At BigSound last year, your (packed) crowds were absolutely silent, and shooshing one another! Do your recent live shows still have that super committed, reverent feel?
It’s still weird. Even more so now, because the crowds are a lot bigger, and I’ve just got really good fans. They’re the ones that tell people to shut up at gigs, which is really cool. But there’s sing-alongs now, which is cool – people know the songs. Plus the band’s a lot more dynamic than just me solo, so it allows people to be a bit more vocal during. So many artists tell people off and I hate that vibe, so it’s really important to say “thank you” [when the audience is quiet].
You’re certainly an artist who expresses his gratitude.
Yeah, absolutely. I’m a softie.
The climax in single Formaldehyde is just a gorgeous cacophony of sounds; it’s kind of terrifying but beautiful. How did you go about arranging it?
We knew that we wanted the [beginning] to be very cradling – that feeling of, I guess rearing children [or] holding a child. Then later on I wanted it to be as though the subject was just punching the wall. That feeling of being so angry, and you can’t do anything… that you just have to express it somehow. There’s no one to tell off, there’s nothing to fix, it’s just like, ‘I’ve got to deal with this feeling.’ We tried really hard for a very long time to get that part right, and I think the two moments when we realised we’d done it was I played a cello and I put it through a… distortion pedal, and that really made the dark hit home. And then we wanted it to feel epic but not in a cheesy timpani way, or a cymbal swell way. We were trying to see how we could get that cymbal sound through something else that was more epic. So, we recorded Essendon versus Richmond – the crowd sound. There’s this roar that’s really subtle in the background, and it just tipped it over the edge into, ‘This woman could take down the world with this anger right now.’
Speaking of mystery sounds, is there a guiro on Bird Sounds?
It’s not, but it totally [sounds like that]. It’s just the sound boarding in the studio. You know when people have those Japanese room dividers and they’ve got the slats? It kind of looks like that on the wall. Me and the drummer were playing. It was a very funny moment. For a good half an hour we were standing there trying to get the right beat on the wall. This is what recording with me is like, it’s just finding sounds rather than making them.
We can hear that approach on stand-out Worth The Wait; you have these little guitar body thumps, claps that come in, sliding and creaking violin, then the ride cymbal – all of the details. Tell us a bit more about how you ‘find’ the sounds.
These six songs were from a very specific time in my life, that was in a shed in Northcote living on the dole and just creating songs. I’ve said [before] my stuff is a little bit like sculpture: I create the block and just take sh-t away, until there’s the image there. There’s so many sounds that don’t make [it]. Hayden [Calnin, producer and engineer] and I just create too much, and then the mixing process is removing stuff. Especially being really brutal about it – stuff we spent hours on. Like, we dropped a toilet roll on a grand piano for a good hour to get the right sound. We had this bag of things to drop on a grand piano and a toilet roll was the perfect chalky, light, weird sound. And then we were like, ‘Nah, doesn’t work’ when we got to mixing.
That sounds like the musician Hauschka, and his ‘prepared piano’ – he drops random things all over the piano’s exposed strings, as he’s playing.
I did three years of jazz piano and [one module] was all about the whacky side of jazz, and the prepared piano stuff. I remember listening to my first ever prepared piano piece and just thinking, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ But I definitely use aspects of that in the studio all the time. On Worth The Wait in particular – I think it’s my favourite sound on the record – there’s a fidget spinner on a grand piano, [spinning against] the strings.
There are some voices talking in the background of Blind You; they sound like CV radio chatter. Are the words very significant?
Yeah. Not to be wanky about it, but everything’s significant. Even if people aren’t going to understand why you put the detail in, I think people can feel it in a really neo-hippie bullsh-t way. But, that is literally the… breakup text messages that me and my [ex-]girlfriend sent each other. The static noise radio stuff is me just reading out those text messages, and distorting them enough so you can’t quite tell.
Are you the kind of person who saves all that stuff – old text messages and what have you – so you can re-analyse them and torture yourself?
Yeah. Absolutely. I’m getting better at not doing it now. I find it very strange that… the dialogue of our life is permanent now. My grandma has two letters from her grandfather; I’ve got hours and hours of bullsh-t. I could legitimately download my life. People wonder what the future’s like – we’re already there. On tour overseas, I’ve been using Google Translate. There’s a new camera [app] of it. You hold it up to text, and it translates in real time, in the photo. So, I’ll be like “I don’t know if I’m going to get a parking fine” hold up my camera and just read the English in Germany. I don’t know what the question was, but we went there.
You mention Frida Kahlo as an enormous influence (specifically for the themes behind Formaldehyde). Which other kinds of artists – visual or otherwise – and their struggles to you admire, or have learned from?
I have a lot of respect for how hard the job of comedian would be, as an artist. But I think they’re a real staple of what it is to be an artist. I’m working on a track called Politically Correct Work of Art, and that’s definitely about comedians in particular, their job is to see where the boundary is, and people don’t get that. They freak out. They’re like, “They went too far.” I’m like, “That’s their job. Now you know where ‘too far’ is.” Like, we all worked it out, isn’t that cool? Tig Notaro is huge for me. She’s just one of those insanely good artists. Look up the Conan interview with Tig about staying present. It’s amazing. She basically ignores Conan for the whole interview while she’s on her phone. It’s just hilarious.
Measurements EP is out July 6 via Sony.
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