With something like the lush chorus harmonies in Isn’t it a Pity, don’t you just want to do that all the time? How do you stop yourself?
Yes, absolutely I just want to do that all of the time. I could spend all day loading harmonies up on songs, testing my voice out to its squeakiest highs and greasiest lows. But it’s part of that thing of knowing when to stop. The harmonies on that song were a combination of sung ones, which was both Clare Bowditch and I, and some generated ones from within GarageBand, which I have never done before. If you isolate them you can hear the hideous sound of that vocal tuning harmonizer in there. Ordinarily I despise that sound and think, given its ubiquity, especially on all of the pop lead vocals, that a lot of people will regret using it in the future. But when it is all glommed together with the natural voices, it sounds pretty good.
Listening to America (Glamour and Prestige) made me realise how much, in terms of cause and effect, has happened since Civil Dusk came out (August 2016). What were you thinking of when you wrote these lyrics?
It is a song about going to the States and being completely under and overwhelmed. We had some really great times when we (Powderfinger) went over there, but there was a lot of backslapping and industry bullsh-t that we just couldn’t get comfortable with. And you know… America-bashing isn’t the most uncommon thing in the world these days, and rightly so in a lot of cases with regard to Trump and the morons in charge, so the line about “a well-worn cliché” refers to both that idea, and the fact that we came across quite a lot of spivs with white teeth and flashy rings and the whole kit, and just couldn’t believe they actually existed.
Those Copacabana-type toms are amazing – is this [Midnight Oil drummer] Rob Hirst? Is he an old pal?
Yeah, Rob – he’s just an animal, in the best possible way. He gave that song a massive kick up the arse. Those toms are his signature, I guess. He came in and just started winding the tuning of the drums up, and up, and up until they were at full Studio One reggae pitch. It actually made the song have so much more energy than it had prior. Luckily he was around in Byron and I just called and asked if he’d come and have a go. It’s so great to get up close and see someone like that playing.
I love the way the combo of pedal steel, honky piano, Saliana’s strings and the organ in Say You’re Mine works. They’re all doing their own thing, but sometimes they meet and follow a melody together. Do you very specifically plan these things out do you let happy accidents happen?
It’s kind of both, but Nick [DiDia] is most responsible for how those things manifest themselves and move up and down in a mix. That is actually the most full song on the record, and it took some pretty nifty fades from Nick to make it all sit right. It has a bit of a carnival atmosphere at times, which I love.
The symbol of the blackbird turns up again in Say You’re Mine. Is it the fragility of birds which speaks to you?
Yeah, I think so. And ‘blackbird’ is actually a really nice word to sing – the alliteration and a couple of snappy vowels. Paul McCartney worked it out long before I did. It’s not just fragility but also the unpredictable and, I suppose, flitty nature of most birds. They could be sitting there calmly or take off at any moment. And that idea of feeling an animal’s heart beating in its chest is something most people are familiar with. It gives you a sense of how vulnerable they are – that life and death are right there.
There’s a line in In the Ten Years Gone that goes “When you’re lying there at night, making edits of your life.” Do you think we all do this personal revisionist history thing?
I certainly do it. And I think I tend to make pretty favourable edits of myself! Most of the evil stuff I do gets left on the cutting room floor, never to be remembered again. It’s really what this album is about: the gaps between what we remember, how we see ourselves, almost always favourably, and what really actually happened. And then when that is analysed carefully, how you go forward from there.
What’s the instrument that concludes the beautiful closer Letter From a Distant Shore? It sounds like electrified bagpipes.
That is a hurdy gurdy, which is from somewhere in the Middle East and has been used since the Byzantine Empire. It sounds like a cross between a bagpipe and a violin, I guess. It certainly has a mournful sound to it and gives the song a very traditional atmosphere, which I love. The song was basically the story of a young man warning his younger brother not to enlist in the army and go to war in the name of adventure, as he did, because ultimately he may have to not only risk death, but worse: to kill someone else and live with that. Generally when we talk about war and remember it, in Australia anyway, the focus is on people sacrificing their lives, but I thought it was interesting to look at it from the point of view of a reluctant ‘killer’, who would have the stain on him until he ended up in hell.
Brutal Dawn is out May 26 via Dew Process.