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.

Please check out: Claire Burchill. It Records. Claire on Facebook. Claire on Instagram.

Hearts and Rockets: “Making things like art and music can contribute to your community as a whole in a good way”

Feminist post-punk-synth-pop bratwavers Hearts and Rockets are one of the coolest bands we’ve found in the last few years! This D.I.Y. duo, Kalindy Williams and Kurt Eckhardt, create drum-machine driven grooves that explore the complexity of the human condition and emotional depths. We love their call and response vocals. We love the 808 drum samples. We love that they’re not afraid to voice their opinions and stand up for what they believe. We love that their shows are the most fun! We also love that they’re the nicest people ever!

How did you first come together to create, Hearts and Rockets?

KALINDY WILLIAMS: We had plans to make a band before we moved to Melbourne, and after living here for a year or two we wrote a few songs together and put one of them online called Sirens.

KURT ECKARDT: I had forgotten about that song! After that, we ended up recording 13 songs at home which would become our debut album Dead Beats, though at that point we still hadn’t played anything live.

KW: Initially we told everyone we only wanted to be a house party band, but once we had played our first party, we realised it was really fun so started playing venue shows. Our first gig was at the Old Bar in September 2016 with Jenny McK from Cable Ties at her first solo show, and it was headlined by Piss Factory.

Why is making things important to you?

KE: I have to keep busy, and for a large part of my life that energy was spent on things that weren’t important to me. Making good things keeps me happy, and also serves as a way to cope with anxiety, while still having something to show for it. I also feel like making things like art and music can contribute to your community as a whole in a good way, and if it doesn’t as long as it’s not a negative then it’s OK.

KW: I want to make things I can’t find in the world – if I want a dress I can’t find, I make it, or a photo that doesn’t exist, I take it. It’s the same for songs!

How did you first discover music?

KW: I had an older sister who I thought was ‘cool’, and she listened to ‘cool’ alternative music. Eventually she grew out of it, but I didn’t. As a teenager on the internet I discovered Riot Grrl and it really spoke to me. I felt a connection to it, even though it wasn’t happening anymore I really connected with the Riot Grrl ethics, and music, and making space for and being a woman in the music scene.

KE: Every Saturday my parents would blast records for a few hours downstairs, while my sister played tapes upstairs. I guess I started to love those sounds and still do. I thank my parents for The Eurythmics and Zeppelin, and my sister for The Cramps and Richie Valens, for better or worse. Then my long-lost step-brother, who I’d end up never meeting, started sending me mix tapes when I was about 9. They had stuff like Pixies and Slayer and Dead Kennedys and X-Ray Spex and Husker Du and The Minutemen… those tapes changed my life.

You’ll be releasing a split single soon with Zig Zag; what can you tell us about it?

KW: Zig Zag are a fairly new band, and from their very first show I fell in love with them. I think I even said on the night, “Kurt, we have to work with them on something”. When the opportunity arose for us to be creating a 7”with Psychic Hysteria and Roolette Records, we thought long and hard about who we would want to be on the  other side of a split record forever, and Zig Zag popped into our minds.

KE: Yeah we played that first show! It was a 40th anniversary show of the B-52’s debut album that we were organising, and they formed just so they could play! We knew from then on that we’d get along.

KW: Our song, which we just call Had Enough,  started as a whinge-song about how the human race can be really uncaring towards each other. We wrote it when we were at the supermarket and people were being jerks. That song never really went anywhere, so we took that idea and thought a bit more broadly and made Had Enough.

Also, I wanted to talk about your LP, Power; what inspired it?

KW: Using the power you have to uplift yourself and others around you. This can mean voicing your opinions or emotions, creating spaces for people who have less privilege than you do, calling out terrible behaviour when it happens, and hating on gossip.

What are your fondest memories from recording it?

KW: My fondest memories are two songs that we changed completely while we were recording. Firstly, Lies Lies Lies was originally a song I used to sing around the house at Kurt, coz I’m such a grub, called My Grubby Girlfriend. Panic Dream was going to be sung like a normal song, but I did one take singing like a cheerleader on a whim and we listened back and loved it. The juxtaposition between the cheerleader type yelling, and the anxiety inducing lyrics, made for a better song.

KE: We recorded the whole thing at home, partly because we’re broke but mostly because we can. It’s pretty great to be able to record when you want, in a comfortable space, in your own time. There have been takes we haven’t been able to use because you can hear our dog’s collar jingling, which is way cuter than it is annoying, so they’re my favourite memories. That, and when Kalindy would just nail a guitar part even though she’d only just started playing guitar. She shreds on this album!

Hearts & Rockets have a couple of songs about anxiety “Feelings” and “Panic Dream; is anxiety something that you’ve personally dealt with? I ask as it’s something I’ve lived with in my own life and I feel it’s important to have open honest conversations about important stuff like this. Anxiety can be so debilitating. How do you cope?

KE: We both suffer anxiety. I have weird triggers, and if we’re being honest, I often ‘cope’ by drinking beer, which is something that I need to keep in check. Coping is different one day to the next for me, and the only thing I’ve gotten better at or that might help others to discuss, is coming to the realisation that I am in control of my own life (even though it doesn’t always feel like it). If I am finding it too hard to be somewhere, I leave. If the thought of going somewhere is too much, I stay home. This is coming from someone with a lot of privilege and a good relationship and homelife, so I am hyper-aware of how lucky that makes me, but letting go of the imagined expectations of others has really helped me.

KW: When I was younger, one of the things that made anxiety and depression easier was knowing that other people out there are going through similar things. And I feel like making songs like Panic Dream and Feelings, maybe we can be that for other people. I have had frank conversations with people about anxiety and depression since those songs came out, and it’s good to talk about your feelings!

You’ve said that the song “Dance Off” is a call to arms for non-men to start taking up space at the front of gigs; what motivated you to write this song?

KW: Just going to gigs my whole life! Making a safe space for friends and fans to enjoy our music is really important to us. SO many times in my life going to gigs, if I even got to the front of a packed out venue i’m either squished or groped, and people shouldn’t have to go through shit experiences just to see their favourite band. There should and can be space for everyone.

KE: Yeah guys we can do better. Don’t be that guy. #tallboystotheback.

Can you give us a little insight into the song “Haunting”?

KE: That song is actually about the (not real) haunting of me by my Dad’s ghost. He died a few years ago, and it’s really more about feeling like he’s still with me, everywhere I turn. It sounds weird and creepy, but to be honest I find it really comforting. That said, it’s also a funny song, and we like spooky stuff, so I don’t think I’ve ever told that story before!

I really love the song “Hot Tea” which is about gossip. You’ve previously commented that “If people spent half the amount of time and energy that they spend gossiping creating something positive, the world (and Melbourne) would be a much better place to live” … know them feels. What helps you stay positive?

KW: I stay positive by going to shows, seeing friends, making art and seeing bands, and only playing in nice venues with nice people, walking our dog every day, and riding a bike everywhere is super fun.

KE: Staying away from drama. Everything is political, it doesn’t mean you need to involve yourself in the politics of everything. Live your life in a way that benefits your community, directly and indirectly, and support those around you. Pick your battles.

What’s one of the coolest positive things you’ve seen, heard or experienced lately?

KW: Recently we discovered a bunch of animals we never knew existed, and it’s brought us so much joy! That there can still be animals that I’ve never heard of in my life that can be so weird and cool and cute and ugly. Like the Chinese Water Deer – have you seen this thing? It has fangs?! Why? It’s so cute. So let’s look at it and be happy.

KE: Those animals and dogs. Just all dogs bring me joy. I also feel like working with more people in our community on this release has really made me happy and made me feel the love. Working with Carsten and Kahlia from Roolette Records, and all the members of Zig Zag who are all so great and inspirational, has humbled me a bit and made me realise how lucky we are to be a part of a bigger thing than our band.

Hearts and Rockets have a strong visual component, your film clips and album art. I especially love Power’s still life photo cover. How did you arrive at this concept?

KW: I make weird art allllll the time. I’m a photographer and illustrator, and it all feeds into each other. I made a series of photos for this album that you can see on our bandcamp, one cover for each song. I wanted to portray something really soft and colourful to show that there can be power in being gentle.

KE: I watched Kalindy go from this vague idea, to such a strong concept. I have zero to do with the visual element of the band and am constantly in awe of it all. I agree with you that it is a huge part of the band. We have so many video clips! One more to come very soon. I feel like the visuals of the band inform decisions more than being informed by them.

Live you perform with a drum machine; is that out of necessity as a guitar/bass two-piece or do you simply prefer that sound?

KW: The reason we have a drum machine is coz it sounds cool, not because we don’t have a drummer.

KE: We just love using those sampled sounds! It suits the music we make, and was a conscious decision from the start. This new single is actually the first release to feature some live drums at the end, performed by Matt Chow who mixed and mastered the release. All our other drums are 808 and 909 samples, some through filters or re-recorded. We feel like getting through that barrier with people who only like or are used to a traditional rock set up with live drums is difficult, but not one that we worry ourselves with. Plus, it makes travelling easy.

You’re self-described as a feminist bratwave punk band; why is it important to be a feminist?

KW: Because the world still sucks for some! There is still inequality, and there shouldn’t be, that’s why you should be a feminist. That’s why everyone should be a feminist.

KE: And while we’ve always identified as feminists, we actually started making a point of it on our Facebook page and other places to deter dude-bro bands from asking us to play with them. We kept getting asked to play these all male punk line ups with bands that were clearly not centring the ideals that we think are important… Like, if us being feminists scares you off then GOOD we don’t wanna play with you. It worked a treat.

What’s something else that’s important to Hearts and Rockets?

KW: Being brats! Existing. Making stuff we’re proud of.

KE: And being active in our community and participating in a positive way. With the state of the world, it’s really all we have.

In the spirit of your album title; where do you find your power?

KW: In myself, I’m powerful! and the people I surround myself with.

KE: Yesss, this. and in seeing  people I love and admire do the things they love. That inspires me so much. Hearing that Zig Zag song for the first time.

Please check out: Hearts and Rockets. H&R bandcamp. H&R Facebook. H&R insta. Their record label, Psychic Hysteria. Kalindy’s photography and art.