INTERVIEW: Augie March

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THE ABSURDITY OF CALIGULA

From his home in Hobart, Glenn Richards has a revealing conversation with Chris Familton about the life and times of Augie March, why he is proud of their new album and the challenge of combining intelligence and humour in songwriting.

Augie March are a band that have had their fair share of ups and downs, lost chances and a hiatus. The latest chapter in their now two decade career is a resurgent return to form. Previously it was a cautious re-emergence with the inconsistent Havens Dumb, a “regrouping” as songwriter Richards calls it. This time around they “got the groundwork done a bit better so it’s a stronger record in that sense, and in the songwriting too.” Richards emphasises that he’s “proud of this one, it has good energy which is often lacking when a band gets on in years. If anything there was an emphasis on not over-cluttering which we were prone to do in the past”

The album in question is Bootikins, the band’s sixth and it holds its own among their finest releases. after the touring cycle for Havens Dumb ended in disappointment. “It just kind of petered out which was a bit disappointing. I got stuck into other stuff – film scores and TV work, which I was quite happy doing. Then I found myself writing specifically to record to four-track and it brought back the fun and excitement for recording in that fashion and led to a couple of little purple patches that sounded like songs I could do with the band.”

As the songs were being written, Richards began to see a concept of sorts emerging, one where “an absurdly exaggerated version of myself was having rein in the lyric writing,” he explains. “I was becoming aware of something thematic, the awfulness of the the narrative in some of the songs, the ridiculousness as well. The apex of that was the song Bootikins – putting myself in the shoes of Albert Camus’ Caligula, not just an awful caricature but an intelligent, sensitive Caligula who is rapidly turning. It was a good excuse to write a ragged, retro rock song and try and convey the menace and absurdity of that character. It neatly tied up lots of the efforts I was making to get that across in some of the other songs. It was also a funny name to call an album!” laughs Richards.

Humour isn’t something that often gets mentioned when discussing Augie March but there’s a strong comedic streak in much of Richards’ writing that deserves greater acknowledgement. “I’ve always had the struggle to convince people that there’s a sense of humour there. I can hear it in my own voice, I just don’t convey it enough in the singing. Maybe because I have something of a choirboy voice. It’s getting rougher, maybe one day I’ll have my Nick Cave moment,” he says wryly.

The band were lucky to work with legendary Australian producer Tony Cohen, prior to his death in 2017. One of his strengths was to get the band in a room and let them play together and feed off each other. “While all of that was happening he was setting up his universe on the 24-channel desk and experimenting with certain kinds of effects on faders. He needed help on a big desk so we all got involved doing things. He essentially memorised stuff and was only satisfied when he got the mix where all the moves happened.”

Casting an eye back over a critically acclaimed career, Richards is circumspect and open about where the band missed opportunities and had others taken away from them. “We always wanted to make actual records and the chances that you get to do that are pretty slim. We were at the tail end of the dinosaur era in terms of big record contracts and it worked against us ultimately because we got stuck on a label that we didn’t really sign to,” he reveals. “To be honest, I don’t think the effort really matched the ambition along the way, we fell short in a number of ways and we had some bad luck too. I’m not sure how long we’ll be able to keep doing it. It’s about the other guys and their personal circumstances. We’ve got one more for now and it seems to be a pretty good one so we’ll see. I’d love to take this music to Europe for the first time. It’s ridiculous we never got over there. I could still do that but I’d probably have to look at taking some different guys over with me because of families and so on.”

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ALBUM REVIEW: Ryley Walker – Deafman Glance

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Ryley Walker is a restless musical soul, constantly shapeshifting and looking for new ways to present his avant jazz/folk guitar songs. Over his first three solo albums he travelled from Tim Buckley/Van Morrison/Nick Drake traditional folk to the songs that, three years ago, explored more eclectic and contemporary territory on Golden Sings That Have Been Sung. 

On Deafman Glance he continues that work, taking further influence from the Chicago post-rock sound and draping his songs in synths, brass and tactile percussion. Songs change tempo, jump from meditative to frenetic and dance loosely on instrumental flights of fancy. Opener ‘In Castle Dome’ possesses a languid bluesy shimmer akin to his earlier work, his vocal strangely recalling Eddie Vedder. That thought is quickly eviscerated by the jazz shuffle of 22 Days, sounding like a more organic version of the band I’m Not A Gun. Boundaries are stretched and abstraction increasingly embraced on each song, adding up to a sense of both calm and unease, often within the same track. Lyrically there is little to grasp onto thematically other than a sense of questioning and a desire to find a surer footing in life.

With the album highlights ‘Opposite Middle’ and its gentle Tortoise-like propulsion, the prog and psych qualities of ‘Telluride Speed’ and the gorgeous closer ‘Spoil With The Rest’, Deafman Glance occasionally amounts to a disorientating listen but it never tips over the edge into wilful self-indulgence. It’s the sound of an artist inching closer and closer to realising the wild sounds in his head.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Tropical Fuck Storm – A Laughing Death In Meat Space

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Gareth Liddiard has been the most important Australian songwriter of the last 15 years, certainly within the world of chart-swerving guitar music. His strengths lie in literary lyrical astuteness, willingness to explore the sprawl and corners of his songs and the raw, unhinged and visceral quality of his performances. The Drones always seemed like the cross between Neil Young, Dirty Three and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds but by the time they hit Feelin Kinda Free (2016) their restless inventiveness had branched out into new experimental territory, the precursor to Tropical Fuck Storm.

With new members around Liddiard and Fiona Kitschin, Tropical Fuck Storm have thrown away any rule book they may have had and taken an ‘anything goes’ approach, embracing dark electronic undercurrents, heavy funk and a wider palette of voices. Liddiard is verbose and incoherently eloquent as ever, this time railing against popular culture, the rise of intelligent machines, the despair of modern politics and the fear and paranoia of modern living with an apocalyptic backdrop. 

‘You Let My Tyres Down’ is pure Drones with it’s quiet/loud dynamic and beautifully weary chorus. ‘Shellfsh Toxin’ is an instrumental comprised of queasy unease, the title track is optimism short-lived, ‘Two Afternoons’ is a coruscating death disco and ‘Rubber Bullies’ suggests Liddiard has been immersing himself in Saharan desert rock. Tropical Fuck Storm are a glorious detour into deconstructed rock music, reflective of societal malaise and unafraid to tell it like it is. Qualities desperately needed in the current musical climate.

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Damien Jurado – The Horizon Just Laughed

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The Horizon Just Laughed comes on the back of the loosely thematic trilogy of albums he recorded with producer and musician Andrew Swift. They were psychedelic in nature though still rooted in the folk form. In contrast, this feels like a retreat from the density and experimentation, to a place of reflection and solitude.

Jurado is often lumped in with songwriters like Phosphorescent, Sam Beam of Iron and Wine and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, and on Over Rainbows And Rainier he certainly shares a rustic minimalism with the latter. There’s a plaintive mood across most of these songs, a gentle grandeur and a tender sway. The lyrics are introspective, dealing in character observations (six of the eleven song titles are names) and vignettes that reference fires and ghosts, dreams and Charles Schulz – skilfully shifting from literal to impressionistic storytelling and back.

Allocate is the album’s scene-setter, a dreamy, string-enhanced soulful meander that recalls Jurado’s starker early work. It’s followed by Dear Thomas Wolfe which highlights his seemingly endless ability to effortlessly weave beautiful, understated melodies. Marvin Kaplan introduces a sweet Tropicália via Laurel Canyon shuffle that lifts the album’s heart rate and recalls some of the work of Devendra Banhart, while Florence-Jean is catchy Sixties pop and closer Random Fearless adds some of CSN’s looser moments to the mix. Another gem from this consistent and inventive songwriter. 

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Earthless – Black Heaven

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The trio, renowned for their epic psych rock and metal instrumentals that can reach the 20 minute mark, are back with a new album that turns that reputation on its head by way of shorter songs and most noticeably, the addition of vocals.

Guitarist Isaiah Mitchell steps up the mic on Black Heaven and it’s a move that shifts the dynamic of the band. His singing gives those songs shape and structure that previously was subsumed by Earthless’ improvisational approach. Once you acclimatise to the change it makes sense and feels like a refresh of the band’s sound. It’s them trying something different and for the most part it works well.

Opener Gifted By The Wind is a dead ringer for Motley Crue’s Shout At The Devil with Mitchell’s voice sitting somewhere between the howl of Ozzy and Comet’s On Fire’s Ethan Miller. Electric Flame settles into an insistent Blue Cheer chug – metal boogie of the most contagious kind. Drummer Mario Rubalcaba and Mike Eginton nail their Krautrock meets 70s rock precision and groove, anchoring the songs with gravitas yet also pushing and pulling them in constantly inventive directions. The title track sends a not-too-subtle nod to Led Zeppelin albeit in overdrive with spiralling riffs barely hanging on as the song accelerates into the stratosphere. In contrast, Sudden End goes for an epic lumber and sway with long, held notes. This is Earthless going out on a limb and impressively incorporating new sounds without abandoning their cosmic interstellar roots. 

Chris Familton

ALBUM REVIEW: Eleanor Friedberger – Rebound

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Eleanor Friedberger was the voice of the quirky and inventive Fiery Furnaces before going it alone. Now onto her fourth solo album, she’s more than established herself as a fine songwriter and clearly decided to stretch out into some new sonic territory on the more electronically textured Rebound.

Eschewing the knotty indie guitar sound, she’s delved into a more synthetic world of drum machines, keyboards and melancholic music that references the sadder side of 80s pop but is in no way a nostalgia exercise. There’s a patina to the music whereby the songs sound lush and contemporary with one foot in simple melodic pop and the other in the art-pop world of artists like Stereolab. 

The single Make Me A Song is as catchy as anything she’s done in the past and demonstrates her playful wordplay and consistently infectious way with a chorus hook. The downbeat thrum of Nice To Be Nowhere recalls both Julee Cruise and Jack Ladder in its plaintive soft focus sway while Are We Good dances with a playful kosmiche pulse. Her use of electronic sounds add a warmth to these songs rather than colder machine-like qualities. It’s a re-housing of her songs in a new setting and she’s again matched it with sensitive and astute songwriting.

Chris Familton

NEW MUSIC: White Denim Announce New LP ‘Performance’

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Those crazy TX psychedelicists White Denim are back with a new album Performance which will be released on Friday, August 24 via City Slang Records and Inertia Music. The band have shared the album’s first single, ‘Magazin’.

PRESS RELEASE

WG-WD_Front_300dpiPerformance was mainly recorded over eight weeks at the band’s new downtown Austin studio, Radio Milk. Once an old general store constructed in 1902, it is now respectfully restored and sandwiched in between bars and modern condominiums. Two new players were key in what Petralli describes as “a super-collaborative record:” keyboardist Michael Hunter, a “young, humble genius with endless potential” and Conrad Choucroun, a “ridiculously solid” drummer with a long stint with NRBQ on his resume. “If you take nothing else from this at least take some time to listen to NRBQ, rock & roll scholars who shared members with the Sun Ra Arkestra” advises Petralli. It makes sense that White Denim would develop a kinship with a player from their circle. In many ways, they are a continuation of that sort of group. One that will never stop pushing and taking every opportunity to shine a light on and exemplify what is truly good about Rock & Roll music.

Categorically speaking, White Denim is still impossible to narrowly pin down. There’s the glam-rock strut of ‘Magazin’ and ‘It Might Get Dark’, the duelling guitars on the low-slung blues prog of ‘Moves On’, and the sideways jazz of ‘Sky Beaming’. There are plenty of pleasingly unexpected musical moments on the title track and the easy-rolling closer ‘Good News’, along with some seriously distorted guitar. In the title track, Petralli sings, “Flashing light in a tunnel, You’re indicating a change.” In many ways, White Denim is the flashing light in a dark and crowded tunnel of showbiz glop. Quietly and fiercely finding themselves — and us — through their work.

ALBUM REVIEW: Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders – Blue Poles

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The sense of Jack Ladder’s career to date is that he’s constantly been searching for his lost soul sound. The early bluesy rock n roll to the introspective troubadour, the gothic synth sounds of Hurtsville to the brighter colours of Playmates. Blue Poles is named after the Jackson Pollock painting and yes it does draw on all manner of styles but this time around he pulls them together into a cohesive set of nine songs. It’s also the first record he’s self-produced, another clue as to why this feels like the album that is most uniquely and naturally his own sound and vision.

‘Can’t Stay’ is the first introduction and transports the listener back to the junction where post punk met pop art, immediately reminiscent of peak-era Thompson Twins with their twinkling synths and fascinating rhythms wrapped up in pop music. ‘Dates’ takes that scene setter and turns it on its head with a repetitive glam stomp, like prime Roxy Music with Ladder shapeshifting between Eno and Ferry. It’s infectious stuff, enough to induce self-indulgent lounge room strutting. Another song, another colour added to the canvas. ‘Susan’ is all dark and shadowy hues, Cohen circa ‘Everybody Knows’, but Ladder gets pleasingly perverse with a tale of a car accident fatality and and husband calling his wife to join him in the afterlife.

Bowie is never far from Ladder’s orbit and ‘I.N.M.’ is unabashed funk of the Thin White Duke variety, complete with skewed scattershot guitar courtesy of one Mr Kirin J Callinan. ‘Tell It Like It Is’ is of the same ilk, Ladder getting louche and mysterious, dropping great lines such as “Our love is like a door with no handles, you kick it down…”

‘Blue Mirror’ is an exceptional song. The mood it conjures, the nod to ‘Moon River’, the languid swirl and solemn pulse of the music that recalls David Sylvian, the crown prince of austere pop. Ladder finds the perfect backing for his soft bellow of a baritone. Sometimes it has sounded too knowing or a touch too sardonic in other settings. Here it meshes seamlessly. First single ‘White Flag’ is another melancholic highpoint of Blue Poles. Built on little more than a breakbeat and simple tremolo-laced guitar notes Ladder sings ‘I surrender, surrender to be free, in your chains is where I’m gonna be’, conjuring a mood of giving in rather giving up.

‘Feel Brand New’ feels like a respite from the blue mood of much that precedes it. It’s a good old fashioned rock n roll tune with guitars ringing high in the mix, throwing out unabashed and catchy hooks with the kind of optimism you get on a new morning that promises possibilities instead of weariness. Ladder leaves us with ‘Merciful Reply’. An Orbison-styled, solemn yet grand gesture. It harkens back to the lachrymose ballads of yesteryear, yet in Ladder’s hands it rings true and artfully heartfelt.

Blue Poles draws on a sense of romanticism, one steeped in melancholy yet ultimately not fatalism. There is dark humour at play and some fine wordplay on display and it sounds exceptional. This is Ladder’s finest record to date, his maudlin opus par excellence.

Chris Familton