Monday, June 27, 2011

Fatty Gets A Stylist: interview with Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall (2011)


Fatty Gets A Stylist masterminds, Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall are taking tea on a rare sunny June day at a South Melbourne café, discussing the finer points of what constitutes taking a risk in music these days. For one, both agree calling a band Fatty Gets A Stylist earns a big tick, but the most intriguing development in the risk department is, the brand new release – a co-write with hubby/long-time collaborator Keir – is Kate giving a big middle finger to her the sound that made her a star. The self-titled album - which claims XTC, Goldfrapp and Kraftwerk as reference points – started life on-tour as a between shows muck-around project for the couple, before blossoming into a throbbing multi-layered extravaganza. Fatty takes the listener through trash-spiritualism, cartoon theme-song terrain and post-punk with out a hint of Heidke’s sober pop artistry to be found. It seems as if Kate is flexing some newly developed muscle, all while snuffing out her ‘fluffy balladeer’ label in the process.
Being a Heidke album though, albeit one with zero relevance to her former work, that voice is, on one occasion, heard carrying a record-breaking sustained note that’s sure to leave even the listener out of breath. “I’m so glad someone picked up on that; it was done in one take you know.” She says of the track The Plane Went Down, “I can’t wait to do that live, but then I might possibly faint at the end if I have to do that night after night.” Kate’s classically trained voice – the one that has served her so well up til now – is the first of many surprise elements on Fatty Gets A Stylist. For a start, Heidke has been discovering the joys of using a much lower octave range than ever before. “I think we shocked ourselves a lot of the time making this album.” She remarks. “But you know, it started out as a passion project, just us two, and the thought of anyone else hearing it didn’t really cross our minds.” Kate adds, “I was singing a lot in the shower and getting comfortable with a lower range to what I’m used to, which is why I don’t really sound like ‘me’ on the record,” she laughs, “and I said to Keir ‘what do you think of my funny voice?’ and that kind of got us thinking about having this album be a completely anonymous thing without our names attached to it at all.”

The projects name chosen to keep an air anonymity could be read as nod towards the overabundance of surface-obsessed reality TV dirge currently on offer, but Keir explains, it’s less about the ‘make-over myth’ but rather an imagined tabloid headline. “The idea was to use a name that tells a story; ala Frankie Goes To Hollywood, who got their name from a newspaper headline, but I think ours is more in line with current obsessions with weight and appearance.” While Frankie suggested we all should relax, Fatty Gets A Stylist go one further with references to Zen Buddhism and pre-religious spirituality. Kate picks up the thread, “Even though some of the songs are very silly, I guess there’s also some obvious spiritual references like on The Tiger Inside Will Eat The Child, which has to with the Buddhist belief that you only really grow through letting go completely of your past systems.” In Wiccan lore, it’s taught that people possess power animals which they have to get to grips with - the intention being, it makes you awesome. After discovering this, Keir shares some concerns over what his animal might be.

“I dream about dogs a lot, but not cool ones like wolves or dingos, its always garden variety spaniels.” Kate, cracking up, adds, “Maybe you’ll graduate to a poodle.” While Keir contemplates his K9 dilemma, Kate maintains that the dream animal concept in songs has become an indie band staple; therefore best avoided. “I’ve got a natural resistance to this dream strength-animal thing, but I do relate to the inner child as a way of helping me creatively. You have to sort of get to that place I your head which is unaffected by just day-to-day crap and allow yourself to be playful and fearless.” Keir adds, “The tiger is more the self-conscious side of your mind – like the battle between the left and right brain that happens when you write or create music.” Although much of Fatty Gets A Stylist was written on a lap-top while Kate and Keir were on tour, it’s liner notes boast a long, impressive guest list of session players. The album was still in its demo form when, while supporting Ben Folds, Kate played him the album who then persuaded her to record it with a full band and release it. With the Folds tick of approval, all was left was to find the right artists for the job. Keir explains.

Ben Folds called it ‘lower chakra music’, which basically meant it was more rhythmic, or more animal so we wanted players who came from that side of the spectrum.”  He adds, “We ended up going with Pete McNeal (ex-Cake drummer) who plays in a band called Z-Trip, who has this strong, crazy improv style. Then you have Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who played bass with Beck, Air and Nine Inch Nails, bringing this really huge range of experience.” He adds, “I think those guys are what Ben was talking about when he said lower chakra music.” Kate then simplifies, “It’s about listening with your hips and not our head!” When Heidke’s solo albums, Curiouser and Little Eve, established the her as a spirited and clearly gifted singer/songwriter, she was probably seen as a safe bet in the industry - especially once the awards began rolling in. To drop the psychedelic bubblegum pop of Fatty Gets A Stylist on the heels of such plaudits, would surely have had a few men in grey towers pulling out their hair. Kate responds.

“Our management were really supportive of us putting it out, but there is a slight scary element to how fans will react to me doing something so different, for sure. I expect some people will think I’m putting on this strange voice, and already I’ve heard people say they don’t like the name and that they think its offensive, but as I said before, we went into this with no fear and I accept that not everyone is going to get into it, or see why I’m doing this now, but as I get older, I feel I’m gradually taking more and more control creatively of what I want to do.” Keir adds, “The reaction has been really interesting so far. I mean before anyone knew we were doing this, I played some of the songs to our band (Transport), and they didn’t spot it was Kate – I just told them it was this new band I’d met in London.” He laughs, “Usually whenever you play something new to friends, it’s a pretty loaded atmosphere and you know they don’t want to hurt your feelings, so this was the best way to get a completely honest reaction from them.” Kate recalls, “They didn’t think it was me, so I said ‘what do you think of her voice?’ and one of them said, ‘oh she’s nowhere near as good a singer as you, so after that, I didn’t want to let anyone know it was me!”


Thursday, June 23, 2011

Wendy Matthews interview: 2011


Wendy Matthews was about as far removed from the meat-pie and beer Aussie rock landscape as her Canadian roots, but persistence in a realm way outside of her initial comfort zone, resulted in the willowy former session vocalist appearing on nearly every notable Oz rock album in the '80s. Finally stepping into her very own spotlight, from 1990 onward Matthews' true passion for poetic tear-jerkers reminiscent of her idol Joni Mitchell’s work was at last successfully indulged. Now, 21 years on from her against-the-grain solo debut, Émigré, the Australian (officially since 2005) vocalist, is celebrating the anniversary in a retrospective tour she’s calling Standing Strong, yet this landmark, I discover, is barely half of her remarkable story.

“I guess now is a good time to celebrate what I’ve been doing for two decade before my next album comes out.” She says in an accent equal parts Canadian and Australian. Work on Matthews’ new album of originals is already underway, following on from two covers sets (She and Café Naturale). Her anniversary tour will help fund its completion as, although despite multiple-ARIA wins and serious chart success in the ‘90s, Wendy found herself out of contract in 2007 and so began her own independent label, Barking Bear to release her music on. “I’m so glad I have this label as a resource, but I am crap at the business side of things. I wish I kind of cared more about how the whole thing works, but I am singer and a songwriter, not a business woman." She adds, "I’ve moved into the category of singers who don’t sell so many records these days, but I’m also part of this world of artists who make great music in their kitchens or whatever and with no record company judging what your musical life-span is.” A passion for singing since very early childhood, Wendy claims, was the only guide in what direction her life was to take.

“I’ve been a bit of a freak for most of my life, frighteningly enough. I’ve never had a real job!” She laughs, “This is all I’ve ever done and it did determine quite a lot how my life would turn out back when I was 15 and having huge doubts about what I was going to be.” Matthew’s continues, “I realise now that I was setting myself up for something that would last and was satisfying for me. I mean if I had’ve been making dance beats, as a lot of people were, it would never have driven me like say a Joni Mitchell record does.” She adds, “Don’t get me wrong, I think music should fulfill many functions – I can get up and vacuum the house to dance music in my undies and its great – but that’s never gonna stimulate me like Joni, you know.”

Her future direction became a little clearer when, while living in LA in 1983, Matthews - who was getting casual work as a backing vocalist - by chance met legendary Australian music mogul Glenn Shorrock, who convinced her to sing backing vocals on his album and fly to Sydney to tour in his band. “Glenn, almost to his detriment, was always passionate about music above and beyond the industry. He was the sort of guy that would come off stage after a gig and still want to sit around the piano and play music just for fun, so we had no problems connecting.” Wendy recalls. Her motivation to start a new life in Australia however was hampered at first by a fear of rejection by what she perceived as an unforgiving pub rock scene. “My first experience of a female singer who’d made it in Australia was Chrissie Amphlett of Divinyls and it kind of scared me a little, because she had this machismo - which I guess she’d developed because it was a very male oriented rock scene - and I thought I was never going to be accepted into that kind of world.” Matthews, in reality was not only accepted into the Australian live music world, but was in hot demand as a session singer with many of the top rock acts at the time.

“There are a lot of years of my life that have gone into making music and sometimes I glimpse back to those times and I’m so grateful to those bands.” Wendy says. For the rest of the 1980s, her singer/songwriter roots were largely put on hold while Matthews bumped shoulders with the crème of Aussie rock – Icehouse, Models, Richard Clapton, Barnes to name a few, were demanding her services – and even found time to dabble in advertising jingles to keep the land lord off her case; “I was the ‘L.J. Hooker… you’re the best’ girl for quite some time.” She laughs, “But you know not everything I did back then I’m proud of!” Her rise to top billing artist was still a way off, but during the late ‘80s, Matthews performed on three of the biggest Australian albums - Models, Out Of Mind Out Of Sight, The Rockmelons, Tales Of The City and Kate Ceberano’s You’ve Always Got The Blues - helping to shrug of any self-doubt she may have been harboring. The turning point came when her Models’ band mates split the group into two halves in 1989, resulting in the James Freud-led Beatfish and, importantly for Matthews, her then partner Sean Kelly’s project, Absent Friends. At last the Canadian chanteuse was on lead vocal for the 1990 single, I Don’t Want To Be With Nobody But You - a cover of an Eddie Floyd song – which was so far as most Australian’s were aware, Wendy’s debut – and they liked what they heard. The single beat huge competition from a Skyhooks come-back, award-magnets Midnight Oil, INXS, Barnsey AND Farnsey to take home ARIA single of the year, cementing Matthews’ Midas-touch run.

“Things come in waves, and I guess that was my time for things to work out, but I know now that it’s impossible to keep the vibration going at such a high level for very long!” Wendy laughs. “I mean the thing about being independent is that you don’t get that level of marketing now, which is what labels are so good at, and so I see that time as wonderful, but also impossible to repeat.” Absent Friends only saw out the year before Sean Kelly went off to form The Dukes, while Matthews - still on her first wave of glory - went on to record Émigré – her solo debut. Nobody But You’s success was equalled by Wendy’s Token Angels single, and again she was picked as the industry’s favourite. Matthews was by now 30 years old, and having spent half of her life performing, acknowledges the weirdness of her bestowed ‘best new-comer’ status. “I’ve debuted more times than I can count!” She exclaims. But, discounting any uncatalogued nappy commercials, technically Wendy’s public debut as a vocalist, was at the age of four, witnessed by half of the Western world’s pre-schoolers… or so a large yellow bird informs me.

“Oh, god.” Matthews’ moans, “I got to do Sesame Street because I think they realised I was kinda able to hold a note.” This debut – which came about through family friends’ involvement on the show’s production - although undeniably glamorous, was hardly a sign of things to come. “All I remember is it was an alphabet song, and I just did the letter ‘O’ part, to which they put an animation of a goat with all letter ‘O’s coming out of its mouth.” She laughs heavily, “So, I guess my debut was as a singing goat on Sesame Street, yeah.” It’s hard not to get side-tracked by Matthews’ Sesame Street connection, but the ‘wow moments’ in her career keep piling up as our discussion continues. During a brief stint singing with The Rockmelons in 1988, a support slot on James Brown’s Australian tour led to Matthews sharing the stage with the Godfather for a couple of songs. “I hear myself talking about that, and it almost doesn’t feel real.” Wendy acknowledges, “It’s like I’m talking about somebody else’s experience, but you know, although it was amazing and everything, really I’m just glad I can say I’ve got a good James Brown story!” Many great music moments have come and gone for Wendy, but her finest hour was less a personal experience, but a song that most of Australia it seemed, claimed as their own.

Wendy's award-winning The Day You Went Away video
“I was honestly terrified of releasing The Day You Went Away into the climate of what was on the radio at the time. I mean it was just a piano and heartbeat and I thought I was gonna be eaten alive, but that song proved to me that your average radio listener out there was wanting different stuff to what was being offered.” Released around Christmas 1992, The Day You Went Away - from Matthews' second album, Lily - was arguably given gravitas by the fact Australian’s were still serving in the first Gulf War. Coupled with a video depicting a couple separated by war, the single outsold every other local release that year, which finally dissolved Matthews’ old fear of being seen as an outcast in the ‘hedonistic Aussie rock scene.’ “I’m somebody who loves to be moved my music, and the success of that song proved I was in good company.” She says, “It was a huge compliment to me that so many people responded to it in the way they did, but you know, reactions to it have been so, so varied, I mean I have had women say to me, ‘nothing helps my baby get to sleep like your voice in that song’!” She laughs, “So for a while I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m going become known as the baby whisperer!’”


Monday, June 13, 2011

Lou Rhodes (Lamb) interview: 2011


Manchester duo, Lamb were written off by just about everyone – including themselves – come the middle of the last decade. Following a short-lived peek into world-wide success at the end of the ‘90s, vocalist Lou Rhodes and musician Andy Barlow, began to fall out of love with the music once it became a pressure game of commerce and repetition. However, a core of devoted fans had the foresight to not give up on the pair and this year, their devotion has finally paid off – although at a price. Lamb, embracing a little numerology, not to mention some grass roots marketing, announced their long awaited fifth album, 5, funded entirely by fan pre-orders. It may seem a long way from the runaway success of 1997 single Gorecki, but as Lou Rhodes points out, with fans like theirs, who needs labels?

“The scary bit was selling something that we hadn’t even made, so you’re asking for quite a leap of faith from people, you know.” Rhodes begins. “But then, I think it’s a great basis for a creative endeavor. That desire to make something that we felt truly proud of was stronger than ever." Lou explains, “We were making an album for the first time ever with absolutely no funding from some nervous corporation looking for big hits, as was our experience in the past, which definitely had an effect on the music.” After what began as a four-date tour in early 2010, which then grew into months of advance bookings, Lamb were approached to do a short Australian tour in February his year. It was at these shows that for the first time in seven years, their set included brand new music.

“When we were asked to do those shows in Australia, we panicked a bit because we hadn’t even finished the record, but actually it turned out to be a good opportunity to see how well the new tracks worked along side our older stuff. We ended up premiering only four new songs, but that really was the acid test we needed to say what was working and what needed to change.” She continues, “The songs do metamorphose whenever you play them live, so it was important to let the new ones begin their journey of tweak and change.” Rhodes laughs gently. “The process of playing new songs live is like a game of Chinese whispers. You have a blueprint, and you think you know what the outcome will be, but little surprises always emerge in the actual telling.” She adds, “I’d really like to do that a lot more, because the problem with being in the studio, is you usually finish an album and then go on tour and that’s when this kind of growth happens within the songs, but by then it’s too late.” Already 5’s mini road test has Rhodes rethinking the band’s future performances.

“In the past we had always kept in mind what we were going to play live and how, and it was never more than half the record, but with 5, we found that we couldn’t decide what not to play. At this stage we’re doing eight out of the ten songs and we’d like to work in the other two at some point because it works so well in its complete form.” Rhodes adds that she has always struggled with the concept albums judged only by the singles – no doubt a concern that has sprung from personal experience. Lamb’s mammoth hit, Gorecki from their self-titled debut, although rewarding the band with obscene levels of exposure, also bought with it ‘unreasonable expectations’. While recording their second album, Fear Of Fours, the inevitable pressure of matching that song’s success was applied to the duo by their label, causing Rhodes to remark following their split in 2004, Lamb had long felt restricted by what was expected of them. “It was always tough for me to see Lamb as a singles band, because I don’t really listen to very much commercial music or even claim to know how to make ‘hit singles’ on command.” Lou retorts. “In the old days we had to endure conversations that went like, ‘can you sound a bit more like Bis, because they’re selling a lot of records at the moment’, which was quite soul destroying for us.” Lamb released three more albums over the next seven years before acrimoniously splitting. It wasn’t until Lou Rhodes was recording her third solo album One Good Thing in 2009 that she and Andy’s reunion occurred. “I was looking for somebody to produce my album and Andy just said, why not him!” At their rather organic reunion, creative sparks soon began to fly and Lamb’s future was decided on – only with a few clear changes to be made.

“When we decided we were going to make another record, Andy and I had a very honest conversation about what Lamb should and should not be about.” Rhodes explains, “I felt that I had compromised quite a lot on some of our albums and we kind of lost something along the way, but this time we agreed to keep it raw and just gently add to the songs as they needed, like we did on our first record. Also it was really important for us to not overproduce this album. I mean all up it only took five months to make which was very, very quick for Lamb.” Rhodes’ words are suggestive of somebody running from their past mistakes, but Lamb were always spared the often harsh criticisms of the UK press usually reserved for non three-chord rock bands. One doesn’t have to dig very far to then to see Lamb are in fact their own strongest critics, and although many band’s have long lulls following initial peaks, few return with their shit so fully together as they have. Lou reflects on what the refreshed Lamb we hear on 5 was bringing to the come-back party, and some of what was quite cheerfully thrown out.

“I’m a great believer in your first idea is probably your best before the ego kicks in and says oh but why not add this and add that, but simplicity was definitely the key in this case.” She points out, “Also I think for me as a vocalist, too many times on previous albums, my voice had been extremely processed, or rather I was affecting it in certain ways, feeling that I needed to be something that I wasn’t. But having that time off and doing my acoustic albums gave me a chance to let my voice grow and I allowed myself to get comfortable again as a singer.” Rhodes naturally understates her sensational talent as a singer, but evidenced particularly by the tracks She Walks and Wise Enough, is an artist shaking off self-doubt and indulging her love of singing. Lamb’s new-found confidence doesn’t end there, either. Album closer, Existential Itch is a brilliantly executed reminder that in today’s self-absorbed world, we can easily forget that the human experience is a shared one. Lou divulges,

“That song kind of sums up a lot of the record and going through this period of questioning everything I had once believed in. Not just with music, but life in general which I think most of us go through at some point.” She adds, “With the title, I thought existential crisis seemed too strong a word because what I was going through seemed quite natural in a way. I think the word crisis carries the wrong implication, or at least I didn’t see it as a crisis personally, I recognised that it was a much needed time of learning.”


Ah, the gorgeous Lou and Andy... You know, I never made the Little Britain connection until I transcribed the interview... !!

EPK on Lamb recording their beautiful new album, "5".

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Lou Barlow (Sebadoh) interview: 2011


Lou Barlow’s musically formative years were spent not only avoiding the synthetic sounds of the first new wave, but rather languishing in the potential of low-fi analogue recording before it became the must-have sound of a whole scene. His grasp of what would one day be known as the ‘slacker sound’ and love of chunky, distorted bass was eventually put to good use in indie monsters, Dinosaur Jr. – the band he formed with high school mate Joe (later sheered down to simply ‘J’) Mascis in 1984. But it was Barlow’s home recordings side-project Sebadoh which has reigned consistently in the artist’s life. Now with sackings, bickering and ego-clashes behind him, Lou is back working with both Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh; the latter of whom are currently celebrating the reissue of 1994 breakthrough album Bakesale.

Giving his side of the story of two bands, that never really split up but rather went from functioning to malfunctioning in ongoing cycles until their fractured fairytale finally gained its long overdue happy outcome, Lou Barlow begins from the rarely known comfort of his home. “I’ve been home in LA for almost two months, which is so weird. I haven’t been at home for this long… ever in my life!” Barlow’s chosen path – two active bands and a solo career – has of course meant that the road is always calling. Although a self-confessed DIY junkie preferring to work alone, Barlow couldn’t be more removed from loner-dom, but not as begrudgingly as one might expect. The re-formed ‘classic line-up’ of Dinosaur Jr. have been regularly touring since 2005, while Sebadoh continue to have reunion tours every couple of years. But for Barlow, this duality is just the card he’s been dealt.

“The two bands occupy different parts of my brain; they both have their own very distinct musical identities. I play different songs with different people in the two bands and that separation has ruled my existence for most of my life now, so it’s not something I really think about anymore.” He continues, “Dinosaur are touring the US in about a week before I bring Sebadoh out to Australia, so the two are almost overlapping at this stage.” Most fans are in agreement (and Lou himself), that Dinosaur Jr. produced their best work with Barlow in the line-up. Their first three albums, Your Living All Over Me, Dinosaur and Bug - for the most part - defined the growing, underground indie scene in America which culminated in the grunge explosion. Now that the original line-up are touring and recording again after many ‘lost years’ - during which time Dinosaur Jr. produced albums Lou is only too happy to offer his opinion on - Barlow concedes it was an inevitable reunion.

“In hindsight I think, how could Dinosaur not get back together.” He shrugs, “In Sebadoh, we never had the kinds of problems that I did working in Dinosaur, I mean, I’ve never felt the need to split Sebadoh up. We never had a falling out or anything, it was more of sigh than a shout,” he says of their regular hiatuses, “We were like, ah, this isn’t going so well at the moment let’s just go do something else for a while. But Dinosaur felt like a very definite end… for me at least.” Lou laughs, recalling his unceremonious booting out by Mascis in 1988, “I really didn’t know if it would be possible for us to work together again until J (Mascis) was actually right there asking me, you know. It was wonderfully natural when it did happen and I didn’t even have to think about how I was going to respond. The bottom line is, I love the music we made together way more than I disliked anyone in the band or any of the personal bullshit that went down between us.” At the start, Lou and J Mascis bonded well as both were singers, writers and fans of weird, musical cross-pollinations, but Mascis soon began throwing his weight around as leader in Dinosaur Jr.  Lou’s contributions to the albums became lesser as Mascis’s in-band domination grew until there was no room left for anybody else. Barlow continues,

Dinosaur Jr; "Going somewhere, Lou?"

“Music makes it all better for me, but looking back I am really glad I was kicked out of Dinosaur. It was an amazing gift awarded to my mental health.” Lou laughs, “Murph (Emmett Murphy – drummer) and I talked about this - he stayed on longer in Dinosaur than me - but we were both having these panic attacks and neither one knew at the time about the other. When I got kicked out of the band, my panic attacks stopped and the same happened to Murph.” He adds, “When we both rejoined the band (in 2005), thankfully they didn’t return, but the difference was I knew what I was getting myself into rejoining that band. I wasn’t going like ‘yay, it’s gonna be all different now’, it was more like I felt I could take it.” When Barlow found himself out of Dinosaur Jr., he already had his own back catalogue of music – some of which had been released independently – to continue adding to. The name Sebadoh was given to all his home-done tape albums, which had up until the late ‘80s, all been solo recordings. Although free to do as he pleased, Barlow didn’t automatically jump at the chance to launch Sebadoh – the band – onto the world.

“Well I never really wanted to be in another band after Dinosaur. I kinda just wanted to be on my own and play my ukulele,” He jokes, “But Eric Gaffney (Sebadoh co-founder) convinced me to make it into a proper band, and so we got Jason (Lowenstein) in to play drums and I decided that after Dinosaur, if I was going to be in a band again, it was going to have to be fun.” Lou suddenly had the resources to make his own mark alongside Dinosaur Jr. with Sebadoh - only in his band, Barlow insisted on an even, split-three-ways approach that Dinosaur Jr. had completely lacked. “Just the way in which Sebadoh formed, and the fact that we all wrote and were equally responsible for the output of the band, meant a natural democracy kind of happened anyway. Dinosaur was J’s deal – he was The Man and that was that as far as anyone was concerned.” J Mascis, carried on with Dinosaur Jr., replacing Lou and Murph with Mike Johnson and George Berz, having some post-Barlow successes with the albums Where You Been and Without A Sound. But the momentum - and any shred of a recognisable ‘Dinosaur-sound’ - had dried up completely by 1997 and the band ended with a whimper.

"Yeah I thought the records J made after I left were just awful.” Lou recalls of this time, “They were kind of like this weird hair metal version of Neil Young.” He dead-pans, “It just sounded like a bloated half-assed, crap version of Dinosaur Jr. and so I was glad to be off doing Sebadoh and not making shit records.” Lou finally cracks up after his onslaught, taking the edge of his harsh words. “But J totally needed me back in the band. I don’t think either of us realised how much better we worked together until we completely fell out and went our own ways.” After signing to Sub-Pop in 1992, Sebadoh gained moderate popularity with their wistful, unpolished rock albums before making their breakthrough record; 1994’s Bakesale. Having dropped a lot of the more experimental sounds found on previous Sebadoh albums, Bakesale felt like a push towards a broader audience which, if in fact true, worked for them. Now as its fully tricked-out reissue is set for release, and a Don’t Look Back-style tour is to follow, I press Lou for his honest opinion of Bakesale, and if it at all matches the general consensus that it was Sebadoh’s finest hour.

“I liked the record when it came out.” He pauses before adding, “I remember it being a really happy time in my life and there’s a good spirit on that album, but I guess as time went by I found I didn’t think it sounded very good. Then when we had to go back and listen to it for the tweaking and remastering, I think I finally - for the first time - got why people think it’s our best album. I mean I don’t personally think it is our best, I like our earlier, fucked up shit more, but I do think it is our most consistent record.” What has always driven Barlow from the time spent making his strange and murky home demo tapes to his clashes with J Mascis over Dinosaur Jr.’s direction, may well be the belief, as he was quoted as saying in an interview, that all music is mired in clichés. Lou, no doubt thankful our time is nearly up, takes the opportunity to explain his possibly off-hand observation.

"The reality is, whatever you do is gonna be clichéd once you’re aware of avoiding clichés.” He sniffs, “The way I make music is with an economy of sound in mind, if you know what I mean. Instead of adding layers and guitar solos or any of that, I like to strip it back and to sing in the purest, most unaffected voice I can find. If there’s any clichés I’m avoiding, it’s just in having nothing where the guitar solo should be, and clipping off extended intros and outros, I guess, and there’s your economy of sound.” Lou adds, brightening up, “You know, I just thought of that expression today and I decided I needed to use it in a sentence. I hope that ‘economy of sound’ comes across better than ‘music is mired in clichés’ as a quote - I think that sounds a bit fatuous now. I actually love clichés; I love pop music, and none of my pleasures are guilty ones, but I guess when I’m writing my own music I just try to side-step all that is what I’m saying.”


Sunday, June 5, 2011

David Bridie (My Friend The Chocolate Cake) interview: 2011


In 2005, Melbourne musician David Bridie toured in support of his second solo album, Hotel Radio, playing to small pub crowds around Australia. When the night of his Hobart gig rolled around, I found myself in a state of barely suppressed excitement to finally see an artist who I’d revered - albeit from some distance - for a time, without really knowing what to expect. Ahead of his set, I overhear a pre-show conversation in which Bridie was surprisingly referred to as ‘the guy who used to be in The Reels’. While David Mason’s ears where hundreds of miles away, burning, it saddened me to think an artist like David Bridie should face such indifference after 20 years of creating so much beautiful music. He went on that night and performed one of the most astounding concerts I have ever seen, despite playing a set devoid of songs I previously knew, and no doubt confounded those mistaken Reels fans in the process.

Bridie was however wearing a very different musical hat that night, perhaps making him harder to spot for the more casual fan. This was, in a way, the start of a new era in his long career. Not Drowning Waving – his former full-time band – had recently split after 20 years while My Friend The Chocolate Cake – his stop and start second band - were on one of their regular hiatuses. Bridie had started living between Melbourne and Papua New Guinea, which was having a notable effect on his music, but while Hotel Radio reflected his island life, Bridie, back fronting My Friend The Chocolate Cake, has released a new, fully localised album. Location aside for now, Bridie, on the eve of My Friend The Chocolate Cake’s latest release, Fiasco, is the first to admit he is a man hard to pin down, especially when drawing from his broad musical interests.

“I have a low boredom threshold, but also being a musician in Australia, I think you have to multitask a little bit.” He begins, “Doing my soundtrack and production stuff is really important to me, seeing as My Friend The Chocolate Cake is an all acoustic outfit. Those other things mean I get to play around with the resonator button and synthesisers a bit which can be just as much fun.” David had long worked world music into Not Drowning Waving’s records, can talk for hours equally about programmable synths and folky acoustic pop. He continues, proudly. “I’ve got pretty diverse tastes is all. I can spend a day just listening to string music from Papua New Guinea and then the next getting out my old punk records or some Nick Drake, so I think keeping in touch with the broadest range of music I can helps me become a more interesting musician.” MFTCC began in 1989 while David and co-founder, cellist Helen Mountfort, were on holiday in New Zealand and having a break from commitments to Not Drowning Waving. There they wrote a set of acoustic-based songs, clearly in oppose to all previous NDW material which would ultimately form the start a steady side-project, ultimately outlasting NDW.

Not Drowning Waving was my first passion and they were a great bunch of musicians, but we had a much different agenda in what we were trying to do with that band than we do in ‘Cake.” David surmises, “Also NDW was an expensive outfit to operate. It was a large group with a lot of equipment and so it would’ve had to get a lot bigger than it did to really pay for itself in the long run. But with my solo records I get to satisfy a lot of the urges I had doing NDW, but with MFTCC I get to have that collaborative, social urge fed as well.” Not Drowning Waving, you could argue, fitted awkwardly within the Australian music landscape of the mid-to-late ‘80s. Their lean towards world music and sparse instrumentals probably kept them from reaching the broader audience MFTCC has. Indeed by the time MFTCC had released their second album, Brood in 1995, they were gathering ARIA's and landing on radio playlists.

MFTCC was a priority for me from very early on.” David adds on transitioning between bands the first time, “Working with somebody like Helen in Not Drowning and then us both shifting into MFTCC was great because she has always had such a different ear to mine in arranging and producing and so forth, so it was always going to be fascinating to see where we could take this little idea of an acoustic chamber band with our kind of opposing views on music but also with respect for the way we each did our thing.” Wearing their boffin hats, production on the band’s sixth studio album, Fiasco was down to David and Helen - as has been the case on all MFTCC albums - with mixing by Tim Cole. David describes his relief as the final piece was added to the long-awaited new ‘Cake album.

Bridie with Helen Mountfort - The core of  'Cake

“I remember on the last night (of mixing) sitting with Tim Cole and realising with some satisfaction we really had done the best album we could. I think over time we have developed a kind of ‘Cake sound’ if you like, and when I hear that, I know it is a good indication that we’re clicking.” So in sync they appear to be, that even violinist Hope Csutoros’s baby arrived right at the start of the band’s usual extended between album break, meaning her band commitment wasn’t compromised. “Hope happily was able to come back on board in time for this album after some time off for motherhood duties and that was obviously special to Helen because of how they work so closely together in the studio on the string arrangements.” David confirms, “Also it helps to have the same band in the studio as you play with on tour.” Aside from the predominant dueling strings, another constant in MFTCC is the suburban landscape oil paintings and collages that adorn most of their CD sleeves. Fiasco’s cover at first glance feels a little familiar, and then it dawns that this street scenario had graced the cover of Brood – only now the developer’s have been through.

The "Brood" sleeve-art
Warwick Jolly’s done most of our album artwork so far and I think, like the music, the more you look at his collages the more you find.” Indeed you’ll see a train track tearing up the middle of the image, surrounded by cut-outs of Melbourne buildings and people past and present. In the centre, sits the unmistakable red brick overpass on the way to East Richmond station – an often by-passed location for metro travelers - which forms a tidy subtext for an album concerned mostly with journeys big and small and those who get left behind. “I guess the metaphor is fairly obvious isn’t it?” David laughs. As for the title, Fiasco, Bridie claims he was forced to compromise. “I wanted to call it Somewhere Between The Sacred and the Bleeding Ordinary but was somewhat dissuaded because of how long the band’s name is – like it wouldn’t all fit along the spine of the CD - so I was a bit disappointed about that. But Fiasco in this instance is more a bun fight in a bakery than a tragedy. Despite it being an Italian word, I think a lot of Aussies happily use it to add gravitas when describing something like a failed relationship.” It seems a natural choice of words considering the album’s centrepiece, Madang Panic Attack. This uncharacteristic, somewhat guttural release from the band – written by Bridie in Papua New Guinea - is one of the few tracks David will admit to being a very personal one.

Madang Panic Attack was me going through a break-up and being in a different country with a bottle of duty-free whiskey.” David recalls, “Some of the locals had set fire to the store and the church in the village so the air was just hot and sweaty.” He adds sighing, “Anyway my troubles got on top of me one night and I just spewed forth all these lyrics trying to make sense of everything.” Madang Panic Attack stands as MFTCC’s darkest song thus far, both lyrically and musically. David describes, “It’s pretty edgy stuff for us and after we had it down in the studio, Andrew (Richardson – guitars) put a load of electric guitar on it, but Helen rightfully said, ‘look we’ve stuck to this acoustic thing all along, there’s no point in breaking from that now’ so it was redone for the album, but at some point I wanna put out that other version. I think people who have followed us for a long time might get a bit of a shock with Madang... but then I sometimes think being in a band, surprising your audience is one of the things you’re supposed to do.” Further hints of personal loss lurk throughout the album, but none is more startling than on Black Ice with its eerie refrain; ‘Black ice took her away from me’. David responds.

“I’m really using Black Ice as a metaphor here. There was no real car crash I was describing.” He reveals, “It was more to do with childhood memories of being driven on these winding mountain roads and seeing black ice warning signs. To me they always seemed to imply life’s greatest dangers are the ones unseen, which is just one of those things that has stayed with me through my own life.” Changing tact, David adds, “I’m actually really pissed off AC/DC called their last tour Black Ice because now we can’t use it for ours.” He laughs, “They kind of pre-emptively stole our thunder there… those bastards!”


Friday, June 3, 2011

Kate Bush: Director's Cut (album review)

Director’s Cut
(Fish People)

Kate Bush fans desperate for new material from the reclusive star have been awarded an intriguing prize in the form of Director’s Cut. Calling this new however is misleading as all songs are entirely updated versions, culled from roughly two halves of previously released albums. The track list is compiled from 1989’s The Sensual World and 1993’s The Red Shoes, with only the former’s title track receiving a completely new set of lyrics. Re-named Flower Of The Mountain, The Sensual World could largely be seen as the catalyst for Bush’s latest move. At the song’s conception, Kate intended to use part of poet James Joyce’s novel Ulysses in the lyric but was at the time denied rights. Last year, with full access finally granted to Joyce’s words, Kate re-made the song as she had always intended and so began work on ‘correcting’ more and more of the songs that have dogged her over time. The fact that the entire album is comprised of music from those two particular albums won’t surprise many long-term fans of Kate.

The artist has been casually critical of the two records in question, just as the media had been upon their respective releases. Now that Kate has put right what she had long seen as errors in her last two pre-millennium albums, I can’t help thinking that the same things that will please many long-time fans are the very same that will disappoint others. As a hopeless devotee, I can’t help but feel heavily critical of the re-workings in both positive and negative ways. Whereas I totally respect Kate’s decision to remake a few songs that she has long felt uncomfortable with, there are mixed results with no noticeable consideration for what her fans may have loved about these tracks in the first place.

My first criticism would be that the vastly different albums (in their original state) The Sensual World and The Red Shoes don’t mesh particularly when assembled as the one piece. The Sensual World – always the black sheep in Kate’s catalogue - had a distinctly down-tempo, almost grim prevailing mood, whereas The Red Shoes was a spiky pagan romp through tales of black magic and mythology. Bush herself always claimed she felt a deep disappointment over how The Red Shoes was received, and in many cases the criticisms were unusually severe for a Kate Bush album. The fact that she disappeared from the public eye completely after, it’s been suggested, was partly down to being so brutally scorned over the album and its accompanying film - The Line, The Cross and The Curve – which leads me to wonder if re-recording that album alone would have sufficed. The Sensual World tracks after all are the least altered by far among this collection.

This Woman’s Work
(from The Sensual World) for example, is thankfully only slightly tweaked here with the most notable change being Kate’s cleaner vocal. She exercises further welcome restraint on Song Of Solomon and Lily – both of which retain all of the magic of their parent versions, and Top Of The City also remains glorious, if not a little less starry-eyed than its 1993 counterpart.. However, the Red Shoes most powerful six minutes – Moments Of Pleasure – has been sheered down to its bare bones, omitting everything from its beautiful, climactic refrain to its strings and all the original’s dynamics. This simple piano and choir version does however carry greater melancholy suited to the song’s meaning, but less is definitely not more in this case.

But all the nit-picking so far aside, let me be totally clear, Director’s Cut is by no means a hatchet job done on some old songs in a vain effort to drag them into modern, shiny perfection. Instead Bush has re-done her vocals - in nearly every case - to simply suit her matured, lower octave range and swept away a lot of the layered post-production in favour of some raw jam-style live band mixes. These versions are essentially concert-ready performances which, considering a snowball’s chance of a full world tour, is a really a massive tease. The biggest tease of all however, is the actual possibilities here not realised on some of these tracks. The brassy rumba of Rubberband Girl (from The Red Shoes) has been reduced – and not improved upon at all – to a vocal, electric guitar, drum and harmonica plod. I find it mind-boggling that Kate would seriously envision this track as needing such a lacklustre makeover.

Far more satisfying is the album’s single, Deeper Understanding, which is unusual here in that it works perfectly in its updated form because of its lyric – written in 1989 – about computers taking the place of meaningful, inter-personal exchanges. However Bush’s own reliance on current technology in making this record is limited to that song with its jarring auto-tune refrain being the only in-organic sound throughout. As the project’s initial purpose was to strip away the slightly saccharine production of these song’s originals, all bar Deeper Understanding have been recorded entirely using analogue equipment which, for the most part, provides warmth to the overall sound. Although the kind of warmth that comes from non-digital recordings is pleasing, especially when it is a rare commodity in music nowadays, it seems odd that Kate should now shy away from these advances considering her ground-breaking use of digital techniques and effects on early albums, The Dreaming and Hounds Of Love. In fact, there’s evidence-a-plenty in Kate’s back catalogue of an artist who could always comfortably marry the timeless with the very latest when making music.

The perfectionist that is Kate Bush coupled with the amount of time passed since these songs were written in theory should really have produced outstanding results rather than a sizable percentage of confounding ones. Perhaps the long-gestating gripe Kate had with the too-many-cooks sound on The Red Shoes and the occasionally flat-lining Sensual World should have been addressed sooner rather than later. A stunning semi-acoustic rendition of Red Shoes’ track Why Should I Love You – originally a messy sounding duet with Prince - was released in the late ‘90s, offering a more tantalizing indication of what might have been, yet it is missing from this set. The best news surrounding Director’s Cut for fans is probably the fact that Kate, when re-imagining these songs, was inspired to write an entirely new album in the process due out later this year. In the meantime, listeners reacquainting themselves with Kate’s newly re-nurtured back catalogue ‘mis-fires’ have plenty to mull over, find renewed love for or even straight-out hate. Which ever her unwavering disciples choose, one thing that is for sure, having Kate Bush back in any form at all is still a delight worth indulging in.