Moon Holiday and Marcus Whale on the merits of pop, being uncomfortable and how they see the world
MARCUS WHALE and MOON HOLIDAY – both known for their left-field and progressive music, both known for making listeners really feel with their music, and both set to play our party this weekend at KING STREET CRAWL.
With MARCUS WHALE having released his debut solo album, Inland Sea, to widespread critical acclaim, and MOON HOLIDAY on the precipice of relaunching her musical project, this is an incredibly exciting time for both artists, so it as a no-brainer that we jumped at the chance to document a conversation between the two.
With insightful and personable questions asked by each, please enjoy this deep and constructive interview between the two artists. We hope it makes you think, and makes you love them even more as it did for us. For more information on our party at KING STREET CRAWL, see HERE.
Moon Holiday interviews Marcus Whale
Moon Holiday: You’ve got Collarbones, BV and your solo project at the moment. I’ve seen them all live and they’re each distinct performances. Do you notice yourself adopting different personalities, moods or modes of thinking for each?
Marcus Whale: Yes! A lot of it is to do with the context of the music. Even before [thinking about] the style of the music, it’s the context of the music, the context of the making the music. For instance, BV is made with all three of us in a room together and we’re thinking about how the music will sound live in a club environment. The words and the lyrics and the vocals are generally, 80 percent of the time, written maybe an hour before we go on stage to perform. Contextually that’s about how it feels in the room, what will it do for people, to people.
MH: Like translating the writing experience straight to the stage?
MW: Yeah, there’s no filter there about the recording. The recording’s almost a secondary thing: “How do we render this into a recorded form that’s also interesting?” Which is maybe the opposite to how most people work these days, where it’s like, “How are we going to make this track work in a live context?”
MH: It’s more like a band than anything else.
MW: Ironically it’s more like a rock band. Originally going into this phase of BV, when we started making the tracks that will be out on the mixtape in October, we did a couple of rehearsals in rehearsal rooms, which is something we never usually do, with the express purpose of writing and thinking about the vocals in the room and writing the beat around them. That’s kind of an illustrative example of the psychology of BV.
Collarbones, on the other hand, is a pop music band. The idea for me is, “How do we make this song pop?” That even covers tracks of ours that are less accessible, maybe, a little bit more experimental. It’s still about –
MH: Taking some trope from pop music and then pushing it.
MW: Absolutely, using it as a format, as a framework to write songs usually about love – love songs. And in the live environment it’s quite a different psychology because I’m trying to be grand and emotive, but also really energetic, to try and get the crowd to engage with what the song’s about and what I’m feeling. BV’s a lot about confrontation, presenting something and throwing it down.
The solo stuff is a lot more introspective and vulnerable and fragile. As a result it’s a lot more stressful to perform. When I’m in there, performing for people, I feel totally exposed. I can’t use all the different tricks to make people pay attention, or listen, or enjoy themselves the way that I do in BV or Collarbones. As Marcus Whale, I have to let the songs be presented as they are and hope they work.
MH: It’s a commitment. It’s already pretty thought out and you’ve just got to commit live. That’s what it seems like.
MW: And absolute commitment. Commitment’s important for everything, but the level of the commitment and the importance of the commitment is really high for me because the songs are so serious. And sometimes I struggle with that, since I’m not a very serious person to talk to socially. So when I come out there with these songs that are deadly humourless, I find it hard to hold onto that the whole time when I’m performing.
MH: But I think you do. When I’ve seen you solo, you do have have total commitment. It’s nice, because the banter you do is still you, and it’s not always so serious. That strengthens the commitment because it’s a contrast. If you want to convince someone of something, tell them about something but also leave them some room to decide. A little bit of a joke to ease the tension and keep people in it.
MW: The level of tension is, I think, why that’s necessary. I feel tension constantly when I’m performing the material. It’s unbearable. Straight away when I finish a song I’m so relieved.
MH: And you feel it when you’re in the room, too. To be in the audience, to get something out of it, you have to listen. There were these two guys who were drunk at this one performance and the crowd around seemed to make them feel uncomfortable. So it works in the crowd as well.
MW: That’s totally what I’m aiming for. I want that tension to permeate the whole room.
MH: Next question – I feel like we’re at a point where things are evolving and we’re maybe coming out of that phase of electronic music being so awkward. What do you want to see more and less of in others’ live performances?
MW: I want to see more of people showing us who they are or at least who they’ve decided to be. I know what it sounds like. I want those sounds to be elevated and exploded into performance rather than just presented. And that’s one reason why there’s some performers I really like that might only use a backing track and singing. Then, the performance element is what I find important. How are you performing? What are you telling us with this music? What’s the narrative? What’s the feeling? Music can be incredibly emotional and beautiful, but if you don’t let it be that in a performance context, it’s diminished.
MH: It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot because I’m doing a whole new live set and more of what I want to do is that – I want to become the music on stage. I’ve always had trouble with that being solo and also that thing you fall into as an electronic performer of recreating something that’s already been done better in the recording. So, this time I’m relying more on backing tracks and I’m doing what feels dynamic, what feels like I can move and perform through.
MW: That’s absolutely the way to go in the future, I think. We understand how things work now, audiences have an amount of understanding that means that not everything is incomprehensible, but gestures and physicality are comprehensible. If you’re doing everything, it’s not interesting. I’m really glad that we’re coming out of that now in Australia.
MH: I read, when you put out Inland Sea, about you exorcising more personal demons through the making of it. I think there was an idea about desire, that you were sick of looking up to this ideal?
MW: I know what you’re talking about there, it’s my relationship with the power of men, often straight men and boys. It’s interesting you’ve gone to that rather than anything else since it’s the most personal aspect of the album. A lot of Inland Sea was about problematising the way that I have always privileged them in my gaze. I don’t do that anymore, but it’s partly because of making Inland Sea, thinking “What is this for, what’s it about?” What does this desire to glorify the already glorified achieve in my life, in the world? Doesn’t this just re-assert the patriarchal nature of the world?
MH: The political stuff plays back into that, because every part, every level is about this colonial idea of who is at the top.
MW: A lot of those thoughts were also to do with the fact that sexuality is about power and we can’t get away from that, but we can understand it and think about it and problematise it.
MH: The things that you think you want can be incredibly problematic and that’s why I wanted to ask you about it because in a way I do the same thing, through writing about emotional stuff, it examines that. I have that same history. There’s something powerful about that male figure. There’s something really classic, in my case being a woman, of being down here and there being this unintelligible, powerful being having all this control over you.
MW: And it’s this paradox of wanting it, to be submissive. It’s like, “Why do I want this?” For me it was, “How do I stop projecting about people through their presentation?” There’s so much more to a person and how you can be sexual with a person than the presentation of power. That was what was littered through my youth – being attracted to the power that someone could have over me.
MH: The BV mixtape is finally coming out soon. What are you most excited for people to hear?
MW: I’m excited for people, for the first time in a long time, to be able to experience the energy and attitude of a live BV performance. At the moment people still, I think, unless they’ve seen recent performances, think we’re what Black Vanilla and the Black on Black on Black mixtape was. I’m just really excited to get out something that’s more towards the feeling I have about music. I’m bored of people wanting to have a fun time and forget that the world is –
MH: It’s not all a big party. We’ve all come to a point of awareness where you can’t just be like “Yay!”
MW: This is borrowing a bit – Kirin J. Callinan’s album is called Embracism and I read that the reason why it’s called “embracism” is because it’s an antithesis of escapism. You have to confront, embody and contain things that exist in the world, rather than using art and music to ignore them. I think that’s the same dynamic BV is going for.
MH: I like that idea. Embrace what you’re uncomfortable with, get right up close. What have you been listening to lately?
MW: I’ve been listening to a lot of metal. I mostly listen to doom metal. There’s a new album by this band, SubRosa. A woman sings in it – it almost feels a bit folky – alongside lots of violin and doom guitars. They kind of sound like Isis, but the attitude is totally different because of her songwriting. She’s very up in the mix and what she’s singing about is the centre of the music. I find them really powerful. On a similar tack, I’ve been listening to lots of Chelsea Wolfe. She used to make more folk music and then she started working with bands like Russian Circles. Now she makes quite heavy music that she sings over in this siren-like, beguiling voice.
MH: What do you wish you could do next? This can be fanciful.
MW: I want to be in a doom band.
MH: I thought you might say that.
MW: And my new stuff is getting a bit doomy.
MH: Would you actually get people to come in and play guitars?
MW: I think I might.
MH: You’re in the right spot!
MW: I’ve wanted for years to be in a heavy band. I’ve always been making electronic music or been in not very good heavy bands. It’d be really nice to achieve that. I have a guitar, but it’s shit, I don’t have a good amp, so it’s a bit of a distant goal.
Marcus Whale interviews Moon Holiday
MW: You’re returning as Moon Holiday after what was quite a long period on hiatus and with the possibility of not coming back. What’s brought you back?
MH: I tend to, unlike you, go into periods of hiatus. I’m always thinking about what I’m going to do, always have an urge to at least write something. I got really uncomfortable with the idea of myself as a performer. I had to reconfigure what I was doing and how I was comfortable with presenting it. I wrote some stuff with Hamish and George [of Sydney duo Cliques] over last summer and it was all going great. It was a reasonable flow-on from stuff I’d been doing before, but working with those guys the production was better. We were kind of going for the pop thing, but with the knowledge that if you go for it and you all have other interests, you’ll fall somewhere interestingly short of it.
We were all on the same page, that was going well, but I had sort of a personal identity crisis that resulted in not only taking hiatus from music but also going back to uni, starting to write things about photography particularly, these introspective pieces –
MW: Musical pieces?
MH: No, I guess it’s more like journalism. I have a piece coming out that’s going to be published in my friend’s book next month, a long-form piece on an emotional response to this photographer Joanna Piotrowska. I realised I had more to say than I was comfortable trying to do in a pop format. It kept being so difficult because what I think about the world and the way I feel doesn’t fit in there.
MW: I can absolutely relate to that and I have three bands!
MH: And even then there’s still more! So I became uncomfortable with having just one project. I’ve come back because I have these other projects: writing about photography, keeping a journal every day, academic writing now I’m back at uni, which I really enjoy. Diversifying allowed me to come back and write pop songs again. And they’re still very emotional and do say a lot, but they can only, for me, sum up this vague territory.
MW: What do pop songs give you, then, that other types of writing don’t give you?
MH: They are quite vague sometimes – you can feel them deeply – but they can change meaning over time, that’s what i’ve always liked about them. Whenever I’ve put out music before, I’ve found its meaning long after putting it out. If I ever listen back to old stuff that I’ve released or even just demos, it’s quite interesting to see what I was thinking then. Other people might interpret it completely differently and I find that interesting too. And that comes with a lot of the stuff you have to do as a more pop project, like do a music video or whatever and you sometimes find meaning through that as well.
MW: What’s different about your writing – not production, but songwriting – in this iteration of Moon Holiday, as opposed to the previous two or three.
MH: There’s more straightforward main vocal lines. It’s written to sing live, mostly. I’ve stopped using as much – in fact all of the new stuff has no tuned vocals, no automatic pitch shifting.
MW: That was a real hallmark of Moon Holiday before.
MH: And I still like that, but I wanted to do something differently this time that was a bit more friendly to the live environment. I’m going to play both; I’m going to keep the old stuff, but I’ve stripped it back a little bit. This time, I’m writing bigger vocal melodies.
MW: Earlier Moon Holiday songs, I think of them in my head as being intimate. Even though there’s a lot of reverb and it sounds big, I still find them bedroom, headphone experiences. Your new single, ‘Out of Bounds,’ to my ears, sounds like you bursting out of those smaller spaces and exploring some really big sounding production and grander songs. I wonder firstly if that’s your experience of it, and what this sonic zone or cultural zone helps you express.
MH: It is my experience of it – the production is sparser, not as many tracks going on at once, but it’s also a lot bigger. I think it allows me to feel freer in performance. There’s nothing to hide behind with the lyrics as well, they’re quite easily heard. I was probably trying to say too many things before, now it’s a little bit more simplified. It’s about commitment again – it’s easier to commit to. I’ve only done one performance of the new material so far, but it already felt easier.
MW: Is this your [Cocteau Twins‘ album] Heaven or Las Vegas moment? In the way that, on that album, the vocals are right to the front, the guitars are less weirdly effected, the band format’s much more simplified. I feel like Elizabeth Fraser was exposing herself more, her songs being elevated by the band, rather than being inside the band.
MH: I think that’s true, I’m not inside all those reverby, pitched vocals. I was editing a track yesterday for live that I did before and there were ten vocal tracks at a time without there being a main melody at all. There’s a lot going on. Now, there’s a message, there’s a strong line and the rest comes around it. Mostly, on the new songs, there’s a doubling at most, or just a nice harmony, rather than all this stuff going on.
MW: Lately, you’ve been performing [on keyboards and vocals] with your very good friend Rainbow Chan. How have those experiences have made you think about performing live with Moon Holiday?
MH: I think one of those things that made me come back to it was that she kept me in that world. She’s inspiring to me in a lot of ways. In a musical sense, it’s the way that she doesn’t seem to worry too much about how people are going to take it. She kind of just does it and it works because it makes sense. She’s confident and she has something to say. I think performing with her – you can get really scared about performing live if you haven’t in a long time. You just forget what it feels like. There’s actually not that crazy divide between you and the audience that you can imagine after a long time. It’s much less intimidating when you realise that you can be on a stage and, as long as it’s authentic, confident and you’re expressing yourself, it will fall into place.
MW: Given this insight that you’ve gained, are you looking forward to playing on Sunday [at Purple Sneakers’ King Street Crawl event] in a different context?
MH: Yeah, I am! Because it’s going to be the first one since March, I played at the Biennale in March. That was great, but it was more art world. It’s going to be nice to return to a more musical place and play the new stuff, which I’m really happy with, so I feel it’s going to be fun.
MW: What’s the live set up?
MH: No laptop, it’s all sampler, keys and live singing.
MW: And you’re alone?
MH: Alone, and spatially, I want to have the keys over here, sampler over here, so there’s space to take the mic off the stand and inhabit the stage, rather than being so fixed on and have to stare at what’s coming in on the laptop screen. I know what I’ve got to do on the keyboard, the sampler is a simple machine, it’s mostly going to be quite a lot of backing track and the more dynamic stuff on the sampler and the keys. It’s going to make more sense.
MW: That’ll be great, you’ll be more open, there’s no table.
MH: Yeah, the table can really fuck off. That’s what I’m trying to get away from. I didn’t really used to like performing live when I needed to do so much more.
MW: I can’t perform behind a table, I just can’t do it.
MH: I don’t want to do that ever again. I know it’ll probably happen at some point.
MW: Yeah, when you get to the venue and they’re like, “We’ve got a table for you!”
MH: But even then, Rainbow and I had that, we were given a table and we just put the table to the side and used the side of the table. Unless you assert yourself in a live situation, people tell you how to play live. And they don’t realise that it’s really important that that’s on the right hand side, that’s on the left hand side.
MW: This is a different context, but it’s like how Nicki Minaj says, if you accommodate people, they won’t accommodate you. If you want to be a star, you have to act like one. That’s kind of funny, but –
MH: But you can take it to the level you need to, you don’t have to act like a diva. You want to walk in there and say, “What needs to happen is this.” I never used to – it’s that especially female thing about wanting to be agreeable all the time. I’m so done with that.
MW: It’s a waste of your time.
MH: It’s a waste of everyone’s time!
You can catch Marcus Whale and Moon Holiday perform LIVE at PURPLE SNEAKERS AT KINGS STREET CRAWL.
Over two stages, the good times kick off at 12pm sharp and go right through until 10pm, so strap on your best dancing shoes and meet us on the dancefloor!
Purple Sneakers and FBi Click Present:
Purple Sneakers at King St Crawl
Newtown Hotel, King St, Newtown
Sunday 4th September, 12pm-10pm
(In alphabetical order)
The Completely Boys
Elizabeth Rose (DJ Set)
Marcus Whale (Live)
Moon Holiday (Live)
Purple Sneakers DJs
Ribongia (DJ Set)
The Possé (Live)
Photo credit: Moon Holiday image courtesy of Alex Johnstone. Marcus Whale image courtesy of Good Manners.
Intro by Emma Jones.