In the Details

17 April 2013 | 5:30 am | Matt O'Neill

"It’s kind of telling a story or working through that experience of beating yourself up and then finding a way to work through it all."

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The fascinations of Dean McGrath and Kane Mazlin are telling. Pop songwriters in the classic sense, McGrath and Mazlin share an obsessive relationship with minutiae. It's obvious in their songwriting – Mazlin's lyrics littered with odd, crushing little lines (“That's not the way good lovers are supposed to eat”, reads swooning kiss-off You Ain't Always There); McGrath's songs compendiums of lilting guitar figures and ambiguous, impressionistic phrasing.

In conversation, that obsession is almost overwhelming. The pair are seated outside a café in West End, discussing a cut from their recently released second album You're A Shadow – Mazlin's Colours. An idle comment regarding drummer Ryan Strath's performance has prompted an enthusiastic detour into how exactly the band's percussionist went about securing his idiosyncratic kit sound for the ballad in question.

“That Colours drum sound, I love,” McGrath says. “Right from the start, I think before we'd even demoed it, Ryan said, 'I want to detune my drums and I want to make it sound really weird'. Those drums, he's actually detuned all his drums. There's this weird compression on it and, I don't know if there's actually a slapback effect on it, but it feels like there is this slapback effect. Everything's flanning and it has this 'dun-choonk-doon-doon'.”

“It has a nice Beck Seachange vibe to it,” Mazlin adds. “It contrasts nicely with the reverb on the keys and everything else. I think that's actually one of the main reasons that song actually works. Ryan actually picked it right from the start. Colours was originally written as more of an up-tempo, pop-punk kind of song. It was Ryan and Dean that really went, 'Actually, if you slowed it down…'. It ended up developing into a nice counterpoint for the rest of the record because of that.”

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Hungry Kids Of Hungary have always been a band that have looked inward. Their success over the past six years has been predicated on mutual admiration. McGrath initially joined the band as just a guitarist; already a fan of Mazlin's songwriting. Both songwriters will describe their rhythm section as the 'unsung heroes' of their work – going so far as to claim it actually makes the band. Their admiration isn't born out of egotism, either – but that shared obsessive appreciation of detail. 

“We did an interview earlier in the week where someone suggested we were a bit of a band's band and I was kind of sceptical… But, thinking about it, we do a lot of things that people not listening from the perspective of a musician will not pay any attention to or give a shit about,” McGrath laughs. “There's this reverse piano sound on Do Or Die… Most people won't hear it or perceive it – but I know it's there. And I was adamant it had to be there.”

“It's those things you do in the studio you end up loving and you end up fighting for… And you end up completely stoked if they make the cut. Even if no-one ever actually hears them,” Mazlin says with a laugh. “I actually think, on this album, we do sound like a bit of a band's band. Maybe not on our earlier stuff but, to my ears, I think You're A Shadow sounds like it came from that kind of perspective.”

In short; they're perfectionists. Their obsession with detail is an expression of relief. It's a cherishing of that specific moment (or moments) where they managed to achieve their aims. If in doubt, consider their quest for pursuit of the ideal producer for You're A Shadow. Initially trying sessions with Brisbane's Magoo, they would later attempt to work with Berlin-based Simon Berkfinger (ex-Philadelphia Grand Jury) before finally shacking up with Sydney's Wayne Connolly.

“Those early sessions were good. They were great. We just had such a specific idea in mind for the record – and we were so determined to pursue it – that we just decided to keep trialling stuff until we found what we were looking for,” McGrath says of the album's genesis. “We were just lucky that it didn't take too long to find it. When we spoke to Wayne about what we wanted to do, he just said, 'Sounds good, let's make it happen' and we were off.”

Previously, Hungry Kids Of Hungary's work has been somewhat hampered by that perfectionism. Their debut album Escapades, released to considerable acclaim in 2010, was almost overloaded with detail. Their songs arrived coated in overdubs – strings, percussion, additional guitars. While individually excellent, each piece would tear off in a new direction stylistically – country, pop, rock, afrobeat. True perfectionists, Mazlin and McGrath aren't kind to their last album.

“I often find overdubs are used as a way to rescue a song that hasn't been recorded properly. I feel that was definitely the case with our first album,” McGrath says candidly. “There's just so much tracking on it because, if you stripped it down to just guitar-drums-bass-keys, it'd just sound empty. We had to keep layering it because we just didn't have the space to record it in or an engineer as skilled as Wayne.”

“I just feel there's a lot more heart in this one, compared to the first one. I feel much more connected to this record than I did to the last one,” Mazlin says. “I'm not sure if that's because it's necessarily a different record or just because a lot of stuff has happened since our first album. I don't know if you can actually hear it on the record, but I think we've definitely become a more confident live band over the past couple of years.”

You're A Shadow is different. Where Escapades found Hungry Kids Of Hungary obscuring their songs through layers of detail, ...Shadow's production highlights it as an act of expression. It's representative of the band's shifting priorities. The result of a particularly brutal year in the lives of the band's membership, You're A Shadow is an album driven by raw expression. Where Escapades was a record of craft, You're A Shadow is a release of catharsis.

“My songs are much more personal this time around,” Mazlin says. “While I was living overseas between records, I was just sort of by myself and chilling out... Thinking about…Well, getting really scared of the future and being afraid of all that sort of stuff. Getting old and that sort of thing. I think a lot of my lyrics tend to hang around that sort of stuff, actually. I think it's definitely a more personal album overall.”

“I think, lyrically, there's some more weight to it. It's probably more cryptic than ever – except for Someone Else's Fool, which is fairly obvious. The rest of my songs are about something specific but I defy anyone who doesn't know the whole story to guess,” McGrath explains. “It's not exactly a break-up record. It's more of a pre-break-up record. You know, it explores all the feelings and thoughts you have leading up to it but it never actually hits the event.”

It's a difficult listen. An odd, breezy melancholia. The band haven't forsaken their sun-drenched sound – but there's pain and anguish beneath the melodies. Mazlin's songs are rooted in reluctant nostalgia – Litter And Sand's Brian Wilson-like vocal veiling a bittersweet reflection on tourism's relationship to environment, for example. McGrath's work is actually gruelling. The vocalist's songs are wracked by guilt and recrimination. He seems to be castigating himself for the album's duration.

“Absolutely. I'd say that's probably the main theme of the album. For my part, at least,” he confirms. “It's kind of telling a story or working through that experience of beating yourself up and then finding a way to work through it all. The last song on the album, San Simeon, is basically about just sucking up the fact that you've got to do something and be a bit selfless. Basically, 'Stop being a dick and do what you have to do'.”

However, that catharsis lends the album its focus. In contrast to Escapades' freewheeling eclecticism, You're A Shadow feels grounded and cohesive. The band's fascination with detail orbits a considered vision of both aesthetic identity and emotional tone. Similarly concerned with exploring weightier material, Mazlin's and McGrath's songs complement each other like never before. The band's vision of a rawer, more '60s-flavoured record gives their songs frame and form.

“It's definitely layered – but the layers come more from the songwriting and the arrangements than us just throwing more instrumentation and overdubs on top of all our songs,” McGrath says. “There are barely any overdubs on this record. This time, we wanted to just get the beds done from the outset. All of it.  I think a lot of the '60s factor comes from the fact that we just wanted a warmth in the production and bass sounds.”

“It feels good just listening to the album,” Mazlin says. “I hadn't really listened to the songs for a good few months before we released it and, listening to it as a whole now, I feel very proud of what we've done and what we've made as a band.”

Hungry Kids Of Hungary will be playing the following dates:

Thursday 18 April - Kings Beach Tavern, Caloundra QLD
Friday 19 April - The Hi-Fi, Brisbane QLD
Saturday 20 April Great Northern, Byron Bay NSW
Sunday 21 April - Alhambra Lounge, Brisbane QLD
Friday 26 April - Corner Hotel, Melbourne VIC
Saturday 27 April - Groovin' The Moo, Maitland Showground, Maitland NSW
Sunday 28 April - Groovin' The Moo, University Of Canberra, Canberra ACT
Sunday 4 May - Groovin' The Moo, Prince Of Wales Showground, Bendigo WA
Sunday 5 May - Groovin' The Moo, Townsville Cricket Grounds, Townsville QLD
Saturday 11 May - Groovin' The Moo, Hay Park, Bunbury WA