Thursday, March 18, 2010

At The Mercy Of The Excellence

Big Scary should probably already be familiar to regulars of this website, or my writings in Beat magazine, but I have yet to give them their own dedicated post. A situation I intend to rectify now.

It's hard to write about these Melbourne up-and-comers without quickly sliding into a torrent of gushing hyperbole, so exciting is their music, so infectious their sound. Rather than attempt to paraphrase my various reviews of their work, I thought i'd simply cut to the chase.

Fresh from support slots with international acts Editors and Florence and the Machine, I caught up with the band on the night of their At The Mercy Of The Elements EP Launch back in mid-February at the Newton Workers Club.

Speaking pre-gig backstage outside the modest kitchenette, strummer Tom Iansek is likening the imminent launch to a birthday party “and it’s nice having a party where you know everyone. It’s genuinely a lot of fun.” His excitement is offset by his soothing demeanour, reclined in a bar-chair while casually playing with the rim of the table’s solely lit candle. Meanwhile his other musical half, Jo Syme, is visibly fidgeting in anticipation behind her floral top and perfectly coutuered bob-cut, though she is equally articulate and direct with her answers.

Obviously you’ve had the shows with Editors and Florence and the Machine, but is this more exciting for you two because it’s more of your own thing?
Tom Iansek: There’s more pressure, and I mean there’s a lot that goes into it obviously and all the publicity but hopefully a bigger payoff. And it’s good… you’re excited every gig with your friends and your family where you can play to them.
Jo Syme: I remember last time playing at the Empress (Hotel for the self titled EP launch) looking out and being like really ‘not emotional’ but I was emotional and it’s like “Thanks so much for coming!”

With this EP, is this the first official introduction of the piano to the live set?
T: yeah, it is. We’ve played with piano before, I don’t think the sound was very good though.
J: Only twice, and it hasn’t been part of our modern show for so long. So it’s a relief to be able to finally show it off
T: I don’t know what it’s going to sound like, you’re on the other side of the stage and you get a very different sound to what everyone else gets.

Is that something you’ve had to work towards? Getting the piano in the repertoire again?
T: well it was just more a matter of time
J: we had to wait until it was justified and then Falling Away was getting a bit of support on the radio, it’s sort of like – if that’s what we’re known for its kind of ridiculous if we can’t play that at gigs (laughs)
T: it doesn’t make sense.

So does it feel like an expectation, if that’s the stuff people wanna hear you want to get the piano out there?
T: Oh, totally! And we love playing it, it’s always been guitars and drums. but we’ve had this whole stack of piano songs. And it’s not just Falling Away we play a lot of others
J: half a set almost

Now in terms of recording, how was that compared to what you’ve done in the past to the recording you’re doing currently?
T: We just had a different producer, we had Matt Voigt, and before we worked with Dave Carr. And it was just a different experience; I mean they’re the only two producers we’ve worked with.
J: It was a really funny week of recording this EP. I mean we’ve said it before but it really was crazy, crazy weather. And just things like, even the studio that we worked in really affects how the songs came out. For example, if you listen to my vocals in the background, there’s a truck pulling out or different microphones we were forced to use and stuff. And that really… you don’t think about that often if you just pick up any CD and have a listen but the environment that we recorded in really affected it, and it was kind of a nice thing in the end.

And that influenced the naming of the EP obviously?
T: yeah, yeah, that sort o itf inspired it a bit. I mean we did go for the cheaper studio, to be honest, but it sort of imparted its own character on the recording. We had the option to go with the pristine studio, but it just didn’t have the vibe of this little place.

The same character?
T: Yeah, and like we said these little noises that if you really listen you can hear the details, so it was fun. Essentially we still did it in three days, before with Dave we would just go in and out and lay the tracks. We were on a bit of a budget, it was still a quick stint in the studio if slightly longer. So I suppose in that way it was the same. We didn’t feel like we were rushed. I mean we don’t have that many tracks to put down.
J: there’s only two of you, so it’s fairly easy. And compared to the current ones for example, these ones we’re gonna have more time to think about it. Because you mix it one day and then have quite a few weeks to listen to those and fix it up. We’ve already recorded what we plan to release in several months time – the seasons EPS. We know if we’re not happy with something we have time to go back and fix it. So that’s a new experience yet again. 

Your profile has certainly increased, getting more radio rotation and punctuating it with your live shows and support acts. How do you feel about that? Is there more expectations? Do you think it’s affected how you work?
J: I don’t have to write the songs so I don’t mind. (laughs) But honestly I don’t find there’s too much expectation; I’ve been looking forward to this.
T: I still consider ourselves, you know, very young - starting out. Finding our roots and so I still don’t feel there’s that huge… people kind of take a bit of notice this time which is nice, but I suppose that’s all it is. It’s just nice to have people interested. And encouraging. And it’s what you need when you put in so much time and slogging it out. Encouraging too.
J: keep it going.
T: yeah, move it along.

The support slots with Editors and Florence and the Machine were a big boost. Where there any experiences that you learned that you weren’t expecting?
J: Just being a bit more professional about even just (dramatically) stage plotting!
T: Just technical things. It’s just a different game at that level of shows.
J: And what mics you use. And there’s a guy, as opposed to just a sound mixer, there’s a special guy just for you side of stage with your own fallback. That’s the main learning experience, technical things.
T: It’s a different crowd too, there’s no expectation on you. You can sort of just grab their attention or just be a bit of music at the start. You’ve got a real opportunity to impress a whole lot of people. And that’s the best when you’re not expecting to experience something, from the audience’s point of view, when you’re not expecting much of the support act and it’s good to have that.

That opportunity?
T: Yeah, and it’s exciting too. What can I do that’s really going to blow these people away? I enjoy the challenge.
I mean it’s not like we weren’t backstage shitting ourselves. But we relaxed and we had a whole heap of fun.

You’re getting a lot of big comparisons: Jeff Buckley, White Stripes, Led Zeppelin, Bon Iver. These big, big music names. How do you feel about those comparisons?
J: It’s always a compliment really. I mean it’s never going to stick, because every song is different. It’s sort of Ok to say “That song sounds like the White Stripes” we say “Ok, well we challenge you to listen to another song and come to the same conclusion” And at that stage, yeah, I just think it’s more of a compliment. People can just assume, especially with the White Stripes because of the configuration. Really Tom’s voice is going for a different effect, and especially when you’ve now got piano in the set - not that Jack White doesn’t play piano - but it’s a whole different kind of genre.

It’s interesting that when you are, as you say, starting out that these big names are being thrown around.
T: yeah, it’s a convenience
J: Exactly, it’s convenient. I do it all the time to new bands. If I want some friends to come along and see someone I’ll obviously say a band that I like that I know they like, to draw them along. And especially since music these days, it’s all about genre-crossing. Oh so what kind of band are they, (nonchalant) oh, they’re an indie rock band – well that doesn’t help. You almost have to reference other bands to get an idea.
T: It’s almost what you have to do I suppose, it’s inevitable. So you can either hate it or embrace it and we’re Ok with it.

Are there any direct influences on the writing or is it just about seeing what clicks? Because it feels like there’s an organic vibe to a lot of the songs.
T: I think that probably came a lot from listening to Bon Iver, he’s been the only real influence that both of us have really gotten into in that way.
J: And at the time that we were forming as well.
T: yeah, and a lot of this new music, a lot of the songs that you’ll hear in these four seasons recordings we really like that organic vibe and hearing the story behind the production as well. I suppose that’ another reason we chose the cheaper studio because it had a vibe and all these sounds add to it. I like to hear the story about how it’s produced, and the imperfections, that sort of what excites me. So yeah he was a big influence.
In terms of the White Stripes, I don’t really see it.
J: I don’t think I’ve listened to any of their albums from start to finish. I really enjoy their singles.
T: I really like how they make their sound work you know. In a similar way.
I mean we really like time, tempo changes, and I suppose there might be a bit of an indirect fuzz kind of thing we’ve picked up from them but I can’t recall the last time I listened to the White Stripes.

What’s Next? You’ve got the seasons EPs, but have you thought beyond that?
J: (already nodding emphatically) we have, mainly about this year, we’ve got a pretty strong idea of this year because of the timing of releases. And then we’re looking forward to making an album, maybe next year.
T: Well there’ll be an album next year.
J: Yeah. Full stop. (laughs)
T: well, we’ve been building such good momentum and it’d be silly not keep it going and we’re still writing a whole heap of different stuff. You never know when that’s gonna drop off. We’re excited and we’re still writing music we’re excited to play and I think we’ve got the tracks for an album so it’s definitely on the cards. Probably record towards the end of this year even, and release it next year sometime.

With that, the pair - ever polite - offered their thanks (really, the pleasure's all mine), and headed off to prepare for the event at hand. As it turns out, it was an absolutely barnstorming performance. Delivering an all-encompassing set that included their radio-rotated numbers, older curios as well as brandspanking new material from the forthcoming 'seasons EPs.' For those who have followed the Big Scary trail this far, it was a triumph, for the uninitiated: categorical proof of their excellence.
Opening with a red-herring intro in which the duo battled it out on percussion, they then sank beautifully into the piano-led number Autumn an impressive blend of marching rhythm and sing-along power. Syme then ushers in Clouds with a deft backbeat, Iansek again at the keys, delivering twinkling arpeggios to accompany his dazzling falsetto. As such it mildly resembles Muse, kicking off the first of many, spot-the-musical-influence moments. A game the audience will inevitably lose.
Just as the cheeky Tuesday Is Rent Day, or the spiky flurry of New Killer may have you convinced that they are the heirs to the Black Keys’ two-man Zeppelin act; along comes a track like the hymnal Rolling By or anthem-in-waiting Stand Up Strong with Iansek’s expressive upper register recalling the likes of Patrick Watson or Jeff Buckley.
The fact of the matter is that Big Scary really can do it all. Both quiet and loud, fast and slow, rocking and restrained – but never in such obvious categorisations and always with their own stamp. They deliver a sound and virtuosity that groups double or triple their size struggle to achieve. And such range and diversity from only two people? The mind boggles.
Indeed the band has a great catalogue, but on tonight’s evidence, the real magic lies in watching the duo themselves. From the exchanged looks, to the smiles drawn on their faces, here are two musicians who clearly love playing with each other.
Particularly during Hey Somebody, a track whose live setting – complete with drum solo intro – really shows off its scuzzy rock energy and the band’s chemistry. Their enthusiasm for their songs and their audience is infectious, you can't help but smile and get swept away when the band are doing the exact same thing themselves.
When introducing the Triple J playlisted quartet of Polly, Apple Song, Lullaby and Falling Away, Iansek modestly comments “you might know these ones.” The crowd’s rapturous applause would suggest they do indeed, greeting the band with a sea of bobbing heads, clapping hands and swaying bodies.
The adulation is not lost on Big Scary, as they close with their signature send-off This Weight, Iansek dedicates it to all the people who couldn’t be packed into the already glowing audience of attendees. It’s an indication both of Big Scary’s ever-rising profile and a precognitive flash of their inevitable popularity.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sad & Beautiful World, Mark Linkous R.I.P.

MARK LINKOUS R.I.P. (1962 - 2010)

It’s taken a couple of days to actually sink in (and complete this piece) but I was pretty upset when I read the news that Mark Linkous, best known as the musician behind Tennessee-based Sparklehorse, had committed suicide.

If you’ve never heard of Sparklehorse, that’s perhaps not a surprise, he was always a bit of an underground (if much valued) taste in his native country, let alone in Australia. But in light of his passing, perhaps his work will reach more people than ever before. A consequence as tragic as his violent suicide (the New York Times reports that Linkous shot himself in the chest with a rifle outside a friend’s apartment) an end that may paint him as a tragic case – and while Linkous’ music always had a dark, melancholic streak, his horrible death still comes as a shock.
I thought I’d take the opportunity to do a small retrospective-cum-remembrance on an artist who helped shape my own songwriting efforts and whose music was a big part of my own development.
I remember first hearing about Sparklehorse through Radiohead, who proclaimed his sophomore effort Good Morning Spider as one of the greatest albums they’d ever heard. It wasn’t until 2002’s It’s A Wonderful Life however, that I took the time to investigate. I remember wishing I’d discovered him earlier.

I was instantly taken with the album, I could best describe it as like taking a tour through a dilapidated mansion where the ghosts sing in the walls and all the old family portraits are covered in soot and rust. And as you brush the dust away, you feel a surge of warmth and beauty. It wasn’t long after that I purchased both of the first two Sparklehorse albums on a trip to Sydney for my auntie’s wedding. The impossibly titled debut Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot heralded Linkous’ Sparkehorse banner with a fully formed set of Southern-inflected folk rock and damaged, emotive storytelling, while the follow-up Good Morning Spider was as good as Radiohead had promised. Maintaining the flavor of Viva while taking the material to a darker place, as if waking bruised from a heavy night of drinking and waiting for the sedation to wear off only for the hangover to seep through.
I was struck by how confidently the music could swing between battered and broken melancholy, static-drenched fuzz-rock as well as experimental, homespun folk. All shot through with Linkous’ unique visual poetry, complete with an artistic obsession with small-town inertia, picturesque nostalgia and, of course, horses. His music reflected a Sad & Beautiful World (a lilting number from his debut that) and Linkous did both with equal aplomb, his music filled with the brutal honesty and world-weariness of a person who had seen, and more poignantly felt, too much and was able to convey it all through the most basic of musical settings. Though his compositions at time could be oversimplified, they always rung with a depth and sincerity beyond their meager construction.

The four-year wait for a follow-up to 2002’s It’s A Wonderful Life came in the form of 2006’s Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain. Notably it was co-produced with regular cohort David Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, MGMT) as well as one Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton. The appearance of the latter spurring a further collaboration with the production maverick, who along with director David Lynch, created Dark Night Of The Soul, a compilation featuring such artists as James Mercer (The Shins), Gruff Rhys (Super Furry Animals), Julian Casablancas (The Strokes) and Iggy Pop – to name a few. However the compilation was delayed due to a drawn-out legal battle and eventually leaked on the net.
A star-studded roster no doubt, but Linkous was always a wily collaborator, most notably on It’s A Wonderful Life which featured Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, Vic Chestnutt and Nina Persson of the Cardigans, who Linkous would go on to work with again under the A Camp moniker. During his career he also crossed paths with Thom Yorke on a cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here.

Even despite praise from music journalists and musical peers alike, he was vastly underrated. A case of an artist whose influence was far greater than his commercial success. It’s hard to gauge whether this suited Linkous himself, notoriously evasive of the media circus often associated with the industry, he gave the air of a recluse – content to produce his wiry opuses, yet his lyrics constantly opined for good days long-gone or hopes for better changes to come. The scuzzy rock of Happy Man for instance with its incessant refrain of “all I want is to be a happy man”, at once desperate and defiant.
After his passing, Linkous’ manager confirmed that work was “nearly finished” on a new Sparklehorse album before Linkous’ death as well as an official release (finally) from EMI of Dark Night Of The Soul. So it seems Linkous musical legacy is not quite finished, let’s hope that his posthumous work is treated with the same virtue and respect that Linkous himself treated it with. The fact remains that though he will be missed, he left behind a powerfully concise body of work.
On a personal note, I thought the best way to send Mark Linkous off would be with a selection of his own wonderful lyrics, and while I struggled to choose from such a vast selection, I think the chorus from Gold Day is a fitting tribute:

“Keep all your crows away/keep skinny wolves at bay/in silver piles of smiles/may all your days be gold my child.”