Kim Salmon: “In the creative process you do have to look inside of yourself and express things that are at the heart of you, which by their nature is primal”

Handmade mixed-media collage by B.

Melbourne-based musician Kim Salmon has been creating art and music his whole life, over six decades. He tells engaging stories with both his visual art and musical endeavours. His work is passionate, adventurous, compelling, thought sparking and journey making. Each time he creates something, he starts from scratch and has an aversion to the formulaic. Gimmie had a thoughtful chat with Kim about his work, creativity, the new Surrealists’ double LP Rantings From The Book Of Swamp and of a new Scientists record that’s done!

How was your morning walk?

KIM SALMON: [Laughs] I’m still on my walk! I can walk and talk.

Have you always been a walker?

KS: No, I used to swim because I’ve got a dodgy back and years ago a doctor told me that it was the best thing to do, but you can’t really swim in these days so I try and stay in shape by walking—I’m trying to stay alive basically.

Besides the fitness aspect of it, do you get anything else out of it?

KS: Yeah. They’ve restricted it now, down here [in Melbourne], you can go a radius of five kilometres from your house. There’s plenty of stuff to see, I’m getting to know a lot of it. I did this crazy thing at the start of all this lockdown stuff, somebody gave me these postcards that were blank, the idea was to do little paintings on them. I thought, yeah, I’m never going to do that! Suddenly, I have all the time in the world and I started sending people little paintings in watercolour of these things that are around Northcote; things like little garden cherubs and strange looking topiary and bizarre things that you don’t usually notice when you’re walking around. When you do it every day, you see lurid detail.

Art by Kim Salmon

Nice! I love being out in nature. I walk around my neighbourhood a lot.

KS: It’s nice to do that. We’re near Merri Creek and Darebin Creek, those are nice walks to go on very close to nature, you wouldn’t think you were anywhere near a city.

What do you love about painting?

KS: I’ve always done it. Music was kind of like a highjack for me [laughs]. I’ve always loved painting. I was studying it but then I dropped out of art school and became a musician, which is the biggest cliché out; isn’t it? [laughs].

It’s all creativity! I’ve seen some of your paintings and really love them. There’s this one that’s a bedroom scene.

KS: I did that one when I was about sixteen.

Do you remember painting it?

KS: Oh, yeah. There’s a piano in it.

What’s the significance of the piano?

KS: It was in my room, that was my bedroom, that was basically it. There’s a pair of clogs in the middle of the floor because it was the ‘70s and people were wearing platform shoes, often clogs, that was a thing!

Did you learn to play piano before you learnt to play guitar?

KS: No, I persuaded my mum to buy the piano because she had learnt piano as a child and I wanted to maybe take it up, I thought I might learn some piano. I could already play the guitar. I figured out a few chords and had a muck around on it but I never really developed any real techniques for playing the piano.

Art by Kim Salmon

When you dropped out of art school that would have been around ’76? That was around the time you got into music more and you had the punk band the Cheap Nasties, right?

KS: That’s exactly right [laughs].

What attracted you to proto-punk and punk music?

KS: I was looking for my own thing, if you know what I mean? I had just met Dave Faulkner and some of his friends. I was hanging out with them and each of those blokes seemed to have a thing they were into. Dave was into Bob Dylan and Randy Newman, lyrically driven stuff; a lot of America stuff like Cosby, Stills, Nash & Young, that kind of thing. I didn’t really have a thing, my taste was really eclectic, I liked a lot of stuff, like King Crimson and a bit of prog and a bit of folk, there wasn’t really any kind of theme to it. I used to devour those trade weeklies like New Musical Express and Melody Maker. One day I saw an article about CBGB and the scene there attracted me, it was the way that the writer described everything, a netherworld full of people wearing leather jackets. It all sounded so different to everything where I was in Perth.

I read that from that article you went to track down some punk records and you came across The Modern Lovers?

KS: Yeah. I went on a quest to find what punk was! [laughs]. It was a word that was bandied about in the articles but we couldn’t work out what it was. The Stooges were mentioned, the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls, I went looking for them all. I’d never heard of The Modern Lovers but I found them. It didn’t matter if they were punk or not as far as I was concerned, I loved it, so that was going to be punk to me!

Is there anything from the punk music community that you were involved with early on that was valuable that you learnt from it?

KS: A lot of friends I’m still friends with. That’s probably it you know, the people that I became friends with and still keep in touch with. [Laughs] It’s as simple as that really. We’ve all moved on along our travels, musically or in our career.

Why do you like making things?

KS: Good question! Why do people do that? [laughs]. So they can stay around after they’ve gone. It’s a way of communicating, it’s a way of being present in the world. For me I couldn’t explain it at all, I paint and draw because it gives me pleasure and I want to do it, it’s the same with music. Music is just another form of painting to me; I’m painting when I’m making music, if that makes any sense?

It does. What do you value as an artist?

KS: Some kind of originality if that’s even possible. I think everyone is unique and everyone is universal at the same time; it’s a strange thing that we can express some universal ideas through your own uniqueness.

It seems like throughout your career you haven’t ever really been motivated by money, it’s more about the process and making things.

KS: Oh yes, unfortunately for me and those around me [laughs]. Money doesn’t really drive me, money is a means to an end… it’s numbers, I don’t have anything against maths [laughs], it’s not really what drives me. Even in school, I was good at maths as far as the abstractness of it went but when it came down to arithmetic, I was hopeless [laughs]. I was good at geometry and trigonometry, I was OK with them things but… look, I think I lost ten grand in a bank I worked in one day! I’m not good at numbers.

Previously you’ve said that when you want to create something you need focus; what kinds of things do you do to help focus?

KS: It’s different for every particular endeavour. I’m one of those people that sometimes needs to set something up or I will sit around not doing anything forever [laughs]… out of inertia and fear, I suppose. Once I get going the inertia is there and I guess I keep going… it’s a big one for me. Like this pandemic, I think I’m OK, it’s kind of forced me to do something. I try. I stare at a blank piece of paper. I go down to the art shop and buy myself some nice inks and watercolours and then I come home and stare at the paper for weeks on end and finally I do something. Once it’s started I just go where the paints flows [laughs].

What kinds of things have you been painting lately?

KS: The last thing I painted was… I don’t know what you’d call it? It could be molecular size or nebula size. It’s these organic forms that I made up. I got this stuff that’s like masking tape but it’s like glue, you squirt it on the paper, it’s nice and blue and pretty and you can see where it is. You can do a painting with it and then paint over that and then you rub it all off and it leaves a white area. I did this thing that’s kind of inspired by a book of art forms in nature, done by one of those 19th Century scientist, philosopher-types who believed… it’s a book of drawings and diagrams of one-cell creatures like jellyfish and bats, birds and fungus. His point was that there are all these beautiful, symmetrical forms in nature and there was art at work.

It was my girlfriend Maxine who looked at one of my paintings with the masking thing and she came upon this book and ordered it for me. One day it showed up in the mail from New Zealand, she had to tell me it was for me [laughs]. I looked at this book and it inspired me. I put all this glue stuff over the canvas, it’s pretty big, maybe a metre across. I used a vivid ink. I just let it run and mix and carry on and paint forms around the masking material. I was really happy with what it ended up as, I couldn’t tell you what it was though [laughs]. I could see some strange monstrous forms, but I think they’re kind of beautiful. You can’t tell if it’s in deep space or at a microscopic level. It could be anything really!

Art by Kim Salmon

I can’t wait to see it. I hope you have another art exhibition.

KS: One day! If we come out of lockdown. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of Covid art out there! [laughs].

That’s OK though! When you talk about making art, I feel like it brings you so much joy!

KS: Oh absolutely! It really takes you somewhere. You really have a conversation with the paint and the paper and the canvas and the ink. It sounds a bit mad but I definitely finds it leads me somewhere—it’s quite an enchanted place.

You mentioned the book you got recently and that the guy that made it was into philosophy; do you get into much philosophy or anything like that?

KS: I try to, but I haven’t really made a big study of that. There’s so many things that I might do. There’s a lot of people around that time, when religion was being challenged by science. There were some shaman and crazy people and frauds and con-artists out there like Gurdjieff and Madame Blavatsky and Rudolph Steiner… I guess Steiner wasn’t really a con-artist, but what I mean is there were a lot of ideas out there being explored. It was an interesting time.

Are you a spiritual person at all?

KS: Not in any formal religious kind of way, no. I suppose everyone says they’re spiritual. I don’t know that my way of being that would seem particularly spiritual to someone else. I have my music and art and I guess that’s my spirituality really. I’m probably more scientific if anything about those things.

Why did you feel it was time to make a new Surrealists’ album?

KS: It has a funny story. The Surrealists have been playing forever, particularly this line-up, we always enjoyed playing, never rehearse, just play a gig every now and then. I thought the band deserved more than a few hundred bucks from just playing a gig, you can only do some many shows, we got a show before lockdown and I got this bright idea that we would do a show that was completely improvised and we’d record it, that would be the draw card for the show. It was Phil [Collings] the drummer’s idea actually to do a completely live album. I thought if you’re a band recording you need to have songs and stuff; how do you do that like that? Over the years I’d write lyrical things into my books that I’d read the lyrics out of but I hadn’t used them yet so I thought I’d use them, that’s what they were for this album.

We had the gig booked and lockdown occurred. We had to postpone it. A film producer that had done the Scientists… actually Scientists actually have an album in the can would you believe!

That’s great news!

KS: It’s on a US label, so who knows when that will come out. We did a film clip for the new album and he approached me about taking this idea that I had into a recording studio and it being streamed. We wanted it set up with lots of cameras in a proper studio, we eventually got that happening. We called it Rantings From The Book Of Swamp, basically because that’s what it is; it’s me singing things out of my books to have lyrical content to the things we were making up.

How did you feel in the moment when you were making it?

KS: Terrified!

Really?!

KS: Yeah, because when you do something like that… we all had ideas but didn’t consult with each other, we thought we’d just be able to flesh them out. Nothing went the way at the time that I thought it would go. Everything felt like it went wrong! It was about an hour’s worth of “oh no” and trying to fix it up. Stu [Thomas] felt the same. Phil was just eating it up, you could tell he was having the best time of his life [laughs].

It was done over two sessions, I couldn’t be convinced that it was any good. I thought, nah, that’s it, I’ve blown it! They said “no, no, it’s good!” I didn’t believe them. I ended up looking at it and thinking, nah, OK, that’s good. You can see Stu and I really concentrating and trying to make it work, and that’s what made it good, we thought about it every second of the way.  It was the most switched on I’ve ever been.

I remember hearing you mention a little ways back that it’s been a long journey and process for you to get comfortable with lots of things, being on stage, stuff like that; was there something that changed that made you feel more comfortable?

KS: I couldn’t tell you the answer to that. At some point now I couldn’t imagine being uncomfortable but I was. I’ve heard recordings of those times and I’m still the same person… that’s probably what was good about this last recording, it probably brought me back out of my comfort zone into somewhere strange, I think that’s what happens… things that aren’t in your comfort zone, as long as you can move out of them and explore them, eventually you’ll become comfortable with them. I think that’s the process. In a way this particular album is good because it’s a reminder of not being comfortable, of being lost [laughs]. I think there’s actually something good about being lost and not knowing what you’re doing.

It’s so cool that with all of your projects and records that the new one is a reaction to the previous one and you always evolve to do something different.

KS: Yeah, I think you have to do it. I remember Tex Perkins used to say the same thing too. He’d say that things do tend to be a reaction to what I’ve done before. I’m not alone in that. It’s probably a little bit more extreme in my case for some reason [laughs]. I’m a bit more of a random nut job! [laughs].

You mentioned that making the new record was terrifying but; what made it fun for you?

KS: That same thing! I look back and think it was terrifying but, in a good way. I can hear myself there and everyone that was watching it online can see me, I was making a joke out of it and trying to spin a yarn out of it [laughs], weaving a narrative.

Do you think you use your humour to deflect from the fact you are terrified?

KS: I think that’s a common trait in comedians and artists, people on a stage. I don’t think that’s unique.

A lot of your lyrics tend to be from a darker more primal place; why do you think that is?

KS: I just think that’s part of the artistic process really, in the creative process you do have to look inside of yourself and express things that are at the heart of you, which by their nature is primal. Things become a lot more elemental when you do that. Having said that, you can still do things that are the opposite of that, I don’t know that all of my stuff is like that. I’m sure I do things that are light-hearted and witty and pharisaical [laughs].

Talking to you, you seem like such an easy going person.

KS: Yeah, I am.

What’s the most personal song that you feel you’ve ever written?

KS: In a way a lot of songs are about things that are outside of myself. I often put myself in other people’s point of view… that can still make songs personal. I like all my songs for different reasons. Maybe there’s not one that’s more personal than another. In a way I probably write for other people in a strange way, even though I am expressing and doing things for myself… what I mean is that other people can look at something and project their own meaning onto it, I’m OK with that. The thing about writing songs or poetry and a lot of art as well, it’s full of ambiguity and symbolism, symbols mean different things to different people… in a way the loudness and ambiguity of words, simple words as in a song as opposed to dense literature, is the strength of it—that’s what makes it powerful and universal.

I know songs must come to you in all kinds of ways but, is there a way that they come more often?

KS: When we did this particular project, there were a couple of songs on the album that were things like walking around the neighbourhood. There’s a song “Did You Pick It Up In The Playground?” it is about; where did you get that language from? It’s about behaviour like; is that you? It also had a meaning to do with picking up Covid. I found that it was just a line that came to me, it came with a tune already. I had to try and sing it. I knew what the chords were that I was playing under the singing. The band could be on the same page as me, or not, and take it somewhere really strange. As it happened the melody and song that I had in my head was indestructible enough it was added to by what Phil and Stu did.

When choosing the words for the songs you were making in real time; did you turn to a random page in your notebooks?

KS: No, I had ones that I thought would be good. I looked at them and pored over them and had a few in mind. For instance I already had a bit of a tune for “Did You Pick It Up In The Playground?” and “Burn Down The Plantation” I had a form in my head of what it would be like; to me it was like The Rolling Stones around the 1970s, Sticky Fingers era. Whether it came out like that is another thing! [laughs]. I had lyrics that I’d written around January and doing something that was kind of Blues-based took me back to days of slavery and the Civil War. I wrote a few lines and thought “Burn Down The Plantation” was a cool line and it went with that kind of music. I was wonder if I should take it into the recording given that there is all of this Black Lives Matter protest going on. I was scared of it really, I thought, oh god, we’re just three white guys; what right do we have to go singing about plantations burning down? I thought, I’m not going to censor myself, we’ll do it.

I had a few other things that were on my mind. For the recording I put little post-it notes on the ones that I thought I’d use. I also knew that if I went scrambling and scurrying for pages I’d be very lost and it would be a waste of time. I picked ones I thought I’d be more at ease with.

With the notebooks you drew from, you mentioned that you’ve been collecting thoughts in them for a while?

KS: Yeah. Those books I have, even then there’s a story. I had set-lists and I put them in there and I have lyrics and I put them in there. I write in them in such a random way. One starts at the back of the notebook and then it starts upside down from the other way. Sometimes there’s drawings. It’s really random things, random expressions of thoughts that I have. Often set-lists though – set-lists to me don’t mean a set out list of a repertoire – I have lists of songs from my bands and I call them out to the other members.

Have you always kept notebooks like this?

KS: Yeah, but it’s kind of become more obsessive as I’ve gotten older. I have one from The Scientists’ days. It was halfway through The Scientists that I thought I should be a proper singer and have notebooks, like a proper artist [laughs]. Now I’m glad I did because then you find out about Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain and they’ve always got these books full of art and crazy things. I feel accomplished, that’s a good club to be in! [laughs].

Art by Kim Salmon

You mentioned there’s a new Scientists’ record?

KS: Yeah! We recorded it, because there was a bit of a renaissance with the band, we did a tour of Europe, two tours of the USA and two of Australia a few years back. It was all on the back of that Chicago archival label Numero releasing our back catalogue and a box-set. We did a few singles and me and the guitar player [Tony Thewlis] would send each other things, I would send him drum beats of all things [laughs]. I’d get Leanne and Boris down from Sydney and I’d show them what I had and they’d knock ‘em into shape. Tony came over here to be part of The Scientists’ getting inducted into the WAM Hall of Fame. We spent that time in Perth in a studio and knocked that album together. We’d been working on it for a long time. I got Tony to build me some riffs. I’d think up crazy drum patterns and send them to him and then he’d build riffs on that, I’d do melodies and words on top of that. I’d send that to Boris [Sujdovic] and Leanne [Cowie] and they’d be the final process.

We don’t’ know when it will come out though, it’s all ready, it’s got the cover art and we did a film clip for it. It’s very strange because the thing that The Surrealists have just done is probably a lot closer to where The Scientists were in 1983 and the new Scientists’ album has travelled somewhere different. I don’t know how people are going to take it. I’ve tried really hard to have enough elements that people accept it’s The Scientists but, we’ve taken it somewhere else. I’ve listened back to the lyrics of it and it’s not in the same place as Blood Red River.

That’s really exciting to me! Bands evolving and going somewhere new is super exciting to me. I grew up in the punk world and it was always about individuality and pushing things… your new record sounds like it’s those things to me.

KS: Yeah, we’ve done that! It’s a bit more crafted. I think that’s why The Surrealists thing got more closer, it’s more visceral… this Scientists thing has some visceral elements, it’s heavy, it’s got the brutality in sound but, it’s crafted as well because of the way we made it. It wasn’t a spontaneous process. It was put together because we thought we should do it and wanted to do it, that’s a different process to when a band is young and say “Oh yeah, let’s just do this” which is how we used to do it [laughs]. That’s kind of what The Surrealists just did! [laughs].

You said that your lyrics for Scientists now were in a different place; where are they?

KS: I was listening to it thinking, god it’s taken me to get this long to get where Dave Graney was in The Moodists [laughs]. That’s what it makes me think of. He had these songs that had bizarre stories to them; I was listening to it yesterday thinking it sounds like Graney. There is a song that references him called “The Science Of Swarve” and I talk about him and Lux Interior and Nick Cave and I kind of say that their threads, meaning their lyrical threads, their threads, their clothes being in tatters and no narrative could ever save [laughs]. That was fun putting that in there. It was all about being swarve, it’s a bit of a boast. I think it’s a storytelling yarn that Graney would have done in those days.

I’m looking forward to hearing it! You do a lot of stuff; where does your hard work ethic come from?

KS: That’s what everyone says. I sit around looking at blank paper and canvases. I sit around doing nothing and wasting my time—that’s what creativity is. Until you can’t stand it anymore and you have to do something and once you get started you can’t stop!

I know you teach people to play guitar; have you learnt anything from teaching?

KS: Yeah, absolutely. I had to get across a lot of theory that I didn’t have, things like modes for scales and various harmonic ideas that I knew about… I used to use them without knowing what I was doing. Now I know what I’m doing and it takes a bit of the mystery out of it. I’ve got a lot out of teaching. I know how songs are put together now, which I wouldn’t have had a clue before! [laughs]. I use to break the rules without knowing what rules I was breaking.

That’s funny to hear you’ve learnt how to put together a song after all this time doing it. Have you ever had a really life changing experience?

KS: Gosh! When I read an article about CBGB it was pretty life changing—it sent me on the journey.

The first one I can remember, I must have been about three and my mum always told me that I didn’t speak until I was three and then I spoke in complete sentences, she’d know what I wanted but I didn’t talk. I remember her one day showing me a watercolour set and explaining to me what it was. I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t have a clue. She got the water and a brush and she started using red and she did a little loop thing. I got the brush and started filling up the page with these little strange loops of red. I didn’t know that it was for me, I just thought she was showing this thing. I thought, wow, you can say stuff with this, this is fantastic! That definitely was a thing for me! I can still see it so vividly. That’s probably where art came from for me. That was life changing really early.

It’s so cool that you’re painting now, it’s like things have come full circle for you.

KS: Yeah, I love watercolour, there’s just something about it. You get to leave some of the paper blank, you can leave some bits alone and not disturb it, and some of it you use—it all becomes one big story.

Art by Kim Salmon

And coming across all the punk rock stuff in publications was life changing too?

KS: Yeah, yeah. I guess I was looking for a place to be in my music, for a starting point, I wanted something to bring in a focus and that became it. I think it was probably the same for a lot of people.

Is painting and making songs similar in any way to you?

KS: Yes and no. I’d go so far as to say that even every song is different to make. I try to look at everything from not having a formula, I don’t like formula as much, which is a bit funny for a guy in a band called The Scientists [laughs]. I like to think I’m starting from scratch every time that I do something and not knowing what you’re doing is part of it. Learning about music sort of takes away from that so; what do I do? What I just did with The Surrealists was a way of getting back to that thing… it’s that aspect, the mystery, that you don’t know where the hell you are and you’re lost, that makes the start of creating something, not knowing where it’s going to go or where it’s going to be. You might have an idea of what you’re going to do, but you don’t know what it’s going to be in the end. That mystery and not knowing is the thing that is the unifying factor.

Being open to all of the possibilities! A freedom in that?

KS: Yeah, I think so. Like when we were talking about philosophy before, being open to ideas and not fixed and to appreciate what life has to offer. To make the best of it and not just think, this is it, this is what I’m going to do!

I’ve heard you say before that looking after yourself and simply enjoying the day are important things to you; what does an enjoyable day look like to you?

KS: [Laughs] It’s a strange combination of routine and getting lost in something, that’s a good day for me. Going for my walk and seeing something new in it and going a different way every time, to just make something different about it. With all the border restrictions and other restrictions and parameters of late, I guess it has to be that.

I guess you need to use your imagination in doing things more and doing things differently, adapting; how can I get the most out of what I have and what’s happening now?

KS: Yes, you’re right.

Last question; what makes you really, really happy?

KS: [Laughs]. I think just my life now, there’s things about it that I’d hate it to be taken away from me. I have my partner Maxine and we have a really good thing going, it’s been a few years now. I have my kids that I have a really good relationship with. I’ll be talking to my son after this and giving him a bass guitar lesson; he’s really starting to find his way, he’s twenty. All those things make me happy. Making stuff, all of it! [laughs].

Please check out KIM SALMON; KS on Facebook; KS on Instagram. Rantings From The Book Of Swamp drops September 4th – LISTEN here.

Claire Birchall’s Running In Slow Motion: “It’s a nightmare song. A waking nightmare, or a blurred line between reality & a dream… you’re trying to escape your demons or run away from monsters, but you can’t scream”

Melbourne musician Claire Birchall is set to release album Running In Slow Motion April 24th through It Records. It’s a moody, emotive, darkwave synth-pop collection of songs that Claire wrote and recorded herself on a 4-track, and is a departure from her usual indie rock exploits. Today we’re premiering the album’s title track which sounds somewhere between UK band Broadcast, France’s Marie Davidson and the Australian cult classic “Cold Café” by Karen Marks. We chatted with Claire about Running In Slow Motion and her musical journey.

Tell us a little bit about your music journey.

CLAIRE BIRCHALL: I grew up in a musical family down the coast, just outside of Geelong. Dad and Mum both played guitar and sang, and they bought a piano when my sister Bec and I were quite young, so we got lessons. Dad also taught us both how to play guitar, which quickly became our favoured instrument. By high school, I was already playing guitar constantly, joined my first band, and also did some busking in the Geelong mall in the summertime.

My high school music room had a cassette 4-track that I was fascinated with. I borrowed it once, and was completely smitten.  I ended up buying one myself at age 17, and got hooked on home recording, churning out tapes that I would swap with friends. Through recording, I started trying out as many different instruments as I could get my hands on, and ended up picking up a bit of drums, bass, mandolin and other things. I finally properly released my debut album, the acoustic based Captain Captain in 2001, which I played most of the instruments on.  The album did pretty well on community radio, and got some great support from RRR and PBS in particular.

I formed my own band, Paper Planes, which started out playing the songs from Captain Captain.  I’m not sure how, but we gradually morphed into a full tilt rock band. We got some decent support slots over the years, Magic Dirt, Catpower, Ed Kuepper, Band Of Horses….  We also released a self titled album, and two 7” singles (all recorded at the legendary Birdland Studios) which were all quite well received. Also around the same time as Paper Planes, my partner (Matt Green) and I, formed country rock band the Happy Lonesome, which I still play in today.  Though I started out on guitar in that band, then moved to keys and mandolin, and back to guitar, these days I’m the drummer!

After Paper Planes I released two solo albums, both recorded on the 4-track (PP and Electricity), then formed another band, Claire Birchall the Phantom Hitchhikers, to launch Electricity.  Though it wasn’t properly discussed or intended to be a full time band, we really hit it off, and we’ve been playing ever since.  We released our debut single, “All That Matters (it’s Christmas time)” in 2016, then our debut album Nothing Ever Gets Lost in 2017, and we’ve played a hell of a lot of shows. Also unintentional, was the small break the Phantom Hitchhikers ended up having towards the end of 2018, which unusually took me to this synth pop place I’m in now.

You’re more known for your rock, guitar-based music; what inspired you to make a synth record Running In Slow Motion by yourself on 4-track in your bedroom?

CB: It was a bit of an accident really. My band mates (the Phantom Hitchhikers) were pretty busy with various things at the time, and it was getting hard to get everyone together. I got an idea for a song one day, and decided to get out my old 4-track and demo it, for something to do.  Using my Casio keyboard for drums, and laying down a simple keyboard line, it somehow didn’t feel like it needed much guitar. The song was “Dead Air”, which turned out being the first single from the album. I liked the relative sparseness of the recording compared to my usual wall of sound, fuzz rock stuff, and it kicked off the inspiration for more writing and recording.

I wasn’t planning on making an album, but I got more and more addicted to experimenting with the new sound and returning to my roots of recording on the old 4-track.  It was really refreshing to step away from the guitar and sit there at my Casio, get a beat and a keyboard line going and write a song.  It completely changed my way of writing, and got me away from using the same old guitar chords/rhythms etc. Before I knew it, I was programming beats on a drum machine, scouring my collection of dinky little keyboards for cool sounds, and recording at every spare minute.  I ended up writing and recording the entire album in just a few months (plus a few songs to spare!).

What vision did you have for the record?

CB: It just happened.  But as I got further into recording, things started to take shape. I felt like the Casio keyboard drums weren’t sounding punchy enough on a few songs I’d already recorded, and maybe sounded a little too lo-fi. So I re-recorded a couple of them with programmed drum machine instead, and it really gave the songs the kick they needed. I instantly got hooked on programming my own beats, it’s so much fun. I then started digging the idea of getting the most hi-fi sounding recordings out of my lo-fi 4-track.  And I liked the idea of minimal tracks, minimal instrumentation, to let the songs talk without clogging them up with a million overdubs. I wanted to write the sort of songs that’d get stuck in your head. Pop songs.  I agonised over the track list for ages, cutting quite a few that weren’t up to scratch to make the poppiest catchy album I could muster. I can’t help that it’s pretty dark too, I’ve always had a little of that in my songwriting.

We’re premiering the third single, title track, “Running In Slow Motion”; what’s the song about?

CB: The song came together super quickly, and I used a little old cream coloured Yamaha keyboard for the drums. I still think the song’s got one of the best drum sounds on the whole album. It sounded kind of eerie, and I guess that inspired the eerie lyrics. It’s kind of a nightmare song. A waking nightmare, or a blurred line between reality and a dream, where people’s faces become distorted and turn into something/someone you don’t know. And you’re trying to escape your demons or run away from monsters, but you can’t scream, and you can only manage to run in slow motion.  It’s crazy how fitting it is to be releasing such a nightmarish song right at this point in time, when the whole world is truly living in a nightmare.

What was the best things about working alone on your new collection of songs?

CB: As much as I adore my band and bandmates and what they bring to my songs, there’s something to be said about being able to completely follow through with your sole vision for a song. When I write, I often instantly get ideas for multiple instrument parts, not just guitar or vocals, so it’s interesting to try and lay it all down just as I hear it in my head.

Also, I just love recording on the 4-track. Time absolutely flies by. I forget to eat, to drink water, anything. I just get so engrossed and obsessed. Often I’d write and record the whole song in one night, and end up with a tangle of leads and equipment all over the floor. I really love getting into that headspace, where the inspiration is positively flowing and you don’t want to waste time packing up anything, you’ve just got to keep going. I love the no bullshit simplicity of recording on the 4-track, it allows me to be completely spontaneous.

What was the most challenging?

CB: Definitely the mixing. I lost track of how many hours/days/months I spent doing that! I mix down from the cassette 4-track onto the computer, and then occasionally I’ll add some extra bits and pieces there.  Some of this involved tedious synching up and cutting/pasting individual tracks loaded in from the 4-track.  Plus, I’m so used to doing more lo-fi stuff, where the vocals are a little more buried. I had to work really hard on getting the vocals to stick out and sound more present and poppy. This involved double tracking, FX, and plenty of other little “secret” tricks. 

As a songwriter how do you feel you’ve grown while continuing to evolve, making a different kind of album than what your listeners are used to? Do you feel you took a risk?

CB: Even though I hadn’t made a synth-pop album before, I don’t really feel like I’ve strayed too much into the unknown. Every album I’ve ever done has been different from the previous one. I’ve experimented with all kinds of different sounds, instruments, and recording techniques over the years. Being a multi-instrumentalist really lends itself to experimentation. Plus I’ve got a pretty diverse taste in music. My first album, Captain Captain was a real acoustic guitar based album, totally different to my next one, which was the debut full tilt rock album with my band, Paper Planes. There’s also hints of my keyboard/programmed drums leanings throughout all of my solo albums. That being said, this is a very different sounding album, sure. It’s the first one that is a dedicated synth/drum machine album. But I think it still sounds like me.

What are some things you do to nurture your creativity?

CB: I absolutely always carry a notebook with me. It’s so great having an abundance of snippets of ideas to flick through when I’m stuck for ideas/lyrics.  I’ve pieced together many a song from individual lines I’ve written in that book.

I also think it’s also incredibly important to not force creativity. I try not to get too worried if I have a dry spell and don’t get inspired to write any new songs for a while. Sometimes it’s good to have a break, clear your head. The songs come when they’re ready.

You’ve played with Kim Salmon; what’s something you’ve learnt from working with him?

CB: You know, I was really quite scared that I wasn’t going to be capable of playing the stuff that I needed to be able to play with Kim. Some of the guitar stuff I felt was completely out of my league!  He really is an incredible guitarist.  I couldn’t believe he was trusting in me to pull this off!  But I worked my arse off, rehearsing by myself at home. I rehearsed more than I’d ever rehearsed for anything in my life. And incredibly I got it together. I surprised even myself. And it goes to show, you really shouldn’t write yourself off and think you’re not capable of something that looks hard and scary, cause it can turn out totally fine and you can have so much fun!

Kim’s taught me heaps. He’s the ultimate professional, but doesn’t like to over-rehearse to the point where you’re “wasting it all up” and losing the spark. I love that, I really agree with that. I love being kept on my toes when I play with him.  It keeps it super exciting and fun. I’m always grinning so much on stage with him. He’s a super lovely guy, he’s great to his fans, talks to everyone, signs stuff, all that. It’s no surprise that people really love him.

Why is making music important to you?

CB: I’ve been doing it for so long, I don’t know how not to do it!  It’s essential for my soul, my wellbeing.  I feel incredibly lucky to be able to write songs, especially when they feel like they’ve simply fallen out of the sky like a gift from the gods. You can’t ignore that shit, you’ve got to see it through. Music has also allowed me to play with and connect with so many wonderful and talented people over the years. I’m currently playing in multiple bands/projects, two of which I play drums in (The Happy Lonesome, and Teresa Duffy-Richards & the Fifty Foot Women), plus the Phantom Hitchhikers, my solo synth thing, and Kim’s band. It’s hectic, but I wouldn’t give this up for the world.  My life would not be the same without it.

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