Tower Of Song

14 June 2012 | 6:13 am | Jason Kenny

Perth balladeers The Siren Tower deliver an album that embraces their heritage and ancestry, as Jason Kenny discovers.

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There's no easing into the debut record from The Siren Tower. The opening track throws you straight into the boot, locks it behind you and tears down the highway into some anonymous town in the Australian bush. There's no mistaking it – this is a record that embraces that landscape.

In recent years there've been a swag of Australian musicians pushing what it means to write about Australia and Australian mythology, taking stories of the bush and the landscape beyond John Williamson. With this release, The Siren Tower find themselves in the company of The Drones, Kill Devil Hills, Augie March and fellow Perth muso Justin Walshe, whose last album firmly claimed his place as an Australiana balladeer.

“It's becoming pretty clear that that's something people have aligned us with and that's really flattering to us,” says frontman Grant McCulloch. “I grew up hearing stuff like Paul Kelly and the Oils singing about our country and people, and stories that were so relatable, but that seemed to go away for a long time; one of the things we wanted to do from the outset was try to bring that back.

“As I've gotten older I've become increasingly interested in history. Across the board really, but when you have some direct connection to a time and place, there's a real romanticism about it. I guess that's why there's a certain Aussie mythology-feel to a lot of our music.”

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The three musicians at the heart of The Siren Tower cut their teeth around the Perth scene in very different bands. McCulloch was in Heavy Weight Champ; Brody Simpson played in Anti-Static and Mark McEwan still plays in Nix. Those bands might be far from the loud folk balladry of The Siren Tower – and it is loud – but it gave the trio a strong foundation to build from and to know exactly what they wanted to do with this project. One of those things was to build a whole lot of strong narrative-driven songs.

“It's funny, you'll get artists who will kill themselves for their music, working the parts out, arranging, re-arranging, slaving over production, and yet the lyrics are a stones throw from Roses Are Red. It's something we always concentrate on in The Siren Tower, and it's about getting specific, getting inside the stories; touching the true grit that sits in the background of your characters' lives, that's the good stuff. Roses Are Red doesn't really cut it, you know? I want to hear about the old vase the roses are sitting in, the one your grandmother was given as a gift on her wedding day by the guy she should have married.”

The depth and history of American folk and blues, with their Guthries, Leadbellys and Johnsons, seems a much richer tradition from which to draw. For many musicians, it's easier to sing about the Mississippi than the Murray. The newer wave of Australiana ballads aren't completely starting from scratch but there. “I suppose American folk, country and blues has a much richer history due to a combination of elements and peoples unique to that country,” McCulloch says, recalling the exposure to our nation's folk history in primary school. “I think one of the greatest riches to be found in the early Australian ballads is the emphasis on narrative. Characters and their stories are paramount. But I too remember getting it shoved down my throat as a kid. I hated it at the time, but here I am trying to incorporate some of those ideas into my art years later, so maybe it wasn't a complete waste of time.”

When it came time to record A History Of Houses the band enlisted the help of Forrester Savell. He's known more for his work with heavier bands like Karnivool and The Butterfly Effect rather than folk rock, but considering the band's lineage it made sense. “We actually had a dream list of five or six Australian producers we wanted to approach about the album, which Forrester was on, but before we could contact anyone, he actually got in touch with us saying he had heard our double A-side and was really keen to produce the record. So, we had a few conversations about what the band was, and what sort of record we wanted to make and everyone was on the same page, so it was a good fit from the start.”

The group spent a bunch of time demoing the songs in a studio. It meant that when it came to hit the studio in earnest, a lot of ideas were already fully formed. “We spent a lot of time managing our own conflict in the production of the record just because we're all incredibly particular about complete quality control over all aspects of the band,” McCulloch says. “But we also know there's a very organic spirit in our music, and sometimes the best way to represent it is by letting things just hang out there a bit, rough edges and all. So every track was a discussion; 'Do we leave this raw and exposed?', 'Do we layer this up and make a grand canvas?', and hopefully we've found a good balance between the lush, layered section and the intimate and exposed sections.”

Ahead of the release, the band released a series of videos showing their time in the studio. It's part of the band's inclusive philosophy when it comes to their audience. “Again it's the connection we want people to have with these songs and these stories,” McCulloch says. “That also translates to the way we interact with the people who have taken an interest in our music; we didn't want to sit in our cocoon building this thing and then just say 'it's in stores now, feel free to check it out.' We wanted to let people into the process and give them some insight into what each song is about, and in turn what A History Of Houses is about.”

There's no slowing down after the release of the record. It comes after three singles and the band realise that now the work is beginning. Single Flood has already found play on triple j and the road is opening up for their East Coast tour. “You always think after this next single, we'll take our foot off the gas or after the next tour, but that down time has a funny way of never appearing.”

No doubt there will be more tales to tell from the road when they play in those anonymous outback towns.