A Silent Seduction

7 August 2012 | 7:45 am | Chris Hayden

The critics are fawning all over his debut solo album, but ex-Snowman dude Joe McKee still can’t afford to eat anything fancier than baked beans. Chris Hayden buys him a sandwich.

It's fair to say that there were a few eyebrows raised back in 2010 when art-rockers Snowman announced that they'd be going their separate ways. The London-by-way-of-Perth act had given birth to three increasingly acclaimed records, culminating in Absence, a gloriously impressionistic wash of an album that was released in conjunction with the revelation that the band were calling it a day. Joe McKee was the brains trust behind Snowman and what he got up to next, which direction he decided to slide in, was always going to be of great public and critical intrigue. This curiosity was put to rest this year with the release of McKee's debut solo record Burning Boy, a distinct 180 turn for the now-Melbourne-based artist. Gone is the clattering percussion and searing falsetto, replaced by a soothing baritone, winding string sections and crystal clear lyrical imagery. Burning Boy is undoubtably one of the year's finest albums and a truly individualist effort, although to get a real sense of McKee's present and future, you have to first acknowledge the past.

“I haven't got an overwhelming sense of whether people are happy or unhappy about it,” McKee explains when asked about the break-up of his former band. “People are always curious as to why it ended when it did and what the reason was. For me it's a really positive thing, it was a difficult period at the time and I'm glad we left this minor legacy intact and didn't flog a dead horse and that's something to really be proud of.”

Always a bit of a critical darling (Snowman were famously adored by the likes of Pitchfork and about a billion other trendsetting blogs and magazines), Burning Boy has been garnering some of the best reviews of McKee's career. It's interesting to find that he isn't too fussed with the critical opinion of him.

“After a while you read enough good reviews and bad reviews that you just stop reacting to them,” he says. “The odd review that's well written – that's good, that makes me feel something and it is great and it's really cool. I don't know what I expected [with Burning Boy] but you can't really pay attention to it or buy into it. I know it sounds like an age-old cliché but it really just doesn't fucking matter. It doesn't affect sales or whether I can fucking eat more than baked beans for dinner, and it certainly doesn't affect my songwriting approach. Of course I want people to like the music and you have to admit that you don't purely do it for yourself. You kind of do want your ego to be stroked and weirdly enough that's a small part of why you're a musician in the first place. But you can't pay too much attention to reviews.”

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Part of the reason the critics are falling in love with Burning Boy (whether McKee likes it or not), is due to the density of the sound and production. Working in Perth with long-time collaborator Dave Parkin, McKee spent two weeks putting together his very own collage of sound. Playing just about every instrument (barr the strings themselves), the two friends worked feverishly in Parkin's Blackbird Studios to extrapolate the sounds and ideas trapped inside the singer-songwriter's head. At the end of the process, the need arose again to put together a live show as strong as the record. Only problem was, McKee is only one man.

“It's been a challenge, being up there on my own. I think it's been really good for me,” he admits. “It's made me learn how to sing and rather than relying on a band wall of sound to get people's attention it's now also about seducing people with silence rather than with a barrage of noise. Learning how to lure people in different ways and making the show engaging in different ways has been really good. Because these songs are so lyrical and melodic, a lot of it's about singing the melodies well and on pitch whereas Snowman was more about the wall of energy. I can't even drink before I play anymore because it'll affect my performance and it's all about clarity. It's been challenging but it's been really good for me. I've purposely tried to do this in a really coherent state and make sure I'm really present when it's happening.”

After touring the country with The Gin Club's Ben Salter and then heading out again recently with Charge Group, it seems that McKee has managed to find that elusive coherent state, and is now ready to fold some other musicians into his rambling vision. Working independently as a solo artist isn't cheap though, and flights can be expensive. However, McKee is a creative chap and has managed to find a loophole.

“The band itself is different in every state. I can't really afford to take people around with me so I've got people learning the parts in each city and it'll be different for every show,” McKee details. “It's kind of nice, it keeps things a bit interesting and keeps things on edge as well and it lends a nice improvised feel to the songs. It allows the songs to breathe a little bit more. I don't want to recreate what's on the record, mostly because it would take a lot of instrumentation and potentially a full string section and all that. But also because I see the record and the live show as different things. So far it's worked really well – I had a Moog player named Shags come up and play the Father John Misty show and I had a violin player that night as well and that was one of the favourite shows I've ever played. I felt like I had a band up there again.”

So, we're back in a (loose) band format after all. Things are very different for McKee this time around though. Whereas the different members of Snowman were so close they were almost family (and in fact became family – bassist Olga Hermanniusson and drummer Ross DiBlasio are married with kids and living in Iceland), McKee is very much the lone wolf these days. It was a heady time for those four people. They became kind of their home town and were on the precipice of dominating their country when they took a risk and moved to London. Creatively, it paid off in spades, producing their finest album and proving that they were indeed a band worthy of the world stage. Personally though, you get the feeling that they went through some heavy stuff together and, scattered across the globe now, are taking peace in the solitude. When talking about the new members of his touring bands McKee reveals that, although his strength is now within himself, sometimes it is nice to feel a bit of safety in numbers. 

“To have a bit more depth in the sound and a bit more colour and variety in the sound is the thing that I've missed more than anything else. Psychologically I suppose I feel stronger up there when there's more than one person.”