Thursday, March 31, 2011

Cuba is Japan—interview with Cameron Potts

Cuba Is Japan is a band with a clear focus. “I had this idea of forming a band that would write about explorations,” says founding member Cameron Potts (also of Baseball and Ninetynine fame). “I’ve always been fascinated by them so I wanted to do a band that only did records about certain events in history.”
The band’s name (somewhat less predicably than the glut of other Australian bands with foreign place names in their titles) stems from Columbus’s first voyage upon which he reputedly mistook the land mass of Cuba for Japan. At the time there was no concept (in Europe) of the Americas or the Pacific and it was widely believed that Japan lay at the Eastern tip of the earth.
Their debut 7” is a beautiful thing. Comprising two ‘scenes’ from their forthcoming concept album about the great Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s first circumnavigation of the globe in 1522, the package features a hand-knitted sleeve guard by Otto & Spike and beautiful artwork by Dylan Martorell screen-printed on boy’s school shirt fabric by Brisbane’s Matt Deasy. To cast your eyes on the thing is to need it. The run is limited (for obvious reasons) to 300 and will be available from the launch on April Fools’ Day.
“CDs are so redundant now,” continues Potts, purring and stroking the packaging of their own vinyl release. “I’m in a label [Alpine Areas] with a few other people that are into doing interesting releases—things that are really unique. With the miserable nature of downloads I think people these days appreciate something that’s a bit of a gift. We’re thinking about maybe a Pets With Pets [release] with Lego covers. A lot of bands are really keen to get on board.”
The 7” acts as a little taste test teaser for the group’s aforementioned forthcoming album Canvas, which judging by Potts’s enthusiasm will eclipse even the single in gorgeousness. “It’s a double album which will open out like sails of a ship and will be made of real sails,” continues Potts, eyes crazed with excitement. “There’ll be a Pacific side and an Atlantic side—all the stories broken up with intermissions, it’s gotta be done right.”
In line with the uniqueness of the sleeve design and artwork, Potts explains that Cuba Is Japan adopted a fresh approach to writing the album, which will be out in September. “We all researched it together [but] we all wrote songs separately, chapter by chapter in chronological order—like from go to whoa; leaving Spain to coming back. We all had a part in assessing it in our own way and bringing it all together as a band. Some of us just took sections, like I took the Pacific and Darcy [Pimblett] the Atlantic. We all had our own bits.”
Their music consists of soaring arrangements of violin, guitar, bass and keys. I wondered whether the grandiosity of the task they set themselves limited the arrangements to the bleak and murderous subject matter they were tackling? On the contrary, Potts says, Magellan’s journey—while tragic in its outcome, with a three-ship fleet of 227 men reduced to a dying crew of 19 upon return to Spain—produced many instances of triumph and wonder.
“There’s a lot of joy there,” he continues. “Like when Magellan found the strait that no one thought existed through to the Pacific, right down the tip of South America. They were six-months out and the crew just wanted to go home but he believed all that time that there had to be a pass and it almost sent his crew mad. Also when they first hit the Philippines after sailing the Pacific for four months, it was like the meeting of a first culture that would never happen again. It’s such a great canvas. If you give yourself a story, you can really stretch your musical abilities.”

Samson McDougall

Thrones—Q&A with Joe Preston

There are musicians that rise to fame, take the money and vanish into the ether. Other’s crash into the median barrier and burn in a blistering ball of self ruin. Then there are those who grind it out, hammer away at the brittle coalface of rock’n’roll, carve out a niche for themselves and graft out new and interesting pathways for other pioneering spirits to explore. Joe Preston is one of these musicians, a man who in certain circles is revered as a trailblazer, a groundbreaker; but chances are you wouldn’t recognise him if he turned up asleep on your doorjamb.
For many, Preston’s solo outlet Thrones is the stuff from which nightmares are made. A slightly confronting collision of bass, vocal punishment and looping zaps and booms, it’s not children’s birthday party music—or party music at all. But for those who paid attention to the likes of Melvins, Sun))), Earth or High On Fire (for all of which Preston has played), the Thrones tour this April represents a rare opportunity to see a true innovator at work.

Are you writing music right now? If so, as Thrones, or with whom? What (if any) Joe Preston releases can we expect in the near future?

JP: I operate at a glacial pace as far as writing and recording goes, but I do in fact have some new things coming out. I finally decided to put out my own records, and there is a split 12" with a Washington band called Sedan coming out very soon. I hoped to have them in time for this tour but the test pressings just arrived on Monday, so it will be another month. I'm also extremely disorganised, so distributing is the next hurdle, but hopefully by the time they are finished I will have my website up and I'll be selling them through mail order as well as at shows. I'm planning on putting out another 12" in the next year (hopefully this one), some cassette releases, and then re-issues of the first couple Thrones records on vinyl. High hopes for a man who can barely remember to leave the house wearing pants.

Given that you’ve been playing music for twenty-odd years now—and that those twenty years have seen dramatic changes in the landscapes of the music industry and media/communications in general—how do you feel about the state of modern music?

JP: Honestly, I'm a bit of a curmudgeon and don't listen to very much new music, and consequently don't keep up much with the state of modern music. To my eyes, it seems that even with all the changes in industry/distribution, ease of manufacture and creation, it's still just as trend driven as it ever has been. So I'd say the state of modern music is poor. But then again, there's no accounting for taste.

Do you think it’s easier to reach a wider audience today, or does the sheer volume of crap available online render good music more difficult to find?

JP: There's definitely a "wealth" of music being made these days, and it can be hard to wade through, but if someone is motivated to look around a bit, it's become so simple to have your music discovered by new people. I think the internet and its myriad sub networks are a great thing for someone who wants to make music but doesn't want to play the humiliating game of "trying to make it", that six degrees of separation theory really opens up fast as people communicate with each other almost immediately nowadays.

In terms of the changes that have occurred in the last decade or so (i.e. file sharing returning the focus to live, touring musicians rather than spinning dollars from album sales; the advent of sites such as MySpace allowing musicians to reach an audience regardless of major label profile etc.) what are the major benefits/drawbacks in your perspective?

JP: I like that file sharing has rendered major labels and their elitism (somewhat) impotent. I don't like that file sharing leads people to not bother paying musicians for their hard work. [It’s] a double edged sword for sure. I really like how quickly people devised ways to sell their music directly to fans without dealing with middlemen, or at least a few less of them. Conversely, there are lots of new middlemen ready to take a chunk out of a musician's cut by making it "easier" to get their music to a wide audience by encouraging them to use their sites, so it would seem labels are back with a change of clothes. For me, I have always sold more records in person at shows than I did through labels, so the changes don't affect me very much as I still tour regularly.

As a radio host on KMBT, you obviously embrace the independence of voice that community/public radio allows. What roles do you think radio, both independent and commercial, play in today’s music world?

JP: That's a tough one, here in the US radio is dominated, and I mean DOMINATED by corporate interests, so the closer you are to a population centre the less likely you are to hear anything on the radio that is not solely a vehicle for ads and profit. Our only national non corporate radio (NPR) is in grave danger of having their funding crippled. Internet radio seems to have stepped in and given a voice to a huge variety of tastes and opinions, which to me is wonderful whether or not the content agrees with me. I think saying "what the hell was that?" is a good thing when it comes to radio. My personal favourite radio stations are farm reports from the more desolate parts of the American mid-west; it is community reporting at its most basic and strange.

With the arrival of bands like The Sword and Mastodon it seems as though there’s been a resurgence of attention to the heavier outfits of the ‘80s and ‘90s (notably the sludgier stuff: Melvins, Acid King etc.). Is there much evidence of this in the US?

JP: I guess so, I definitely noticed more people into what I was doing in Thrones after I finished playing in High On Fire, and I don't think it was solely because I had been playing bass for a more popular band for a couple years. People often cite their influences, and the trails are easier than ever to follow back.

Whether as Thrones or as a member of the various bands you’ve played in over the years, your music retains a trueness of substance—you have not bent to accommodate radio air time or ever bowed to commercial pressures. Do you see this a lot in your musical circles? Who else are you inspired by in terms of a total reluctance to succumb to fashion or popularity?

JP: Thanks, that's sweet of you to say. I suppose I do see that in my circles, probably because I connect with people with a similar love of being themselves. Nothing inspires me more than seeing someone doing what they love to do, and obviously doing it for themselves. Lemmy comes to mind.

Samson McDougall

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mike Noga

The Balladeer Hunter
Other Tongues

In recent interviews Mike Noga has made it clear that his latest solo effort The Balladeer Hunter need not be considered merely a side project by that drummer from The Drones. It would be easy to brush those kinds of comments off as pure rhetoric or egotism, and as a writer there’s always that twang of apprehension as you give that new record from a musician you admire its first spin. Is this going to suck?, you think. What will I say if it stinks? Thankfully this record shines from the first listen and in all its bleak loveliness does nothing but secure Noga’s song writing abilities as some of the best around.
The opening crisply plucked guitar and stomp box simplicity of the much rotated community radio darling M’Belle sets the landscape of this recording beautifully. The world Noga creates is a dark place and the sparse instrumentation provides the perfect half-cover for the loaded gun in the shadows of a dark alley or small-town heartbreak.
There exists a sliver of light on the record that guides the listener to safety even through the starkest funeral marching of Walk With Me where our sinister protagonist proclaims: Only trouble walks with me and it will stay until I’ve paid/For all the pain inside of you, won’t you come walk with me into the night... Endlessly. There are moments of Dylan-esqe grand country scoundrel-ism A Long Week, desolate Irish balladry Eileen and small reprieve in the strangely Ween-like I Will Have Nothing. The spaces between the chords here give enough of a glimpse of encroaching doom, but the beauty of the individual songs sucks you along blissfully in denial. A record to savour in a warm room on a cold night, The Balladeer Hunter is a wintery gem.

Samson McDougall