Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Author: Stephanie Gray
Lil' Chief Records are riding a wicked west coast swell at the moment, their established acts attracting attention and critical acclaim all over the northern hemisphere. Now, as Stephanie Gray reports, the notoriously incestuous label have widened their pop gene pool with the addition of nocturnal synth + vocal couple Little Pictures.
With the intensity of young love Johanna Freeman sings: 'I wish I could tie a string between me and you / I'd pull on the string whenever I felt confused.'
There is no doubt she's singing to boyfriend and bandmate Mark Turner - the song is from a debut album that is as much a dedication to their togetherness as it is a well-crafted collection of electro-pop.
When the 20 year-old Wellingtonians play I Wish I Could Keep You live Mark triggers samples of Johanna's vocals, sneaking them in between words as she sings, to an effect that Johanna confides she finds a little creepy.
Creepy maybe, but it's a charming technique that had a house-full of Dunedin indie-kids jumping up and down with synchronised 'hip hop hands' recently. More than an enjoyable way to stay warm down south, this is a response that Little Pictures have come to look forward to from the Mainlanders.
"I like the South Island because it's less intimidating - more like our tour in Australia," says Mark."People are excited about you being there," Johanna adds.
For that reason the twosome tour out of town as much as their university timetables allow - a mission made easier by the fact they can fit all of their gear into one guitar case. It's the touring musician's dream - to fly unhindered by excess baggage and, as a couple tuned into each others energy levels and emotions, free to do as they please. But it hasn't always been so - until the middle of last year Little Pictures was a three-piece, with friend James Halborow adding drums.
Quietly but assuredly Johanna and Mark started planning for the breakaway two-piece electronic act they would call Owl + Owl, in allusion to their nocturnal tendencies. They kept the act's original name in the end, tucking 'Owl + Owl' away as a name for the album that has now followed their self-released EP 'You and Me and My Amplifier'.
Having shaken off the shackles of a drum kit, Little Pictures shaped their new sound around the monophonic tones of a Moog synthesiser, programmed beats, a glockenspiel and his-and-hers vocals. They then stripped back even further by sampling the Moog - the legendary brand's latest Little Phatty model - into an electronic sampling pad. It's a minimalist set-up that keeps people guessing. As does the way in which Mark triggers samples - joyfully thwacking the inconspicuous black pad with drum sticks next to Johanna who, in gaps between glockenspiel and singing, blows shiny bubbles that float across the ubiquitous divide between band and audience.
"It's exciting to play with stuff that people don't necessarily understand. People see me hitting the pads and there's always a musician in the front row who will come up and ask if I'm actually doing anything," smiles Mark.
"It's fun to make things more mysterious," Johanna adds.
Because it's Mark that holds the sticks, people wrongly assume that he's the songwriter - much to the annoyance of both. They are equally infatuated with technology and pop culture, happily trawling blogs and forums and working their experiences with, and knowledge of new media into their university assignments.
"Lots of people like to talk about gear, but I'm more interested in the social shaping of scenes and looking at how people use technology," Johanna explains.
To fine-tune Little Pictures' sound and style they looked into what other musicians were doing, watching YouTube clips to suss instrumentation. With refreshing honesty, they admit to culturally sampling and taking others' arrangements for their songs.
"We can't sample in the way DJs like Girl Talk can, so we try to recreate things we like," says Mark, who like Johanna listens to a lot of hip hop, and grimier artists like Dizzee Rascal. Being the nice young stars they are, Little Pictures give as much as they take - uploading their mp3s as free downloads and sending a cappella tracks to anyone keen on remixing.
"We'd love it if someone downloaded our song and borrowed a riff or a verse and built a new song around it. So our stuff is there for the taking," Johanna offers.
This is an ethic that Lil' Chief Records must be comfortable with; 'Owl + Owl' was released by the Auckland pop label after co-owner Jonathan Bree saw the band performing at Camp A Low Hum last summer.
"We were quite surprised at his interest, because Lil' Chief has The Brunettes and The Ruby Suns - these lush bands with layers of sound," says Mark.
Clearly the label do like what they hear and are propelling Little Pictures into the wake of those acts, with an American tour taking in Seattle and Portland among other cities.
There's a video clip online of a beaming Johanna and Mark reading aloud the email from Bree asking them to join the label. Recorded late at night after coming home from a gig and logging on to find the good news, the video nicely sums up the zeal and techno-savvy that shines through Little Pictures' music.
Little Pictures - I Wish I Could Keep You
Sunday, January 25, 2009
It was 2007, and it was the dawning of the release of The Brunettes third album 'Structure & Cosmetics'. As you may well know this album was their first release on the big fancy overseas label 'Subpop' records. As a result, many in the art, fashion and funding sectors in New Zealand finally began to take the band seriously - because they were now super important and extremely famous and also they were friends with Nirvana.
Somehow however, Jonathan Bree was still broke and homeless. He didn't even own any clothes - he just wore reviews of his previous albums that he had cut out of the newspapers and cellotaped (sticky taped) together to form some kind of poncho. His one dream was to own a fitted suit. With 3 buttons. And with his fame skyrocketing he thought that now could be his his only chance to swindle one.
A deal was struck with a local high end high street tailor. High times. They would make him the suit of his dreams - in return for him wearing it on the cover of their new album. He could have whatever type of suit he wanted, providing it was whatever type of suit they wanted.
Unfortunately an awkard exchange occurred between the owner of this high end menswear store when Jonathan made his one request for his new suit. He requested that the suit have not 2, but 3 buttons.
The owner of the store insisted that surely Jonathan did not want 3 buttons and tried to use his jedi mind tricks to purge that extra button from his mind. But Jonathan did not back down. He said he wanted 3 buttons because he wanted to look like Mark Ronson because Mark Ronson is a trendy British producer who wears 3 button suits all the time and looks like a real mod and he always gets money and ladies thrown at him and he is really popular and stuff and he gets invited to all the cool parties.
The suit eventually arrived and a message was sent to the Brunettes manager saying that this would be where the relationship between the 2 parties ended. This was because Jonathan Bree was the rudest and most difficult customer they had ever encountered.
Jonathan tried on the suit and it fitted beautifully. It was an impeccably designed and made suit, and it only had two buttons.
Edmund Cake - The Crane Brothers Suit
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
This first album is quite different in many ways. It doesn't have many of the world music aspects of Sea Lion, i.e. different languages and tribal-style drums. It's far more Shins-ish to my ears actually. Lots of nice big vocal harmonies too. My favourites are 'Trees Like Kids' and 'Look Out Sos!'.
It's a really warm sounding record. Although I prefer Sea Lion for it's more developed quirks, this first album is really good too. Ahh what a strange review this is. I guess it's not really a review, more a stream of consiousness on the the matter...
Here's Trees Like Kids, enjoy!
The Ruby Suns - Trees Like Kids
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
The interview started casually in Geoff and Trish’s living room, Geoff in his chair and Jade and Gwen cross-legged on the floor. As if waiting for this opportunity for his whole life, Geoff’s interview used up all four sides of two sixty-minute cassette tapes. Below is a small excerpt from the conversation.
nb. This was also recently published in the journal "Hue and Cry 'Stakeout.'"
Dad (Gwen’s Dad Geoff): So, am I going to be a fictitious interviewer?
Jade: No, you don't need to be fictitious, do you want to be fictitious?
D: Can I be from the Rolling Stone? Actually, who was it I was reading an interview with? Oh yeah that's right, I was reading a little bit about um… Now, you are known as the Gladeyes?
Gwen: Ha-ha, yes.
D: And how would you describe yourselves as a band?
G: Ah, you mean musically, what genre and stuff, or..?
D: Well, I wouldn't really use words like genre, just really, how would you describe yourselves as a band?…Which of you is the better musician?
D: Which of you has got the greater..? I mean in some bands some people do more of the sort of musical side, and the others do the lyrical side. Is it sort of very mixed and shared, or does one of you have a greater interest in various aspects of it, like one of you is more interested in the lyrical side, or do you share that?
J: I think it's pretty even.
D: When you make up the words does one of you write it? Or you both kind of add in and change it, and...?
G: We have collaborated on words before but we don't so often as the music, even though it relates, the lyrics are generally written by one person.
J: Mmm, but when we started they were a bit more collaborative, it would be good to be more collaborative...
D: So does it tend to be that if you write a song, the lyrics are by one of you and another song might be lyrics by another person?
G: Yeah. But we have collaborated and we do, and even if we don't collaborate maybe on the actual writing, we might collaborate on the ideas of what the song would be about. And then the person who writes the lyrics is just the person who is more excited about it at the time.
J: Nothing's planned, like we don't say "Oh, you write three songs today," and nothing happens like that.
D: No, no, I know...No, no, I wasn't suggesting that but I was thinking, well...
G: But we would sit down and have times where we try and write lyrics together and stuff.
D: Like you have a piece of music that you've done, but you haven't got the lyrics?
G: …the chords or the structure, maybe one of us would bring that, and someone else would write more of a melody, and someone else might add the lyrics, and someone else might write little bits of lyrics. But it's really quite collaborative, but some songs are more or less collaborative.
G: …but as an overall kind of project and set of ideas I think it's really collaborative, because they all sit within that framework. And so those songs exist because of the other songs, even, you know... well, that structure’s there for them, or something.
D: Anyway, just getting on to a lighter topic, with your names - interesting names aren’t they? Gwendoline, quite a traditional female name, I’ve never heard of a guy called Gwendoline…
D: …and Jade is what I might call an intersexual name, because it can be a boy or a girl. So, Gwen represents the femininity and tradition of the female in your band and Jade, because there’s no males in the band, she can sort of flip over to the male side, is this right?
G: Yep. Definitely right.
J: Yeah, you’re spot on. On the money.
D: Because, I’m just going on from your music, you’ve got some really light and fun tracks, one of my favourites being Geek Boy, which, I don’t get to hear very often in fact, but, in terms of lightness and fun, and then you have…
J: It’s my Dad’s favourite song as well!
D: Oh is it? Okay.
G: Oh really? Maybe we have to do a tribute to the Dad’s?
D: Yeah. And then you have the more serious and kind-of deeper songs, and I understand that as part of your greater artistic concept you’ve developed these characters of Damien and Monika. Can you tell me about Damien and Monika?
G: Well, I don’t think they’re…
D: Do they represent anything, or are they characters?
J: Yeah, they represent…something. They’re like vessels, of people.
D: Vessels for different people?
G: They’re almost like…
J: Archetypes? Or…
G: Yeah like tropes.
D: What’s a trope?
G: It’s sort of like an archetype, but it’s actually more specific
J: Like cinema or something? Is it related to cinema?
G: It’s any kind of representation, just like something that’s reoccurring, like the idea of an innocent child that’s really perceptive. Like in Les Miserables, there’s a character called Mignon and she’s a trope, she represents a recurring archetype, within literature or…
D: So are you kind-of intending, as you produce more songs, developing a sort of narrative of these people? Like they become, um, cartoon characters is not the right word, but they become like real people that keep popping up in your songs, and become familiar to people and they become, kind of like real people?
J: Yeah, we’ll always probably write songs about people. Yeah, I think those names probably won’t keep going, I don’t know actually, but, it’s nice to bring in new characters.
D: Are there any other characters beside Damien and Monika?
D: Claudia, of course Claudia
D: Andy of course.
J: Geek boy, but that’s not really a name.
G: But that’s definitely like a specific character.
J: There’s gotta be more than that…
D: Where did Andy come from?
G: I think Andy was just a name.
D: Yeah, but what influenced that song? What influences do you have, do you recognise any influences in your music? Your early music is possibly a little bit influenced by the Velvet Underground.
J: Yeah, we were listening to quite specific music when we started.
D: Karen Carpenter?
D: I noticed in that book Veronica by Mary Gaitskill, that she slayed Karen Carpenter, there was a paragragh or short paragraph…
G: Where she brings her down sort of thing?
D: Well yeah sort of, she has a very good way of bringing big things down into little things and dismissing them almost. Like, a generation of women worshipping Karen Carpenter, and just saying, well, you know, she was a bit of a messed-up woman that ate, didn’t eat herself to death. The reverse. I thought it was a bit cruel, she has a cruelty…anyway, I’m digressing, and it’s not really to do with the interview. Not too much, but it’s possibly, if that’s a book that you read it might indicate something about the ways that you think.
G: I think it’s good to always have those counters anyway, you know…
D: Yeah, so do you think that your music is always a mixture of light to serious? You like to bring in all the different moods of how you feel, I mean, Andy’s quite a sad song? And Geek boy’s a kind of tongue-in-cheek happy song, isn’t it? I mean you obviously don’t think of geek boys as really being geek boys because again it’s like a stereotype, and people who get called geek boys often aren’t. You seldom are what people slot you into.
D: It’s got a catchy tune, that’s what I like about it. Um, where you’ve got much more narrative types, like Bad Town Blues is more kind of narrative, isn’t it?
D: So you’re quite eclectic in your style of songs, and even in your lyrics as well. Now, I’m interviewing you as an older person, and one of the things I’m noticing now is that it kind of almost bores me how novels and songs are all about the same thing, which is love. Which is obviously so pertinent to you, you know, like relationships, boy-girl relationships, and love and all the angst and intricacies of that. But as you get older, because that’s not so important to you, because you’ve kind of gone through all that, it kind of seems a bit boring in a way. I mean, recently I’ve been listening to a radio station that plays a lot of oldies stuff, and just about everything is a love tale. So, do you aim to write songs that aren’t about that, and still try to catch young people’s attention? I mean, obviously you relate to your own generation, you’re not kind of making music for different generations. Do you think you can kind of make music and lyrics that address other issues? But fun issues, and issues that are really close to people’s hearts?
G: I don’t know, I hope that we already do that to a certain extent, even within those kinds of narratives that might address things like love and relationships and stuff, you know?
D: Well you could write a song that’s about the boy-girl love thing, or about the mum-child love thing, or about the mum-dad, or the child-dad, or the child-grandad, or the child-grandmother, or what-have-you, those sorts of love things. Do you think people relate to that much?
J: Yeah I think there are a lot of songs with that kind of thing. There’s heaps!
D: One of the things I wanted to ask is the idea of doing interviews anyway. Why bother doing interviews? Why not, I mean, listen to the music?
G: I think they just inform what you do in a different kind of a way. And probably be more-or-less successful each time.
J: I like reading interviews with people.
G: Yeah, me too.
D: Interviews can be edited, especially if they’re TV and so on, so you have to be a bit guarded when you’re interviewing.
G: Yeah, it’s a real skill I guess.
D: I realise that you two, before you were interviewed by me, have had to discuss what you’re going to kind of say and not say, and I see you sort of tapping each other when you feel that one of you is revealing too much about…
J&G: (nervous laughter)
D: Have you ever thought of going brunette?
G: Jade’s the boy. So I think she should.
J: Why does the boy have to go brunette?
G: I don’t know, the girl gets to call the shots?
D: Okay, I think I have explored you quite well haven’t I? I think I’ve made you think a bit, haven’t I?
J: Yeah, there were some good questions.
G: Yeah, definitely.
J: The best interview we’ve had so far.
D: It was good for me too, I’m very proud of you I have to say. Very proud of you. I think you’ve done really, really great, kind of hard to hold it together because it’s kind of like a marriage really, it’s hard in this world to kind of maintain…
The full interview is to be published as the book, So the Attainment of Perfection is Forever? Stay tuned.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
The Ruby Suns - Arm Around You (Arthur Russell cover)
Little Pictures - Buddy Holly (Weezer cover)
So I'll kick off the blog with an MP3. It's Loopy Loopy Love by The Brunettes. It's from their 2004 album Mars Loves Venus.
The Brunettes - Loopy Loopy Love
Jonathan from The Brunettes was telling me they hadn't played this song live in a long while, because they didn't really like playing it. But one day Beirut's manager casually mentioned that his favourite song was Loopy Loopy Love, and that he couldn't wait until they played it. So they figured they should re-learn it for their little tour later that year with Beirut. I'm not even sure if that story is true, I think it is. Man that story sucked, I promise the next post's story will be juicier.
But the song's cool :) It's spanish-tastic. Sort of.