INTERVIEW: Kirin J Callinan

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BEHIND THE BRAVADO

Down the line from LA, where he’s between tours with Pond and Mac DeMarco, Kirin J. Callinan gives Chris Familton an insight into the creative process behind his new album Bravado and why it took four years to complete.

Kirin J. Callinan is something of a modern day renaissance man, a polymorphic pop provocateur who revels in stretching creative boundaries and treading a fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous. His debut album Embracism explored industrial tension and bittersweet balladry but Bravado takes a different kind of maximalist approach, combining brash, over-the-top EDM synths with Callinan’s trademark effect-laden guitar playing, answerphones, didgeridoos, whistling and that voice that recalls the orotund tones of Scott Walker, Matt Johnson (The The) and Alan Vega (Suicide). It’s a bold transition, yet it’s not a great departure from his core aesthetic.

“I wanted to make the same record again and explore the same ideas and the weirdness I’d created but push it further. In the past there was this moody, kind of violent, shadowy, industrial murkiness with all these spiritual ballads. I wanted those electronic sounds that were previously industrial and threatening to now be inclusive and fun. The ballads were previously more poetic and self-serious. I wanted the new ones to have a more heightened sentimentality and be more inclusive and accessible, rather than the idea of being elitist or cool. I wanted to do away with all that and make it fun,” he stresses.

“I kind of hated this record and didn’t feel motivated to finish it,” recalls Callinan, when asked why four years have passed since he released his debut solo album. “The truth is that the vast majority of this record was a made in 2014. The songs were written then and they haven’t changed much since mid-2015. I guess what did change was my perspective. I was able to flick a switch and love all the things I hated about it and see it for what it was and understand its beauty and humanity and the truth in its ugliness, bombast and bravado.”

Callinan was encouraged to finish the album when “a bunch of different guests, who made cameos on the record, heard what I had and wanted to be part of it. That definitely fills you with confidence when you have doubt over something.” Some collaborations were with friends while others such as Jimmy Barnes and the Finn family were happy accidents that he pursued. “I emailed Jimmy and told him I was a fan of his music and particularly his scream. I didn’t hear back for months and eventually I landed in LA and in my inbox he’d sent me a bunch of WAV files of him screaming and I worked it into the song which was cool!” enthuses Callinan.

When it comes to how Bravado will be received, Callinan is already looking ahead to the next album. “I already have a completely crystallised view of what I want the next album to be. I’m going to start work on it in Las Vegas where there is absurdity, amorality and the idea that there is no good or bad, just wanton desire. It’s a strange place with a mix of families, tourists, gambling, prostitution, extreme wealth and poverty, the desert and bright neon lights. I’ll be getting to work on that at the first opportunity.”

“No matter what people say about Bravado, it’s original and singular which is more than can be said for a lot of things. I’ve been and excited and validated by the response to it so far. It’s nothing new for me to be divisive. If they like it or hate it, who gives a fuck.”

INTERVIEW: Underground Lovers

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THE JOY OF HUMAN IMPERFECTION

Underground Lovers return with their second post-hiatus album Staring At You Staring At Me and a run of live shows. The band’s Vincent Giarrusso talks with Chris Familton about the theme of the album and harnessing the human element in machines.

As is their trademark, Underground Lovers have created a new album that draws from a wide range of styles – acoustic songwriter, electronica, shoegaze, psychedelia and indie rock. They marry those sounds together with seamless synchronicity but never lose their grasp on the art of songwriting. “At the end of the day it’s about songs and songwriting and we’re really interested in the emotion of songs and how they can evoke feeling,” reflects Giarrusso.

“The initial idea for this album was just a bunch of songs about Melbourne – St Kilda, Richmond, Warrandyte. As we started structuring the album we realised it was about the things we always write about which is male/female relationships within a chaotic and unbalanced world. Those ideas drove it. There are lots of ideas and themes that recur in our music over the years. That’s just how it works,” Giarusso reveals. “Having a few years between albums gets you thinking more and thinking deeper about what you want to do. I think that comes across on the album. It’s quite complex at times even though we’re always striving for simplicity.”

The album title refers to a world where human contact is diminishing and as well as exploring that subject lyrically, it’s also reflected sonically in their songs. “Instead of people looking and staring at each other they’re looking at screens. We tried to get that idea across in the technology we used. We all come from the school where we think that computers are dumb instruments and just tools to use and that they have to suit your needs instead of you following what they do. Whenever we use loops we try to make them as manual as possible so we are in control and it still has some human imperfection.”

The realities of life, full-time jobs, having to organise six people and waiting times for German-pressed vinyl meant Staring At You Staring At Me has has a long gestation process, explains Giarrusso. “It was hard to get six people together when everyone is busy. We recorded it over six months and we didn’t know how it would turn out until the end. We pushed ourselves and found a new sort of structure for the long-play which was surprising for us. That kept it fresh.”

The great story behind Underground Lovers is that after a nine year hiatus, which Giarrusso puts down to the “twists and turns of human life” and describes personally as a tough time, the band are still creatively as strong as they ever have been.

“When we came back together it was brilliant. It just the same as it ever way which was fantastic. It was worth the wait. We’re getting a lot of young people coming to shows which is exciting. They’re saying they like our new stuff better than the old stuff which is great and surprising!”

INTERVIEW: Rickie Lee Jones

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RICKIE’S STILL IN LOVE WITH MUSIC

Rickie Lee Jones, she of the long and diverse career that began back in the late 70s with that single Chuck E’s In Love, is still passionate about music and her achievements, as she explains to Chris Familton.

Beginning at the start of her career in Hollywood, odd jobs, a chance encounter with Tom Waits and her demo tape brought her to the attention of Lenny Waronker, producer and executive at Warner Bros. Records, who beat out other labels to sign her and launch her career.

“It was a dream at the time because before that I was just trying to pay the rent. I had a boyfriend at the time who was in school and he encouraged me to go out and play and make money to pay the rent. That helped me get started. It was hard, I was homeless for a lot of the time and and I had nothing to fall back on. When it happened it happened very quickly. At the time I was 23 I wrote Chuck E’s In Love and The Last Chance Texaco and I was on an unemployment benefit. Then one year later I was in a studio and recording an album. Once I decided in my mind to do it, it took about a year to sixteen months,” recalls Jones. “To be able to devote oneself to it is really helpful in gaining early success,” she says, before adding “that success, who doesn’t want that? But it comes with a lot of baggage.”

Jones’ most recent album, The Other Side Of Desire, was her first in a decade and was released independently after a crowdfunding campaign; making it a world apart from her experiences with major labels in the 70s and 80s heyday.

“It feels good not to have any pressure from an outside person to meet their expectations. The thing I had going when I was first signed was they were the best label in the world, they had the best A&R and they just loved music. They dropped you if you didn’t sell records but they didn’t sign you and then drop you straight away, they tried to develop artists and they kept them on the label,” she explains. “I was spoilt by that and know what it’s like to be on a label run by a company that loves its business more than business, that loves music and artists and doesn’t try to make them act like business people. We live in a time where artists act like business people, they talk about the bottom line and their brand. They talk about the brand of Beyonce and the brand of Madonna, this is shameful in the arts. It shows the whole process is corrupted.” says Jones, a tone of disillusionment creeping into her voice.

Jones sounds like she’s in a great place musically and personally as she looks to the future and what it may hold for her. “I am writing and I’m finishing a book which should be out around Christmas. I’m having fun right now performing and I can feel people engaged in ways that I didn’t feel before. I’ve accepted my place in music and I like that I’ve lasted this long and I just want to keep working on it. When I stand in front of an audience I know exactly who I am and that is a great gift.”

INTERVIEW: Margaret Glaspy

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BALANCING INSTINCT AND REASON

Margaret Glaspy has had a career-high last 12 months that has seen her go from working long hours to pay New York rent to touring large venues with The Lumineers. She takes Chris Familton through the creation of her debut album and the changes it has brought her.

With so much work going into the writing, recording and producing of Emotions and Math, Glaspy had both high hopes and realistic expectations of how her album would be received by both critics and music fans. “When I was making the record the big success was that it would be finished and I’d get it to where I’d like it. Anything else was going to be the icing on the cake,’ she says humbly. “I take it with a grain of salt in terms of measuring success. I know I’ll probably make some records in my career that others will hate and hopefully they’ll like a few of them too. I can’t take it all too seriously but I’m certainly appreciative.”

Getting to this point, in her late 20s, has meant Glaspy has had plenty of time to develop and refine her songwriting and guitar playing since she first ventured into that world in her late teens.

“That’s evolved quite a bit and changed over time, slowly. I started to write songs when I was 16 or 17 and now I’m 28. I don’t know if that’s a success story or a failure story, but it’s my story,” she laughs. “My love for music has always been very consistent and I think my skill level has changed for sure but when I listen back to snippets of things I recorded back then, I can see what I was going for. I see what I was trying to accomplish. I’m glad I waited a bit longer until I was a more mature artist though.”

The album’s title refers to that conflict or healthy co-existence of emotional and reasoned responses and feelings that we all encounter daily. Glaspy found a way to draw that into her songwriting and it is an omnipresent part of her personality and one she has come to accept.

“It is in everything I do. There’s always some measure of discipline or logic or practice and then there’s the side that just happens. The skills you learn work alongside the natural flow and keep it on track. The reason why the record is called that is that I see it rise in my life a lot. I see both sides of that rage pretty hard all at the same time. I’m very analytical and very emotional and I think they complement each other but sometimes it’s difficult. I’ve always felt I wanted to be either a left or right brain person and label myself as one, but it’s not that simple. Everybody has their own chemistry that makes us special and unique and human.”

Glaspy already has one eye on plans for recording her next album, once this touring cycle concludes in September and it promises to be another stage of her journey as a songwriter. “I’ll never make this record again and I look forward to that and I’m happy about that. My DNA is to evolve and make new things. Our responsibility as artists is to take people someplace and not just leave them in the same place all the time. It’ll be an evolution all the time for me I hope. That’s the goal.”

INTERVIEW: The Laurels

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THE SCIENCE OF PSYCHEDELIA & BREAKBEATS

The Laurels have re-emerged from the studio with an adventurous take on their brand of psych rock that takes influence from both Primal Scream and Public Enemy. Singer and guitarist Luke O’Farrell takes Chris Familton inside the creation of Sonicology.

“I went a bit nuts, we all went a bit crazy in the studio working on these songs “ says O’Farrell, describing the long and intensive process of writing and recording Sonicology. They set up their own studio and “started getting samplers and experimenting with junk shop records, sampling them and making beats” before spending numerous hours recording and sampling themselves to avoid copyright issues. “It is very much a studio album. The guitar took a back seat on this album. If anything samplers were the main instrument. Even the guitars were fed into samplers and triggered and sequenced. It still sounds like us and is guitar heavy but the way we approached the recording was completely different to what we’d done before,” explains O’Farrell.

The genesis of the new album reaches right back to before the band started recording their previous record. “With Plains, we were playing those songs for six years before recording them and then you have to play them on the road for another two or three years. We really adjusted to that way of working as a live band. With this one we started getting into hip hop influences just before we started recording Plains – a lot of Public Enemy, a lot of funk and soul, stuff like James Brown. That was the headspace we were in after the Plains tour finished and then it was a matter of convincing the other guys to try something really different in the studio this time around.”

Between albums, drummer Kate Wilson (The Holy Soul) decided to leave the band and Jasper Fenton, who O’Farrell and Piers Cornelius had played with in other groups, was drafted in. “It wasn’t easy, it was very sad to see Kate go after that amount of time. We’re still mates and we still love her. With the new tracks and the way we wanted to approach them in the studio, that wasn’t what she wanted to do with the band. Jasper is also a multi-instrumentalist and a producer which really helped the recording,” says O’Farrell.

One hurdle to overcome after making an album steeped in studio production and different technology is how to present the songs live. O’Farrell explains that they’ve got their head around the songs now. “It’s taken us a few months going back and re-learning and adjusting songs. Their entire life has been in the studio, they weren’t really made for live performance but we’ve figured out a way to represent them live. There are three of us triggering samplers now but we’re not tethered to a click track, we want to still keep it loose and free and incorporate the samples from the album.”

“This album was more collaborative than anything we’ve done in the past,” says O’Farrell, when asked if the band is a collective vision or driven by one or two people. “There’s never really been a leader, we all have ideas bout how we want the band to sound and we try to incorporate everyone’s vision. It’s a mix of all of us and I guess that’s why we are still together after ten years.”

INTERVIEW: Bryan Estepa

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Bryan Estepa has embraced fatherhood, is approaching middle-age, and now, five albums into his solo career, he finds those life events being reflected in his songwriting and approach to the music business. 

On the day of his launch gig for his new album Every Little Thing, Estepa is surprisingly calm, even when having to be interviewed via video in his car as he momentarily escapes parental responsibilities. That lack of rush and stress marks Estepa’s current mindset, which he refers to as “mid-tempo”.

“You know, I am. I’m nearly 40 and have a family and in our mid 20s we seemed to be rushing all the time and now we’ve got it more in balance. That reference seems to reflect my life now. I’m not wanting to be a rock star or feel like I have to have a punk song or a really quick song on my albums. Once I’d recorded them I realised that there aren’t any particularly big sounding songs, there’s a natural flow to the album and I didn’t feel the need to include anything like a specific radio song.”

The big change on Every Little Thing was Estepa’s realisation, after four albums with a full band, that he needed to mix things up and create a different musical headspace to inspire new songs. “This album didn’t exist in my head twelve months ago,” remarks Estepa. “A year ago I made the drastic decision to change my band setup, stripping it back to a trio with the Tempe Two (Dave Keys – bass, Russell Crawford – drums/vocals). After coming home from a successful tour with the larger band, something was telling me to cut it down and make it smaller. I just knew I had to tell two of my best friends that I was stripping the band back. It wasn’t easy but they understood it was for the music and that it will benefit all of us in the long time. I just felt I needed a change after playing as a five piece for ten years. Then the songs rolled along as I wrote to suit the smaller band setup.”

Those songs found Estepa stepping back and also looking inward to assess his own perspectives on life. “It’s a very personal album. I wrote a song for my children on it. My relationship is very similar to a lot of my friends where we’ve been together for a long time, we’re married with kids and it’s examining where we are at this point in our lives and where we’re going. It is introspective without getting too personal, so it is still universal in many ways.”

Recording the album in the sunlit environs of Bondi Pavilion with producer Brendan Gallagher (Karma County, Jimmy Little, Bernie Hayes) “really relaxed everyone and loosened the playing,” says Estepa. “He records a very true sound and has perfect pitch and so that pushed me to get some of the best vocal recordings that I’ve done I think.”

Stylistically Estepa is something of a musical magpie. He’s been pegged as power pop, indie rock and alt-county and though he exhibits strains of all of those genres he also manages to blend a soulfulness and a classically-crafted singer/songwriter feel into his music. That cross-pollination isn’t something that Estepa feels inhibits his career. “From a record label perspective or for iTunes categorisation it might matter but as a songwriter I think it’s good,” he stresses.

“I really love the term Australiana and when I listen to someone like William Crighton it sounds very Australian to me. Not just in the way he’s singing but the atmosphere makes it like a modern day Triffids album in that alt-country sense. I heard rural Victoria when I heard his album and I’ve never been too rural Victoria. The same when I listen to the new Halfway album which was recorded in Nashville but still sounds very Australian. It shows the roots scene here is growing and getting big enough where people are starting to realise we have our own sound and not just copying Nashville,” says Estepa, proudly.

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INTERVIEW: Ben Folds

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ROCKIN’ THE RECITAL HALL

Ben Folds talks with Chris Familton about the current collaborative project he has termed ‘chamber rock’ and his personal and professional connection to Australia.

In composition and performance the piano is one of the few instruments that works effectively and consistently across the spectrum of musical genres, from blues to jazz, rock to classical. In the indie-rock world one of the artists it is indelibly linked to is Ben Folds.

In recent years Folds has been progressively widening his musical palette to include classical composition and his latest project came about when he’d written a piano concerto but “hadn’t thought what I was going to do with it so I thought I should flesh it out with some other pieces of music that I had in mind.” Initially his idea was to work with a number of different chamber groups but when he met with the sextet yMusic, “I didn’t want to work with anyone else. They’re an incredible group of musicians who create different sounds. They’re like a sports car with incredible acceleration that hugs the road versus an orchestra which is like a big cruise ship. This suddenly felt like a rock band and I wanted to write lyrics so it quickly headed off in that direction.”

The end result was last year’s album So There which finds both parties on equal creative footing and Folds retaining the energy and musical irreverence that has always been a hallmark of his songs. “I think that’s just what comes out. I was aware of not wanting to be too terribly formal just because there’s a classical group beneath me. I didn’t want to compromise my voice, that didn’t interest me,” Folds stresses. “When I’m in the studio it has to really be something that will hold my interest. As soon as I go down a road trying something, blending one kind of music with another kind, I can suddenly get so tired of that so quickly and don’t want to keep making that kind of music. It comes down to – if it is exciting me then we keep moving forward. I think that’s always been my way of operating.”

Many of Folds’ fans share a willingness to follow him through his different projects, filling seats in recital halls when he performs with yMusic and mixing with the classical crowd when he joins an orchestra. That desire to find a balance between his audience, musical styles and performance formats is one that fascinates him.

“It’s a unique rock show and you can also look at it as a unique classical show. There’s a place where classical and pop crossover music meets that has never really been interesting to me. This is a lot less formal and feels a lot more honest than a classical crossover gig. They have the tendency to get a little pretentious and I believe that if you’re expressing yourself, don’t do it in a suit and tie like that. Just kick it in the arse.”

Folds is bring yMusic down to Australia for a run of shows and though he currently calls Nashville home he has strong connections to this country, marrying and starting a family in Adelaide, collaborating with a number of Australian artists and enjoying early musical success here. “I think Australia and I were on the same page when I began. I think they really understood. Triple j really got Underground (1995) which didn’t really take off in the United States but it did in Australia,” Folds recalls. “The moment I landed there I loved the place. People were funny, the air felt good and it’s always been part of my life every since. I’d still live there if I could but I can’t, I have too much work to do over here but  one day I’d love too. Depending on how our election goes over here I might be there earlier. I hope Australia remembers me and has pity on me,” laughs Folds.

From the outside, Folds appears to have a comprehensive and possibly compulsive creative life. Recording, touring, appearing as a judge on a TV talent show, photography and until recently, running the legendary Studio A in Nashville. Is there time for non-musical pursuits?

“I don’t have much downtime for anything. As we talk I’m throwing clothes into a bag before we head out on tour, which is kind of the way I do things. It’s been suggested that if I take time off and have a life I’d have more to write about but I like living day to day, running around and being in different places and coming across different influences. When I stop it is just bad, like a fish out of water. I just have to keep going.”

With that in mind Folds is already looking ahead to the next tour and the next recording project as he continues to chase his muse. “I’m going to be starting an interesting solo tour with a lot of toys on stage after the yMusic stuff. We finish touring that in Australia and then I’ll move into the solo touring and begin writing a solo piano record after all that.”

INTERVIEW: Mikelangelo & The Black Sea Gentlemen

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A SHOCKWAVE OF MODERN MULTICULTURALISM

With a brand new album based on the Snowy Hydro-Electric Scheme, Mikelangelo talks with Chris Familton about the genesis and process of the project and how it relates to contemporary Australia.

Many musicians might be loathe to admit to making concept albums but basing your album around one of the largest engineering projects of the 20th century must surely make it just that? “Every album I work on has some degree of being a concept album, whether it is covert or overt. There’s always something that links the songs together, some subterranean narrative or overarching arc,” Mikelangelo reveals.

“This one is interesting because it came about when myself and The Black Sea Gentlemen met with an arts company called Big hART who have been around for over 20 years and who work with communities to tell interesting yet invisible stories. We’ve been interested in doing an album based on stories about the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme because it was such an explosion of mid-20th century European-ness when 200,000 men came out post-World War II Europe to work on the scheme. This little town [Cooma] changed irrevocably and it started this shockwave of modern multiculturalism around Australia,” explains Mikelangelo.

“My dad came out from Croatia as a migrant worker and worked on the scheme so it had always been of interest to me and a key to understanding more about him as he’d never opened up much about it,” Mikelangelo confides. That personal connection makes it more than just a history-meets-music exercise yet the project can also be viewed as a commentary on the current political climate around the issue of immigration.

“Big hART were interested in how the story stacked up as a positive refugee migrant story that has been accepted into the Australian identity and how that might reflect on our current inability to deal with immigration. All these people were moving around the world trying to find places to live, similar to now. If there is any message that comes through on a base emotional level it is acceptance. I think that’s a very simple concept that many governments peddle the opposite stance. Their narratives are so weak and thin that they’re coming apart. You can only lie for so long.”

This was the first time all the Gentleman wrote for an album,” says Mikelangelo of the songwriting process for the album. “They’re all vibrant songwriters with their own projects. They’ve always loved my songs but it’s evolved into me writing half the songs and the others writing the rest. Working with Big hART we got this creative residency time – a house in Cooma or a work space like an old church and so we could work for days on end together. It meant we could work on our songs and then bring them back into the group and we haven’t really had an opportunity to work like that in the past,” he enthuses. “That was an exciting way to work. My songs really came out of being interested in the men working in the tunnels and their trials and tribulations. That was my way of thinking about how my father’s life would have been then. Some of the other Gentlemen took quite different angles which makes the album really interesting.”

Working with arts companies, funding bodies and local councils means dealing with vested interests and expectations, yet at the end of the day, like the scheme itself, everyone seems to be very happy with the finished product. Mikelangelo recalls meeting with the local Cooma Council who “wanted a certain thing out of it” before adding with another bout of healthy laughter, “They appreciated us but they probably wanted a bit more Man From Snowy River and a bit less wog!”