Arabian Nights

26 June 2012 | 6:40 am | Stuart Evans

“I wanted to have a more mystical name as I’m generally a shy person, but I like to take on new personalities..."

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How many did a double-take and wondered what Lawrence Of Arabia is doing in a music magazine? A few, perhaps. Blame it on that little word 'of', which in this instance is an omitted preposition. New Zealand musician James Milne, also known as Lawrence Arabia (note the missing 'of'), gets that a lot. “I wanted to have a more mystical name as I'm generally a shy person, but I like to take on new personalities. Part of the joke was that Arabia was my surname,” he laughs. It's also a brave move to adopt the namesake of Lawrence of Arabia, although luckily for Milne there are parallels. Both are charming, both are talented and both are prolific, albeit in different realms.

Milne has plied his musical tools since 2003 and dropped his self-titled debut album in 2006. Milne's also the frontman for New Zealand band The Reduction Agents, which also released an album, The Dance Reduction Agents, in 2006. The Reduction Agents had two songs appear in the cult Kiwi movie, Eagle Vs Shark, which starred fellow Kiwi stalwart Jermaine Clement of Flight Of The Conchords fame. The abovementioned albums were also co-released by Milne's own Lil' Chief Records and Honorary Bedouin Records. “Being the record label boss and the act certainly has its pros and cons,” he admits. “Managing time is the biggest challenge that I face.” Milne admits that he is a man driven by busyness.

Internationally, Milne's known for his work with successful pop outing The Brunettes. He's also toured with American band Okkervil River, playing bass guitar. Yet despite his collaborations and partnerships, Milne's preference is still to work solo and focus on his 'one-man band' approach. “When you're in a band you're really performing a role. Fronting a band also comes with more angst, but when I get the chance to work with talented friends I'll jump at it. I'm very lucky to be involved with artistic people and lucky that I can continue to work with those people as well as focusing on my own work. I have a few projects happening and like to keep myself busy by spreading myself across lots of projects. It's good to look for opportunities.”

Milne has certainly put himself out there on display in recent years. Aside from touring, he's won awards back in his native homeland and has tightened his own sound. Of course, flying solo comes with additional responsibilities, including signing off on the finished product. “It can also be harder to write and record on your own as you're responsible for every decision.” He is also his own worst enemy. “I am generally harsh with myself and am always evaluating what I do well and what I don't do well. There's something different when I'm the only one recording tracks, but it's probably due to me evaluating and being critical.”

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Yet he appears to thrive despite the additional responsibilities and pressures that come with working unaccompanied. Still, despite his achievements and successes, it's been an ongoing learning curve for Milne. He reckons the music industry is in a constant state of flux and is an industry that doesn't always know how to lead. “The music industry is terrified to innovate,” he says bluntly. “I try to do most things myself and avoid corporate intrusion, although it's important to acknowledge that other people can help.”

Not that money is in short supply. The music business may have been slow to react to the digital age and the transformation of music purchasing habits, but Milne reckons consumers' demands for music has remained. “Things are shifting as they tend to do in music. The way that money is distributed and shared continues to change and is something that most are still learning about.”

The softly-spoken Kiwi is indeed a talented bloke. He's produced music for stage and film and his latest bit of drudgery is The Sparrow, his third solo album and a response to his 2010 award-winning Chant Darling. Milne says that The Sparrow was written largely as he toured. “I wrote some of it in a back of a van and in-between shows,” he laughs.

Where Chant Darling was harmonious and had a sly nod to popular culture, The Sparrow harks back to the musical era of the late '60s. Chant Darling spawned the FM hit, Apple Pie Bed, a record that remains notoriously hard to classify regardless of its catchy hooks and rhythm. Rhythm and soul are still prevalent right across The Sparrow, even if Milne has opted for a more minimalistic approach. The witty pop elements can be heard throughout; they're just harder to find. “I feel The Sparrow is more atmospheric than my previous work.” However, in spite of songs being written on-the-move and in the back of a van, Milne says that the songwriting process was still fraught with frustration. “You always have a goal to record songs by a certain timeframe, but you can't force it, and it can be frustrating. There wasn't a magical explosion where all songs were written in one go.”

He started to work on material for the album back in 2010, whilst on tour with another one of his bands, The Prime Ministers. He was in London for most of the songwriting, hunkering down in a mate's studio to record the album. “Most of the basic tracks for The Sparrow were recorded live and I got friends to play certain parts. The process was really enjoyable and once the atmosphere was captured it felt destined to have some magic to it.”

With his progressive and innovative musical direction, including numerous bands, guises and ventures with running record labels, there remains something old-fashioned and traditional about Milne. He's a modernist with ears always flapping for what occurred yesteryear. Little wonder he's often described as a connoisseur of classic songwriting that's inspired by the sounds of the '60s and '70s West Coast movement.

He laughs, “I'm very sceptical of trends and never feel compelled to follow a trend. I'm not really a fashionable person and I listen to a lot of older stuff.”

The older stuff he refers to includes The Beatles, which was a recurring sound in the Milne household. “I grew up in a family that listen to that kind of music. There are modern records that have helped give me confidence that good stuff can be made.”