Through low-hanging smoke and the tink of a bottle neck against a diamond-cut glass, Angus Stone’s Smooth Big Cat is sauntering up to your joint. The Aussie icon’s Dope Lemon alias delivers a sophomore album that’s super sensual and thick with mood.
There’s a cute wooden xylophone tripping through many of these songs. It’s a huge part of the record’s personality. Where did it come from?
What I really like with this record, and just feels really special to me, is that we did it all in one stream of consciousness – in one sitting. We didn’t walk away from the session and come back two weeks later. Sometimes when you do that, you can hear inconsistencies in the flow. A big part of the string that pulls it all together was that little wooden block. A friend, he got it from over in Seattle. I called him up, I was like, “Do you have a wooden block?”, and he’s like, “Yeah. I’ve got this beautiful old one from the ‘60s”, and he brought it around. Every time I’d go in[to the studio], I’d start playing all the instruments – the bass, then piano and drums – and then we’d get to the end and I’m like, “I’m going to try that block and see if it works.” For me, when I listen to it now, it reminds me of – you know those old cartoons where the skeletons are dancing?
Yes! Where they play little tunes on their own ribcages?
That’s right – it reminds me of that. The bones going ‘clink, clink, clonk, clonk.’
How many octaves is the woodblock?
It’s quite big – four, maybe? And it’s quite temperamental. We had to tune it up in ProTools sometimes, because it would be three cents flat or four cents sharp. But some of that stuff really works, sometimes, when it’s not perfect.
Like the wonky organ in Dope & Smoke and the title track – is it the same organ you and Julia used for Snow? (At that time you mentioned you couldn’t program anything to its beats, because it was so old it would drift in and out of time.)
Yes, it’s the same organ. I found it on Gumtree – it was one of those really magical finds, a bit of a treasure that sort of popped up. It’s all crusty and it’s really got its own thing going on. That made it into a lot of these songs.
There are a few lyrical phrases which you repeat across songs: ‘salt and pepper’, ‘floating back’ to someone’s place, even mentions of honey bones. How purposeful was it?
I think I do it unintentionally; sometimes if something is a real cornerstone lyric, I tend to find it has a universal quality and you can bring it back. It can be a cool thing because it draws the listener back to that other moment.
It’s a bit hypnotising, and very rewarding.
Limitation can sometimes be a really vital piece of the puzzle. If you have an instrument with only one string, for argument’s sake, you learn how to make that string work for you. I don’t tend to change chords too much, because if it feels good and there’s a pocket, I like just sitting in it, and then bursting out with different moods. A lot of it’s really minimal but it just tells such a story.
WHO’S THE SMOOTH BIG CAT?
Simply put, he’s the totem of the record. Says Stone: “He’s a cool cat. He doesn’t really have stakes in all the nonsense going on in the world, and he drops in when you want to have a whiskey and let some records roll. When I think of him and his character, I feel like he represents that real thing that we’re looking for in life, and I feel like that’s the feeling I get when I listen to this record.”
Smooth Big Cat by Dope Lemon is out July 12 via BMG.
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