Jai K Morris-Smith: “The search of this music we’ve been making has helped me heal through this life changing experience”

Original photo by Zoe Grace Pawlowski. Handmade collage by B.

For over 15 years, Jai K Morris-Smith has played in bands in the Australian underground, including Atrocities, Circle Pit and SSRi. More recently you’ll find him in post-punk outfit Exek and as co-creator of experimental, ambient, new project Grossman / Morris-Smith (also featuring Michael Grossman of DEN). 

A week or so ago, Gimmie chatted in-depth to Jai for almost two and a half hours about his creative life. It’s the first time he’s been interviewed, so we had a lot to talk about! It was such an insightful, honest and emotional chat. Jai’s personal life story, which has been quite difficult, is as much connected to this story as the music itself. 

The Grossman / Morris-Smith debut release Curious Music was slated to be a solo project for Jai. Turning to what he knows best, music and creativity, after his dear sister Matika’s untimely passing. During this experience, he found himself unable to listen to punk or loud music, so he began to explore and experiment with ambient music, which has an early connection to childhood.

Michael (who owns a studio) and Jai would meet regularly for coffee to discuss recording Jai’s songs. When they got into the studio they discovered a rare kind of magic and decided to creatively collaborate on the album. Curious Music is a journey of the heart and of healing. Made entirely using only guitars, the album is intriguing and impressive. In a word it’s —transcendent. 

As the chat was so comprehensive, you’ll only find part of it below; mostly about his formative years with music and the Grossman / Morris-Smith project. They’ll also be more in our next print issue and the punk book our editor is working on, which sees Jai talking about the Sydney punk scene as well as a look into creating with Exek and frankly sharing his experience with addiction, death and of the power to change. It really is inspiring stuff.

We’re so happy for you that the Grossman / Morris-Smith release Curious Music is out in the world. We’ve been listening to it a lot, it’s incredibly beautiful. It’s pretty magical-sounding.

JAI K MORRIS-SMITH: Thank you. Michael and I used the word magical a lot while we were making it. We would have these moments where we would try to introduce certain ideas while we were composing it. A lot of those ideas wouldn’t actually work, so we’d construct a different way to go through a certain segment. Basically, in a way, one of the sides, when we’d try to introduce ideas that were preconceived, the track would reject those forced ideas. We were continually working with the track, it was strange. It was possibly the most fun that I have had in a studio recording music.

I love how the tracks unfold and reveal itself to you in realtime.

JKM-S: It felt like it was writing itself, so we kept having to follow it rather than getting stuck with the ideas that we had. A lot of them were great ideas, but it just became it’s own thing and we had to work with it.

It blew my mind, because when I initially listened to it, I didn’t realise that it was made by only using guitars.

JKM-S: Yeah, yeah.

When listening to music for the first time I try not to read anything about it. I like to experience the music itself without any stories or hype colouring how I perceive it, I like to hear it for myself. I was trying to work out the instrumentation you used on it, because there’s so many cool sounds. After listening, I went and read about it and found out it was made with just guitar. That’s amazing.

JKM-S: Thank you.

Initially you were taught guitar by your dad when you were really young, right?

JKM-S: I guess. I have a photo of me in South America in 1987. My dad had guitars and played, they were always around the house. I remember I’d pick them up and he’d try to show me things. I thought it was too hard [laughs]. I’ve always been into music because of my mum and dad.

Around the age of 16, my sister came home from school and was like, “We’ve been learning guitar at school.” She showed my dad this little thing that she had learnt. I was blown away. I grabbed the guitar… I think that’s my personality, not that I’m so much an outright competitive person, but when I saw my sister playing it, it really excited me. It showed me that if she could do it, I could do it. I didn’t put it down from that point. We’d play with my dad.

At that time, I’d been skateboarding for a lot of years. Music was a huge part of watching skate videos. When watching them, I would ask my dad, ‘What’s this music?’ He’d pull out a record or a CD. To be honest, I feel really lucky and blessed that both of my parents were really open-minded people and have pretty impressive taste in music. Between my sister coming home and showing us what she learnt and my dad and mum’s music collection, to this day, what I listen to is based on those early experiences. 

I’m similar. My mum and dad (who have both passed away) and my four older siblings all love music. Between them I was lucky to be exposed to all kinds of music from a very young age. My big brother was into skateboarding from the 80s and we owned a skateboard shop together in the 90s. We used to sit in the shop and watch all the videos, so I understand how much music goes hand in hand with skating. We’d always be listening to punk and hip-hop mostly. To me, my brother was the coolest person in the whole world and I wanted to do everything he did. What kind of music was your mum and dad listening to?

JKM-S: Wow. My earliest memories of music was a record by Vangelis called Soil Festivities.I must have been 3-years-old. I have this memory of my mum in our house in Bilambil Heights (when we lived there for a moment) nursing me to that record and telling me these weird Lord Of The Rings-esque stories while this ambient synth music played. 

Because they were into music, my parents would follow what’s coming out each year. My mum was very much into Vangelis, Mike Oldfield and Tubular Bells, stuff which was more fantasy. My mum is 70 this year, so she went through her whole hippie period and was following a lot of those bands; loves [Black] Sabbath, loves [David] Bowie (both of my parents loved him). It was more my dad that was into music that I’ve always been influenced by. 

One of the skating videos that I’d ask my dad, ‘What song is this?” He said, “That’s The Velvet Underground.” I first heard that at 15-years-old. I was really lucky to be able to stumble across that stuff so young. Bowie is one of my heroes, I always return to his music; it’s something I fell in love with as a kid. Bowie was passed to me through both of my parents. 

My dad loved King Crimson. He followed [Robert] Fripp & [Brian] Eno’s careers. Both of my parents’ taste were really broad. The last memories that I have of my dad buying music was around my age now, around 35 or 36. We’d go shopping every Saturday for groceries and he would always go into this one CD store. The last lot of music I remember him buying was all classical. He had gone through that point of all the stuff he’d been into and ended up listening to a lot of classical, which I also loved then and still love now. I’ve been listening to a lot of classical at the moment actually.

Good music is good music, regardless of genre.

JKM-S: Totally! 

When I was a teenager I got really obsessive about punk, it was all about punk for me. My whole identity was wrapped up in it from a teen through my 20s. I had big, spiked hair and mohawks, my hair was all the colours you can imagine.

JKM-S: Amazing! So did I! [laughs].

Nice. When you got into punk, were you living Sydney?

JKM-S: I’ve pretty much always lived in Sydney. I’ve always travelled a lot with skateboarding and music. I’ve spent a lot of time in Melbourne, even before Exek. I’ve always been based in Sydney, I love it. 

What was the scene you grew up in like?

JKM-S: Initially I stopped skateboarding and started heavily getting into music. Music became a more vital outlet for me in all ways. In my physical world, in my emotional world. I started to get more out of music than skateboarding.

I met Albert Wolski [Exek’s founding member / songwriter] when I was 15, around 1999 or 2000. We’d go skateboarding and have basically been best friends since that point. He was the first person that I actually shared music with and vice versa. We would trade CDs and show each other what we were listening to. 

I went to my very first shows with Albert. He would pay for tickets to one show and then I would get the tickets to the next show. The very first concert we went to together, we saw R.E.M.. At that time we were seeing bigger American acts. The next thing we saw was Radiohead do Hail to the Thief. Then we got to see Bowie on A Reality Tour. Those were huge moments for me because they were the first time that I’d gone to see live rock bands. That merged into us turning 18 and starting to go out into the city at night and starting to go see local shows. We saw HTRK when I was 19 at a really tiny bar called Spectrum. I saw a lot of live music from allover Australia there. I remember seeing Bird Blobs. 

From there, I found some people… I had a really close friend called Ben [Mundy]. We both knew each other had been playing guitar a lot, so we started meeting up and playing together. From going out to shows, I met all these really cool, interesting people that I found personally a lot better for me than the people that I was skating with. 

I used to be sponsored and was paid to skateboard. At that time, I found it quite difficult dealing with all the jocky-mentality of skateboarding and it being really serious. That’s what helped merge me into music and finding these friends. It was really important for me, because the people that I met through music were a lot more open-minded, more emotionally in tune with themselves, which is really what I needed. I was around 20 when I joined a band with Ben and that kick started this whole other world that I didn’t even know I was able to do that.

Was that the band Atrocities?

JKM-S: Yeah, Atrocities. I played my first show with them—it was insane. It was fucking nerve racking. I remember seeing a really early band of Dizzy from Low Life’s, The Skanks, I was blown away; it had other friends of mine in it too. Seeing my friends playing shows, it was like it was with my sister, I thought, ‘This is totally possible. I can do this.’ 

I played in Atrocities for a number of years. I met Jack [Mannix] and Angie [Bermuda] from Circle Pit and started playing with them. It was great being accepted by these people. There was a really prominent scene around Sydney, especially Oxford Street and Darlinghurst; there was lots of music and bands. It was a little like Melbourne, you could play shows anywhere most nights of the week, basically Wednesday to Sunday. 

I did my first lots of recordings with Atrocities and then Circle Pit. It was a really interesting time for all of us. A lot of people I know from that time are still making music and are still in relevant bands, they’ve been making music for over 15 years, which I think is amazing, as I’ve seen so many people drop out of music. 

That’s part of why we started Gimmie. Other than the actual music floating around, there isn’t much about a lot of musicians and bands that you can find out there because the music press in this country doesn’t really cover beyond a copy and paste of what PR companies and labels send to them. There’s so much cool stuff happening in Australia that gets totally ignored by mainstream (and the indies that try to ape them) press, radio etc. We’re lucky to have supportive community radio stations like 4ZZZ, 3RRR and FBi.

JKM-S: Yeah, there’s not much documentation of Australian music, especially post-2000. Maybe I was in a bit of a fantasy, but I’ve always admired everyone that I’ve played music with especially Jack and Angie. I remember seeing their first band Kiosk. I first saw them at Spectrum around the time that I saw HTRK. Those guys have been doing music in Sydney for years. I loved playing in Circle Pit. 

Angie said something to me a few years ago in relation to having a similar conversation like this of where we’d come from and how long we’ve been playing music for. She was very much of the opinion that we were all actually musicians. Coming from DIY bands, DIY places, rough and shitty recordings, I think a lot of people never really tended to say, “I’m a musician, this is what I do, I make music.” It was this punk attitude of, “I just play guitar in this band,” not actually acknowledging that once you’ve been playing a guitar in a band for over 15 years then, yeah, you actually are a musician—you live and breathe it. You wouldn’t be doing it if that’s not who you were. I gelled with Angie on that.

Can you tell us about your relationship to the guitar?

JKM-S: I get endless hours of enjoyment from playing guitar, also frustration [laughs]. I get everything from it. I more or less love noises and sounds. I’m quite an obsessive and compulsive person… back to that experience with my sister, when I fully picked up the guitar and started learning. It gave me a feeling that I have never had before or experienced in relation to sound. I became fascinated in that and making these weird sounds come out of this thing. I’ve never really lost that first experience of that. 

The first songs I ever learned were Stooges songs. I’d sit in my room and play along to Stooges records until my parents would come in and be like, “You have to stop playing guitar,” because I’d been playing for hours. I’m still doing that same thing now but obviously I’ve learnt the instrument to how I play it. I’ve never really lost interest in that. I play guitar almost every day in some capacity. I’ll have an idea that pops to mind. 

Through my 20s, like any one at that age, you have this really intense idea of what music is or what it should be like. In a way it was quite narrow. In my early 20s I was listening to a lot of The Birthday Party, Bird Blobs, The Scientists, a lot of Australian punk. I’ve always loved listening to the Velvets and The Stooges. I love intense, distorted guitar sounds. 

Moving out of that period into my later 20s and 30s I was able to become open-minded. I’ve been listening to different music over the last 10 years and been trying to work out, in my own way, how to approach the guitar in a new and different way to what I have done before. It’s always been about progression and expansion in this later period I’ve been playing guitar to the point where I kind of came to Curious Music

Because I’ve been listening to so much classical music, I’ve been trying to interpret that Baroque and classical sound within guitar. I’ve always been trying to find a different sound or way to expand on where my influences have come from. 

Album art by James Coe.

Curious Music was initially going to be a solo project?

JKM-S: Yeah, correct. My sister passed way at the very beginning of 2019. I’d just come back from touring America with Exek. She passed away really suddenly in a boat accident. For the first few months after she died, I stopped listening to music for a while. Obviously, when you’re going through grief or any really traumatic life experience and life changing experience, I found it really difficult to even leave my house, doing anything can be hard. 

When I started to listen to music again, I remember putting on punk records and it was too much! It was a really odd experience because I’d listened to punk music my whole life and it’s helped me through other tremendously difficult life experiences, but with this one it wasn’t gelling with my emotional world. I found myself listening to classical, jazz and predominately ambient music. I was doing a lot of guided meditations and thinking about that type of music and how it’a applied in meditation. I thought, ‘Man, I should just start listening to all Eno’s stuff’ and everything that was related into that ambient stuff that I listened to as a child with my parents. I started doing that. 

Three months after my sister passed, I eventually started approaching guitar again. I started approaching it in the way of the music that I had been listening to, really long drawn out guitars. I started to take a different interest, and aspect, in what I had been playing. I’d always thought that some ambient guitar music was a bit corny… I guess I was trying to start playing more in tune with how my body actually felt and how my mental space felt. 

You were truly expressing what you were feeling!

JKM-S: Correct. At that point, I went on tour to Europe with Exek then came back and continued playing guitar how I had been. I felt I wanted to start recording ambient music. I became really passionate about it. I started to believe in what I was creating at home. 

I approached Mickey [Grossman], he lived not far from me at the time. We’d been meeting up to get coffee and talk. We weren’t even really talking about music much in the beginning, then we got into that. Our friendship really built over that time. I asked him if he would record a solo record for me.

Just before Covid we went into the studio and started mucking around. I was really taken back by his openness, it really reflects who Michael is. We messed around with things and started recording and I sensed that I should do the project with Mickey. There was a musical connection, which I’ve experienced in different ways before, but with Michael it really took me back as we were having conversations without even really saying anything. The ideas and things we were sharing were really similar and really worked. I said, ‘Man, do you just want to do this together? As a collaboration. A duet.’ We weren’t really thinking of the end point, we were just bringing in ideas and experimenting. 

In the first week we started recording, Michael brought in a piece of paper with all of these ideas he had thought about in the shower, really strange ideas. One that is on the record; what would happen if you played every F note of the guitar at the same time? We went down the fretboard and recorded every single F. What they became was a sound like a gong, throughout Curious Music they come in, it’s a kind of motif. Many experiments from that piece of paper worked but many didn’t too. 

Cool. I can relate to how you mentioned before that after your sister passed away you weren’t able to listen to music. I felt the exact same thing when both my mother and father passed away a few years apart. As you, I love music to the point of obsession and it always gets me through everything. It’s been there for me in all the major and small events in my life. When they passed, I couldn’t bring myself to listen to music, it felt weird. Like you, I found it hard to leave this house too. I guess I just lost interest in things and I felt like nothing mattered, it’s like everything in comparison to their death felt trivial. It’s hard to describe to people that haven’t had a close loved one pass.

JKM-S: Totally, I agree. 

Years later, I still think of them every day and it still hurts. One day they’re there and then they’re not. Death is something that is not really talked about in our society. From your job you can get maybe two days bereavement leave and then you’re expected to go back to work and pretend everything is ok. You get no real support, yet you give so much of your life to work. Society is really big on “suck it up, move on”. I truly feel for you.

JKM-S: Thank you. It is 100% challenging. 

I am so glad that you were able to make this project and process what you’re going through and heal.

JKM-S: It’s a different experience for Michael, but what he ended up facilitating for me, was an outlet in a sense to transcend the experience that I had gone through, which had left me extremely isolated. He facilitated this outlet where I could approach this kind of music. Transcendence. The search of this music we’ve been making has helped me heal through this life changing experience. Had I not gone through the experience, I doubt that I would have ended up on the path I am now. It’s interesting that certain life events have the power to change the course of what you’re doing. 

Anything else to share with me?

JKM-S: Zoe and I just moved to King’s Cross, which has been amazing. We lived in the Marrickville area for the last 6 years; did both lockdowns and a whole lot of grieving at our apartment there. I kind of thought I was never going to leave that apartment. We did love it. It was the first place we moved into together. Our landlord had to extended the roof to make another story so we had to move. 

The day that Curious Music was announced by Astral Spirits and Research Records, that was the last day at that apartment. In a weird way for me, it was spiritually significant. Curious Music is announced and it’s the last day I spent in that house, that’s kind of what Curious Music is about—moving through and transcending the experiences we spoke about. It felt so odd. So synchronistic. Now I’m in King’s Cross, it’s a lot faster cos in Marickville, the last two years I lived there, I was a bit of a hermit. 

Yuta [Matsumura] from Orion really helped me; coming to get me and taking me to the beach just to get me out of the house. I had this routine where I’d wake up and if I wasn’t working I’d get a coffee, come back to the apartment and wouldn’t leave. 

Here in the Cross, my routine and pattern of life has completely changed. I’ve found it good for my mental health, which is strange because it’s not really a quiet place. Where I was living it was so quiet. Here it’s noisy, there’s lots of people; I’ve found an odd, fast energy here. I’ve found myself going out most days, even to nowhere in particular. I’ll sit at King’s Cross fountain watching people. It’s been really good. 

I’m curious as to how this experience is going to affected the next lot of music I do. You know, how environments shape some things?

Yeah, of course. 

JKM-S: Michael and I, while we were finishing Curious Music, doing the mix down of that record, we started working on other songs. We have finished another record, which isn’t a follow up to Curious Music

The next record has all instruments, we started experimenting with them. Like Curious Music it’s been fun in terms of experimentation. We’ve had a lot of friends or people we know who play odd instruments come in and record with us. I did a post on Facebook a few months back to ask if anyone knew a tuba player. Obviously, the post got bombarded with emojis and a vibe of what-is-this-guy-doing-asking-for-a-tuba-player? [laughs]. 

We were at the studio last week and there was a country music production that took the first room of the warehouse where Michael’s studio is. A guy came out of there with two massive cases. I was like, ‘Man, what is in these cases?’ He was like, “They’re tubas.” I was like, ‘Are you serious?!’ The guy’s name was actually Jai as well. So, on that day we recorded a couple of hours of tuba. It was an amazing experience, I’d never worked with someone who has played that. He went to the Conservatorium and studied classical tuba. We laughed most of the day. 

We got Yuta from Orion’s little brother to come play trumpet too. I’m so excited having so many friends play on it. The theory of it is that it’s going to be in an ambient world but there’s some bizarro pop songs to fit the link in-between this world. Toto from Fully Feudal contributed keyboard to one of the songs. Fully Feudal are playing at Nag Nag Nag, you’re going to love them.

Thanks so much for this chat. It’s been wonderful getting to know you and learn more about how you create and how you’ve navigated challenges in your life. 

JKM-S: You’ve made me feel so comfortable and this has been really nice. 

While Michael and I were recording there were some specific records we were listening to. I was listening to The Pavilion of Dreams by Harold Budd. It was one of the main things I started listening to after Matika died. I found it extremely soothing. I became obsessed with the harp instrument, that entire record has it. Just before her passing when Exek was in America, I got to see Anthony Braxton, he played at Cropped Out fest in Louisville. That night he only used clarinet and saxophone; he also had a harpist there. I’ll never forget that show. It was at dusk on a riverbank. [Andrew] Brocchi and Albert wanted to watch him. I didn’t know who he was but they informed me that he was a second generation Black jazz musician that existed in the formative era of jazz. I was blown away, especially by the harp performer. I started getting back into Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby. I found the harp really magical.

So, as I said, after Matika passed I got into Pavilion of Dreams and I started trying to find chords on guitar that sounded like a harp. I was able to do that and took it to Mickey. Curious Music does revolve around one chord, an F shape chord at the bottom of the guitar neck, a sequence of notes we recorded as clean guitar with a small amount of reverb—it sounds like a harp. 

Michael’s biggest influence for the record was In A Silent Way by Miles Davis. In a weird way we were also trying to find out at the same time if there was a distinct correlation between spiritual-esque jazz music, ambient music and if those worlds could meet (or had already). We then just tried to make our own weird, ambient jazz music [laughs]. 

GET Grossman / Morris-Smith’s Curious Music via Research Records in Australia and Astral Spirits in the U.S..