Wednesday, February 15, 2012

'What's will all of this living?' Interview: The Dead Leaves

The following is an interview originally published in Beat magazine, and online, it is recreated here in an extended edit
It might be a peaking summer day outside, but in the air-conditioned confines of a label office, half of Melbourne’s The Dead Leaves are looking, as always, extremely dapper. “We heard you were coming, so we dressed up” jokes guitarist Andy Pollock, bedecked in a neat pressed shirt framed by a waistcoast and full Windsor-knotted tie. He is flanked by frontman Matt Joe Gow, he of the cool demeanour and bruised baritone that drives so much of the band’s emotional candour, today dressed in a spotless black shirt and pants – save for a flashing bronze tie buckle. Usually a band’s fashion choices aren’t really worth mentioning but for the Melbourne four-piece, it reflects not only their polished image, but their equally buffed sound.

Their soon-to-be released debut Cities On The Sea, stakes a claim in ambitiously mature and spacious rockers, atmospheric guitars and melancholic piano anchored by jagged grooves and traditional song structures. For the man who voices them, it’s a record whose “emphasis was on the songs,” Gow remarking “what I think was special,  is that we have the sound of a wide sonic picture – atmospheric and sparse – but saying that, amongst that landscape it’s quite structured. They’re like pop songs. We wanted that soundscape, but they were still unified, people could sing to them. I love bands that do that. Unifying atmospherics with actual songs.”

Indeed, the cathartic choruses of Harm (“I might just harm you”), Cover (defiant shouting of its title) and Ordinary Lots repeated refrain of ‘feel it’ all possess that rousing, anthemic quality. Or as Gow puts it, “songs for the everyman, with a unified sound and chorus in the lyric. I’ve certainly done more personal or introspective writing in the past, but on this record I tried to take on a more anthemic tone – to possess broader sensibilities. I try to focus on it being, not so much less personal, as more accessible for people.”

Their origins perhaps drawing from the blue-collar Americana of Matt Joe Gow’s solo work, back when the quartet originally began as a vehicle for his singer/songwriter roots. It was this project that originally brought him and Pollock together, “Andy played a large role in the sound” admits Gow, Pollock chiming in “although I worked on Matt’s solo stuff, The Dead Leaves is much more of a collaborative entity, where the influences of myself with Cam [Grindrod, bassist]and Joel [Wittenburg, drummer] inform the writing process. It took it, necessarily, in a new direction.”

That particular course led away from rustic folk and personalised storytelling, towards studio-polished, crowd-baiting numbers. Though their inspirations were drawn from America’s mid-western heroes like Petty and Springsteen, the sound of Cities On The Sea merges the stadium-bound sincerity of early U2 or latter-day Coldplay, with the grit and choppy guitars of gloom merchants Interpol, or The National’s austere songcraft. The latter in particular is a comparison difficult to ignore, from Gow’s rich croon eerily recalling the everyman poetry of Matt Berninger, to the rousing brass and pianos that punctuate album opener If The Shoe Fits. The pair however, are resistant to discuss specific influences, “we don’t like to talk about other artists.”

Anything that the group were listening to while making the record hasn't necessarily filtered through to its sound. "I don't think there's anything particularly deliberate when you go through making a record," reflects Pollock, "if you get too close to taking one or two key influences and trying to sound like that, you walk into a lot of trouble… it’s a much broader picture than that." The only open reference point is the album's closer, a spaced-out take on This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) by Talking Heads, created not as a tribute, but because "we had a spare day in the studio," Gow recalls, "occasionally I work on covers... not to ever record them. It's a good exercise, it's fun trying to rework [something] - it requires a different skill set. At the end of the day, it's a cover, we weren't trying to make a big statement. It was just an opportunity to record and play and produce ourselves. There are massive Talking Heads fans who'll probably fucking hate it - I don't give a shit, it was fun."

For them, the focus is on the details, Pollock enunciates “You talk about particular influences, it’s not so much any one band or record – but the approach we were very firm on taking. Was a very detailed, and big intentioned record. You’ve heard it, you’ve seen it live, you know that not any one particular element is dominant – it rises and falls with the addition and subtraction of layers. You get to do that in the studio when you have that focus on building a big sonic texture.”

The Dead Leaves make no qualms about what they’ve achieved, a sophisticated record of near-ruthless aspirations to strike a universal appeal, but without sacrificing their passionate core. The focus now, Gow informs, is bringing that large, meticulous sound to the live setting. “I’m proud of what we did, but I don’t want to be restrained by the record, by that context. For instance, we played Ordinary Lot for the radio the other day and I changed the chorus around, Andy liked it, so we decided to just do it that way from now on. That’s where it’s exciting, the songs have this dualist mentality. They don’t exist just in the recorded format, they exist live and there’s always the opportunity to build on that and craft them.”
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Cities On The Sea will be available from Feb 24 through LIberation/Mushroom
You can catch The Dead Leaves at their album launch tomorrow night at the Toff and on the following national dates:

Feb 16: The Toff In Town, Melbourne VIC
Mar 2: Goodgod, Sydney NSW
Mar 3: The Old Manly Boatshed, Manly NSW
Mar 8: Sol Bar, Sunshine Coast QLD
Mar 9: The Joynt, Brisbane QLD
Mar 10: Ric's Bar, Brisbane QLD

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