The brand new single, ‘Keep On Running’
What was the inspiration behind Keep on Running?
Keep on Running is a song about a person who can’t reconcile their desire for both authenticity and approval. One is always out of reach of the other. He knows he on dubious quest but can’t seem to help himself.
What was the process of writing and recording?
It started with the drum track which was actually just an idea I’d recorded with Carlos Adura (of Deep Sea Arcade fame). The beat was played loosely but it still had momentum, it kind of pushes and pulls on the timing. Carlos is great.
I had this thought that if you try to swim in a “sea of approval”, you can’t stay afloat forever. All the other words flowed along behind that idea and thats what drove the song, the parts, everything. I played some big warm analog synth and guitars parts, but tried to keep it all pretty simple- I avoided big reverbs and stuff that would make it seem too lofty or impersonal. I didn’t want to polish it, because its a song about feeling like a trash bag. It was all written and recorded in one day. In fact, most of it was recorded at the moment it was improvised.
It’s quite a different sound to your previous works, how did you come upon it?
Like i said, a lot of it just happened in the moment, but to be fair, the moment has been a while in development. After the the Phantom Pains EP came out in 2010, I did a whole heap of touring with my band, and a lot of new ideas came out of those shows- it was a really creative and exciting time. We broke a lot of old rules, and tried a lot of new ideas- all with the idea of making those songs sound more human, not less. Warm, fuzzy, detuned sounds, stuff like that. The musical landscape is very inspiring right now; there’s a lot of amazing stuff to draw from, and a lot of reason to just confidently share your passions whatever they happen to be. After a few years in the wild, it seems like a new beginning, and a really good place to be.
The other thing is that this is the first time I’ve released a song that I’ve produced just on my own, so that gives stuff a certain character, because its layer on layer of one person’s instincts. Its often practically challenging to work this way, because you have multiple roles to play- like you have to be creator and editor- but its also quite liberating, because you can run a long way with an idea. I’ve always admired pop auteurs; Todd Rundgren, Prince, Shuggie Otis, Kevin Parker of Tame Impala, Joseph Mount of Metronomy, David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors, James Blake, etc, loved the unique worlds they create. It takes some confidence and patience, but I’m really happy to be doing it this way, and just completely thrilled to be part of what I consider to be a kind of golden musical age of accessibility and participation.
The story behind Phantom Pains, the song
Life is full of important, invisible things: a sweeping, ambiguous sort of statement, to be sure, but true as anything nevertheless. At some point in my life, probably my teenage years (when I overcompensated for my own turbulent internal chemistry by attempting to behave in ways that I believed were uncompromisingly rational) I denied concepts of the unseen as a matter of course. All things, I tried to convince myself, could be seen, put in compartments and rationalized. Matters of spirituality and emotion were separated. I saw little link between physical states and mental states. The outcome of this delineated sort of mindset was a sense that I had engineered myself into a fragmented person, struggling to reign in the pieces of my life that seemed to be running off like wild horses. This is not an empowered way to live, because being disconnected in this manner means you are always looking to an external source to either find your happiness or explain your lack of it. There has been plenty of popular literature in recent years about the connectivity of all things, of awareness, wholeness and unity within and between people, that sort of thing. So I need not explain it. Intuitively, now, I feel like I know that this is all correct, since, if we think of this as a spiritual law, transgression equals short-term unhappiness and long term… well, unhappiness.
At University I did a unit on silent films, and one genre we spent some time on was slapstick comedy, which, prior to studying, I’d pretty much written off as a dead art with nothing good to offer a modern audience (yeah, that was the “rational” part of me sermonizing on a soap box again). Turns out that in the right hands silent film slapstick could/can be brilliant and full of emotion and substance. I read an essay during this time that explained slapstick with this image: the slapstick scene is contrived like a machine; roaring, steaming, and spinning centrifugally. Each rotation is like an event, propelled by the previous event; and then characterizing/causing the following event, the following rotation. The machine spins faster and faster and momentum builds exponentially until it can no longer contain its own outward force and it breaks itself. When it breaks is when we laugh; the gag is the catharsis for the tension that propelled the inevitable breaking point (often in slapstick this is an elaborate series of events that end in an injury).
Why even bring this up? Well, I suppose for the reason that I see a human who is unaware of its own wholeness is like a machine that spins and doesn’t know why. It’s a tragedy or a comedy depending on how you look at it. My own niggling bipolarity is a machination not unlike the spinning gag machine. We spin because of growing inertia. We react. Then we break. Then we slowly start spinning again. I guess the symbolism is pretty obvious.
And like this spinning gag machine, the force that propels us does not work from the outside in, but from the inside out. A fragmented person, as I am apt to be, is somebody who fails to recognise one’s own culpability in this comedic/tragic whirlwind. We look to locate our problem externally, compartmentalize, and solve it. Like some sort of emotional amputation.
Forgive the long wind up (no pun intended), but this was party the genesis of the song Phantom Pains.
The lyric of the song is simple; a man cuts off his hand to atone for some past wrong he feels he has committed with that hand. After amputating his hand, however, he discovers that in fact nothing is fixed, he just in pain. (Comedy and tragedy; the material is the same, its only the tone that differentiates the two.)
Oh! These phantom pains of some lost past,
Things I used to want that did not last,
Urges I contrived to ease in vain
All it left me with is phantom pain
Along with this, the idea of a phantom limb is pretty fascinating; if you haven’t heard of the phenomena, it is the instance whereby somebody who has lost a limb still experiences the physical sensations of that limb, often in the form of pain. Phantom pain, therefore, is like the haunting pain of something lost, which I think is a nice bit of symbolism.
Bringing all that back to the rational man, the man who feels all things can be defined and contained and separated; this man sees figurative ‘amputation’ as a solution to the undesirable aspects of life, and is inevitably disappointed to discover that it is not. Cutting out a person from your life, for instance, does not necessarily remove them from your heart. Denying a waking act or repressing a shadowy thought does not ban it from your dreams or save you from erupting in strange physical or emotional symptoms.
These thoughts had been swirling around in my head for sometime and then seemed to crystallize one day for me when one of my closest friends, Matthew Chandler, sent me a short film called “The Budget Cut” that he had made while studying film in New York City. The film itself was shot in a peculiarly decorated house on Long Island. It was a strange, dreamlike space; child-like murals on bedroom walls, bathrooms tiled in gaudy colours, and so on. It appeared to be from another time, and the feeling was exaggerated further by the way Matt had shot the film. Matt had used 16mm film, which gives the now almost forgotten square television format (these days we are spoiled with wide screen). Furthermore, the camera he used had a broken lens that, like some Cold-War Russian spy camera, invented it’s own rules of focus. Like an emotionally short sighted person, this camera brought the foreground into sharpness, and everything beyond that blurred. The film grain too, seemed dreamlike somehow.
Beyond these technicalities though, was the story of a man who intentionally cuts off his thumb to receive the insurance money, only to black out and wake up in hospital with a doctor’s bill that is double what his insurance contract pays. The film, only 5 minutes long, was silent other than some quirky backing music, and played out with the kind of underplayed irony and humour that I have always found so entertaining about Matt. Straight away, I wanted it to be a film clip; it just needed a song.
At the beginning of 2010, I went to London, where Matt now lives, to play a couple of live solo shows, and I slept on Matt’s couch for two weeks in the apartment he rents with his girlfriend. The shows were on the first few days of my trip, and after that Matt and I basically just wandered the streets of London, drank endless pints, and talked each other’s ears off for two weeks straight under the dark, drizzly winter sky. There was lots of catching up to be done; lots of things to discuss, you see.
Inspired, I returned to Australia and wrote Phantom Pains the song on an acoustic guitar while watching the short film that Matt had given me on disc. To me, the two things (my song and his film) go hand in hand, though the exact storyline of the two things differ.
In regards to the final EP, the concept of Phantom Pains seemed strong to me right away: Each song on the EP was about something I did not have, or something I had once had that was now gone and whose absence hurt. Each song was a little phantom pain. So naturally, the thumbless hand from Matt’s short film seemed to become the fitting central image for the songs on the whole. I began working on drawings of thumbless hands, and eventually settled on one that would become the EP cover art. I think it’s a strong image, conceptually.
There were some other omens that made me feel like Phantom Pains was right: the day before going into the studio to record, I cut my left thumb badly with butcher’s knife at work, and wore a bandage throughout the recording session. Going back further, the first song I had written for the EP, called Dog, was written just after a tour I did with Lisa Mitchell where I had played piano in her band, since she had cut her finger very badly and could not play guitar. So there were some little cosmically aligned things like that, which I took as reassurances (see, I’m not so rational anymore.)
As with the rest of the EP, the recording of Phantom Pains the song features me on piano and guitar, Carlos Adura on drums and Nick Weaver on bass. Tony Buchen, the producer, also played a little guitar on it. It was written only a week before we went to the studio to record.
The story behind ‘Dog’
Dog is the first track to be completed for a new 6-track CD i’m releasing in September called The Phantom Pains EP. It features me on piano, farfisa and vocals, Carlos Adura and Nick Weaver of Deep Sea Arcade on drums and bass, and Lisa Mitchell on guest vocals.
Writing Dog was a turning point for me. I think it marks the moment I began moving away from concept-based, production heavy songwriting and towards a more naturalistic approach. Let me give you the story.
I’d just come off a long tour with Lisa Mitchell, who was taking her first steps towards becoming a bona fide star of the Australian music industry. I was supporting on that tour, just doing a solo set for about 30 minutes before Lisa each night. I usually really enjoy being the support act because the expectations on you are so low that really you’ve got nothing to lose. And to boot, Lisa’s audiences were very warm and open.
At the very beginning of this tour (which was a run of over twenty shows) Lisa cut her index finger very badly. With the gash on her pointer, Lisa couldn’t play guitar. When her management got word they nearly had a heart attack; it was only the second show of the run and Lisa was couldn’t play for the pain of it. It was a very nasty slice (and i am all too familiar with cut hands, which is partly the inspiration behind the new album cover art… more on that later) After one miserable, Codeine-assisted show that left blood on the fret-board, it was obvious an alternative solution was needed, which is where I stepped in.
I got on really well with the bass player Jan (pronounced Yarn) the drummer Rob, and Lisa, which comprised Lisa’s touring trio, and they suggested maybe I could play piano in lieu of the guitar parts Lisa would normally play. It was a convenient solution for both of us; they would have a harmonic instrument, and I would have something do to each night other than just sit around and drink beer. I was very happy to be invited. The first show I played with them was in Ballarat, at the same club where a year beforehand I’d had the incident that would lead to me writing the song Small Town Arsehole.
Jan, the bass player, wrote out all the chords to Lisa’s songs on ledger paper before we went on stage that first night. I put them in a pile on my keyboard and, with the help of Jan calling out sections to me as we went, played through them for the first time on stage. What struck me first was the simplicity of the chords and rhythms and the song structures. It was all really straightforward, but yet it made for really good songs. It was a valuable lesson. For years I’d consciously avoided being that simple in my song writing for fear that I would seem formulaic. I had believed that inventiveness necessarily required a degree of complexity; otherwise what credibility would I have? But playing these songs, made up of three or four basic chords, a basic rhythm, and a simple structure came like an epiphany to me. They felt natural, unpretentious, and because I wasn’t straining my brain to keep up with it, it was actually fun to play, rather than an intellectual exercise, which meant it also sounded better. I began to see why Lisa’s songs worked: it wasn’t because she was behaving like a virtuoso or the songs were epic; they were just natural, and simple enough to let genuine emotion shine through. There was an honesty and strength in the simplicity. As an engineer might say, they were structurally sound. I really learned a lot from playing those songs. I should also mention that Lisa is a very talented lyricist, and the clarity of the songs meant that her lyrics, which are poetic and thoughtful and personal, were allowed space to breathe.
It was a few months after that tour that I wrote Dog. Lisa was on another tour at the time; her star was truly on the rise and she was selling out venues around the country that were many times larger than the shows we had played together. I was thrilled that Lisa, who is a sweet heart, was doing so well. I would read bits and pieces in the newspaper about her exploits; a song on a film or advertisement, an overseas tour, an album featured on Triple J radio, all that sort of thing.
I recorded a demo of Dog on a pump organ that sits in my parents’ house and which I often return to play on. My folks restored it years ago and it’s a wonderful thing to play. You pull out the stops to get the sound you want, then you pump your feet up and down on pedals to push air through the bellows and make the instrument literally sing (I always liked the idea that an organ sings like a voice does. Each bellow is like a throat).
It just seemed to me even at that time like Lisa should sing on the track. I could hear her voice. The demo itself became the first of the new songs I sent through to my manager. I sent it through and said: “I’m starting work on a new album, and I think it’s going to sound something like this.”
I recorded it with the band during that day in April that was intended to only be a “demo day”, a kind of dry run to see if the arrangements that Carlos and Nick and I had written would work when recorded. Most of what we did on that day was of a standard worthy of more than just a ‘demo’ and we kept a lot of what we recorded then, including Dog.
Shortly after this session I got a call, coincidentally, from Lisa Mitchell. Lisa said she was playing a (sold out) show at The Enmore Theatre in Sydney, and wanted to know if I would like to sing a song on stage during the encore with her and another beautiful singer named Lanie Lane. They had put together a brilliant, folksy arrangement of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”, and had kept a verse and a harmony for me to sing. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity. The night of the Enmore show I trundled on stage, played the piano, sang the song with them and had a great old time. It was just astounding; only a year earlier Lisa and I had played to 200 people at the Hopetoun Hotel, just across the road from my place. Here I was, on stage with Lisa again, but this time she was playing The Enmore in front of 2000 people. Backstage in the green room there was a wall lined with commemorative plaques to hand out to people: “Lisa Mitchell: Wondertown” with the number of record sales emblazoned below. The room was filled with dozens of record industry types; swanning around, schmoozing, enjoying the success.
After the show I played Lisa the Dog demo and we decided it would be nice to sing on it together.
To cut a long story short, I had no idea how we were going to make it happen. She is a very busy musician, touring around the country and the world. Management aren’t usually much help: “no time” is usually their response to anything outside of their own agenda. So it was serendipity, I believe, when I called Lisa up two weeks later, and she happened to be staying in a hotel literally a block from where I live. She had an hour free that afternoon, so she came around, we had some tea, I put up a microphone, and together we wrote her vocal part for the recording of Dog, which was essentially complete except for her contribution. It was pure joy. We moved so quickly on it, because time was pressing down on us, but between her and I, the ideas flowed. With me at the controls and Lisa at the microphone we captured something pretty magical, I think. A hug and a kiss goodbye, and Lisa went off again on the breeze.
The song itself, if you want to know, is about what Winston Churchill used to call his black dog. You might also call it the blues, or the doldrums. I prefer to use any term other than the clinical one, depression, because I find the word itself to be altogether too condemning and very unfashionable.
This song is from a very difficult conversation I had with my girlfriend. Explaining to somebody that you are in an emotional or spiritual funk can be tough.