Book Review – Me and Rory Macbeath by Richard Beasley (2013)

Growing up in the suburbs in the 1970s, young Jake’s concerns are touchingly ordinary, extending little further than wondering how he’ll fit in at his new school and whether he’ll ever get to play cricket for Australia. His summer days are spent at the pool and footy field with dependable mate Robbie and spirited neighbour Lucy.

Their group dynamic is slightly thrown when a new boy arrives in Rose Street, a skinny Scottish kid called Rory. Despite Rory being rubbish at cricket and football, Jake and Robbie soon decide he is all right, swayed by his excellent slingshot and fishing skills and willingness to give bullies a taste of their own medicine.

The biggest presence in Jake’s young life though is Harry, his chain-smoking, hard-drinking single mother, a hard-bitten criminal barrister who admits she doesn’t hang out with anyone respectable. She is by far the story’s most vivid and interesting character, with a wry sense of humour and a soft spot for underdogs and battlers.

Full review at: The Sydney Morning Herald

Port O’Brien Interview

When Van Pierszalowski, the rousing voice of acclaimed folk rockers Port O’Brien sings about the sea, he doesn’t do so out of some vague and abstract interest, but because the sea has long been his main source of inspiration and his very lifeblood.

With a background working 20-hour shifts as a fisherman in Alaska’s Kodiak Island, he had plenty of maritime lore to draw upon for the group’s first studio album All We Could Do Was Sing, which ranged from the autumnal reflection of songs like Fisherman’s Son to the stirring radio hit I Woke Up Today.

But recently the songs started to take a darker turn. Always a strictly autobiographical writer, his output was inevitably touched by tragedy when the younger brother of band-mate Cambria Goodwin, the group’s other core member, passed away. Both Pierszalowski and Goodwin had been close to her sibling, living with him in his final days.

Some of the new songs deal with this pain head-on: My Will Is Good is a statement of resilience, while the ambitious High Without The Hope drips with emotional heaviness. With the shock of loss still prominent, the group travelled to San Francisco where they recorded the first songs for new album Threadbare in the home studio of close friend and Papercuts member Jason Quever, who offered a cosy, dimly-lit space where his living room doubles as the recording area. It was, Pierszalowski explains, “a really intimate way to record.”

So did playing music help the healing process? “Yeah it really did, especially for Cambria. It was a really intense time and it really did help [her] to have something to work on, songs to work on and writing, but even more the recording, because that’s when you’re finally able to get the feelings out.” This sense of energy is palpable throughout the sweep of Threadbare; there’s real rawness and naked passion. Drums pound like skipped heartbeats, strings bleed with feeling.

For Pierszalowski, the cathartic power of music “is one of the main reasons we play”. They spent 23 days straight recording in their friend’s studio and reached a point of immersion in their work where “it didn’t even feel like recording anymore, it felt like therapy. Jason played a big role in that too; he and Cambria were very close. It felt like in a way music was holding us together and allowing us to deal with all these things.”

Despite having existed in one form or another since 2005, the group’s commercial breakthrough in this country came when their rollicking I Woke Up Today was used in a Dulux commercial. Pierszalowski recalls the offer as coming out of the blue and being a kind of godsend for a band which is struggling to break even, despite their strong critical reputation and the support of high-profile musicians like Johnny Marr and M. Ward, who famously called them his “favourite new band”.

Pierszalowski admits the commercial has been the band’s main source of income over the past year. Their somewhat parlous finances have meant they need to stay with their parents and couch-surf while on tour to meet the expenses of living as touring musicians. The sheer cost of keeping a band on the road, he agrees, is not something widely appreciated outside of the industry. “I never realised before what it was like – every show you have to pay your agent, the tour manager, your business manager and your lawyer. By the time anything gets to the band, you have to split it five ways and you don’t really have enough money to do anything.”

Keen to return to Australia after appearing in the touring Laneway Festival earlier this year, Pierszalowski can also see a time when he again heads out on his father’s fishing boat. Life at sea is back-breaking labour that can stretch on seemingly forever in the round the clock sunlight of an Alaskan summer. But Pierszalowski cherishes the link to his family it provides, as well as the moments of calm and isolation that always seem to result in a bunch of new songs being written. It’s where the problems of everyday life melt away.

On land, he tells me, “There’s always a lot of thoughts that get in the way, friend drama and work drama that you have to go through – All that doesn’t exist out there.”

Writing on the road proved an impossible task for Pierszalowski, who can only work by waiting for inspiration to strike. “I probably should have set aside time for writing at different points, but I don’t like that. I don’t believe in it. If I felt like I had to write, I would have never written a song.”

Ultimately, the creative process seems as unfathomable as the sea, a force that needs to be respected, if never quite understood. There’s no way to artificially bolster creativity, Pierszalowski reasons, nor any way to predict it: “You just never know when it’s going to hit you.”

Originally appeared in: Faster Louder

Scott Devendorf (The National) Interview

“Just being in New York has been the impetus for everything the band’s ever done” says Scott Devendorf, the affable bass player for Brooklyn denizens The National. “Having this rich cultural thing happening – music, art, whatever, has made a huge difference. Just being to see anybody you want and having a lot of bands close by, I think that really drove us when we starting, and now that we’re serious about it, I think it’s a really healthy thing to have going on”.

While a laidback and chatty character, it’s clear the incredible, pulsating energy of the city is something that’s vital to Devendorf, and in turn, something that forms an important backdrop to the band’s creative restlessness. The gestation of 2010 masterpiece High Violet was painstaking, he explains, with songs changing repeatedly over the course of a year, being radically re-recorded in some instances, and being recorded in multiple versions of songs in pursuit of some elusive musical alchemy. “Songs like Lemonworld, which is a really simple song in a lot of ways, at one stage we had eight different versions of that… just taking different flashes of the songs”. Intriguingly for a band whose songs are eternally described as growers, it seems to take them a while to value their own compositions: “A song may end up where it starts. We really never know”.

Their live show, which stunned Australian audiences at a string of rapturously received shows back in January, is an ever-evolving beast, with freshness and dynamism being key concepts. “With a new song, when we get more confident playing it, when we’ve kind of figured it out, we try to change aspects of it” he says. Similarly, their set list is rarely static, with Devendorf promising “random songs from older albums” to feature in their upcoming Australian shows to “make things more varied and interesting for everyone”.

Everything about the band’s creative process seems to designed to prevent staleness or over-familiarity; unusually, the band tends to rehearse individually or in pairs more than as a group and their songwriting process is equally novel: the band will generally complete an instrumental piece before handing it over to singer Matt Berninger to add vocals. A range of side projects keep members occupied in their time off; guitarist Aaron Dessner has recently produced a record to fellow Brookln resident and sometime collaborator Sharon Van Etten, while Devendorf has used his rare moments of downtime to start work on compiling a Grateful Dead tribute album.

With The National due to return to Australia for November’s Harvest festival and a pair of side shows, Devendorf admits to finding the sheer size of festival crowds “pretty intimidating” and thinks festival goers can be “confused” by the band’s slow-burning, nocturnal music. “Festivals seem to attract a certain genre” he muses “but then we do have a more anthemic side, the more rock songs”. Crucially, however, festivals take the band out of the comfort zone and introduce them to new audiences.

Although plans for the next record are minimal at this stage, Devendorf does suggest the band may look to record more quickly, a move partly inspired by the success of their two most recent singles Exile Vilify and Think You Can Wait, which both started life as piano sketches and were both recorded in relative haste in between touring commitments. True to form, however, plans may change several times before they re-enter the studio. The price of The National’s sky-high quality control, it seems, is eternal restlessness.

Originally appeared in: Faster Louder

Robert Forster Interview

Robert Forster was one half of our greatest band ever, our ultimate cult heroes, our very own Velvet Underground. With Grant McLennan, he formed the core of The Go-Betweens who began in Brisbane in 1977, punk’s year zero. As nihilism and anger overturned music’s world order, they swam against the tide, releasing the double A-side Karen/Lee Remick, a glorious and crashingly romantic slice of sunshine pop that was more Monkees than Sex Pistols.

The Go-Betweens continued to be blissfully adrift of musical fads and fashion throughout their career, producing classic albums like Before Hollywood and Spring Hill Fair, before signing off in 1988 with the lushly produced 16 Lovers Lane, a perfect marriage between McLellan’s pop smarts and Forster’s stately songcraft. An unexpected second act to their story began in 2000 when the pair reformed the band and released the stunningly assured and instantly familiar-sounding The Friends of Rachel Worth. Their songs, so apparently sparse and simple on first listen, continued to be among the most charming and enduring anyone ever committed to vinyl.

Always critical darlings and lionised by fellow musicians, The Go-Betweens nevertheless seemed rank outsiders when it was announced a poll would be undertaken to choose a band to name Brisbane’s Hale Street Link after. But impeccable taste prevailed and so the newest addition to the city map became the mellifluous-sounding Go-Betweens Bridge. In the lead-up to a concert to celebrate this unique and richly deserved tribute, FasterLouder caught up with Robert Forster.

So, the Go-Betweens Bridge is quite an unusual tribute to a band. How did you react when you heard about it?
I reacted very well! It was a surprise. When you think of all the things that can happen to you as a rock band, having a bridge named after you is not one of them. It would be a surprise to anyone, it would be a surprise to someone who’s had a lot happen in their life. It’d be a surprise to Paul Macartney, it’d be a surprise to Prince. It’s quite a large thing and it’s unexpected. But I feel good about it.

Was it hard to play gigs in Brisbane when you were starting out?
Not really, in Brisbane itself it was quite easy. When we started it was around the time that punk and new wave hit Brisbane. There was a lot of energy. You played at people’s houses; there wasn’t that whole rock venue thing. In Brisbane now, there are six, seven, eight venues that are running continually, taking out ads in the street press. Back then though, street press didn’t exist. But you played pubs and swimming pools and colleges or universities. So we played quite a lot. What was hard was playing outside our town, like to fly to Sydney cost $500. There were no networks or connections, no JJJ, so playing outside of Brisbane was very hard.

Was it ever tough with the Joh Bjelke-Petersen regime and 4ZZZ being shut down?
It was. You had to sort of be jumping around and be keeping an eye on your back, but an aim of us as a band, whether Bjelke-Petersen was there or not, was to get out of Brisbane. If we were in Sydney, we still would have wanted to have got over to London and played in Europe and America. That was still a goal for the band, no matter where we would have been.

If you were starting out as a young band in Brisbane today, would you have the same dreams of London and New York?
Oh, God yeah. The aim was always to try to be international and when the band started. Grant and I knew you can sustain a career of doing Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, but only for a couple of years. Then it would just drive you nuts. It would be like if you were an American band and you could just play San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and Salt Lake City and you can never play anywhere else. You just need something more.

Apart from the logistics of finding gigs, would you say that travel was important to the band in terms of finding inspiration?
I guess so, yeah, just in terms of developing lyric and melody writing and seeing bands, that all feeds inside itself, it feeds together.

A song like German Farmhouse seems pretty directly autobiographical about your travels. Do you think all your songs have at least some autobiographical element?
I do. There’s some songs with characters, or outside situations that are a little more abstract. I think you’ve got to do that too, that’s part of it as well. But normally I write about things that are around me, that I can see.

Is a song like He Lives My Life about as abstract as you get, or is that based on a real situation as well?
No, that’s a real life situation too, that’s very direct as well. Actually all those songs, most of them are fairly much in front of me. But even if you’re just writing about what’s in front of you, there’s a fair amount of flexibility with that. It doesn’t have to be ‘Today, I got up and went down the shops and bought some milk’ you know, you can bring in friends and imagined lives. It’s quite a rich area to write about it, really.

Do your friends tend to recognise themselves when they turn up in songs?
They do, and I don’t set out to write a whole put-down of people, so normally people that are not myself that are in my songs get a fairly generous treatment and they’re normally quite happy about it.

A lot of musicians say that choosing favourites amongst their work is impossible, like having a favourite child. Do you have favourites amongst your back catalogue?
Oh yeah definitely. I’m not making the same album over and over again so I have favourites and things I wish I hadn’t done and I’ve made mistakes. I don’t see them all the same.

For me, it’s always been Liberty Belle and The Black Diamond Express. It was the first Go-Betweens record I ever bought and it’s still my favourite. How highly do you rate that one?
Oh, highly, that’s a magnificent record! No, that’s definitely a high point and it’s a great place to start getting into the music that Go-Betweens or myself have made, it’s a great record.

It is a record that feels quite out of time…
It is personal, and besides the songs, which I think are really strong, that record was made in 1985 and I don’t think there’s many other albums made like that in 1985. It’s bass, drums and guitar, recorded quite naturally and beautifully. There’s vibraphone, organ, acoustic guitar, a lot of singing. These weren’t things that were done so much then. That’s not a collection of instruments and an approach that was at all fashionable in 1985. I think that’s one of the reasons, besides the songs, why the record has lasted and sounds as fresh as it does now.

You’ve moved into music criticism recently, with your work for The Monthly. I think it’s always hard to gauge how lasting a record is going to be when you get it to review, do you find that aspect of it difficult?
That’s true, but I just try to write about how a record hits me. Normally, records that I’ve really liked have stood the test of time. I still think the first Vampire Weekend album is really good and sounds really good. I am a Bird Now by Antony and the Johnsons still sounds fantastic. I think there are records that come out and knock everyone out for a year and then you listen to them six months later and think ‘Hmm, that’s not going to age well’ or ‘that doesn’t feel as good as it did then’. I think the records that I’ve reviewed and really like have a sense that they’re going to last. I definitely feel that way about those two albums.

It’s noticeable that a lot of the electronica which was praised to the heavens in the mid ‘90s nobody really plays any more. Do you think it’s the more melodic stuff which stands the test of time better?
I do, I do and someone like Sarah Blasko you can throw in as well, her latest album. It’s the same as when we were talking about Liberty Belle… which I put up with these albums as well. Just talking from personal experience, and also little bit as a critic, I think all these people went to make a record and were just totally consumed with what they had to say and were following something that was inside them. They weren’t looking continually over their shoulders to try and fit their record into what was going on at that particular moment. I think all these people are aware of what’s happening but are also very driven to get their songs over. You start to not be looking around so much, but you’re following your vision and I think that’s what makes these records sound fresh.

Kurt Cobain apparently said something like when they were working on Nevermind, they weren’t trying to make history, just a second record. Do you think it’s a mistake to actually set out to make a timeless record?
Yes, because I think a lot of timeless records basically come about by accident. To go further back, something like Astral Weeks by Van Morrison or Tonight’s The Night by Neil Young or even the Stones’ Exile on Main Street, a lot of these timeless records are made by artists at a point in their careers when they’ve made a lot more commercial records, or at least tried to, and for some reason they’re in some sort of fucked up situation or things have taken a turn for a worse around them and they just make a record almost out of these circumstances. I think that can often make a great record, the chemistry of the moment. They’ve just taken their eyes off the top 40 and got the songs they want the way they want to record them and it’s just… happened.

The Van Morrison and Neil Young records you mentioned were both recorded really quickly, have you ever worked like that?
Depends what you mean by really quickly. In comparison with U2 or The Flaming Lips or someone, I guess so. The Friends of Rachel Worth’ was recorded in 3 weeks, that’s pretty quick. Liberty Belle… you’re talking about four weeks. An album of mine that I like a great deal called Danger in the Past was recorded and mixed in 12 days. Going in and doing something like Astral Weeks or Blood on the Tracks, these are albums recorded in 3 days, so I think you can do that, but I haven’t ever gone in and made a live in the studio album. It may happen one day, but not at the moment.

Do you find being a critic is pushing you to listen to things you wouldn’t normally listen to?
Well, I get sent a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t have got. Mainly it’s a lot more new artists, so I get to hear a lot more new music than I would normally, so I find myself doing that, which is really good.

In your book The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll one of the rules you come up with is that ‘Great bands look alike’. Do you think it’s because they have a unity of purpose or because great bands recognise that how they look is a hugely important part of who they are as a group?
That’s a really good question and a good point. I think what you said is true and also I think what happens with bands is that you spend so much time with each other that you start to look the same. Especially with successful bands you’re in the practice room together, on the aeroplane, on the bus, so you can’t help it. It’s almost like human behaviour, a psychologist could explain this. If you put four people in a house or on an island together they’d start to morph into the same person in a way. Bands that start to spend a lot of time travelling alone together, you’re in the clothes stores together, your hair all starts to look alike. I think it’s impossible to fight.

It’s not one of your rules, but you often hear the idea that rock is a young person’s game, made by and for young people. Do you that’s becoming less true now?
Well, I think it was a young person’s game in 1954, and in 1964. But now, I find it interesting, the breadth of who’s making good music is a lot wider now. And that’s good and bad. There’s part of me that would wish all the good music was being made by unbelievably talented 25 year olds, but it’s not. And that’s fine, that era is now gone.

In one of your stories, you chose ten bands you’d have loved to have been in. Are there any contemporary bands you look at and think ‘Yeah, I could slot in there’?
Oh yeah, I’d love to be in Vampire Weekend. Around the first and second albums, I’d love to have been in Franz Ferdinand. I’d love to be in Glasgow, look as good as those boys, strut around writing great songs with the world at my feet. Fantastic! So there’s two bands I’d love to be in. You know, I’d like to be in a hippy west coast band, do you know Vetiver? I’d love to be in one of those hippy, strummy, San Francisco share house, eating muesli kind of bands. Long hair, bare feet, listening to ‘70s Neil Young, growing some organic veges in the garden, i’d love it!

I can see you in Fleet Foxes…
Fleet Foxes! Oh, they’re a great band. I can definitely imagine being in Fleet Foxes and there’s part of me that likes the New York boys and the Glasgow boys as well. Any of those really, there’s three.

Lately, you’ve been producing John Steele Singers, who are also part of the Bridge concert. What’s that been like? Are you a hands-on kind of producer?
I am, but they’re a band that it’s very hard to be hands-on with. They have their own sound, they’re very determined with what they do. I produced another band called Halfway and I was a lot more into the arrangements and stuff like that with them. But John Steele Singers, apart from the enjoyment of working with them, what I really enjoyed was what I was just talking to you about, it was great to be around six guys in their mid twenties. You just pick up things they’re doing and things they talk about, the music they like. It was a lovely way of reconnecting with that world and just being a part of it.

Thanks for talking to us today…
Daniel, it was an absolute pleasure. Thanks for the questions. And keep listening to Liberty Belle…!

Originally appeared in: Faster Louder

Notes: The Go-Betweens are my favourite Australian band ever and this is definitely one of my favourite interviews. I initially thought of not including Forster’s final comments at the end because it seemed a bit indulgent, but I’m glad I left it in there because it shows what a gentleman he is. Not many interviewees think to thank the writer for coming up with the questions.

Gig review – Cat Power @ Enmore Theatre (2013)

After a painfully drawn-out guitar intro, Chan Marshall makes her way onto stage. Now sporting a spiky blonde haircut, she seems a frail figure and her off-mic coughing and constant interaction with the sound desk seem like nervous tics.

But the devotion of her fans is clear and from the rapturous applause the second she steps on stage, you can almost feel people willing her on, wanting her to succeed.

Having endured lengthy battles with debilitating illness and stage fright and developed a reputation as a reluctant performer, she has seemingly found a way to make it work now. She says very little but when she does talk it seems heartfelt and completely spontaneous.

Even with a five-piece band in tow, the sound is surprisingly sparse and the focus is firmly on her vocals. It is crucial then that her singing is just right, and thankfully they are – from the first moments of the first tune, standout torch song ‘The Greatest’, her voice is warm and richly textured, and it is clear she is in command of her hugely expressive instrument.

What follows isn’t a crowd-pleasing greatest hits set, but instead a subdued, sustained mood piece focusing heavily on most recent record Sun.

The lighting is often minimal, drowning the band in a single colour or cloaking them in almost complete darkness, complementing the long, slow grooves and stark renditions of what is already bare bones songcraft.

Seen in some quarters as an uncharacteristically upbeat record, the weariness and pervading sadness of Sun becomes even more clear in a live setting, where the downbeat nature of the likes of ‘Always On My Own’ is the norm and the glimpses of optimism in songs like ‘Ruin’ and ‘Human Being’ stand out for their dogged resilience.

This is music that follows no recognisable trends and feels completely out of time, more inspired by blues standards and soul balladry than anything contemporary.

The zen-like ‘Manhattan’ is one of her most wistful works, an unhurried reflection on the “The hotel above and the street below / People come and people go / All the friends that we used to know ain’t coming back.

Though it’s hard to pick and choose between songs in a set that seems more like one long piece than different components, the moving ‘Nothing But Time’, a sprawling, personal song apparently written for her ex’s young daughter, is hard not to single out.

There’s something of a nod to Australian music with a cover of The Boys Next Door’s ageless ‘Shivers’ and even sections of INXS’s enduring hit ‘Never Tear Us Apart’, before Marshall collects a bunch of flowers and throws them into the crowd, looking at her most relaxed and even joyful as people scramble for a memento from their hero.

An almost unrecognisable version of one of her very best songs, ‘I Don’t Blame You’, an affecting portrait of an artist struggling with the expectations of their audience, ends the set and it seems fitting there is no encore, the show having worked as one unbroken whole.

She seems reluctant to leave the stage, finally pausing at the exit to wave to everyone one last time. For someone who has long been known as a reticent performer, there’s something moving about her seeming to have found her niche and not wanting to let go of this rare connection with the audience.

The feeling, it seems, is well and truly mutual.  “I love you!” someone yells at one point, seemingly overcome by the moment. “I love you more” Marshall mumbles back.

Originally appeared in: Tone Deaf 

Book review – ‘Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream’ by Neil Young (2013)

It wasn’t meant to be this way. Rock’n’roll was supposed to be a young person’s game. Live fast, die young, leave a pretty corpse, and all that. But with some of the best recent records being produced by elder statesmen such as Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie and the author of this remarkable tome, it’s clear that old theory is in need of revising. It may be better to burn out than fade away, but better still to just keep the fire raging

Originally appeared in: The Sun-Herald (click for full review)

Capsule review of ‘The Best Australian Racing Stories’ by Jim Haynes [ed] (2010)

The sport of kings, and a refuge for dreamers and desperadoes – few passions grip this nation like horse racing. This collection includes iconic poems from the likes of C.J Dennis and Banjo Patterson, loosely-spun yarns on champions like Sunline, Phar Lap and Peter Pan and pen portraits of the great trainers. Not everything here is carefully written, but the best stuff sits comfortably with the best sports writing this country has produced. Particularly masterful is Les Carlyon’s homage to the Melbourne cup, which skilfully blends beautifully lyrical descriptions of the action with bluntly humorous reportage on the assemblage of drunken human beings dotted around the track.

Originally appeared in: The Sun-Herald