In November last year beloved Melbourne rock roll band Civic put out their first release 7” Radiant Eye on new label home Flightless Records; powerful and exciting with a muscular sound and caveman groove, flourishes of psychedelic apocalyptic guitar meltdown, cutting through fire hooks. As we eagerly await their debut full-length, slated for early this year, we caught up with bassist Roland Hlavka.
What did you get up to today?
ROLAND HLAVKA: I went to work for a few hours moving furniture. It was hot!
When Civic first started, around 2016/2017, I know your concept was to simply play good rock n roll; what embodies good rock n roll to you?
RH: I think it was more to just make music we collectively listen to and like. Which happened to be rock n roll at the time. The type of music we play, I personally think just needs to be loud, catchy and have a fairly even mix of not caring and caring too much. A lot of what we do is very thought out. But you need to balance that with some naivety, or you just end up sounding like what’s been done.
Why do you think rock n roll matters?
RH: It’s pretty obviously influenced popular culture for the last 70 years, be it in music, fashion, art etc… countless sub-cultures have come from “rock n roll”. It has changed and morphed over the years. But I think what hasn’t changed is its sentiment. Doing or making something because you think it’s good and it conjures a feeling. And doing it regardless if it’s well received or not.
What’s one of the staple records in your collection that you always keep going back to? What do you appreciate about it?
RH: This is going to be pretty obvious coming from us but The Stooges first three albums. I still listen to them heavily to this day. What always fascinates me is hundreds, if not thousands, of bands and musicians have used them as a point of reference and no-one in my opinion has even come close to making something in their era that has been so widely accepted as “cool”.
What have you been listening to lately?
RH: Over the last few months I have been enjoying a lot of compilations put together by people I like.
One to note has been Sad About The Times a 12″ compilation by Mikey Young. It features a bunch of weird outsider artists and one hit wonders. Lots of great tracks.
Outside the context of this interview… I’ve also been listening to a lot of Westside Gunn and his affiliated acts. Very talented rappers.
There’s often a bunch of sneaky references to both Australian and international bands you love in your music; what’s an Australian band you love that you feel is totally underrated? Why do they rule?
RH: I’m not sure how underrated they are but definitely The Celibate Rifles have been a big influence on us, more so in the early days. As I said early… loud, catchy and a good middle ground of self-consciousness.
In November last year you put out a new 7” and your first release on Flightless Records, Radiant Eye. We’re really digging the brass on the track; what inspired you to add it into the mix?
RH: We had played the song live a handful of times before recording it. And had said to each other it could be cool to have some horns. We are all fans of The Saints and Ed Kuepper in general. Not that this is a nod to them. But the mix between what we were doing and some brass obviously sounds great. So, we called up Stella Rennex [Parsnip/Smarts] while we were recording and got her to come up with a part. We have her playing on a few tracks from the upcoming album too.
On the b-side you covered The Creation’s 1966 hit ‘Making Time’; how’d you come to choosing this song to cover?
RH: That was Lewis’ idea. We liked the idea of having a cover on the b-side. So, we started listing tracks we thought would work. Had a few run throughs at practice and it was sounding good. We recorded it, and it sounds good.
Civic’s full-length debut is coming out early 2021. We’re super excited for it! What can you tell us about it at this point?
RH: It’s twelve tracks. We’ve been working hard on it. There was an idea to make it sound more like an ‘album’ rather than slapped together songs that sound exactly how we sound live. I don’t like this phrase at all, but we wanted it to ‘feel like a journey’. I think there is a pretty diverse group of songs on the album in my opinion. Some of which we may never play live. But as I said, we worked hard. I like it. Hopefully you will like it.
How do you feel your collaborative relationship has grown since first EP New Vietnam?
RH: We’ve always had somewhat of the same format for a lot of our songs. Someone comes up with a few parts that we piece together at rehearsal. Or, someone will bring a fully finished song to the table and not much, if any tweaking needed. This upcoming album is no different. We all work well together and aren’t afraid to tell each other if something is terrible.
All your artwork thus far has had a red, black & white colour palette; was their much intention behind this? There’s also a one-eyed face both on your Radiant Eye and Those Who No releases; what’s the story with that?
RH: The intention behind the colour choice was somewhat sub-conscious. They are about as bold and contrasting as you can get. Endless bands, brands and companies have used them. Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Ferrari, Supreme… the list goes on and on. I’ve always like labels and bands that keep a similar aesthetic across their releases. Sacred Bones Records have their border and lay-out the same on every release as an example. Your colour choice becomes your brand after a while. This doesn’t work for everyone and every band… and who’s to say our next release will have any of those colours on it. But I think this far it has served us well. And narrows down the decisions on what colours things should be.
In relation to the one eye… people say when one sense is lost the others get stronger. We view this eye as an eye of judgement. Everyone more so now than ever is being watched and documented. If I say deodorant too loudly around my phone, when I open an app all of my targeted ads are for deodorant. If I use my credit card to buy something from a website. That information is stored, sold and marketed back at me. As technology advances, so does the eye watching us. We use this eye to our advantage. We have taken away the second eye and have put all the focus on the one, powerful, beautiful eye. Do you see what I mean?
What do you love most about music?
RH: That you can use something to change your mood just by listening. No pills needed. Sounds someone recorded seventy years ago can make you want to punch a wall or cry yourself to sleep.
What’s something you learnt in 2020 that you’re taking into 2021 with you?
RH: If you think something is good you should just do it. Worry about it later, because as we’re seeing now more than ever… you could become completely irrelevant very quickly.
Psych-rockers Beans are back sounding bigger and better than ever with sophomore album, All Together Now! We spoke with guitarist-vocalist Matt Blach (who also drums for The Murlocs) about the new record.
What first got you interested in music?
MATT BLACH: My dad played drums and he kind of taught me how to play drums. I’ve did it ever since I was a tiny kid.
When did you start playing guitar?
MB: That wasn’t until a bit later, I played drums first. I taught myself, I started playing when I was ten or eleven.
What were you listening to back then?
MB: A lot of the classics like Beatles and The Who and The Clash.
How did the new Beans’ record All Together Now get started?
MB: It’s our second album and we just wanted to make a bigger and better album from the first one.
Initially, did you have an idea of what you wanted it to sound like?
MB: Not particularly. We all listened to a lot of ELO [The Electric Light Orchestra] and Slade and ‘70s music and things naturally branched from there.
What have you been listening to at the moment?
MB: I’ve been listening to our label [Flightless Records] friends; Leah Senior. My friend Tim [Karmouche] just put out an instrumental album called Mouche [Live From The Bubble]. Another friend’s band called Smarts.
We love Smarts too! Lyrically was there any specific themes you were writing about with this record?
MB: Not particularly. It’s pretty scrambled really. We tried to match the lyrics with the aura of the song. Towards the last half of last year we tried to have at least one rehearsal a week as a group – three of us live in Geelong and two of us live in Melbourne – we took it in turns in terms of rehearsals and driving up and down each week. The host had to make dinner [laughs].
What did you make for dinner when it was your turn to host?
MB: Usually just pasta or tacos [laughs]. Communal food.
Song “Stride” on the record is about rediscovering your sense of self; were you going through that yourself when writing it?
MB: I guess so. It took me a while to write the lyrics to that song. I was going through that position in my life and that’s what made it come out.
The film clip for it is done in a Top Of The Pops style!
MB: Yeah, that’s what we were going for [laughs]. Over-exaggerated happiness.
What are some things that make you happy?
MB: Playing music [laughs].
What do you do outside of music?
MB: I do a bit of trade work. That helps me with the bills.
Do you ever find when you’re building something at work you’ll get song ideas?
MB: Yeah, definitely. I work by myself most of the time and I like being in my own head. I often don’t listen to music so I try and think of something or hum something.
Can you tell us a bit about the song “Street Troll”?
MB: “Street Troll” is a funny one [laughs]. I was on tour with Murlocs, we were in Belgium and we went out a bit later to get some takeaway beers and there was this big, drunk, scary Belgium dude that wouldn’t let us walk along the footpath. I called the song “Street Troll” and based it around that.
How about “Get It Right”?
MB: It’s a mixture of things. It’s basically about trying to do the right thing but sometimes it seems you’re not.
Is there a song on the album that was easy for you to write?
MB: I guess “Melt” came to me the easiest.
That one is about Climate Change, right?
MB: Yeah, and the government! [laughs].
Was there a song that was hard to write?
MB: I found it hard to put lyrics to “Montgomery”. It’s a busy song and there’s lots going on already so it was hard to find a neat little melody to put vocals in.
Do you demo first before you record?
MB: Yeah, I usually make a lot of demos at home and Facebook it to all the other guys and they get a bit of a vibe going before we get to practice.
Can you tell us about the recording?
MB: All Together Now was recorded in Geelong with Billy Gardner. We recorded it as four, everyone without Mitch the keyboard player. Jack did guitar overdubs, Mitch did the keys later and I did my vocals later.
Why did you call the album All Together Now?
MB: That was based on a private Facebook group I made with the boys to organise practices and jams. Three of us work and two of us do uni, it can be really difficult to get a practice together, especially with the hour and a half travel as well. I called it All Together Nowbecause I was like, OK, everyone can you put down dates when you’re free. That’s how the album came together so we thought, why not call it that.
What is one of the biggest challenges of being in band for you?
In what way?
MB: Personally. I guess that can be a good thing not to be overly confident and to doubt yourself and have that insecurity in a way [laughs].
The band were called Baked Beans, now it’s just Beans; does the name change mark new beginnings for you guys?
MB: Yeah, I guess we tried to approach it like that. A new album with a bit of a different name. The name wasn’t really a change for anything, we just didn’t really like the word “baked” and we just call it Beans anyway.
Once you finish an album do you go straight into writing new stuff?
MB: Yeah, exactly. Usually you follow up an album launch with a tour but we obviously can’t do that right now. Jack and I live together in North Melbourne, we have a little garage set up where we’ve been churning out demos. We pretty much write all the time!
Melbourne-based musician Leah Senior writes philosophical, thoughtful, joyous songs. New LP The Passing Scene explores impermanence, acceptance, the natural world and the freedom of simply being. Gimmie spoke to Leah about her new record.
Right now you would have been finishing up a US tour with King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard but due to the pandemic it was cancelled. You decided to go ahead and release your album; what inspired you to put it out now?
LEAH SENIOR: I don’t think the pandemic holds that much sway, from my perspective it was always going to come out now and it doesn’t matter if I’m touring or not, it’s a totally separate thing. Now is as good a time as any to put out music, if not more so.
The title of the album The Passing Scene is taken from the song of the same name on the album; as the title of the album what did you want it to represent?
LS: Looking back on all of the songs on the album there’s a real theme I suppose and it’s just acceptance of transit, that nothing ever stays the same. I just started reading a book by Pema Chödrön who is a Buddhist writer. I was reading this morning about the idea that everything falls apart and then comes back together and then falls apart. I think that “The Passing Scene” the song is about tuning into nature but at the same time accepting that nothing stays the same.
LS: Yes, impermanence is the word I’m looking for.
I love the moving cover of your record, it’s pretty incredible!
LS: Yeah, it’s the same idea, that impermanence or that the passing scene is always changing. It was a way to visually express that idea.
Jamie Wdziekonski did the cover, right?
LS: Yeah, Jamie did it, yep.
Was it his idea or yours?
LS: It was his idea to have it lenticular. I would never have thought of that.
Going into the album did you have a vision for it?
LS: No. This album has been recorded at home over the last few years. It’s taken a long time, I’m a slow song writer. It gradually was a piecing together of a record. I’d have a few songs that took it in one direction so I’d follow that and then I’d have songs that took it in another direction, so I’d cut songs; it was a real process of slowly piecing together the puzzle.
It’s a little bit of a departure from your previous work.
LS: Yeah. It comes out of trying to change my approach to creativity, I suppose. After my second album I went through a really long period of not being able to write, this album is rediscovering play in creativity. I was trying to relax a bit more, the songs come from play rather than anguish.
Often an artist’s work reflects or correlates with what’s going on in their life; were you writing from a happier place?
LS: Absolutely. It’s having stability.
You mentioned you recorded in your lounge room over a long period of time; how did this help shape the record? It feels more intimate.
LS: That’s good. Me and my partner Jesse Williams worked on it. He recorded the album. It affected the way it sounds so much. I have a really strong vision of how I like things to sound and for better or for worse having my partner record it means that I can really get it exactly how I want it. Having total control over how it sounds has affected it. It’s definitely intimate and relaxed and it’s meant that I haven’t been on anyone else’s time when I’ve been making it. I think the relaxed approach has translated to the sound.
I get that from the record, I also get that it’s hopeful and joyous.
LS: That’s good, I hope so.
Can you share with us a fond memory from the recording process?
LS: I love doing full band stuff, again it’s just being relaxed and getting to play with all of your friends in the lounge room, it’s the best possible way of recording; studios can be cold and scary and impersonable. It’s great to be able to just sit in my pyjamas and record [laughs].
I really love the last song on the record “Time Traveller”; what’s it about?
LS: That one I wrote about my niece Eleanor, she was a baby at the time. It’s about being frightened to look into the future. There’s a line in there: see the smoke hanging over the city… that was like a prediction for the summer [bush fires], I guess. It’s about being scared to look into the future and feeling that we never seem to learn from our mistakes.
What were you like growing up?
LS: I guess I was a lot of things. I grew up in the country. I was always really obsessed with music. My dad would sing me Beatles’ songs and my mum would sing me folky songs; she’s Swiss, and would sing me folk songs. From there I really just went on my own discovery expedition. I would work at a shop blowing up balloons on a Saturday morning and then go to the shop next door and look at the covers of CDs and buy the ones I liked trying to find new music.
Nice! I know that Howard Eynon performed in your living room not too long ago; did you learn anything from watching him play?
LS: Yeah, absolutely. That was a really powerful night! He can teach us all a lot. I felt a lot of the themes that I’ve been feeling on the record I made, he embodies that stuff; trying to relinquish ego and accepting impermanence. His presence is so joyous and free and youthful. He’s a perfect example of a way to live a life, I reckon.
Another song I really love on your album is “Jesus Turned into a Bird” it’s really pretty, especially the piano; how did that one come together?
LS: That song was written from being up really, really late one night and looking around me and seeing the sun come up and feeling so profoundly disconnected from nature. I wrote it the very next day. I constantly feel that way, I feel like we are so, so far away from nature the way that we live our lives.
Is there any songs on the album that hold a special significance for you?
LS: I feel like “Graves”… I really like playing that one still, even though we released it a little while ago. My partner Jesse and I wrote that one together. I’ll never not feel like I felt, what I was expressing, in that song. They’re all genuine expressions, they’re all real.
Jesse is from the Girlatones?
Is it nice having a partner that is also creative?
LS: Yeah, it’s great. I don’t think I couldn’t not have a creative partner. It’s especially nice working on my music with him. He can play anything on anyone of my songs and it sounds like how I would envision it. He has a total musical understanding of my emotions or something. I feel very lucky to have that.
The video for your song “Evergreen” was shot at a castle?
LS: Yeah. Kryal Castle.
Where did the idea for that come from?
LS: My friend Jess who shot the video we were talking and she was envisioning some kind of fun medieval thing. It was her idea. We were scouting out places and that place was perfect.
Do you have any other film clips coming up?
LS: Nah. I have a live clip… I’m not sure. Not at this point in time.
How has not being able to play live affected you?
LS: It’s been fine. It’s actually been pretty good. It’s freeing and fun for me. I’m not an extrovert, I don’t get my kicks from that sort of thing. I like trying to make things. For me, it’s been fine.
Have you been making anything lately?
LS: I’m always making things here and there. I haven’t been writing that many songs. One day I’ll do a tiny bit of poetry and the next day I’ll do a tiny bit of painting—I’m bad at settling and focusing on things.
What have you been writing about with your poetry?
LS: The last poem I wrote was about this idea that we are attracted to nature because nature can only be itself. It’s not my own idea, it was inspired by John O’Donohue. He was saying that a crow doesn’t wake up one day and go “oh, I wish I was a crow” it can only be itself, and there’s something really beautiful about that. We spend our time trying on new outfits and constantly trying to become, whereas birds don’t sing the song of becoming, they’re not song writers, they’re song singers.
Why is music important to you?
LS: That’s a huge question. It speaks the language of nonsense, the reality of the world is all nonsense—music is in tune with that. Music expresses so much more than we ever could express without it.
Melbourne pub punk band Amyl and the Sniffers need no introduction. We recently chatted to bassist Gus Romer to find out about the progress on new music, how he came to join the band and about their travels all over the world.
When we were teeing up this chat you mentioned that you’re a late sleeper; have you always been one? Is it because you’ve played so many shows – I think around 250 or so in the last year – that contributes to you keeping late hours?
GUS ROMER: In the past two years we’ve played a lot of shows. I’ve always been like that though, I’ve always cherished a good lie in [laughs].
How did you first discover music?
GR: From a young-ish age my mother always had an emphasis on my brother and I learning an instrument, doing something musical.
Why do you think she pushed you guys towards something creative?
GR: She’s an art teacher, so we’ve always done creative stuff from the start. It’s a good outlet to always have, something to do and something to work on.
You’re originally from Tasmania?
GR: Yep, yep.
What was it like growing up there?
GR: It was great! I love Tassie a lot. Super small. Super beautiful. Pretty cold [laughs].
What kind of stuff were you into as a kid?
GR: Mainly music, bits and bobs, that came in and out of my interest because I spent most of my childhood and teens just skateboarding, I was really into that!
What bands were you listening to?
GR: At the very start when you’re really young it’s just listening to the radio and whatever is around you. I got really into the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Led Zeppelin and Rage Against The Machine. I fell off for a while and got really into hip-hop for a few years in my teens, that’s all I listened to, I wasn’t into too much else at the time. Later on I got back into punk rock.
What hip-hop were you listening to?
GR: I was really into Big L and MF Doom and Wu-Tang.
Did you start off playing bass? Was that the first instrument you learnt?
GR: What got me into playing bass was that in primary school we had a strings program where you could get out of class for an hour a week and this person would come around and teach a few kids how to play. I played the cello. When I finished primary school and went into high school, I obviously couldn’t do that anymore, so I got a bass for my birthday. I joined this band with my friends.
Was that the band Bu$ Money?
GR: No, that was way later. This is when I was younger. I got into playing bass initially from that transition from playing the cello.
Did you have a bunch of other bands before Bu$ Money?
GR: Bu$ Money was when I started listening to more local music and shit around in my scene in Hobart and what inspired me to get back into it and have a crack. Even though I didn’t play bass in Bu$ Money, I played drums.
How did you first get into your local scene?
GR: There’s not a great deal of places to go out and drink in Hobart. The Brisbane Hotel was where me and my friends always went ‘cause there wasn’t a bunch of dickheads there. There was alternative people, more like-minded people. I started going to drink with my friends, I started going to more shows from that and really started getting into it. I thought, this is pretty good! I’m gonna have a crack. I got one of my friends and a guy I worked with and pretty much forced them to start and be in a band with me! [laughs].
What local bands were you listening to and seeing live?
GR: Treehouse were a big one! I’m a big fan! The Dreggs, are a great, great Hobart band. There were a lot of bands that came and gone. Native Cats are a great, great Hobart band!
How did you end up being in Amyl and the Sniffers?
GR: I was already good friends with the band, I met them when Declan’s old band, Jurassic Nark, came to Hobart and Bu$ Money supported them. So that’s how I met him and then I went to Melbourne soon after and hung out with everybody else; I was good friends with them and a big fan of the band. When their old bass player parted ways with the band they called me one day and said, “Move to Melbourne and join the band”. I thought, sweet! I quit my job and moved to Melbourne.
Did you have to give much thought to it?
GR: I’d already been toying with the idea of moving to Melbourne for a while but it would have taken me even longer to do if they hadn’t asked me, it was a nice little push. It got me going and got me moving. I was already such good friends with them and a really big fan of the band so it wasn’t too much of a decision. It was super natural, cool, let’s do it!
In around March 2017, I think, is when you played your first show with them?
GR: I don’t even know ‘ey? [laughs].
Do you remember anything about that first show with them?
GR: Yeah. It was the band’s second tape launch. It was at the Curtin. I was so, so nervous! I couldn’t really play bass that good. At the time I hadn’t played bass in seven years! [laughs]. I got my friend to teach me all the songs. We had one practice. I remember being really nervous and didn’t think I played that well. I was like, oh god! I blew it! I blew! They said, “Nah! That’s great!” No one was looking at me anyway [laughs]. It was a good time. A couple of drinks loosened me up a bit and I just got up and it was fine.
Do you ever get nervous now playing shows?
GR: Not at all. Being filmed makes me really nervous though and feel uncomfortable [laughs], doing an in the studio kind of thing. We played on Jools Holland last year.
I saw that!
GR: I was off it before that, I was losing my mind, I was so nervous. It’s insane. I hadn’t experienced anything like that before.
You guys have got to do all kinds of interesting things. I saw photos from when you did a Gucci campaign and walked in their Fall 2019 show and there was a photo shoot at an Archaeological Park.
GR: It was at these ruins in Sicily. It’s pretty crazy. The first time doing that and going into that it was the first time I’d ever experienced anything like it, the level of the production, the money and effort that goes into that stuff is just mind blowing! The scale is insane. For one campaign there was over 100 staff there, everyone running around doing this, that and everything. It was crazy! It was an hour out of Palermo the capital of Sicily. There were all these old, old buildings, these ruins on the coast.
Is there something else cool that you’ve seen in your travels that sticks out to you?
GR: Too much! There’s always something crazy going on somewhere. Having the opportunity… we’ve played in Russia before, stuff like that sticks out, we were only there a day and a half. Getting to play places like Russia and Istanbul, is pretty mind blowing! I never thought I’d get the opportunity to do anything like that.
What was Istanbul like?
GR: It was so cool! Definitely the coolest place I’ve ever been, we were only there for a day though. We flew in and out. I got to walk around for two hours but it was so cool. Everything was so cool, the vibe, the architecture, it was super, super beautiful.
What was Russia like?
GR: Russia was pretty, pretty crazy. We went to Red Square. It was pretty insane, the drive from the airport to our hotel was an hour, hour and a half, and on the outskirts of the city it seems like there’s really intense poverty, in the city there is so much money! On the outskirts you see massive, massive apartment blocks that look so run down and dilapidated; in the city centre it’s so clean and there’s so much money everywhere, sports cars everywhere!
What was it like playing shows in places like that? Is it similar to here?
GR: The show in Moscow was for a festival, that was the very first show we played in Europe. We played a festival to a relatively small crowd, they were getting it though and a few people even knew all the lyrics! It’s always pretty wild because you go in not expecting much and then you have people singing your lyrics back to you. It’s mind blowing!
Have you got to see many beautiful nature spots in your travels?
GR: Driving through America is always really, really cool, the diversity of the landscape; you drive through the hills of Oregon and then drive through the desert. That stands out in terms of nature to me.
What’s one of the coolest things that you’ve seen in America?
GR: It’s all a blur to be honest [laughs]. There’s a lot, a lot of driving and a lot of drinking!
You’ve been working on a new Sniffers album?
GR: Yep, at the moment we’re trying to get some songs together to become an album at some point.
In December I think you guys mentioned you had around 12 songs?
GR: Yeah, November last year we had a fair long slog of trying to do it, trying to get something going—we got a lot of good stuff. Now we’ve just hired a little unit at a storage place near our house, which has been great. At the start of lock down we were bumming around doing nothing for the first six to eight weeks. We’ve set up in the storage unit and we’ve been hitting that up quite a bit, which has been really good. We’re trying to write new stuff and trying to do stuff that we’re all super happy with.
You all live together?
GR: Yep, yep. It’s cool. Because we’ve toured so solidly for the past two years, we’ve pretty much spent 24-hours a day with each other, we’ve been overseas together for months at a time so, it’s a pretty smooth transition for us. We all know how each other rolls.
Was it weird for you at the start of isolation not being able to tour?
GR: Kind of. It was a nice break though. We were meant to be in the States for a month, not too long after it all started. We’ve been so busy the past few years, this past six months has been the biggest break that we’ve had, the most time we’ve spent in Australia in such a long time. I’ve just been enjoying being home.
With the new stuff you’re writing have you been trying anything different to previous work?
GR: Yeah, there’s a couple of tracks that are heavier and faster, on the other spectrum there is some different stuff. We’re not trying to limit ourselves too much to a particular sound or style, just playing around and seeing what we like. Most of the time either Declan, Bryce or myself will bring a riff and we’ll jam it out. Most of the time we just try to finish it, get something and then talk about it afterwards, see what we like about it and if we keep it or don’t.
When you’re making your own music do you listen to other people’s music much?
GR: Always, I always have something going. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Dick Diver and Low Life, Vertigo—I’ve been pumping all them recently. There’s always good stuff!
Previously, just after the Sniffers debut album came out, you mentioned that you felt a really big sense of relief that the album was done and it was nice to not have to stress and worry about it; what kind of things do you stress and worry about when making an album?
GR: Well, with that, that was in the thick of us touring like crazy… when we recorded it we had come off of four months non-stop touring overseas; we flew to Sheffield in the UK and recorded the album there. We’d been away for too long, we’d work so hard non-stop touring—we just wanted to be home, we were so over it! It was definitely not the greatest time and was really stressful.
What were you tired of?
GR: We were pretty happy with what we had but we were happy to get the album out of the way. A lot of the songs, we’d already been playing for a couple of years, we just wanted to record it and get it out and never think about it or listen to it again.
Do you have a favourite Sniffers song to play?
GR: I’d probably say “Some Mutts (Can’t Be Muzzled)”. That’s my favourite. Usually we play it last. I like the build-up, it’s fun to play.
What was the last band you saw live before lockdown?
GR: Just before everything went to a halt we were in the middle of an Australian tour, we played Sydney and Newcastle, they were the two last times I went out. I got to see Gee Tee and R.M.F.C. supporting us in Sydney, that’s always, always a great time! Concrete Lawn are a Sydney band who we are really good friends with us played in Newcastle. They were the last live shows I got to see before everything stopped.
Do you have plans yet for the rest of the year or is it too hard to plan with all the uncertainty around?
GR: There’s always stuff. We’re hoping to do an Australia tour before the end of the year, it just depends. We’re hoping to get overseas again from the start to the middle of next year. It’s a guessing game though and no one is too sure how it will go.
What have you been doing in isolation to keep sane?
GR: Now that we have the practice space we’ve been utilising that a quite a bit, other than that we haven’t been doing much… bumming around watching dumb shit on the internet and movies. The boys bought an Xbox, so they’re playing a lot of FIFA [laughs].
Last question; what inspired you to get your mullet haircut?
GR: I was really, really into the Cosmic Psychos. I was watching a lot of old footage and the doco Blokes You Can Trust and decided I wanted to look like Ross Knight! [laughs]. It’s pretty funny! I love the Cosmic Psychos.
Melbourne-based musician Zak Olsen is one of those musical wizards. He has a natural talent for songwriting, doesn’t tie himself to one genre, and somehow magically has a knack for them all. He works his magic in heavy psych power-trio ORB, with new wavers Hierophants and as Traffik Island, a project that jumps style from one album to the next. He’s one of our favourite songwriters. We spoke with him last week to get an insight into his world.
ZAK OLSEN: I’m just at the studio right now, saying studio is a bit of a stretch but, I have a room that’s not my house that has some of my music gear in it [laughs]. It’s really close to my house so I just come here most days. I spend all day and all night in here usually.
Where did you grow up?
ZO: I grew up in New Zealand, I grew up in a few places because we moved every year. I mainly grew up on farms in New Zealand and moved to Australia in the year 2000.
What were you like growing up?
ZO: Most of my youth I grew up on a farm, which was really good. My parents had that school of parenting where they just let you go and make your own mistakes. We had lots of space which was good, my dad would say “Just go and do whatever you want just be back before its dark”. I spent heaps of time outside by myself when I was younger. My dad also played in a few heavy metal bands so he would always have huge parties and there’d be all these metalheads around. That was the first music that I got into when I was really young, like five years old. Its’ pretty appealing to a five year old. My dad would have all these heavy metal VHS tapes, I particularly remember the Megadeath one! I loved it so much.
How did you discover music for yourself?
ZO: I’ve always had an interest in it because my dad did. In high school I heard the Sex Pistols and had one of those light bulb moments! Megadeth also did a Sex Pistols’ cover. I remember watching SBS one night and the Sex Pistols being on there and they played ‘Anarchy In The UK’ and I remember the Megadeth song of it from back when I was a kid and it sort of all came back around again. I got into it from there, I decided that I wanted to play guitar and that was that.
Why is music important to you?
ZO: Just the actual act of making it, is the most fun I could ever have. Once it’s made it’s never quite as good, I still love playing live and all that stuff but for me personally the most fun that I can have in music is writing things—making noises! [laughs].
Is there a particular album or albums that’s helped shape your ideas on music?
ZO: Yes. Besides the obvious stuff like ‘60s pop – I got really into that in high school – just the simple things that are catchy that still have an effect that aren’t intimidating; stuff that involves everyone, simple music like The Beatles and The Kinks. That stuff is always with me. I remember the first time I heard R. Stevie Moore, that was a big influence because he didn’t stick to any genre. I know a lot of people claim they don’t stick to one genre but he really, really pushed that, he really went for it. I remember seeing an interview with him and he said that you can just make any noise, it’s still a song, not every song has to be your magnum opus. That allowed me to open up and make any noise.
I really like with him too that people go “you’re the king of lo-fi!” and he tells them something like “It doesn’t matter if it’s lo-fi or hi-fi or whatever-fi, I’m DIY-fi”.
ZO: Yeah, exactly! I’m definitely not going for a lo-fi thing, it’s just out of necessity. If I could make big grand exotica Martin Denny kind of albums I would. I don’t have that kind of money or resources though [laughs].
How did you first start making music yourself? You were in The Frowning Clouds; were you making stuff before that?
ZO: Nah, no. I was barely playing guitar before that, we just decided to start a band. I couldn’t really play at the time, we learnt as we went. I was a really slow learner with music but we all just kept going and here we are [laughs]. I’m still a slow learner!
When you make music then, is it mostly through feeling and intuition for you?
ZO: Absolutely. I don’t read music or know any of that kind of stuff. It’s 100% intuition for me.
The first Traffik Island LP Nature Strip that you put out – I know there was a split tape before that too – sounded kind of Beatles-y and Kinks-y and a little Bonzo Dog Band-ish and Syd Barrett-esque now with your new release Sweat Kollecta’s Peanut Butter Traffik Jam it’s kind of like a DJ Shadow beat tape, they’re such different sounds…
ZO: It goes back to the doing different things like R. Stevie Moore doing whatever you want. I wanted to do that to the max! I just wanted to make something as different from the first one. I was worried about it once it was made and I thought, oh shit, people that liked the first one probably aren’t going to like the new one. Nature Strip is the album that I always wanted to make ever since I was really young, being an obvious Syd Barrett fan, I just wanted to make an album on an acoustic guitar—that was the mission statement.
For the next one I wanted to do the total opposite and make it more computer-based and not write anything before; every one of those songs are made up just as I’m making it, it wasn’t prewritten.
So when you play them live you’ll have to teach yourself how to play them again?
ZO: Well, yeah. The band haven’t learnt any of those live yet, whether I’ll play them in front of an audience is yet to be seen [laughs].
I really hope you do!
ZO: There’s so many ways to do it that I’m just not sure yet. Hopefully one day… if venues open up again!
I really liked the Button Pusher live stream you did the other night!
ZO: Yeah, that was a test of maybe how we can do it live.
Dude, that test went really well, we super impressed. Just how you walked into the room rolled the tape machine and then started playing was so cool! The lighting and mood really added to it all too.
ZO: That’s good! That’s something I’m working on with a couple of other people at the studio too, we’ve started a YouTube channel live stream for performances and sorts of things. We have a few more coming up soon.
On your first release the split tape Sleepy Head/Traffic Island I noticed there’s Hierophants and Sweat Kollecta’s songs on that from back in 2012.
ZO: Yeah, my friend Danny who ran that label Moontown was doing a split with Nick, another Frowning Clouds member, he was doing the A-side. Danny called me asked me if I had any demos laying around to fill up the B-side of the tape. I said, yes, but I didn’t have any at the time. Lucky it was around the time I heard R. Stevie Moore so I had a real jolt of inspiration and just went out the back for two weeks and did all those songs for the tape. Some of them ended up going into Frowning Clouds or Hierophants after the fact.
I really love Hierophants! Spitting Out Moonlight was one of our favourite LPs of last year! We’re big fans of your other releases last year too, it’s so cool when you can find an artist that makes such different things but they’re all incredible. That’s not an easy thing to pull off.
ZO: That’s nice to hear. Thank you. It all has to do with collaboration with people and letting things just happen the way they do between people. You’re not really pushing an aesthetic or an agenda when you’re collaborating, that’s hopefully when more interesting things come out. I think Hierophants lean into that, we purposely do things that maybe sound ugly or we think we shouldn’t do. That’s the most collaborative band, especially in the sense that no idea gets rejected, we do everything. It’s really warts and all, sometimes good, sometimes bad [laughs].
I wanted to ask you about the Hierophants song ‘Everything In Order’; what inspired that one?
ZO: That was nearly going to be a Traffik Island song. That was inspired by, I broke my arm quite badly and had surgery. I spent a couple of weeks doing demos one-handed, that song was one of the one-handed songs [laughs]. Jake [Robertson] heard it and asked if Hierophants could do it. I was trying to do a show tune-y kind of thing [laughs]. Someone told me that the hook is the same from a song from a Disney movie [laughs]. I was trying to do something Robyn Hitchcock-y, when he does these ridiculous sounding show tunes.
I love the lyrics in it: you don’t need friendship anyway / you don’t need family anyway.
ZO: [Laughs] Don’t quote me on that one, it’s a character who is wrong, because you do need family and friends.
What about the song ‘Limousine’?
ZO: It’s about the obvious, but the funny thing about it is that I think I subconsciously took that from watching a Paul Simon interview. He was on the Dick Cavett Show from back in the ‘70s and he was talking about writing a song about someone that’s trapped by fame and they’re riding around in their limousine. Subconsciously years down the track I just wrote that! I re-watched that interview recently and realised I took it [laughs]. The song is original, I promise! The seed of the song maybe I took from Paul Simon.
Do you have a favourite track on the new Traffik Island Sweat Kollecta’s LP?
ZO: I like ‘Rubber Stamps’ it’s the least beats/DJ Shadow-y one. It’s a short instrumental, sort of exotica, ‘60s kind of sounding, crappy Beach Boys instrumental one. It came out the easiest.
I notice though different lyrics or song titles there’s a humour and lightness to your music.
ZO: Humour is always good, it takes the edge off. Frank Zappa had a humorous side or Devo did too, they had a real sense of humour and both had been big influences on me. It’s not too conscious for me. It is a bit easier if you put a sense of humour on things, it’s easier to put it out into the world because… I’m kind of lost for words…
Because it’s too personal? And you’re not overtly putting yourself out there?
ZO: Yeah. I think if people put irony in their music it protects them from criticism. People don’t criticise things, they just say that I’m being ironic. That’s not why I’m trying to be funny in the songs though, I guess it just makes it more enjoyable. I don’t think anyone wants to be yelled at [laughs].
I wanted to ask you about one of my favourite ORB songs, ‘Space Between The Planets’…
ZO: Oh nice! That’s mainly Daff’s song, it took us ages to do that one, we got a bit lost in the riffage [laughs]. It turned out well in the end. There’s no secret with the ORB songs, everyone brings riffs and we smash ‘em together and hope they turn out good—it’s that boneheaded! [laughs].
It’s fun to have that too.
ZO: Yeah, the goal was just to have a fun band and just turn it up! We wanted to make it fun live and be nice and loud, because a lot of our stuff was never like that.
Do you write every day?
ZO: Yeah, in some sense. I haven’t done any acoustic guitar writing in ages. I come to the studio every day I can. I make noises in some sense but I’m not like Randy Newman on the piano every day, as much as I wish I was!
Do you have a particular way you go about writing songs?
ZO: At the moment, because I’m working on remixes and I’m trying to do a hip-hop thing with a friend from America, all the stuff is very beat-based. I’ll start that by just finding cool drum loops. It’s totally different from writing song songs on the guitar, proper songs I guess, is that I usually try to hum a melody first in the shower or something, the catchiest bit, the bit everyone usually remembers about the song. If I can come up with a line or a chorus without any instruments first and then I’ll go to the guitar or the piano and work out what the chords are and go from there. That usually works.
Where did your interest in hip-hop come from?
ZO: It’s always been a faint interest. I grew up skateboarding so there’s lots of great songs in skateboarding videos…
Like A Tribe Called Quest!
ZO: Yeah, heaps of that and even stuff like DJ Shadow. A lot of new release hip-hop came out last year that I really liked.
What kind of stuff?
ZO: Quelle Chris had this album called Guns. There’s another guy I like too called Billy Woods he did an album called Hiding Places. They don’t give into the tropes of hip-hop and the beats are a lot weirder, psychedelic is the only way that I could describe it. There’s FX on the vocals and lots of echo. It’s not focusing on the tropes of gangsta stuff, they’re not rapping about cash or cars, it’s more introverted and weird. It kicked off my interest in it more. Obviously things like Madlib and MF Doom; I was late to the MF Doom thing but when I got into it, it was all I listened to for a year.
I love his Danger Doom project and the song ‘Benzie Box’ is an all-time favourite.
ZO: Hell yeah!
My brother and I owned a skateboard shop in the late ‘90s, he had one in the ‘80s too, and I loved all the skate vids with the hip-hop and punk soundtracks.
ZO: That’s cool. It’s such a good way to get into stuff. I’m very thankful for all those movies they really got me into stuff that I still listen to now.
Do you have a song of yours that stands out as one of the quickest ones to write?
ZO: ‘Looking Up’ it’s a song on Nature Strip. I never write songs in one sitting but that one was written in an hour, the whole thing; that’s never ever happened to me before. I said, ok, I’m going to sit down and write a song and then that came out really quickly.
What do you find challenging about songwriting?
ZO: Trying to be too tricky! It’s really a problem that you can get lost in that. I’ve been trying to make songs for around ten years now and you think that progressing with songwriting, you should have more complex melodies and complex chords, but it’s not necessarily the case. You have to try to remind yourself of that all of the time. There’s been times where I try to make the craziest song that I can and have weird chords and a fancy melody but it just turns out shit! If it’s not memorable, it’s just not going to have a connection with anyone. Instinct and when it comes out naturally and quickly, that usually resonates with people more and is more memorable.
When you’re working on things and they’re not working do you try and push through that or do you give up and move on to something else?
ZO: Usually I move on to something else. Sometimes I do just sit there banging my head against the wall for aaaaaages! That never works usually.
Is there anything you do in those times like go for a walk or something?
ZO: I should! [laughs]. But, nah. I really fucking just try to get something out of it. The only other thing that does work is before I go to sleep, when I’m lying in bed; that’s usually the best time for it. You’ll be thinking about your songs and that’s usually when things happen.
Do you think it’s because you’re more relaxed?
ZO: It must be, it has to be.
Do you do anything else creative outside of music?
ZO: Not really. I do some painting every now and then. My dad is a really good drawer and tattoo artist, so I kind of did that before I was doing music. I used to make poems all the time as a kid and that turned into songs. Making music is my main creative outlet, unless you count cooking! I try and cook more frequently now. My girlfriend is a really good cook.
What’s one of your favourite things to cook?
ZO: Lately I’ve just been going for all the different kinds of roasts and trying to master each one [laughs]. Cooking is just really good in general though, especially if you put aside the whole night and take your time. I love doing that!
I love cooking too, I find it really relaxing.
ZO: Yeah, totally.
You mentioned before that you’re working a hip-hop project; are you working on anything else?
ZO: I’m just trying to collaborate as much as I can this year. Because of the situation in the world right now, a lot of my friends that make music are staying inside right now and we’re all just sending music between each other right now and making things together. I was starting another Traffik Island one but I just ended up sending all of those ideas to friends to put stuff over the top. I’m working on things right now but I don’t know exactly what it is right now. I definitely just want to get into doing more collaborative stuff.
Why do you like working collaboratively so much?
ZO: Them bringing something to it that I could never possibly conceive. Just them adding something to it, some of my friends can come up with melodies that I would never imagine! Some people are just better at certain things.
What’s a song you’ve collaborated on that you were totally surprised where someone took it?
ZO: The first song on Peanut Butter… [Bits and Peace (Bullant Remix)] it was remixed by my friend Joe [Walker]. That one is basically the only song on the record made up of samples. I played some of my favourite records into my computer and gave him all the bits, they weren’t in time or anything like that and I told him to make a song out of all those noises—he sent me that! Impressed.
The film clip for your song ‘Ulla Dulla’ is pretty fun.
ZO: My friend John [Angus Stewart] made that, I know everyone says their friend is talented but, he IS insanely talented. He did some other clips, some King Gizzard [And The Lizard Wizard] ones. He asked me if he could make a clip for me. I said, sure. We wanted to try to really go above and beyond and to really try and push through the boundary. We did the clip and it was so tiring, we started at midday and I got home at one in the morning. We were driving all around the city, I think only two or three locations made it into the final clip but there was six. I had to do that dance to that song hundreds of times, I reckon [laughs]. Then it sat around for a couple of months because the album got pushed and of course in that time I started freaking out about it and got real paranoid. I was just so scared of being so open and vulnerable like that. I saw him at a party a few weeks before it came out and went up to him and told him that I don’t think I could go through with the video. He was not having a bar of it. He was like, “Don’t give me that stoner bullshit! It’s coming out.” [laughs].
What was it about it that made you freak out?
ZO: It was just so much of me! I didn’t want it to be The Zak Olsen Show… that kind of shot started getting to me. In the end I’m glad it came out. It definitely elevates the song a bit more. I’m really glad.
You did a lot of touring with ORB last year, right?
ZO: We did an Australian tour with Thee Oh Sees, then we went to America and Europe, so lots of moving around.
How do you find travelling so much?
ZO: Personally, I love it. There’s this weird thing about touring this feeling that… where people can feel like bands are running from responsibility… we were touring with King Gizzard and those guys work, it’s like seven James Browns! …it’s not the case with them, they work way harder than any other band I’ve ever met! If you’re into the second month of touring and you haven’t really made much and there’s not much time to make songs you can kind of get in a weird limbo mode where you think; what am I doing every day? I’m just playing the same songs!
It’s sort of like the movie Groundhog Day?
ZO: Yeah. But it’s still better than any other job you could have. You have to be careful of getting into the bad habits of drinking every day and eating shit food all the time.
Where do you get your hard work ethic from?
ZO: Probably my dad, he’s a little bit of a hard arse [laughs]. I can’t stand the feeling of not thinking I’m doing enough or giving enough. Having said that though, I do love staying in bed all day on Sunday! For me the guilt of not doing enough is way worse than just getting up and doing it.