Sunday, March 16, 2014

Robert Scott of The Bats Interview

It was one of the big surprises as a Kiwi migrating to Australia (insert dole-queue jibes here) that many Australians have more than peripheral knowledge of the 1980s to early-‘90s South Island New Zealand music scene largely associated with the record label Flying Nun. There’s an expression back over the ditch, ‘World famous in New Zealand’, which in a typically Kiwi self-effacing way seemed to apply to bands like The Chills, The Clean, Able Tasmans, The Dead C and The Bats. Yet it became clear once removed from the shaky isles that, in fact, these bands were actually pretty world famous in certain circles.

What became even clearer was the level of influence bands like The Bats have had on music in their 30-odd years together. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Australia right now. Take Twerps, Songs, Boomgates, Scott & Charlene’s Wedding, New Estate, etc; there’s little question these bands have spent time exploring the Flying Nun label.

The Bats’ singer/songwriter/guitarist Robert Scott reckons he knew they were onto something back in the ‘80s, and he’s gratified that bands today can find stuff in their songs worth referencing, however understated the allusions may be. “I think we realised in the late-‘80s onwards that it was pretty cool, it had a lot of integrity and form and it was carrying on, it had a lot of good momentum,” he says. “There was a lot of bands joining in and doing similar stuff in a way and the crowds kept coming and the reviews kept being good...

“It might be [that] some bands that are listening to you and enjoy the music and then they go off and write their stuff and there’s elements of what we’re doing in the work. It might be subconscious as well, in terms of, y’know, when a band is referencing stuff they’re not necessarily going to be saying ‘Oh we need to change that chord sequence [because] we want to make it sound more like The Bats’. I think it’s more that maybe they enjoy the music and take small elements or even attitude or some kind of meaning from it and then that comes through in the music... It is gratifying and it’s kind of a good indication and validation of what you’re doing being relevant or that people are still listening to it and enjoying it and getting something from it.”

Longevity is a word often associated with The Bats. The band have maintained the same line-up of Scott, guitarist Kaye Woodward, bassist Paul Kean and drummer Malcolm Grant throughout. Scott says the intermittent creative bursts of the band have been crucial to their ongoing collaboration. “We have been around for a long time but we’ve had very big gaps in what we do we won’t play for like four or five months at a time, so that helps,” he says.

The inherent Bats-i-ness of their tunes stems from this strength of membership and hinges largely on the guitar interplay and vocal harmonies of Scott and Woodward. “We don’t analyse it too much,” says Scott of the collaboration. “I’ll come up with my chord sequence and the Kaye will write some kind of pattern over that, whether it’s the lead or a set of chords. It all seems to work out, I think it’s one of those lucky accidents that when we write something it comes out like that.

“Kaye, in some ways, is unconventional in her playing, so that’s a good point of difference in terms of what she chooses to put over top of it. Quite a few of my songs, if a trad rock lead player was to put their stamp on it the songs wouldn’t be nearly as good, so what Kaye and Paul and Malcolm bring to the band is a huge thing in terms of making the songs sound the way they do.”

In terms of writing songs these days, Scott says growth is important to the band – much of the focus is on differentiating their new songs from their older material. When suggested The Guilty Office of 2008 and Free All The Monsters of 2011 could possibly be the best Bats albums, Scott responds: “There’d be nothing worse than putting out records and everyone prefers the older ones and compares them to the older ones and finds them lacking or wanting...

“[It] can be hard because I don’t employ a lot of different tactics,” he says of writing songs these days, “I sort of draw from the same bank of chords, I s’pose. I’ve got a few more techniques and ideas that I’ve picked up over the years but basically the approach is the same... Inspiration is still pretty much the same things: people relationships, how people interact; and also it’s landscape and physical forms around me... Seeing different things or meeting new things for the first time, that can give me ideas. Often it starts from a very small idea and grows from there. I don’t tend to like take a big idea like the meaning of life, I like smaller things.”

Harmony Interview with Tom Lyngcoln

On paper it’s always seemed frightful: three doo-wop women bringing gospel harmonies to what can best be described as some kind of deconstructed punk outfit playing slow, heavy, gristly tunes. But anyone who’s caught Melbourne’s Harmony live or listened to their slightly antisocial self-titled debut would understand that this most unlikely of cocktails actually works.

Harmony find strange symmetry in their double-pronged “mongrel concoction of lost-in-the-wilderness blues and heartbroken balladry”. There’s the darkness at the back – though drummer Alex Lyngcoln brings the look of the thing up a few notches from the unshaven beasts either side of her – but the front-end harmonies lift the sound out of the slough. It’s somehow got decent feng shui. It’s a mixture you’d struggle to invent if you tried and, says guitar player/dark vocalist Tom Lyngcoln, he sometimes has to double check it’s really a ‘thing’. “There are times when I’ll actually catch myself and I’ll be singing and I’ll look across and be like, ‘What the fuck is going on over there! How did this happen!’ he says. “It’s a pretty strange phenomenon.”

2013 was a massive year for the band. They busted out performances at the Drones-curated I’ll Be You Mirror ATP event, played Victorian favourites Golden Plains and Boogie festivals and even hit the road with The Drones for their I See Seaweed album-launch tour. Better still, they had their new record, Carpetbombing, recorded and pretty much done while their bumper year unfolded. “We started it about three years ago and, I dunno, it’s kind of been a long process,” says Lyngcoln of the record. “We’ve really kind of sat on it for a long time... There is a lot of work that went into it as opposed to the first one, which was pretty kind of ragged and slap dash. This one, a lot of man hours went into it.”

As with their debut, on Carpetbombing Lyngcoln took control of recording and mixing duties. Born out of pragmatism, it’s a role he’s finding himself increasingly familiar with – he’s played a hand in recent recordings of Spinning Rooms, Batpiss and Hoss, amongst others. “I can’t really convey to other people how I want things to sound,” he says. “It makes it really hard when you’re in a band and you’re playing music and you can’t tell people how you want a record to sound, so I just figured I’d have to do it myself... I’ve had a lot of help from friends too. Alex MacFarlane from The Stevens and Mikey Young both guided me a lot and showed me some neat tricks too, and other stuff I’ve just picked up along the way.”

There’s a lot of space on the new record. You can feel the earth beneath the band members’ feet. It sounds as though they set up in a suburban dungeon somewhere and thrashed the thing out in a matter of days. This, says Lyngcoln, couldn’t be further from the truth. “If you take us and put us in a thousand-dollar-a-day studio, the music just can’t withstand that,” he says. “It needs a layer of shit in between the listener and the band to kind of take any kind of notion that maybe it’s some kind of slick production – you wanna blow that out of the water. You don’t want it to be like some kind of tribute soul band – something that it isn’t. Slick production will do that, it’ll just make the songs sound like shit. So it kind of needs to sound shitty for the songs to kind of retain a bit of weight, I reckon.”

In a nutshell, the approach they adopted was for Tom and wife Alex to play guitar and drums live together, lay down the bones of each song then allow the other members to build their own parts. “It was completely almost built from the ground up, which is how we did the first one too,” says Lyngcoln. “As soon as I’ve written a song I give it to Alex and we go into a room and as soon as we get the first take then that’s what goes on the record...

“[Harmony]’s definitely a weird kind of alchemy, that’s for sure. It’s is the sum of its parts. I think if one person left the band then the sound would change dramatically. It’s a collaborative process despite it being a fragmented process.”

Through Poison City Records, Carpetbombing will be released on CD and gatefold vinyl and any physical purchase will come with a bunch of downloadable bonus material. As well as a spoken-word appearance by Don Walker on the album proper, Harmony enlisted the likes of Adalita, Qua, Spinning Rooms, Heinz Riegler and Mick Turner to record reconstructions of the band’s songs. “It’s pretty interesting to let it go and just let people do what they want,” says Lyngcoln. “There’s some pretty wild deconstructions of stuff, that’s for sure... The whole idea was that they could take a single note from a song and just sample it and just do something else with it. The only thing that would remain was the song title.”

The invited guests are mostly friends of the band, but Lyngcoln being Lyngcoln (he’d previously wrangled Marc Ribot to collaborate on their debut) he was prepared to push the limits of stalkerdom to get a couple of heroes on board. “Mick Turner I hadn’t met but I had crapped myself in front of [him] on numerous occasions,” he laughs. “He’s the one person in Australia... Actually there’s two of them ‘cause Don Walker’s the same. Don and Mick are the two people that I can’t be in a room with ‘cause it freaks me out too much.”