Mike Noga occupies a table at a North Fitzroy cafe and throws down a few mouthfuls of his lunch as one journalist exits the media sushi train and the next one moves in. He’s bright, welcoming, engaging—his eyes are a wild blue up close. Unphased by the press commitments of the day (though he does admit he’ll be having a proper drink pretty soon), Noga has a new solo record he’s excited to talk about. His enthusiasm about the projest is disarming.
Noga is best known as drummer for ballad-punk dynamos, and relentless tourers, The Drones, with whom he’s been playing for six years now. It’s been almost that long since Noga’s released a truly solo album—his last 2006’s Folk Songs—and this new record The Balladeer Hunter marks a dramatic leap forward in song writing and overall completeness of feel. Ten heartfelt songs weave a striking yet gentle and simply beautiful series of tales here—clearly the defining work of a man who’s output has been significant in all its forms thus far.
“I just always played music,” he says. “It always felt like the natural thing for me to do. I got into bands whan I was young and growing up in Hobart, which still produces heaps of great bands. I made the move [to Melbourne] when I hit eighteen and was always in bands and always writing songs.
“The major turning point was when I went and saw The Drones when they were nobodies, maybe at the Empress, and I was completely blown away. I didn’t know them at all but I ran into [Drones’ front man Gareth Liddiard] Gaz at a pub a couple of weeks later, introduced myself and just said ‘even though you don’t know me if you ever need a drummer, if your current drummer quits or anything happens, you have to call me’. He said, ‘Ok deal’, and we shook hands. It’s quite a romantic story and when we talk about it now we remember lookin’ each other in the eyes and thinkin’ I wanna be in that band.”
It was three years before the phone call arrived. When it did, Liddiard asked Noga if he’d be able to pack his bag for Europe for a six-month tour. “I had to quit my job and take a leap of faith,” Noga continues. “I’d seen [The Drones] a lot in those three years I didn’t talk to Gaz, and thought fuck these guys are mind blowing. So I took that leap of faith and that was six years ago.
“I’ve been really fortunate in the last five years that I’ve been able to live off music. It’s not easy, it can be a huge sacrifice. I’m broke, put it that way. I don’t have life insurance or any of that kind of stuff. Still there was never any question of a different career, it’s just always what I’ve done and felt like it’s what I really want to do.”
The Drones’ story is one of great successes in terms of industry/peer recognition and international following, but the nature of the music business these days dictates that the touring band will prosper, so tour they did. For Noga, however, the road is not conducive to the writing of his own music. So arrives the double-edged reality of ‘making it’ in music not necessarily being the ideal creative environment even if it does facilitate survival.
“We’re lucky that with The Drones that we can tour and make some money,” he continues. “We can go overseas and survive and we’ve got enough profile now that we can come back with money in our pockets which is nice. But in times like this when The Drones aren’t playing and the money starts to drop off, I sometimes wonder what I’m doing?
“Touring’s really hard on relationships. I’ve just gotten back from five weeks in Europe opening up for Band Of Horses, which was amazing. Even though five weeks doesn’t sound that long, it can be really tough on a relationship. It’s hard. There’ve been quite a few moments over the last few years where I’ve gone ‘fuck it, I’ve had enough, I’m not playing music ever again, I’m bowing out, I’m done’.”
The recent Band Of Horses support tour came as a pleasant side-effect of friendships forged on a Drones tour with the same band some years back. The trip gave Noga the chance to play his brand new material to large crowds in Europe and, he claims, gave him the re-invigoration of spirit he was looking for.
“You move into a phase like this one where I’ve just done this record that I’m really proud of,” he continues, “and I’m filled with a new sense of vigour, ready to go and all excited about music and about playing live again. I’d never played this stuff live with a band before but [Band Of Horses’ singer] Ben invited me over to go on this tour and support them. They’re in a position no where they’re that big that they can pick and choose who they want. They could have taken Will Oldman or whoever they wanted, so I said sure, I’ll come over and play this new record of mine.
“The first gig was is Lisbon and we stepped out on stage to play these songs for the first time to 3000 people in this theatre screaming and cheering. From there it just grew and grew and in the end we were playoing these huge theatres, all sold out. It was incredible, a dream come true. We just got back the other day, it’s a bit hard to adjust to reality. You get home and you miss playing in front of 3000 people every night and feeling like a rock star. Now I’m sitting at home watching Two and a Half Men.”
With Gareth Liddiard’s solo project Strange Tourist still warming record-store shelves, there will be inevitible parallels drawn between the two works. Really, when you explore the two records, the tendency towards balladry is where any comparison begins and ends. “It certainly raised the bar that’s for sure,” Noga says of Liddiard’s influence on his song writing. “I just look at all my friends and go ‘fuck they’re all so talented’. If there’s any influence from them it’s been just to work harder to try and get up to their standards. It’s a pleasure to play with these people every night, to hear these amzing lyrics and songs. It makes me want to keep chipping away at it and get better and better.
“I don’t treat this as a side projsct or a one off, like the drummer from The Drones has done a record. I’ve been doing this for a long time.” In fact, he tells me, the bulk of the material for The Balladeer Hunter had been in the works for over a year before he recorded it. “For a lot of people this may be the first album of mine that will come into their vision. For a lot of people this will be their first taste of me... that sounds disgusting. It isn’t something I take lightly.”