The Post-Rock Life
Heading to Australia for the first time, post-rock titans 65daysofstatic will be kicking things off at the Peats Ridge festival. Continuing around the country with support from Australia’s own sleepmakeswaves, we got the latter’s Alex Wilson – also a contributor for theMusic.com.au – to nerd-out on matters of post-rock with the band’s Paul Wolinski.
Back in April of this year, I went on my first tour to Europe as part of sleepmakeswaves. Our first show night was as the penultimate band of a Belgian post-rock festival, playing just before 65daysofstatic. Their amazing live energy and unique instrumental blend of electronic and rock sounds have been a huge influence on my band; having the opportunity to share the stage with them and hang out drinking Scotch and watching them MacBook DJ into the wee hours of the morning was definitely a highlight of my musical career so far.
Perhaps it was just the fact that they were British, but the guys in 65 turned out to be talkative chaps who had plenty to say about what they did and all the places they’d been to play their music. Now that they are heading over to Australia for the first time, we thought it would be a cool thing to organize a different kind of interview for them. Leaving aside the stock questions like ‘why are you coming to Australia?’ (A: they haven’t been there yet) and ‘why don’t you guys have a singer?’ (A: they don’t need one) I got in touch with Paul Wolinski (guitars, glitch wrangling) in order to talk shop: what does it mean for a band to work hard? How do we keep songwriting fresh? What keeps this kind of music exciting live?
Alex Wilson, sleepmakeswaves: “You guys won the AIM Independent Music Award earlier this year. “Hardest working band”. In my eyes, that’s a pretty enviable award. In my thorough research I scoped out your Wikipedia page, where it’s noted that you were upset back in 2005 to have only played 91 shows. What does that “Hardest working band” mean to you guys as a band that puts so much emphasis on touring live.”
Paul Wolinski, 65daysofstatic: “It’s nice, because we rarely associate with pretty much anything to do with the industry [laughs]. It’s nice to be acknowledged, you know. It’s weird though – 91 shows is a lot of shows, we were really just wanting to break the 100 barrier.”
AW: “Fair enough.”
PW: “Thing is, if you’re a band who’s made it to the next rung of the ladder; if you’re The xx or something, then I imagine that you easily do more than 100 shows over the course of a year because there’s this network in place – and your fanbase. It’s this huge machine and someone needs to oil that machine so it becomes this huge, world-spanning endeavour. By that token, I don’t think we work harder than bands like that, who really are doing it all the time.
“If you’re a band like 65, none of that network is in place. So to achieve anything close to that, you’ve got to do so much more. Not just the four of us, but for a long time there’s been a very small inner circle with a manager and Monotreme records, a couple of press people, our booking agent; about seven people. All of us together pushed it to be able to start touring like that in the back of transit vans around Europe. So it does feel like hard work. But then we get to be in a band and it’s our jobs! So why wouldn’t you work hard?”
AW: “Does it get difficult for you guys to keep that intensity up and mean it every night with the kinds of schedules you pull for tours?”
PW: “No. It's only hard when you feel too tired to be able to pull it off. It's useful that with instrumental music the same song can mean different things depending on what mood you’re in. We're not really into improvisation live.”
AW: “Would you ever like to be? I fantasize about playing a show we're we’re not trying to nail all your own parts alongside a MIDI clock for the electronics and can just be loose and bend the tune a bit. Play with the riffs and structure.”
PW: “I think we've beaten that desire out of ourselves [laughs].”
AW: “As a band that does this weird kind of music that you do and that makes most of your own opportunities happen, how do you feel about other artists in other styles that seem to relatively cruise up through a support network rapidly to the next rung? A post-rock band might be pressing their fingers against some kind of musical glass ceiling. Is that ever part of how you look at the success you’ve achieved or do you just stay on your own course without thinking about it too much.”
PW: “Yeah, we try not to get competitive about things. When we were younger, it did feel like that because you’d see so many bands breezing past you that you used to tour with or might have supported you. I think at one time The xx were supposed to have supported us. Six months later they’d won the Mercury Prize [laughs].
AW: “Those damn xx-ers!”
PW: “It can get you down if you let it, but at the same time plenty of bands have taken that short-cut route and become the hyped buzz band of the moment – and then disappeared. You come to realise that it’s impossible to generalise. Some bands will manage to build a fanbase very quickly but unless they are actually a good band, they’re not going to maintain it.
“Maybe even they are a good band, it might be an issue with the fans. I’ve sometimes felt that one of the advantages of being a band that does the thing people like to call ‘post-rock’ is that the fans are not fair-weather. It’s not like anyone would say ‘Oh, I was into post-rock when it was big during summer 2012’ – people that get into it will stick with you for life. The fanbase that you build will travel with you on your musical journey, whereas for bands that may rush into the spotlight the sophomore record might be really tough because the kids have already moved onto the next cool thing with a hot debut.
“Well, they might have been able to, you know, buy a house or something in the interim. That would be nice [laughs].
AW: “I suppose we would both agree that at the end of the day, you can only do what you do and do it as best you can. One of the things 65 is quite renowned for is the live show – you are known for playing well and often. Looking at some comments you’ve made in other interviews about recorded music and the difficulty of selling it these days, I was wondering if it’s a conscious thing to concentrate on a great live show relative to your scepticism about the longevity of recorded music?”
PW: “I don’t think that we’ve necessarily put those two things in competition with each other. It’s been 11 years now [since we started] and the way the internet’s changed music has happened over the decade in which we started. From the very beginning it became quickly clear to us that getting across the sound we were looking for in the live environment was a lot more effective than when we tried to record it.”
AW: “I feel sometimes that sleepmakeswaves has struggled to translate the energy of a live show to a record. It sounds like you guys have sensed that difference as well.”
PW: “Yeah, very much so. On our first two records, there’s energy but they don’t sound beautiful in any audiophile kind of way. They’re pretty harsh. So with the third record, we tried deliberately not to capture the live show, but make a record that played to the strengths of the studio. That didn’t really work either. I like the songwriting on that record, but it didn’t end up being what we were looking for.
“But then we were lucky enough to do this huge tour with The Cure and they were nice enough to let us use their touring ProTools rig which recorded live 64 tracks of audio. We were able to use that for our New York shows, which was wonderful. Because that was the end of the tour, we were making far fewer mistakes. We used those tracks, mixed them in our regular studio in Sheffield and as a live record that really made us think that we’d caught something closer to what were after. So when it came to do [We Were] Exploding [Anyway], our last proper record, we wrote it just using our live touring backline and electronic rig to make sure we could play the songs live. They were written to be played live and it felt like we were getting closer to capturing that energy of the live show.”
AW: “We’ve been trying to do the same thing with the new material we’ve been working on. We’re trying to constrict the instrumentation to only what can be taken on the road with us and use the need to replicate the song faithfully on stage as a self-imposed limit to guide the composition. I think this helps. Do you feel like you’re reaching a happy medium, or is more that capturing the energy of a truly great live performance is a kind of perfection that is impossible but is worth striving for?”
PW: “Yes, there’s that on the one hand, because you can get close. When you realise that so much of the power of a live show comes from sheer volume – sub-bass rattling the stage or your teeth or whatever – then you understand that you can’t replicate that just by turning up a record.
AW: “A record never hits you in the solar plexus the same way that a live show can. There’s something about that PA working a room that is crucial, especially for the epic sound of bands like 65 and sleepmakeswaves that work the dynamic contrasts so heavily.”
PW: “Yeah. We’re trying to give ourselves leeway with our new writing. It’s hard to think outside the idea of the ‘ultimate live show’ but if it needs three guitars or two drumkits or whatever we need to remember that we’re allowed to do that. Because we can do whatever we want to make a song.”
AW: “What does it mean to give yourselves ‘leeway’?
PW: “We’re always keeping the live show in mind but if there are moments where we want to add extra stuff then we’re going to allow ourselves to do it. After Exploding… we spent two months building the live show – putting the samples and electronics into our computers and adding little live flourishes and interactions and that was really good. So this time, we might try to write the next album before we record it and then take it live in the same way. And then we can learn some of the things that only happen by accident live and try to bring them into the actual studio versions.”
AW: “What were your influences starting out? What did you want to bring, electronically, to the whole rock thing. The intersection of electronica and heavy rock is one of the few styles that still hasn’t been thoroughly explored. It’s a combination that exists on the fringes and it feels like there’s a fair bit of exciting stuff left to discover. Where have you come from and where would you like to go?”
PW: “When we first started doing it, I suppose it sounded a little bit like Fuck Buttons or something. It was very noisy and it was because we were listening to a lot of exciting electronic music like Kid606 and Chris Clark. But we were aware that we didn’t just want to stand behind computers. On stage we wanted to be a rock band – At The Drive-In were also around and they were outrageous at the time.”
AW: “I probably heard them for the first time around then as well. That band changed my life. Seeing them, I thought ‘I’ll never manage it, but that’s exactly the kind of live band I want to be’.”
PW: “Yes! So, ever since then we would play every show as if it was the last one. We’ve gone full circle really. When we released Exploding…, everyone was commenting on how we’ve moved towards being more electronic. We’ve never seen it that way at all, because we’d started with all these electronic beats and noises. When we did Exploding it felt like the kind of record we’d been trying to make for the past ten years and that we’d finally pulled it off.”
AW: “What was it about Exploding that felt so good?”
PW: “We felt like we’d come so far in terms of our playing and writing arrangements. And the quality of the sound on that record was great. The very act of pulling off that record left us with this weird new horizon. That was the end of an era – unexpectedly – and now we want to push forward into new things. It’s all a bit fuzzy.”
AW: “Last question: I've done a big first year of real-deal touring. I'm completely exhausted and broke. Considering your AIM award and the fact that you are touring and working full-time as part of an instrumental rock band, do you think it ever gets easier to balance 65daysofstatic with everything else needed to feed and shelter yourselves? Have you reached a new level of security or are you still running on dreams?”
PW: “No. It's impossible. Way to end the interview on a downer, Alex!”
AW: “I agree that I probably should have planned the emotional pacing of my questions much better.”
PW: “It’s always hard. The more impossible it gets to keep going, it also gets more impossible to stop.”
AW: “A few weeks ago we bought our drummer new shoes for his birthday cause his old sneaker let the water in and he couldn't bring himself to buy new ones. Please tell me that there is at least enough in this instrumental rock game for shoe security.”
PW: “Sorry mate. Maybe you should get a singer while there's still time!”
Sunday 30 December – Peats Ridge Festival, Glenworth Valley (no sleepmakeswaves)
Wednesday 2 January – The Hi-Fi, Sydney
Thursday 3 January - The Hi-Fi, Brisbane
Friday 4 January – Corner Hotel, Melbourne
Saturday 5 January – The Bakerym Perth
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