Interview: City Calm Down
Three years is quite a long time when you think about it. That’s like the entirety of senior school, or in some cases, an entire University degree. Melbourne’s CITY CALM DOWN are no strangers to this length of time. After all, three years is what it took to create their debut offering In A Restless House.
Combine smooth post-punk guitars, the rich baritone vocals of singer Jack Bourke, pop-sensible synths and cyclical drumming, and you’ve got the basis of their debut LP.
After a very turbulent landing, Jack from City Calm Down graciously gave up some of his time to have a rather long chat to us about the new album, pop music, the band’s journey so far and youth in the digital age.
Wasn’t a good landing?
JB: No, it was probably the hardest landing I think we’ve ever had. But we’re all alive. I think it was that things took a bit longer when we landed, but it wasn’t too bad. I lose track of time so you stop paying attention after some time.
I guess being on tour all of your flights would blur into one.
JB: Yeah, its alright. We just do it on weekends at the moment because we’ve been working. So there’s a bit of a break between shows which gives us a clear headspace and a bit of reality.
Does that mean that yours shows are a bit of a holiday for you guys?
JB: Yeah exactly. We’ve had 4 holidays this month.
We spoke to Sam back in 2012, and that was a week or two after you guys had signed to I Oh You. How has it been since then working with Johann and the guys on the new album?
JB: Johann’s a champ. He’s backed us all the way really. He’s pushed us to get stuff done, but he’s been fairly unwavering in his faith that we’ll eventually get a record out. But by that measure, A+. I don’t want him to know that because it might go to his head.
Knowing him, probably. You guys haven’t really put music out for about 3 years now. Did you ever feel like you had a deadline for this album? Or there was pressure to get the album finished?
JB: Initially after we released the EP, Johann was kind of like guys, you need to start writing. And we had been writing and singing through ideas, but we weren’t finishing those ideas. And then things started stressing out and it kind of got to the point where we said there’s no deadline, we’re going to get it done when we get it done that’s just how it’s going to be. At that stage, Johann was like “Alright no worries”, and we started to kick on at our own pace. Because we’re still very new to what we were doing (we still are) we hadn’t released an album yet. And just working out what’s involved with producing an album and finishing songs, there was a lot of unknowns. The other thing I said to Johann was that there’s no hurry, because if it’s not any good, no one’s going to give a shit anyway. There’s never a hurry to release a crap record, and if we released a record you know a year or two ago, it would have been really rubbish. And it might still be rubbish, I’m open to that possibility. I like it, so I guess that would be more rubbish by our own standards. We’ve written a record that we all like. So that’s what we had to do, and we took our time to do it and we’re grateful that we were allowed the time to do it.
Before your live show hiatus, you guys had this really well formed electronic sound you had really locked down. You’ve headed away from that to an extent. The synths are still there, but they’re more part of the bigger picture rather than the main focus. Was changing the way that you used synths and electronic sounds organic for you guys, or something that you wanted to work away from?
JB: I think we wanted to include more instrumentation that wasn’t synths because in the past, we relied too heavily on the synths to do a lot of the work creating volume in the songs, and we felt that it was limiting because each instrument has its own strengths and weaknesses. We felt we were relying on the synths too much, so when we started writing the songs that ended up being on the record, we went back to it with an approach of just working out the melodies and chord progressions and just slowly adding the other things in, including guitars. I was playing guitars more when we were playing together, so naturally that became more of a feature.
In the songs, we don’t want any instrument to dominate and I think that we’ve got a nice balance for the most part across the album. But once we changed our approach, we were focusing on the melody. It was a fairly straight forward process – fairly straightforward in the sense that it was simple to say, but not easy to do. We then had to work out how the synths were going to get around that and Sam demonstrated a lot more. He was a lot smarter with the way he used the synths. It doesn’t mean that he wasn’t smart in the past, just not having as much to do meant he could really focus on what he was doing instead of throwing a whole lot of different stuff on there. So there was 1 or 2 ideas that really had to shine through. In that sense, it was a really good thing for everyone involved and particularly Sam as it gave him the opportunity to show what he could really do.
Talking about the instrumental side of it, I’ve read a couple of the reviews that have been out. How do you personally feel about the album being compared to post-punk and new-wave artists like Joy Division, New Order, even newer artists like Jack Ladder?
JB: We all really like those bands so it’s one of those things where it’s always nice to be associated with a band that you like. In the past, we were probably more conscious of those influences in directing our songwriting and the feel behind our songs.
When you’re first starting out and you find a sound that you like, you really try and emulate those songs and I think this time around, the influences were in the back of our subconscious and they come out without us necessarily thinking about it. And I think that’s good because instead of trying to replicate what someone else has done, you sort of intuitively draw on what they’ve done. It’s a much better approach, but it takes a while to learn how to do that because when you find artists that you really like you go, “Alright well what are they doing? Why is that so good? How can I do something like that?” It’s natural to ask those questions, but it can take a while for those questions to settle down. I guess the answer is to cover the surface without copying or anything. There’s always going to be some really heavy touchstones with whatever you do, and I would say that there are plenty in the album. We hope that we’ve been able to add our own spin onto things, though. We’ll always hear things differently to the way other listeners will because of the minute details.
In that kind of same way, were there any artists, authors or creative people that you found really helped you or gave you insight with that process?
JB: It’s a funny one. After we released Movements, and I think even until 2014, I’d never listened to The National. I remember a couple of people were like “Wow, you sound just like an 80’s version of The National” and I was kind of like alright. Even after that, I didn’t listen to them. But then I was in my girlfriend’s car one day, and she really likes The National. It had been like a year or two years, they’re her favourite band and I’d never listened to them. It so happened I was in her car driving up to the supermarket, and one of their tracks on High Violet really caught me. I thought it was really impressive.
And in terms of the person who I see as being a fantastic role model from a musical standpoint is Aaron or Bryce Dessner, they’re the two guitarists in the band. One of them does most of the instrumentation and the way he moves chord progressions and creates dissonance in those chord progressions that support those strong melodies, it’s amazing. He’s got to be one of the finest composers going around. It’s starting to be brought out in the stuff he’s doing. Like I think he recently did the score for the recent Leonardo DiCaprio film and a collaboration with someone else. In terms of a songwriting role model, he would be right up there. David Bowie has always been an easy one to touch on just because he’s always been so dynamic.
Actually, yeah when I was listening to the album, every time you were singing I could hear ‘Heroes’ in the back of my head. It was just this one song that kept coming into my head. That’s really interesting.
JB: It’s one of my favourite David Bowie songs. And I think vocally, David Bowie is so impressive because he’s able to draw in so many different moods. Even within the same song, if it was anyone else I feel like they’d conflict with one another. But he’s a master of expression, and he’s not afraid of going to odd places.
I think when we were writing ‘Son’, one of the things I distinctly remember us doing, there’s a bridge in the track where it cuts out of the verse quite abruptly and when we wrote it, we were like “Okay, this is odd”. I guess we tried to make that oddness feel natural, so maybe on first listen it jumps out at you, but when you listen to the song a couple of times, it feels like it’s meant to be there. I feel like that’s one of the things that artists like David Bowie and Ariel Pink do really well; they catch you off guard, but it makes sense. That’s what we were really trying to do with some of the songs on the record.
‘Falling’ was another one, out of one of the choruses we tried to cut into this space and that was a real contrast to everything that was going on in the song. I guess one of the things that excites us with songwriting is creating something that’s confronting musically, but that can grow on people. That song by The Weeknd, ‘I Can’t Feel My Face’, I heard that song for the first time the other day. I’ve heard some of his other stuff before and it’s not really my cup of tea, but when I heard that song I was like “Wow, this sounds like three different songs”. It just cuts into a new section, but it works. It was after I’d listened to it like two or three times, I thought that it’s an incredible song in terms of it being a pop song. It’s doing a whole lot of things that no one else is really doing in that Top 40 scene. In a similar way, that difference was probably what set Gotye apart when he released ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’.
We’re not necessarily trying to emulate those artists in Top 40 music, but really aspire to do some of the things that they do because it makes music more interesting to listen to and makes it more enjoyable to write and play. And I guess that’s what we’re trying to do at the end of the day; make music that we enjoy writing, playing and listening to ourselves and hopefully everyone else will enjoy it too, and if they don’t, fuck it. It’s impossible to know what people like anyway. Unless you were writing for Top 40 artists, I think it would be an error to do that. It makes sense if you’re doing it for a commercial purpose, but if you’re not, then you end up sort of between a halfway house trying to pick what your audience wants and not even doing what you want.
I was reading an article today in the Financial Review about the three or four guys that do a lot of writing for Top 40 acts. It was quite fascinating the way it talked about the machine of the music industry and how people like Taylor Swift – it’s one of those things you intuitively know because how could they possibly do a world tour and then come up with an album right away? But potentially, they’ve got groups of songwriters writing the next album while the artist is on tour so that when the artist gets back, there’s twenty or thirty songs; pick the best ones and off it goes. That’s a completely different end of the spectrum to what we’re interested in doing and hopefully it stays that way.
I find it hard to understand how music like yours and like Taylor Swifts can exist on the same spectrum. Because creatively, they’re just two completely separate entities.
JB: Yeah it’s definitely a process. I said to one of the guys after I read that article, “You’re almost working in two different industries and you can never aspire, at least from a financial standpoint, to be like those artists because you have to change so much to get there.” Not that we’re doing it for the money anyway, although it is nice to be able to make money because then you can keep doing it. Can’t do it for free forever unless you want to release an album every 4 years. It’s an interesting one. We’re still a long way from getting to the point we’d like to get to, which is having sort of a sustainable income that allows us to do more music. Maybe one day we’ll get there, but if we don’t, that’s okay, we’re enjoying ourselves now. We’ve been playing together for 7 years now. We’ve just got to keep chipping away, one foot in front of the other. I feel like we’re getting somewhere. Hopefully the place we’re getting to is a good place though, you never know. It might not be.
I saw this week you guys have got Triple J’s featured album and you’ve got some big festival dates coming up. What are you going to miss the most about home?
JB: We won’t be away for too long. We’re pretty good on the road together. We’ve spent so much time together, no one takes as much bullshit from anyone. We just get the job done. Here and there. I guess my girlfriend, though. My girlfriend’s pretty relaxed, although I’ve only seen her one weekend out of the last five. We’re all working full time, so there’s juggling that. You can’t do much when you’re working full time, you usually go home and go to sleep.
I know a lot of people have kind of just read off the press releases the part about you and your band mates having a few differences. I don’t really want to talk about that too much, but how would you say this experience has influenced your relationships with each other?
JB: Strengthened it. A lot. There was some fractuous times where I felt like I was at my wits end with what we were going to do to progress the album. Everyone had a bit of vito power over what we were doing, so with all different songs, we’d put our feet in the sand, head in the mud about where the song should go. If it was a three vs. one situation then one person could essentially vito everything and that wasn’t really a good way to do things. It came about as a result of us not wanting to force anyone to release music that they didn’t like themselves and it’s nice in theory, but in practice you just can’t get anything done. Out of that, we’ve become a lot stronger at least as friends. Having gone through that process together was great. We’ll have to see how we go the next time round. No doubt there’ll be some more that pop up that we’ll have to rail over. If there’s nothing else, it was a good experience. Working how to learn in teams. That’s very corporate speak of me.
This experience would probably really help you out for your next album. The first one’s very trial and error, and the second one you kind of go into it with a different headspace altogether.
JB: It’s going to be a different experience writing the next one. We’re looking forward to getting started. I think we have high expectations by our own standard – we don’t have high expectations as to outcomes though. We want to write the best songs that we can and that we’re proud of, but we’re not too caught up on everything else that’s going on. At the end of the day, it always helps if your music’s been well received because then you should make more of it.
There’s so much coming up ahead, I guess you probably haven’t even thought about the next album yet.
JB: No! We’ve actually started penning in dates to do some writing. We’re sort of aware of how long the last one took so we probably need as much time as we can get, so we should start straight away.
You’re probably on a roll now too.
JB: Yeah, that’s the other thing. We just have to keep writing because you get into a groove and when you’re in that groove, you don’t know how long it will last for. We went through probably a really productive six months, and before that, a really unproductive 18 months. Hopefully when we get back to it, we’ll be productive. You never know.
A lot of the lyrics you’ve written on this album touch on restlessness. I like that you don’t just talk about relationships, but you talk about it in more of a reflective sense. Did you tend to write based on real experiences or more of an emulated experience?
JB: A bit of both. I guess any real experience that I would have been drawing on would be well in the past. It kind of gives you an ability to see certain emotions for what they really are. When you come out of maybe a nasty breakup, it can be a bit consuming and you don’t appreciate how you’re feeling, but within the album, there’s themes that run through probably that runs life to a certain extent. I guess the overarching idea throughout the record is an emotional touchpoint for the generation we’re part of and how there is an anxiety towards the modern world.
I think our generation, particularly from an economic and political sense, see a lot of difficulties. It’s also the environment that we’re expressing ourselves in through social media, I think we’re quite desensitised to the downs and the ups. With that comes an exceptionally acute awareness of all of the bad things in the world and that feeds into our cultural outlook from our generation. It’s not necessarily that we’re not optimistic about things, but it’s more that we see difficult challenges ahead. I think there’s a whole lot of interesting things. I imagine that for our parents generation, relationships were far more straight forward. Simplicity. That’s not to say that they’re a simple generation. I think that there was less stuff to fuck with your head. As my dad’s said a number of times, the pubs close at ten. It’s harder these days to keep your head down and work. There’s so many things around to distract you. I find myself always particularly looking at my phone. That’s a hard one to block out, but I guess it’s being fixated on things.
Do you tend to write much outside of music?
JB: I enjoy doing essays and stuff at uni, but I haven’t done much since. I’ve been busy doing reading and writing for work, but that’s more in a technical sense. I enjoy the outlet of writing lyrics. It takes me a bit of a while to get where I’m going with things and there’s a lot of phrases that get left by the side. Usually we’ll have a phrase that’s come about whilst we’re jamming and I’ll expand on that phrase and write the rest of the lyrics.
Do you write lyrics as a group or do you write them?
JB: I’ll usually write the lyrics and then they’ll be reviewed by the other guys. At the end of the day, whilst I’m singing, I’m speaking to everyone in the band so there has to be ownership. It’s tricky. You’ve got to see something in the lyrics to get the expression. I feel that to be the case anyway. If I can’t see something in the lyrics, then it’s very hard to engage with them and give a very good performance.
I think that kind of goes back to the whole music isn’t something you do passively, it’s something you experience. Particularly in this digital age, I think the whole music experience has been dismissed. Like I guess you can sit down and watch performances online.
JB: I think with the songs that we’re writing, you kind of do need to sit and listen to them for a bit. I might be wrong. I guess we’re disadvantaged in that sense, you’ve got to pay attention to it a bit. My favourite records growing up and even recently are the ones I haven’t really liked on first listen, but I’ve heard something in them that’s encouraged me to listen again but I haven’t sort of gone “Oh, everything on this is fantastic”, you know it’s across 10, 20, 30 listens that you hear other things that didn’t jump out at you initially.
The environment that you listen to music in is important too. I’ve struggled to latch onto a lot of recent music. I’ll listen to it on Spotify, and you can tell in like 30 seconds that you want to change it. Whereas when you’re in your car and a CD is playing, it’s just there in the background and it filters into your brain. It has a way of allowing it to be absorbed, rather than sitting there and having to work out whether you like it straight away.
Is there anything in particular that you’re listening to at the moment?
JB: Well I bought Methyl Ethel’s CD. ‘Twilight Driving Song’, I heard it once and was like “Yep, that’s the spot.” In contrast to what I was saying before, I immediately liked this one, so kudos to them. Slum Sociable’s stuff too. I think there’s so much good Australian music out at the moment. It’s a bit of a melting pot, there’s a very strong local scene in Melbourne.
In A Restless House is out November 6 via I Oh You.
Words by Caitlin Medcalf