night, sleep loss fueling the dream like quality of the new work. Dreijer embraced half-consciousness, allowing it to lead her through the creative process. There was no longer a need for story weaving beyond the songs. The topics were not detached observations but enveloping, sparse daydreams. Working this way meant that Karin could be more evocative lyrically without spelling out every detail for the listener. We could interpret these pieces how we wanted based on an overall feeling. The presentation of The Knife as evolving, non-human entities was a way of delivering music not restricted by flesh and blood limitations. In Fever Ray, Karin has maintained that lack of restriction by playing the ghostly chameleon speaking in the language of dreams. This latest evolution as a spirit between worlds, only accessible during sleep has afforded Dreijer greater freedom than ever before to present herself as the humble conductor of music rather than the physical creator. Though inevitably, the predominant factor in her waking life, her two young children, does emerge in the music. In new track, If I Had A Heart, Karin tells of their behaviour and constant questioning, from a first person account; "My feet dangle from the window frame/will they ever reach the floor?" On The Knife track Marble House (2007), Karin reversed this plot and played the mother, scared of failing the fragile life in her care; "I cut your nails and comb your hair/I carry you down the stairs/on the inside of this marble house". The previous over-protector becomes the happy observer full of childish wonder. Whether the Fever Ray project is a one off or not, is unknown. Karin Dreijer has a restlessness fascination with pushing herself musically to extremes, and how that will manifest next is impossible to say. In the meantime, an album bursting with ideas and originality has emerged. In its creators own words, "When you work with music, you have the possibility to create magic.」 That possibility is realised on Fever Ray.


Click here to check out Fever Ray's official site.

Dean Manning (Holidays On Ice) interview, 2009


Singer, writer and multi-instrumentalist Dean Manning maintains the ultimate bohemian lifestyle. Dividing his time between music, travel and fine art, the former Leonardo's Bride guitarist - who penned the 1998 ARIA song of the year, Even When I'm Sleeping - has exhibited his paintings several times, many of which are impressionist postcards of his tireless travels, and more recently has reunited all five members of Holidays On Ice – a kind of East coast super-group – for album number two and a tour. The writing on Pillage Before Plunder, much like Dean's art, is a document of a restless troubadour. Talking from his Sydney home (no doubt a place he holidays in), Dean considers his every response and wastes no words as he shares with me what feels like fragments of a great untold story.

"Traveling is a buzz, obviously" Dean begins; "I like the rollercoaster lifestyle, because I get bored rather easily and I need to be out of my comfort zone to work. I also like to have a purpose and so I have sort of fallen into this life where I can be purposeful and satisfied." Living the romantic life as an artist and musician, Dean is rarely required to compromise his great loves. "I don't compromise my personal relationships in favour of work, there are a lot of impracticalities about that, but I do think it's important to keep pushing myself whether it be in painting or writing." Dean's artwork often features a self portrait within - if not the main feature - prompting me to wonder, is self-examination a motivation to paint. "I think that's a subconscious thing really, and I have tried painting friends many times, but always at the risk of horribly offending them." He laughs, "I have had some strange reactions to my portraits (of friends) they say things like, 'is that `really how you see me?' so it's probably for the best I stick to self portraits. I mean I think it's really cool how Paul Kelly can write songs from the perspective of a woman, but I'm quite lazy in the way I really only give my own personal take on things." One of the most notable things about Holidays On Ice's album is the breadth of styles on offer. Dean puts this down to time spent writing in different countries on his own, and sporadically with his band mates as the opportunity arose.

"Some of the songs were actually recorded many times in different ways to see what genre they would best work in. The heaviest track on the album Ribbon Round A Bomb, started out as an acoustic piece and ended up with layered electric guitar and a duel vocal between myself and Angie (Hart). It's funny how some of the criticisms about the album have been people saying 'I really love the heavy tracks, (like Ribbon…) but what's with all those other folky ones' or visa-versa but really the heavier tracks could have ended up softer, depending on what we thought worked when we got in the studio." Dean tells me French avant garde singer Serge Gainsbourg was a reference due to his constant switching in genres. "Eat A Peach on the album is a little tribute to Serge. He put a lot of noses out of joint, that guy for having the audacity to not stick to playing one type of music. He'd put out a reggae album and then a blues album and it seemed to piss off a lot of his fans because I guess they wanted him to repeat whatever it was they liked him for in the first place. I like that he was against the idea of repeating himself, and that he didn't give a fuck what anyone thought of him."

As we talk of idols, Dean reveals a surprising affection for 1930s Hawaiian tattoo artist, Sailor Jerry who patented many of the identifiable sea-farers marks (anchors, mermaids etc..) I wonder if Dean is bit of a salty-dog at heart. "I never really acknowledged an interest in the sea and sailors until it was pointed out to me by a guy who wrote a bio for our website." He laughs. "Perhaps I shouldn't have included so many sailing boats (in the album art) and sailing references in the songs. (No Flowers Grow On A Sailors Grave) There's no getting away from it now!"



Clinton “Bar” McKinnon (UMLAUT/Mr Bungle) interview

With so few true eccentrics still operating in music, Clinton "Bar" McKinnon (or just Bar - pronounced 'bear') is in danger of becoming a study subject. The lively Mr Bungle saxophonist and co-lead writer, left his San Franciscan home for Melbourne and fell in with a new group of misfits willing to assist in his off-the-wall musical creations. Embracing his Bungle roots in new project, Umlaut, McKinnon is feeding his feverish musical habit unabashed. However, with much to discuss in the field of mysterious man-beasts and flying saucers, I try and get the more obvious questions of his prodigious musical background out of the way first.

“I didn’t get into the saxophone until high school, so way before that I taught myself to play the drums, which I found really simple. My first kit was one I had made from Tupperware containers and an old banjo with no strings!” (he laughs at the memory) “I just sat in my room playing that thing all the time, and you know drumming just made so much sense to me – you hit this and it makes that sound and then you make a few more sounds and put it all together.” A natural gift for percussion had Bar picking up piano as well; “I actually had piano lessons, but also at the time my sister had just given up learning clarinet so I picked that up as well. It’s such a fine instrument and you needed a lot more discipline to play that than the drums.” Clarinet lead Bar onto his signature instrument - the sax - which ultimately landed him in the crazy world of Mr Bungle… “In my high school, there was a really cool jazz quartet that everyone wanted to be in but it was just, you know, the really good players, well (Mr Bungle's guitarist and bassist respectively) Trey (Spruance) and Trevor (Dunn) were in it and they asked me to join because they were losing a horn player, and I actually just went, “Yeah, I’ll think about it guys”, and people were like ‘Come on! You have to do this’. So that’s how we met and I think everyone was expecting us to do like the jazz standards and be the new young lions, but we weren’t really interested in that.”

Around this time, San Franciscan metal band Faith No More were about to drop the hugely influential album The Real Thing, the band’s first album with ‘new’ lead singer Mike Patton. The single, Epic, featured Patton in the video wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with an unknown band named Mr Bungle. “Until then almost nobody knew what Mr Bungle was. (Bar continues) It was just a bedroom project in the beginning, and Trevor and Trey had already been recording with Mike - who we knew from college - on the demo tapes." It was 1989 and while Faith No More's album went globally massive, that same year McKinnon played sax for the first time on obscure Mr Bungle tape, OU818. It would be over two years before the first proper Bungle album came out. Far removed from Patton's 'straight rock band' Faith No More, Mr Bungle was a Las Vegas cabaret on acid colliding with a circus freak-show. I wonder how much of this seemingly unhinged music came from simply experimenting in the studio opposed to fully rehearsed tracks? "People tend to think of jazz as being all free-form but apart from solos it's all really structured. It has to be or you'd just have a mess, with one guy playing his thing and another playing something else. If we had accidents in the studio, you know like squeaking doors or any unexpected horn blasts I’d be trying to recreate that! (he enthuses) I'd be going 'we gotta get a mic there and have that door squeak, that's staying in!'”

Recording only two more albums, Mr Bungle unofficially split in 2003 after being dropped by their label. In that uncertain time, Bar never considered quitting completely; "No, it wasn't like 'oh all my dreams are out to pasture, better go off and do something else'. It wasn't as if the (Mr Bungle) guys were consistently working together anyway, they all had other bands and I was doing the Secret Chiefs album in that time. So it was difficult to see it as being the actual end" Bar's fellow band mates scattered around the globe to pursue their respective projects, while McKinnon made Melbourne his home and continued to write music privately and assemble a new band. The resulting work has emerged under the name Umlaut – whose self-titled album sees the surprising return of an familiar voice. New track Atlas Face - features Mike Patton in fine, and very Bungle-ish form; “I wrote that a few years ago and sent it to Mike to do the vocal on – it was all by correspondence. He took a year-and-a-half to actually get around to doing it, but we’re pretty happy with the result.”

Was the intention to get Mike interested in getting Bungle happening again? “Well, (sighs) It was either going to be a new Mr Bungle track or I would just do something else with it. I’m always sending the other guys tapes of stuff I’m working on and nobody’s yet gone “OK Bar, it’s over. Stop sending us your stupid tapes!” (he laughs) Bar doesn't completely rule out a reunion, he confesses if it happens he'll be first one on board. "Mr Bungle had something special - I just wish the other guys would see that!" In the meantime, he has the task of getting his current work out and into a few ears. "You know what's funny? (Bar interjects) I can't get my song on the radio (Atlas Face), even on Triple J. I mean it's got Mike Patton singing on it, it's played by mostly Melbourne musicians (The other members of Umlaut are local) and I keep hearing about how Melbourne has this pride in it's music and musical history but instead it's like the whole place has gone crazy for Pink. She's just everywhere, and then you get certain newspapers going 'Oh Pink, she's an honorary Australian' (referring to Pink's donation to the Black Saturday fund), but if your local, it seems you get kind of overlooked." Bar's comments are far from bitter. It seems as though he’s trying to grasp the reasoning behind the worship of overblown and over-hyped acts.

It’s yet to be seen if Melbourne embraces Umlaut in the manner they have Pink. So what was Bar’s first impression of his adopted home? "I found that Melbourne had a huge variety of willing and able musicians and I was able to generate a bit of interest because of my past, basically. People actually sort me out which was a nice change from me not hearing from the Mr Bungle guys at all. You know, I also realised that after you hit your mid 20s, every year is like a lifetime and I got restless waiting for something to happen back in the US. Starting fresh with the band I formed in Melbourne made me not want to waste time and just get on and do something with all these songs I had."

There isn’t much further talk of music. Instead McKinnon cheekily jumps from subject to subject and the interview becomes a fun game with me trying to keep him on track, but enjoying the thrill of his spirited digressions. Our talk eventually turns to Bar growing up in a small town, and the culture shock of moving to the Big Apple during the crazy 80s.

"New York was a really exciting place, but it was always so tense though. I mean everybody had a gun, but you know, nobody would really fuck with you because it would be, ‘OK, I have a gun and, well, you probably have a gun too and I don't wanna get shot, so I'm just gonna walk over here...’ Plus everyone was either loaded or drunk all of the time!"
McKinnon was attracted to the explosive music scene in NY - more so than the freakbeat and psychedelic music synonymous with the West Coast. "A lot of people ask me or assume that I was into Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart and that stuff, and yeah to a degree, but I didn't really get the whole Zappa thing, with that silly little high-pitched girly voice he did. I guess I couldn't really take anything he did seriously enough to get right into it."

McKinnon confesses a love of Ween and, somewhat surprisingly, Cocteau Twins. On Umlaut's debut album, Ween's influence has either crept in, or Bar is simply plucking the same funny mushrooms from the roadside as Dean and Gene. Just like the giggling glee of a Ween album, McKinnon and his band have created a truly infectious set of cartoon/horror songs on Umlaut that have the nagging ability to get stuck in your head although they ignore any traditional 'pop' structure. The songs' inspirations and instrumentations are diverse at the very least - one track Kitty Puppy (complete with synthesised harp) was written about one of Bar's favourite points of amusement - Chingrish - slightly wrong interpretations of English phrases with humorous results. However it's an instrumental called Bigfoot Is Real, that opens up a feverish discussion on another of Bar’s most loved subjects.

“I was so fascinated with the bigfoot as a kid, man! I used to read all about actual accounts by people who said they'd seen it. It scared the shit out of me just the idea of this huge hairy man-monster living in the forest. My parents used to take us camping as kids and we'd go to the northern California woodlands (near, incidentally, the region where the famous Roger Patterson ‘Bigfoot’ footage was taken in 1967) and I would just sit in a clearing and wait for one to emerge from the trees and try and snatch me up! (he laughs) I wanted so badly to see it for myself I would spend hours just looking at the trees hoping it was there, just out of sight.” I ask Bar what his thoughts were on the recent Georgia bigfoot hoax - which for a time - had the world believing again; “The monkey suit in the freezer?! Come on that was hilarious! (we’re both cracking up now) One of those guys was an ex-cop too, so you’d think he would have had some credibility, but that was such an obvious fake.” I suggest that with a cop involved, they should’ve at least been better at faking evidence. (laughing) “Exactly! I don’t see the whole hoax thing as being so bad, I just wish that somebody would capture a real live one, but then again the mystery would be kinda gone from it.” McKinnon’s excitement on the subject propels our discussion into how film has largely ignored the potential of a bigfoot horror spectacular. “Hollywood has never made a horror movie about bigfoot, and that’s a huge shame. People always go and see horror films, no matter how bad, because we like to be scared. Bigfoot would make the best horror monster because it works on the base fear of ‘what if this thing really is out there’, and people don’t know much about it so it could be a human-stalking blood-thirsty thing.” The subject of the mysterious bigfoot changes to UFOs – I have given up trying to get us back to music. “You know, I just think that there has to be life other than our own. People have always been looking to the sky and fantasising that we're not alone in the universe. If UFOs are real - which I really think they are - then it must be so obvious we aren't the smartest, most advanced creatures out there.”

Talking with Bar about cryptozology and space beings, it’s clear his strong imagination has helped him creatively - much more so than simply learning to play music. His undeniable abilities as a musician are incidental to his need to question and be stimulated by the grand possibilities in life. His album with Umlaut is finished and the need to discuss it at great length is not on his agenda. Clinton “Bar” McKinnon is just looking for the next thrill.


Jeff Martin (The Armada/The Tea Party) interview: part 1

The world music scene in the 1990s gained a decent sized fringe following thanks in part to Peter Gabriel's Real World label, but for your more mainstream artists, dabbling in the traditional music of the east and Africa to embellish a more familiar rock or dance sound became the must have accessory. On their 1993 album Splendor Solis, The Tea Party's music marked the return of prog-rock but with its dreary old skin shed and replaced with the vibrancy of middle eastern strings and strong soulful vocals. Few bands had managed to marry so gracefully these unusual elements. Their 1995 follow-up Edges of Twilight had Australia falling in love with them, and the feeling was mutual - singer/guitarist Jeff Martin settled in Perth six years ago. Last year he began planning his 12th Australian tour, the second fronting his new band The Armada. Over the phone from his WA home, Martin opens the latest chapter of his amazing musical history.

"Leaving The Tea Party was like a revelation," Martin begins. "I had become so caught up in the business of the band that creatively I was drying up. I decided to take some time off and I realised then, the problem was I felt I had no control over my band anymore. Our label wanted us to make a more commercial-sounding album, and I just wasn't interested in doing that." It was 2005 when Martin decided to walk away from his Tea Party band mates, and something in his voice tells me he still has a lot of passion for the band, and perhaps carries some resentment of how it ended in a quite unnatural way. "It left me feeling very emotionally scarred and like I had to rediscover my passion for music. It turned into big business and that killed it for me."

It's a too often recurring story with bands that their music becomes second to the whims of labels demands, but I wonder what became of the relationships between the three members of the Tea Party. "We just stopped communicating, and I didn't feel that they (Stuart Chatwood and Jeff Burrows) were doing anything to challenge the demands of what was expected from us by the label. Anyway I needed to regain control over my own life and music, so stepping away from the band was a really important part of that." Martin took his break in Cork, Ireland and ended up staying long-term. He befriended blues legend Roy Harper after the two met in a bar. Harper proved to be the stimulation Martin needed to work through his creative block. "Roy and I shared a love of Led Zeppelin, and Page and Plant are my reason to be, they are why I wanted to be in a band in the first place. Talking with him (Roy) helped me see my strengths again as an artist. He was also the only person I knew in Ireland, so living there I didn't have the distractions around me that had become part of everyday life in The Tea Party."

Growing up in Ontario, Canada, Jeff remembers the shocking boredom of his hometown. He was drawn to the traditional sounds of India and the Middle East - an exotic mental escape which he has successfully made part of his stock and trade. "As a kid, I remember thinking that just over that bridge (The Ambassador) is Detroit with its happening rock and blues scene, and I couldn't wait to see it for myself. I was always looking elsewhere for music to blow my mind, and so I gravitated to that (the Detroit scene) and this weird out-of-this-world Moroccan sound."

Jeff's new venture after his one solo album, Exile and the Kingdom (2006), is The Armada. Pairing up with Irish percussionist Wayne Sheehy, Martin began to pick up the pieces and embrace his renewed love of song making. "Wayne Sheehy is the be-all and end-all of this project. Simple as that. He's been a great muse for me and is no less than the greatest drummer I've ever heard." Singing Sheehy's praises, Martin gives me a telling insight into why their creative partnership is so special. "There's a new song on the album called Morocco which was written completely from a drum piece Wayne had worked out in just no time at all, and I just had to fill in my guitar parts and that was it, complete. I've never written this way before so it's really exciting". Completing the Armada line-up is Jay Cortez (former bassist from Sleepy Jackson), recruited after Wayne relocated to Perth to join Jeff and start rehearsals for the inevitable tour. I ask if he plans on expanding The Armada to involve extra players for the tour. "No, I love the dynamic of a trio. It's like three tangents in a framework with no spare parts running wild. (he laughs) I'm the captain of the ship and Wayne and Jay are my indispensable crew - and you know The Armada's coming through and people had better make way." Martin's tone has brightened up since speaking of the Armada; the project sees him returning confidently to the lyrical subject matter familiar to Tea Party fans. New song, Going Down Blues is apparently an account of a harrowing tarot card prophecy: "..White lady read for me those cards - The Devil knows you/he's your only friend/He's standing at the gates now/Waiting for the end..."

"I've always been interested in the esoteric side of life. (When I wrote that) I was thinking of the story of Robert Johnson at the cross-roads selling his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play the blues. Blues music, which I'm a big fan of, was really always the devil's music to me. I'm not going to get into the whole theology debate but from a creative standpoint, spirituality and music are closely matched." The song hints at a writer who has been to the dark depths and survived. On Chinese Whispers there's a nod towards traditional sea shanties: "…I've played chess with Davey Jones/He stripped me to my skin and bones/She said baby I'm walking on water towards the shore…" Perhaps his stay in the emerald isle had Jeff delving into books on maritime folklore? "Yeah, I mean it all just ties into the whole Armada thing. I wanted the imagery to match the music to some degree." The imagery is salty sea dogs and galleons firing on other galleons, it's all very rum, sodomy and the lash. I can't help finishing our discussion by asking what Australian customs (if any) has Jeff picked up since moving here. "Hmmm… Good question. The only thing I can think of is whenever I go out and get a little trashed I find myself craving vegemite on toast. (laughs) …Then a Berocca in the morning. Australia seems to be the only place you can get Berocca." Good hangover cures are our contribution to the world. Jeff's contribution to the world right now is The Armada. One of his best moves yet, and one for Tea Party fans to celebrate. Martin's references are not too distant from previous works and fans can look forward to hearing a few Tea Party songs in the Armada concert. The difference now is that Martin can relax and let his muse take him where it wants to without the creative restrictions and bad business that ultimately finished off The Tea Party. It's smooth sailing from here on, captain! 


Tim Freedman (The Whitlams) interview 2009

The Whitlams are band who’ve had more misfortune than a Shakespeare tragedy. It was from the Sydney group’s well documented darkest period that the album Eternal Nightcap emerged. Packed equally with wit and cynicism, something in those songs sparked with Australian audiences. Perhaps we identified with the bare honesty of one man’s stories of fallen friends, (Buy Now, Pay Later) or unprecedented rolling good times, (You Sound Like Louis Burdett), or was it spending a little too long browsing the personals section? (No Aphrodisiac). What ever the reason, the album has moved into ‘Australian classic’ territory. Twelve years on from its self-funded release, head-Whitlam Tim Freedman is revisiting his over-achieving third child, buying it a beer and making peace with the bits he wished he had paid closer attention to.

I’m facing the interviewers equivalent of waiting an hour to hear the punch-line of a joke. Tim Freedman’s in the back of a taxi making his way through Sydney traffic towards his Newtown home and on a worryingly low battery. I’m hedging my bets the phone will conk out as soon as our talk starts to flow. Tim isn’t concerned, “I’ll just put it on the charger when I get home, it’ll be alright.” Often slightly begrudging of the interview process, Tim is keen to start; “We might only have five minutes so let’s get cracking!” He reminds me.

In the last three years, The Whitlams have toured their last album of new songs, Little Cloud, a greatest hits collection and more recently with various symphony orchestras, re-arranging their catalogue for chandeliered concert halls. “There were also the ‘girlfriend songs’ and ‘death songs’ solo tours.” Freedman interjects, giving me a green light to discuss those troubled times in which the breakthrough Eternal Nightcap (1997) album was made. But first, does the songwriter feel time has been good to the work? “Yeah, well I don’t think I’ve become any better at writing songs.” He says, self-mockingly, “But I am quite proud of that album really, because it was actually the result of about ten years work. There was a lot of thought went into the lyrics and every line was in there because it was part of a story that kept forming over time. I can appreciate the work that went into it objectively, except for my voice!” He laughs, “I think I sang very strangely and over annunciated everything too much. That alone makes it sound the most dated of all our albums, to my ears at least.”

Playing the album live again, Tim is most looking forward to ‘correcting’ his vocal delivery on the well loved set. The recently released recording of his band with the Sydney Symphony orchestra reveals Tim’s voice has undergone a striking change. He’s displaying a greater confidence in his notes and using more of the scale. There’s also the slightest gravelling in that formerly boyish warble. “I think my singing has probably improved a bit, yeah. It’s difficult to listen back to that album because of how weird my voice sounds, but playing it live means we get to modernise it. No one in the current Whitlams line-up even played on Eternal Nightcap, so it’s going to be very much about updating the songs, instead of simply revisiting them.”

There are tentative plans, he reveals, to re-arrange the whole album with the Sydney symphony later this year. “If it goes well and the MSO have a break in their calendar we’d love to bring that show to Melbourne as well.” Tim has always maintained a long distance love affair with the rainy city, as documented on the Eternal Nightcap single Melbourne. “That’s obviously one of the ‘girlfriend’ songs”, he explains, “but it’s also about wanting to be away from your familiar surroundings and comforts, especially when they sort of…. cease to be comfortable.” It’s been well documented that in the lead-up to making the album, bassist Stevie Plunder died in an apparent suicide after a long battle with drug addiction. The album’s Charlie trilogy deals with his loss. “It’s funny, because I made Eternal Nightcap as a very personal document but so many people really connected with it. There’s quite a bit of raw emotion going on there (the Charlie trilogy), but I think there’s also enough humour on the album to balance it out. Perhaps it’s black humour, but it’s in there.”

The recording costs of Eternal Nightcap were, by most standards, shoestring. “I remember I was recording so much at the time with my little 8-track, just setting up in the back room of my house. Some was even recorded in a Mexican restaurant in Sydney. It didn’t matter where I was I was putting ideas to tape while desperately trying to keep the recording costs down. I could tell you every bar, restaurant and room where those songs were recorded!” Great news, as it’s Tim’s memory I’m interested in today and his ability to get into the headspace required to write so concisely from the heart. “If you’re an observant sort of person then, I think that inevitably happens. Every song I have written reminds me of a very specific time in my life.” When it came time to record the third album, it was with an entirely new band. Guitarist Andy Lewis had bowed out to get married and Tim was still tender from the loss of Stevie. In a bitter-sweet irony, the flippant, rollicking single I Make Hamburgers (1995) was quickly becoming The Whitlams’ biggest hit so far. Not stopping to enjoy its success, Tim was already focusing on getting a new band together and some important realisations. “Eternal Nightcap was really about friendships. New friendships with the musicians who worked on that album and also, in the songs, remembering old friends who couldn’t be there with me anymore.”

At this point in our talk, Tim’s taxi arrives at his home and we’re suddenly out of the moment as he deals with paying the fair. “Should I call you back in say, an hour?” We hang up and I begin to worry that Tim feels he’s said enough already.

“I’m home and comfortable now, and I’m afraid you’re not going get anything much out of me now.” It’s been three hours since the cab ride and it’s a very pensive sounding Tim Freedman on the line. I offer in response that the best conversations always happen in the backs of taxis. “It’s just I never really do any work at home.” Tim starts easing back into chat mode, “I need to be away from whatever it is I’m writing about when I’m working. I happen to write a lot about the people and things around me, and so I have to just get away a lot.”

The Whitlam’s music does reference Australia specific themes quite a bit, a point that Tim livens up to. “It’s not any different to Paul Kelly singing about Melbourne and Sydney locations, or UK Squeeze singing about London in their cockney accents. They are just singing about their everyday lives and surroundings.” It’s inevitable that Tim would be sick of talking about THAT song, but I’m curious to know how he feels about No Aphrodisiac’s success, given the songs unusual context. “Well, I don’t think it’s very unusual in terms of every other indie rock band has a song about loss, despair or loneliness. The difference I suppose is our song was coming more from the idea of indulging loneliness, instead of feeling defeated by it.”


* The famous pink Greyhound coach featured in Priscilla: Queen Of The Desert was The Whitlams actual tour bus!

* Pre-Whitlams Tim used to play keyboard on tour with legendary Sydney bands The Sunnyboys and The Hummingbirds.

* Tim is currently working on a solo album.

The Whitlams live in Melbourne, 2009

Eternal Nightcap 12th anniversary showcase gig - venue: The Corner Hotel

Bringing their most definitive album, Eternal Nightcap, to the stage twelve years on from its release, The Whitlams tonight are very unceremonious about the ARIA winning set. The run through of the songs in order as they appear on the disc, is barely ever broken by speech. Unusual, as in past shows, Tim Freedman was a man dedicated to building the stories around his songs and was a master of the 'set-up'. The only setting up tonight is a pre-concert uncorking of a bottle of Penfolds and four subsequent half-glass lashings by a roadie who carefully places each glass by the instruments. The opening of the wine sends a cheer throughout the room as we all anticipate the band's arrival. It does feel like a long wait looking at the four glasses of wine where musicians should be. Tim and the three guys who have been The Whitlams for around nine years now, finally arrive and settle in their places with a rehearsed swoosh on to the stage. A quick sip of wine, a raised eyebrow as Tim briefly considers his drop then straight into No Aphrodisiac. This song has evolved dramatically from a softly sung piano/strings monologue into a rock monster. The band pump it up, flesh it out and deliver it with a trowel full of riffing and wailing. It's good, although not very subtle and something of a rude shock, but then Tim did state that he wanted to 'reinterpret' some of the old songs on this tour.

The ever popular Buy Now Pay Later is awarded the biggest crowd reaction of the night, however the expected sing-a-long has become a little subdued since my last Whitlams show. It's only much later in the set when Tim is taking requests from the front rows that it becomes clear I Make Hamburgers is what's on everyone's list. Everyone except Tim that is, "Anybody who wants to hear THAT song can put it on their stereos at home". Perhaps he's embarrassed by it's whimsical, slightly dodgy lyrics? But then again next to Chunky Chunky Air Guitar it's a piece of songwriting genius. Thankfully the latter song doesn't make an appearance tonight either. Time, on the other hand, has been very kind to the romping You Sound Like Louis Burdett, the album's centerpiece. Live it is a fantastic shambles of hurridly changed chords and a building three layered chorus with Tim appearing to grab random lines out of thin air to keep this cheery drunken tale's momentum from ever slowing. This song, more than any other really sums up The Whitlams Eternal Nightcap period. It's a bit schitzo, the happy comes with a little slice of sad, but the joy juice isn't too far from reach. Although the same can't be said for Tim's bottle of Penfolds, which has taken a nose dive off the stool during Louis Burdett. It's as if the hard drinking characters in the lyrics have been made momentarily real and taken a vigorous lunge at the first thing that looks wet.

At this point I note the always smiling drummer, Terepai Richmond is Tim's wing man as they exchange mirthful glances at crucial points in the songs. Guitarist Jak Housden with his enormous fringe has the air of somebody who really wants to be the front man, and bassist Warwick Hornby remains fairly inanimate throughout, as most bass players tend to do. Because of the terrible acoustics in the Corner, it's a funny kind of racket they're making and I'm lead to conclude that most of the Whitlams songs don't really need full instrumentation at all. Half way through I'm really just wanting to hear Tim at the piano instead of another guitar solo. It has to be said, though that during the Pogues derivative, Band On Every Corner, the group really pull together and work through a swanky re-arrangement sans the pipes and whistles album version. With the full Eternal Nightcap album done with it's time for the 'requests' section (or the bit where people start calling out for songs that don't get played).

Starting the second bracket with the forgettable Fall For You single wasn't a great move and had more than a few people doing a bar run. They would have been better off going straight into Keep The Light On which is truly uplifting greatness. Personal favorite Made Me Hard was also a welcome but surprising addition, and opens a run of 'songs that really should've been hits' from The Whitlams catalogue. The gorgeous Fondness Makes The Heart Grow Absent and The Shining are criminally underrated, which I think is why Tim plays them with such ferocious passion (in the process exposing his slight ambivalence to a lot of the Eternal Nightcap songs). It makes sense; he's in a different place from when those often emotionally raw songs were made.

With only a little time left, it's becoming clear what to expect from the expected encore. Tim croaks into the mic after a short break; "We'll play a couple more and give the football fans time to get home so you don't all have to get on a train with them". I'm not so sure he's read the crowd too well, there seems to be a good deal of boof heads from where I'm standing, still it was a cheery moment. There's even more cheers for Blow Up The Pokies, which sounds exquisite tonight. Thank You (For Loving Me At My Worst) - the second best drinking song after Louis Burdett. And finally, Gough - the only possible choice to end a Whitlams gig on.