Tom Iansek on writing #1 Dads’ newest album and the therapy of creative expression
#1 DADS was never intended to be such a big deal. The Melbourne band was founded as a side project by songwriter and musician Tom Iansek a decade ago, in between his duties as one half of the already successful duo, Big Scary. Fast forward to 2020 and #1 Dads (formerly known as just Dads) have released their third studio album, an emotional journey through song entitled, Golden Repair. The name draws its meaning from the Japanese artform of Kintsugi, where broken pottery is reformed with a golden lacquer to enhance its unique cracks. It’s the ultimate homage to life’s imperfections and turning these imperfections into a thing of beauty, a theme that resonates throughout the album.
With the juxtaposition of melancholic lyrics fused with bright musical tones, Golden Repair serves to be a creative work for healing- not just for those who listen, but for Iansek throughout the creation process itself. In singles such as ‘Another Day’ and ‘Freedom Fighter’, themes of endurance, knowing that all will be OK and finding light amidst dark times are framed by comforting melodies tapped out on bright piano keys or chords strummed on zingy guitar strings. Speaking on the album, Iansek says “this album has formed part of my own restoration as I have grown as a person and as an artist and continued to peer deeper into myself, not necessarily liking or being able to accept everything that I find. It is thus an album of light and shade, of death and new life, and that path we continually walk towards the latter.”.
With all this being said, Golden Repair’s arrival seems as though it could not have occurred at a more poignant moment in modern history, as the world grapples with the terrifying pandemic of COVID-19, climate change and a multitude of other upheavals ensuring the status-quo remains unstuck. We chatted to Iansek from the depths of ~isolation~ about the new found relevancy of Golden Repair, detachment, creativity and how growth is possible from even the most fractured of circumstances.
We’ve been following you over the past week doing your gigs for Isol-Aid and what not. Was it a weird experience performing in an online environment like that?
Tom: It was like… Yes, weird. But actually really cool. I was quite nervous, which is funny, just because it was a different sort of thing. I’m more nervous playing at a friend’s wedding than I am at my own show and this was a similar sort of thing. I was essentially just singing into my phone in my living room but I was nervous [Laughs]. Once I started doing it, it was fun and it was naturally such an interesting medium because you’re just sort of looking at yourself and there’s this stream of hilarious chit-chat flowing the whole time.
It’s a weird situation because you can actually see what your audience is saying during your set, right?
Tom: Yeah, and there were all of these little group conversations happening in the one stream as well. I saw my own friends and stuff all saying hi to each other and other people wishing their friend a happy birthday. It was like being at a gig and people are having these conversations but you actually hear every conversation.
Were you able to go back after the performance and read the comments that you’d missed? Were you ever like, ‘Why were people talking about that during my show?’?
Tom: [Laughs] Yeah. I did watch back the #1 Dads one and it was mostly just funny. A lot of comments were from my mates so I can’t complain too much, but it was really funny and I did enjoy it. I thought it was really cool.
For sure. So, of course we’re talking about your project #1 Dads today. The project is coming into its tenth year now. Did you ever expect it to last this long?
Tom: Well, here’s the thing about this project. When I started it, there were no expectations. It was initially a way to keep writing and making music in-between Big Scary’s album cycles and that’s kind of all it was. I just enjoyed writing and recording music and it was just an avenue for me to enjoy doing that. Eventually I had an album’s worth of songs and so I came up with a band name and that became #1 Dads. It was only once I made a second album that I was like, “Oh, I should start playing some shows maybe,” and then was kinda shocked to realise that people were keen to come along and see the show. We did an awesome tour, it was years ago now, but it was one of the best, biggest tours I’ve ever done personally. And it was all off this project that I didn’t really have any plans for or thought would be anything.
I guess because #1 Dads did begin as a side project and a lot of the music is very personal and different, there are a lot of fans who would be able to relate to those feelings and you would have great shows because of that. Is that a fair assumption?
Tom: Yeah, I guess so. It’s hard to say how some things connect and others don’t. I feel like initially- because we put so little into promoting the project and the album because then it was all about Big Scary- in terms of what we got out versus what we put in it was quite a big difference, if you know what I mean. Like, we’d barely promoted it and we’d sold out, like, Oxford Arts in record time in Sydney. You wonder where it all comes from or if there is something else there.
How did you manage to strike the balance between these two projects when even business-wise, they seem to be operating in different ways? Would you say it’s intuition?
Tom: Generally with all my art I’m a very intuitive worker and just go with my gut on what I think is the right thing to do next. It has been challenging to balance both. Big Scary is a project I share with Jo [Joanna Syme] and so time spent on #1 Dads is time spent away from Big Scary and so that affects Jo. I also started another project No Mono so time spent on either of those projects was time away from No Mono and so it has these effects on people around me. It has been challenging, but at the same time I’m wanting to trust my gut instinct on what feels right next. It’s a constant work in progress, that part of it. And a lot of it is really just maintaining good relationships with those other people and another part of it is working efficiently. Just doing all the things you want to do, good time management and what-not.
So true. So back to #1 Dads, you’ve got this new LP out and it’s called Golden Repair. I love the meaning behind the name for this body of work, which makes reference to the Japanese artform of Kintsugi. That whole idea of taking something that’s perceived to be broken and turning it into a beautiful work of art. How do you feel like that idea resonates throughout the album for you?
Tom: In many direct and indirect ways that’s sort of what’s underpinned the entire album. Like, my own experience of myself or those close to me going through difficult things and then coming out the other side of it. It’s the same idea of piecing yourself back together… The thing is that it’s those blemishes that aren’t blemishes at all. They’re sort of beautiful because they’re parts of ourselves and they’re beautiful because we all experience difficult things that can break us down and are really hard for us. It’s what you do with that experience and how you come out the other side that tends to differ a lot. One part of it is firstly, can you accept it? To let it be and own it and know that your life is richer having gone through these things. I think that’s the essence of this album. The Kintsugi thing actually came after I’d finished the album when my Dad randomly mentioned this Japanese to me. I pondered on it for a bit and I just thought it fit so perfectly for how this album has come together.
Listening through the album it really is sort of like a journey from destruction through to creation. Like it starts off quite dark and builds its way, crescendoing up and there are a lot of songs that are really empowering musically. When you’re writing such intense songs, what emotions are you experiencing and how do you harness that?
Tom: It was an interesting writing process because on one hand I was kind of mining these difficult experiences, and some of these experiences aren’t even like one traumatic event, but maybe just a difficult emotional period. Just a time with a very strong negative emotion or a challenging event that’s much more nebulous and hard to pin down. There’s all this dark content but then musically there was this real lightness to everything, like it didn’t want to be dark at all and wanted to be uplifting. It’s strange fitting this darker content into these bright, smiley packages.
Would you say that it makes a song healing to listen to when you strike that contrast?
Tom: I totally hope so. All I did was try and work intuitively and I didn’t set out to make a healing album or anything. It was certainly healing for me to do it at the time. I took myself away for ten days and left the city. It was as much of a little retreat for me as it was a ‘writing song time’. I looked after myself and ate well and did lots of exercise and relaxation things and it was physically healing. So at the same time I was finding these experiences to make these songs and there is a definite therapy. Anyone who writes a song or does anything creative can understand the therapeutic side to doing something artistic. It lets you spin tough things into something beautiful that you can maybe look at and bring some understanding to what has happened or maybe some closure. It’s kind of hard to explain but I think there’s definitely a very strong therapeutic element to creativity. I don’t want to prescribe any way for people to perceive this album but I have heard some stories already and it’s been quite uplifting for me that these songs have helped people in a way.
Art is therapy, that’s so, so true. This whole process of retreating and being able to write in the solitude that you’ve found, is that a method that has featured heavily in your songwriting in the past or is it something you’ve found more recently as you’ve gone on through your career?
Tom: It’s definitely been something I’ve always done. I think there’s just something about when you’re just in your usual places and have your usual ways of doing things. You’re just sort of practiced to doing things a certain way and by stepping out of that physical location you’re able to step away from how you normally do things and break the “normal-ness”. It helps me to access a different space and look at things a different way to create something. To write a song, you do need to take yourself to a different space internally and it’s not necessarily a space that you have in your day to day happenings where you’re digging deep into yourself.
So just like removing yourself from the menial tasks of the everyday?
Tom: Yeah exactly! And I think the city has a certain energy to it as well and it’s important to have space for being able to access inspiration. Physically that can translate into being away from a city or a place with that strong energy. Being in nature can naturally provide that space where there’s not as much going on. It just feels different.
And speaking of getting away from reality and getting into some weird times, you’ve just announced the tour for Golden Repair is scheduled to be happening at the end of June. Given everything that’s going on at the moment with Coronavirus and travelling and things like that, are you getting nervous about the dates you’ve set out?
Tom: Ah yeah, so on that… So basically, we really want to tour this album this year. So if we stick with those dates that we have locked in then there’s a chance that they may not go ahead, which would mean that we couldn’t then tour this year just based on how far ahead venues get booked. What we’re doing is we’re actually sussing out venues- the same venues- for later in the year so we can bring the show around the country. The only thing is that most of the touring Australian music scene is also looking for dates around that same time so it’s quite challenging for a lot of these artists who are in the same boat to come up with a new arrangement. We are just doing everything we can to get some dates available so that we can tour the album this year and once we do know what’s happening we will announce that. But yeah…
Well, it’s lucky that Golden Repair is the album that it is because I think, in this day and age, it’s going to be a great piece of work for people from all walks of life that are in need of a little empowerment.
Tom: Aw, thanks. I hope so.
Stay tuned for details on #1 DADS’ upcoming tour here.
Image: JAJ STUDIO
Interview by CLARE NEAL