Band profiles are a dime a dozen, but this is a good one, whether or not you even know who the Gin Club are. This is partly because the Gin Club’s leader Ben Salter is an articulate and unpretentious fellow – most indie bands are going to be all “this was influenced by Suicide and the Scientists” where Salter just says self-deprecatingly that “we’re MOR pop” and that he likes La Roux. But also because McMillen, in a way, gets to the heart of the band and how they go about doing things, where they record, and that they’re willing to let a Salter’s farmer brother-in-law join the band simply because he’s written a good song.
Thanks very much, Tim.
This interview took place at The Fox in South Brisbane, on May 20 2010. I spoke with The Gin Club’s cellist/singer Bridget Lewis and guitarist/bassist/singer Conor Macdonald; after a couple of minutes we were joined by singer/guitarist/leader Ben Salter. They were heading to QPAC afterwards, to watch a performance of King Lear. We spoke for just over an hour; this is what we said.
Andrew: This interview is for Mess+Noise. Their audience isn’t too familiar with you guys; this is one of the first times you’ve been mentioned on the site. If it’s not too lame, I thought I’d get you guys to give some background information on how you came to be The Gin Club, and how long you’ve been involved.
Bridget: We all joined at the same time, Conor and me, Ben [Salter], Adrian [Stoyles], Scotty [Regan], Brad [Pickersgill], Ola [Karlsson], and Ben Tuite. That was us beginning in about 2003. That morphed out of a group of people playing at an open mic night. That’s where we met and then we sort of started messing around; we probably met Ola and then had our first gig with him the next week. It happened very quickly.
Conor: We did our first album pretty quick. We did it in a day, and then played more. In the first year, we played so many shows. We had residences at Ric’s and The Bowery, and Ben had solo residencies at Ric’s as well, so at one point we were playing three gigs a week, just through residencies, and then plus supports and stuff, so we played a couple of hundred shows at least in the first year that we were together and sort of slowed down since then.
Bridget: We all lost our jobs, and had nervous breakdowns. [laughs]
Before we talk about Deathwish, I wanted to return to [previous album] Junk briefly. What did you learn from recording and releasing a double album, the pros and cons associated with it?
Bridget: A lot of people said “you shouldn’t do it” and a lot of people said “it’s too long; we won’t play it on the radio”.
Conor: But it reinforced to me that most people don’t know what they’re talking about [laughs]. It’s not worth worrying at all what people think that it’s going to mean for your career. I didn’t listen to it [Junk] for a long time. Last night was the first time in ages I listened to it and it sounds really good. The songs are really strong, it’s good the whole way through, and I think that should be enough.
Bridget: I don’t think there was anything meaningful about it being a double album. People will always bring that up; it just is what it is. I know that sounds a bit glib, but we sort of made it as a snap decision to put it out as a double album. It wasn’t a tough decision.
Conor: [Second album] Fear of the Sea came out in 2005 and we recorded Junk in 2007 and 2008. So that’s three years and it’s only five songs each, so we had plenty of songs and thought, “why not?” We had the opportunity to do a double album, so we did.
Bridget: I guess we probably weren’t going to do another one this time around, but that was as much because of the number of songs we had ready to go as anything else. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision to cut back, because we thought we’d gone overboard the time before. We don’t have any real illusions about people wanting to buy the albums anyway, [laughs] we just do what we do. You can download the three songs you like and be done with it.
Doesn’t that run against the whole idea of what you guys do though, to put your best songs out there?
Bridget: We do do that. For Junk we whittled down to 26, but we still had 26 we were really happy with and couldn’t see any point in ‘sitting on them’. They were all songs that we wanted to release at some point in time, so you either put them out then or you hold them back and you’re in the same position in 12 months’ time, when the new songs get piled on top.
Conor: Then you’re doubling up your manufacturing costs and promotion. There’s two ways to look at putting out albums. I’m a fan of putting things out every year, but at the same time, if you work it as a cycle or something where you’ve got to get the most out of each album that you can before you can do another one, I understand that as well. But if we put out a single album, of half the Junk songs and then 12 months later put out another one, it’d just be expensive.
Bridget: We’re just cheapskates. [laughs] That’s why we put out a double album and then we didn’t do anything for three years.
I just want to clarify how I think your songwriting process works. Is it a matter of you guys getting together, putting all your songs out there, and then voting the best of them to record?
Bridget: It’s probably most often a case of us all getting together and just recording whatever people have and having a go at it. Quite a lot of the stuff that people bring us hasn’t been demoed, and is still very rough. So for Deathwish we recorded 30 songs, and some of them were going to be more appropriate than others.
Conor: Of those 16 or 17 were ones that we sort of considered seriously. We just picked 13 out of that.
When viewed against Junk, it does seem more streamlined because it’s one disc. And maybe that was the intention: to have 26 on one album and then cut it down to half again, to reel everyone back in.
Conor: One of the overriding things we were going for this time was to fit the album onto vinyl. We wanted to have it go under 45 minutes just for that reason.
Ben: It was pretty convenient too. 45 minutes is as good a length as any. Otherwise you start umming and ahhing about putting this one on. Even though it was the length of the vinyl, it kind of seemed like a good spot to go, to make it 45. We didn’t pick a number of songs. It just happened to be 13 that fit on there.
How did you guys become involved with Mick Thomas?
Ben: Gus Agar’s band The Vandas were on Mick’s label. Gus knew Mick, and Mick was really interested in what we were doing, and we’re obviously big fans of Mick’s. So he kind of expressed an interest to Gus and coming up to the property and Gus said to him, “You should come up” and I said “That’d be awesome,” obviously. So he came up and it was pretty amazing. He’s a very nice fellow.
What about Jacob [S. Harris]?
Conor: We’ve been friends with him for years.
Ben: He’s got a song on the second album. He’s been a ‘kind of’ member of The Gin Club.
Conor: Yeah, probably not long after we first got together, maybe within a year or so of the band starting we met Jacob and were friends with him. When it came to the second album, it seemed natural to get one of his songs on it because we’d been hanging out and playing shows with him.
Ben: When we went to go to the property, which was two years ago almost to the day, he’d just got back from being in Canada for a year.
Bridget: He’d been gone for ages, and hadn’t found a job yet, so he had nothing better to do.
Ben: He bumped into Bridget somewhere and said, “Are you going out to Prior Park? Could I come?” We were like “yeah, why not; the more the merrier”.
Bridget: “We’re leaving tomorrow!”
Ben: He recorded about five or six songs, but none of them are on the album. It kind of seemed unfair to put one of Jake’s on when the rest of us are all vying to get songs on it. Jake’s got his own outlet. He released his own album, so it’s not so much a big deal for him to have a song on the album. But we’ve got six or so songs [with him].
I saw that Jacob co-wrote ‘Say You Will’; how did Mick Thomas contribute to the record?
Ben: He didn’t end up getting anything on the record, but one of his songs is on the b-side of ‘Rain’ on the vinyl. We were kind of umming and ahhing once again, the same kind of thing as with Jake. Whilst there’s a certain amount of prestige to be gained from putting Mick Thomas on your record, it’s a bit unfair to the rest of the members of The Gin Club to go “We’re just going to bump you off because we’ve got this famous guy…” and Mick’s not the kind of guy that’s going to get upset about that. Although, actually, one of his songs was going to go on the record.
Conor: Sara Storer vetoed it.
Ben: It wasn’t her; quite reasonably, it was her label. Mick wrote that song with Sara Storer and other guy at one of those Mushroom songwriting camp things that they do. Then he came and recorded it with us. We didn’t know that he’d co-written it at the time. He just said “Here’s one of my songs” [laughs]. I think the lyrics must be pretty much all Mick’s, but I’m not sure. Anyway, we were umming and ahhing about whether to put it on and we finally decided we were going to, and I rang him up and we were mastering it, and I was like “Mick, I need to find out if it’s going to be okay with the publishing because Sara Storer’s album is actually called Calling Me Home and it’s the title track.” And that was coming out in two weeks, so I rang him and it was pretty much if I didn’t hear back from him I was just going to do it and put it on the album. Then I got a phone call and he’s like “Oh, have you done it yet?” And I’m like “No,” and he’s like “Oh, bugger, I was hoping you were going to say that you had and I wouldn’t have any choice.”
That would have created a shitstorm, though.
Ben: Yeah, that’s why he didn’t do it, because he said “My publishers have been really good to me and I wouldn’t want to piss them off.” But I’m sure Sara Storer sells a lot more albums than we do.
Bridget: I’d like to hear the version so you can see how different it is.
There was a quote from Dan [Mansfield] on the press release where he said you’ve always done things your way, and you trust your instincts. Has that feeling intensified as the band progresses? Are there moments of self-doubt?
Ben: Has it intensified? [laughs] There are definitely moments of self doubt, all the time.
Bridget: We’re probably cockier than we used to be. [laughs] Is that fair?
Ben: That’s at both ends of the spectrum. One minute, one day –speaking for myself – I’ll be like, “We’re the best band in the whole world, and everyone else can get fucked.” Then the next day it’s “Oh my God, what are we doing?”
Bridget: I’ve got a theory.
Ben: What’s that?
Bridget: Maybe what we have now is because we’ve been doing this stuff for seven years; maybe we feel like we still think we’re the best band in the world, and everyone else can get fucked. But, we have this feeling that we have to give ourselves the best opportunities to do things, so sometimes that makes us think harder about stuff. When we started, everyday it was just awesome to be in a band. Now the business side of it makes us think more carefully about strategy. Not much – but certainly more than it used to.
Ben: It’s basic stuff. It’s not like self-doubt on an artistic level because we’ve got absolutely no –
Bridget: We’re definitely cocky.
Ben: We’re very cocky about that. Conor and I listened toJunk last night and I was going “This is amazing.” But you definitely get self doubt; there are so many people that are fantastic. But only some of them manage to be successful. For us, it’s just a daily struggle to keep your head above water financially. That’s the stuff that creates all the doubt. We’re wasting our time – but then when you listen to the stuff I get all like, “This is great. Who would want to be doing anything else?”
On that note, how often do you allow external factors to influence your decisions as artists?
Ben: When we had management, we started to, because I started to think maybe we don’t know what’s best, maybe we should just write the songs. We never let external factors determine the music, ever. That’s the great thing. There’d be no point in being an independent band on an independent label making no money, and then having someone else tell you what you can do and can’t do. It’d just be completely… If someone’s giving me heaps of money, then maybe they can have an opinion about what goes on. But until then, they don’t get…
Bridget: [laughs] Not while we’re still starving.
Ben: Exactly. But when we had management we kind of took a bit of a back seat and said “maybe we’d let someone else see if they know best”. We let them do little things. We’re such control freaks though, so every single press release has to be a certain way. I can’t abide punctuation mistakes and stylistic stuff, so when we had management we thought “this is the whole point of having management; we’ll let them do it”. And it wasn’t really working. If someone was giving us lots of money or we had all these reasons to be cheerful about our position, then I’d be willing to let go of a bit of control, but as it is we just go “this is our pet project and we care very deeply about it and why would we possibly want someone else to influence our decisions?”
So you’re saying you don’t have anything to be cheerful about?
Ben: No, we do! Not at all; I didn’t mean it like that. I guess I just mean in financial terms. That’s what it comes down to. You’ve got to make concessions when there’s money involved… That’s when the question could seriously be asked, because [right now] we don’t really make any money. It’s not even a question of us compromising. I don’t see the point, anyway.
Conor: Even if we were to compromise what we’re doing, there’s no guarantee that it’s going to bring us any more success or anything either. We’d just be unhappy and stupid.
Ben: And feel like idiots and poor. [laughs] We’d be better off feeling self-righteous and poor.
Bridget: Self-righteous and poor. [laughs] That’s definitely preferred.
On the artistic side, it was interesting to note that Gordon [Stunzner, Ben Salter’s brother-in-law] has a song on this album; someone outside the collective. Although I understand he taught you guitar.
Ben: Yeah, and he kind of encouraged me. I always had this thing – he lets us use that place [Prior Park] for free and I always said to Gordon that when he turned 40, I’d take him on tour. He’s a farmer, but he’s pretty rock and roll; I’m in a band but I really think that being a farmer’s amazing. So it’s this thing; I kind of grew up a lot there and learned ‘how to be a man’ and all that crap at the property, and so I always said to him “We’ll take you on tour when you turn 40, and you have to write a song.” There was absolutely no expectation that it would be any good or that it would go on the album or anything like that. I just thought, “we’ll force him to do one” but it just came out really beautiful. The more I listened to it the more I thought this was so –
Bridget: He’s got such a great voice.
Ben: I kind of fought for it from the beginning and then I understood that everyone else in the band would not necessarily have the same kind of attachment to it. But even the people who were against it to start with are now like, “It’s really good”, because when we were putting the album together, because Mick’s song wasn’t going on, it was like “what are we going to put on?” I just said “No, we’ll put Gordon’s on. It brings a certain balance to the album,” and I think that’s true. It goes to prove that everyone has a song in them. Everyone’s got at least one good song. Gordon’s written a few more now and so he’s going to come down and play the songs at the launches.
Oh, awesome. It’s given him confidence to take it to another level.
Ben: I hope so. At least – even if it’s not another level, it’s just so satisfying to write a song and record it and release it. He came up to me after he finished recording it, and he was just beaming. He was like “Oh, I understand now why you do it. I understand.”
Bridget: It’s a huge buzz, especially when you’ve been reluctant about doing it and someone bullies you into it. I know this. And you never thought that it was good enough or whatever, and that’s really exciting.
Conor: With the band behind you… We’re all friends and everything, so I’ll be playing my song and Gordon playing ‘Book Of Poison’ or something and we’ve got half a dozen awesome guys behind us backing us up, who know what they’re doing. They bring the best out in you.
Ben: When you’re first starting to write songs, generally you don’t listen back to yourself, so that’s the first step: to record it and listen back to it, because when you’re playing it yourself you just don’t have any idea. So then you listen back to it and then you go “that’s shit; it’s just me and the guitar, and it sounds awful”, but I think – myself, at least – but as a band we’re getting a lot better at hearing, when you hear a rough version of a song, hearing what it could be, hearing how it will sound once everyone adds their little bit to it. With that song we must have done about 20 takes or something. We just kept doing it and doing it, and it just sounds beautiful.
At what age did he teach you guitar, and when did you start writing your own songs?
Ben: I had guitar lessons when I was in high school, but then I really wasn’t interested in playing guitar. I was just going through the motions, but then because I really looked up to him – he’s a bit older than my sister, and he was this cool, handsome dude. He could play guitar and had long hair and an earring and stuff.
Conor: He was very handsome. Still very handsome.
Ben: Yeah, and so he really encouraged me with everything I did. I guess because he was trying to crack onto my sister, so he had to impress the little brother, but he didn’t really have to. [laughs] But he taught me how to play – there was always “The One I Love” by R.E.M., for example – and just a couple of songs, and he kind of made me excited. He took me to my first ever Big Day Out in 1994, which is when I actually decided I wanted to be in a band. Before then, I liked music, but I went to the Big Day Out and it was like “Oh my God”. That would have been in… they got married in ’92 so like ’93 or when I was in high school and stuff. My first Big Day Out was in ’94, when I was in year 12.
How long after that did you start sharing your songs with others?
Ben: Pretty soon, because I’d already been playing in bands when I was in high school, so we’d already written songs when we were in year 11 and 12, so it’s only now that I’ve got older that I realised how – it’s the ‘young man’s thing to do’, a young person’s thing to do. When you’re really young, you’re too stupid to be scared. That’s why when people are young they do all this stuff like get blind drunk and go swimming, and when you’re a little kid and you go swimming in the ocean, you don’t think about anything that’s dangerous in there. You do all this stuff when you’re young but you just don’t even think twice about it.
I was playing all these songs and singing; now when I think about it I’m just horrified. Like when Gordon was 40, writing his first song, playing, he was so terrified about people hearing what he really thought about something. The older I get, I realise it’s only because I’ve been doing it so long, it’s just a habit. But for someone, the older you get, the idea of actually singing songs you’ve written is just terrifying. I started so early that I was too stupid to know how bad it was.
The same question to you, Bridget and Conor; when did you start writing songs and when did you start sharing them?
Bridget: I wrote my first song in 2005, when I was living in England and I recorded it on a webcam camera and I sent it to Conor, and I’ve written like two or three since then. I’m far from prolific. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
Conor: I think I learned to play guitar when I was 15 or so. I would’ve started writing songs shortly after that, playing solo shows when I was 16 in Hervey Bay. There’s not a lot else to do in Hervey Bay.
Ben: It’s the same as Townsville.
Conor: Yeah, so the city council had a youth committee and they would put on gigs and stuff and get bands like Nancy Vandal and Sunk Loto to come and play. I’d play solo shows. Women In Docs played as well, when I was 15 or 16, and I played with them.
Ben: Oh wow. My sister went to school with Roz Pappalardo [of Women In Docs], and then she was a student teacher at my school. When we were in year 10 we got roped into supervising the year 8 blue light disco or whatever, and Roz was a student teacher and we were in year 10 and we used to think Roz was super cool because she played music and stuff. [laughter] So, we all know each other now.
This is a really straightforward question, but what compels each of you to write and share songs? What makes you do it?
Bridget: [to Ben] You wouldn’t have anything else to do.
Ben: I just love it. Since I’ve first done it, I love the attention, I love being on stage and people acknowledging you. It’s like a craft because it’s something that you’ve made, on par with a poem, but then it’s also poetry mixed with a technical ability, or efficiency. So it’s good to be acknowledged by your peers for being able to produce [music], and then the courage and confidence to get up [in front of a crowd] is attractive to people.
I’m always saying this, but if you ask most people what their biggest fear is, I think the biggest percentage is public speaking. People are terrified of it. It gives you so much confidence to get on a stage, but then I love the writing part, too. I love words and I love music, so why not do it myself? I just love it. I love lots of things, but it’s the thing that I’ve been doing the longest, and that I’ve had a chance to develop. I think I want to be a chef now. [laughter]
What about you, Conor? What compels you?
Conor: I just feel like I have to. I’m not as fussed on the performance side of things. I write songs and I play them. I pretty much write them for myself and sort stuff out in my head, or express things or something. And so even if people weren’t listening, or if I wasn’t in a band, I’d probably still be writing songs. I’ve got songs that I’ve written that I don’t play live when I do solo shows or anything, just silly, short little songs that I play for myself now and then. So it’s just something that I feel like I have to do to help me get by.
A coping mechanism.
Conor: Yeah, to an extent, and then it’s fun as well. When you feel like you’ve written a song that you like then it’s great. You feel quite pleased.
And to take it from the process of just you and guitar to the whole band must be gratifying.
Conor: Yeah, mostly; it’s funny because I always feel like I write two kinds of songs, and I just write them over and over again. And thankfully with The Gin Club, they don’t always sound the same. They certainly don’t sound the way – they don’t turn out the way I wrote them. ‘An Horse’ on Junk has got brass [instruments], and the arrangement and the feel to it is mostly Ben. Otherwise it was just another Will Oldham rip-off. [laughter] So it’s good like that, seeing it fully realised and fleshed out. That can be good.
Same question to you, finally, Bridget.
Bridget: Look, I don’t feel compelled at all. I feel bullied occasionally, reluctant always. It’s not something that comes naturally to me, I don’t think, and sometimes when I’ve got nothing better to do I’ll tinker around and occasionally something will come out of that that might have potential, but I don’t consider myself to be a songwriter. So I don’t really know how to answer that question.
Ben: You’ve written songs.
Bridget: Yeah, but –
Ben: They’re good too. You’ve written four. Bridget wrote two for Deathwish that we didn’t use although they were quite good. She insisted that she’d written a new one that was better, and she was right.
Bridget: So four. Actually I wrote a song when I was about grade 6 or 7, called ‘Heatseeker’, and then I found out that AC/DC has a song by the same name, so I scrapped it. It wasn’t quite as good.
Ben: Was yours similar to the AD/DC one?
Bridget: [laughter] No.
Returning to your comment about confidence earlier, Ben. I’m interested to know when it turns from confidence to cockiness that you mentioned earlier.
Ben: They balance each other out. Every person that you see, the more cocky they appear, the more insecure they are within their heads, and I think it’s really wrong to assume that anyone who’s really arrogant really isn’t just totally insecure. It’s obvious so we’re never cocky… Well, that’s not true; we are cocky. We do think we’re good, but that comes from a sense of camaraderie more than anything else.
If we really thought we were better than anyone else, that would be cocky, but we still love music and we’re just totally in awe of [other] people. We’re very selective about the people that we do like, and we do think a lot of music is shit, which it’s true of just about anything that you know. There’s a lot of mediocrity, but I’m so competitive and I see bands all the time that just make me go “God I wish I was in that band,” even though I’m in the best band in the world. But I still want to be in everyone else’s band because I get so excited about other musicians and other songs, and think “God, I wish I’d have written that” So I think that pretty much prevents you from being cocky.
I can’t listen to my own songs, generally. Unless it’s with [one of his other bands] The Young Liberals, in which case I listen to that all the time. Generally, because that’s done so off-the-cuff, it’s so refreshing to listen to because it’s so bad, in a way. But with anything that I’ve put a lot of my time into, it’s really difficult to listen because I just feel so awkward and embarrassed by it.
Bridget: We’re very lucky that whatever we do, we know that we have nine of us to back it up, so it either gets filtered out really early or you can rely on the fact that at least everyone else in the band’s going to think it’s great, and it’s a bit of a buffer zone between… You don’t feel quite so exposed because you have everyone else supporting.
I think one of the nicest things I like about watching you play, Ben, is that you have a confidence – I don’t know if this works – a confidence that allows you to actually be really humble about the way you do it, and that’s stuff you say to us all the time about “if people pay their money then they’re entitled to talk,” and I think that’s really meaningful. It shows that you don’t have an attitude that “everyone in the world should shut up and listen to me”.
Ben: If you want to teach someone a bit of humility and about what the entertainment business is really about, then make them go and busk for five years, because it just takes your ego and just destroys it. You’re just there to entertain people. They don’t want to hear your songs. And that’s such an awesome thing because for every time that you just go “Oh my God, I just want to kill myself,” there’s a thousand other times when people just come up to you and go “Oh my God, I was having such a bad day and you played that song and it made me so happy”. And that sounds so trite but it’s not. It’s really awesome.
That’s what we are. We’re entertainers. We’re artists as well, and the art always comes first, but I also want to entertain people, so it’s a delicate balance. I know we’re kind of off the point here, but the busking thing is so true because you just realise that making people happy is not the worst thing in the world. It’s a really cool thing and if you can make people happy through your own expressions of your own songs, then that’s even more amazing. We’re very privileged.
I just can’t stand it when there’s a sense of entitlement from bands or from people towards being in a band, where it’s like “the government owes me a living because I make songs”. It’s like – get fucked. Go get a real job. No one is entitled to make a living from being in a band. No one’s entitled to make a living out of doing something they love. It’s a privilege, not a right. We’re just very lucky that we’re able to do it. Everyone has to work. We all have to.
Before we move on, returning to your comments about favourite bands: Ben, I remember standing behind you while Spiritualized played at the Riverstage [in January 2009 as part of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival].
Ben: Oh, I love that band. I saw them the first time they came to Australia, I went and saw them. We were mixing the first Giants album. We drove up specially and saw them at The Arena, and it was just amazing. They’re such a good band. Definitely that band. [laughs]
I saw them at Mt Buller as well, with ATP, and went to England in December to see them play [the album] Ladies And Gentlemen[We Are Floating In Space] in full.
Ben: Was it amazing?
It was amazing.
Ben: I was this far away from going and seeing them do it at ATP with The Drones, and then I had this car accident and realised that I was going to have to pay for someone’s insurance. The Drones basically said “you can come sleep on the floor and roadie for us”, and I had some other friends that were going… and then I didn’t go. I hope they do it again because I still haven’t seen that. So it was really good?
They had a 21-piece band, full string section, full brass… just fucking sensational.
Ben: When they did ‘Electricity’ and they get to the end and just do this meltdown, that trick you hear them do on the Albert Hall live disc as well. I read a quote from Jason Pierce [of Spiritualized], and he said “We never really made much money from touring because every time, it’d be like ‘we’ve got some more money, could we get some more strobes?’” [laughter] I could see now why, because the end of ‘Electricity’, the strobes just build up until you think “this is fucked; my brain’s going to melt” and then they just get louder and louder and the strobes get stronger, and then without any cue at all they just go into ‘Home Of The Brave’ and that first slide line starts, and it’s like “Oh my God, that’s unbelievable”.
You guys spent two weeks at Prior Park again for this album. What’s an average day at Prior Park like?
Bridget: Awesome. You get up, put the kettle on.
Ben: Some people get up earlier than others and go and potter around, but generally everyone’s up and about by about 11. When we had [Junk producer] Magoo, he was very good at telling us not to drink, at least for the first couple of days. He taught us so much in that, he kind of said at the start “I’m not going to produce you…” Anyway – We’d wake up about 11 and eat; someone makes breakfast, bacon and eggs.
Conor: Ham and cheese on toast. Beans.
Bridget: We’re usually pretty good at sending somebody in to do some work pretty early on.
Ben: Then Murray [Paas, The Gin Club’s recording engineer] will go down and fire everything up. I’ve just come back from doing the same thing with Giants Of Science [one of Salter’s other bands]. That was the first time I’d been there with a different band, so it was pretty much the same ritual. But some differences in that with The Gin Club, one person can go down and have a song and just go and start working on it with Murray, and the rest of us are just happy to just read or wander around, play cricket or something. Then someone will come play some bass or something.
It’s pretty much like, “Who wants to play?” You’ll be like “Okay, I’ll pay bass”, or “I’ll play drums”, so someone’ll come up. We’ll work all the way through ‘till the sun starts to go down and then in winter, this time of year, as it gets to dusk it’s just spectacular; the whole countryside turns all these different shades of purple. It’s a really cold light. When the sun starts to go down everyone goes and gets firewood, because you always run out of firewood. All the while, people are still recording.
Bridget: Then somebody puts dinner on.
Conor: It’s usually like four people, maybe five people recording at any one time.
Ben: There’s at least one person there just to have an opinion because Murray’s not much of a one for having an opinion. He just kind of engineers. So you need someone there. There’s no dearth of producers, ever.
Conor: When we were doing this stuff for Deathwish, there were those days when we brought a bunch of girlfriends up.
Ben: Yeah, we had like three days with girlfriends or something. [laughter] We did the girlfriend thing so all the girlfriends came up, which was really quite nice actually. They were pretty good, mostly.
Conor: They were pretty good at getting stuff ready in the kitchen. [laughter] Keeping me out of the way.
Bridget: It’s good, it kept the pressure off me!
Ben: I did all the cooking for Giants [Of Science, one of Ben's other bands], pretty much.
Anyway, we try not to start drinking before the sun goes down because it’s very easy with so many friends, at a campfire… Magoo was really good at teaching me the practicalities of productive work. He was like “You can keep recording stuff well into the night [while drinking], but you’re going to wake up the next morning and listen to it and it’ll just be shit and you’ll have to do it all again. When you start to get sloppy, you’ll do take after take and it’ll just get worse.” Then we’ll stop at around 10 or 11. If you get excited you can do overdubs until three in the morning.
Bridget: If you decide you want to re-record the whole of The White Album, then you can be there all night.
Ben: We did that, and we recorded a couple of rap tracks. [laughter] That’ll be on the next Hissy Fit [a collection of The Gin Club’s outtakes, b-sides and live recordings]. There’s a great one about the Canberra Raiders in there.
I cannot describe to you how much fun it is. There’s really no mobile phone reception, so once a day someone drives the car down to the grid. You only have to drive about 50 meters to get reception, so someone bunks all the mobile phones into a car once a day, drives down to the grid, and get all the messages for all the people at once, and then drives back and everyone checks.
There’s TV and stuff, but you’re just so focused. The beauty of it is that as soon as you get bored, or you’re sick of hearing stuff, or you’re sick of recording, in The Gin Club you can pretty much take a day off because there’s so many other people. I remember listening to all the other songs we’d done and going, “What’s this song? I’ve never heard it before.”
Bridget: When you get home after two weeks, and there’s stuff that you just didn’t notice was going on.
So there’s a dedicated studio there?
Ben: No. I’ve had my eye on a worker’s cottage there [at Prior Park]. It was built at the turn of the century, so over 100 years old. It’s all falling down, but it’s very sturdy in its basic construction. I always had my eye on it as a potential studio, so I finally mentioned it to Murray. So we went and did an initial test run for Junk, so we pretty much recorded all of Junk and then we went back and recorded it all again. I think we only kept one song, ‘Abigail’.
We just take everything. We hire a three-ton truck, load it full of gear, and Murray doesn’t charge us too much. We bought Magoo for Junk, but this last one was just Murray and Dan [Mansfield]. It really doesn’t cost that much. The main expense is the three-ton truck and we’re trying to get around that because Anne and Gordon, my sister and my brother-in-law are keen for us to keep doing it, and they’re prepared to if we invest in a certain amount of infrastructure. It doesn’t really need soundproofing, unless you’re worried about the sounds from outside coming in. There’s no real concern about the sound from inside going out. But we get a lot of bird noises and stuff. All it would take is just a desk to do headphones, mic stands, and then we just take everything else there. Murray pretty much deconstructs all of [his studio] The Foundry and puts it in the truck. We’ve got so good at it that we can disassemble it, drive it and assemble it in a day and we’re ready to go.
Did you set yourself to a deadline, or did you happen to decide you were finished after two weeks?
Ben: We only had two weeks; everyone’s got to work and stuff. When we did these sessions, the same as with the Giants, we just see what happens.
Bridget: We did do quite a bit after we got back.
Ben: We got shitloads done. We did 13 songs in two weeks, which is – but we did a heap when we got back. We re-recorded whole songs, but the guts of the album…
Bridget: It’s all linked back to that stuff.
Ben: There are songs on there, about three or four songs that we demoed that I’ll probably do on a solo album or save for the next Gin Club album, and songs that Jake did – we didn’t use any of his, but we enjoyed recording them. He can use them for whatever. But we really didn’t have any set goal. The main reason we wanted to go was because Ula had to go back to Sweden and we wanted to get his songs down before he left, so that if we did have another album coming out we’d at least have his component before he went to Sweden. So we did that and the rest of it was just there.
So Ula’s back in Sweden for good?
Ben: Well. Every time he says that he is, he comes back. So I don’t know exactly what’s going on with the visa, but he reckons he’s coming back again later on this year. Hopefully the next tour we do, he’ll be back again. Brad’s back at the moment as well, from Canada, so that’s exciting, although I haven’t seen him yet. He’s a very busy man.
It’s time for me to ask you about ‘Milli Vanilli’, Bridget. [A song from Deathwish - you can stream the song via my Mess+Noise album review] Is the story real or fiction?
Bridget: Real, not me personally but the neighbours at… I won’t tell you where I live. No, neighbours of mine across on the other side of the creek where I used to live, whose house got badly damaged in the first of those bad storms we had in November 2008, and then again in March 2009, those bad storms that hit The Gap. They lived right by the creek, and they had to move out of their house. They gradually rebuilt it and about a week after they moved back into it, the second lot of storms came and knocked the whole thing down. I wrote pretty much all of the lyrics while walking back from the bus on Waterworks Road, back down to my house, as I walked past where they were cleaning out their pool again for the second time. [laughs] I shouldn’t laugh. It’s not funny at all. It’s based on fact, inspired by truth. And I love Milli Vanilli, they’re awesome.
Ben: She does not, that’s bullshit. [laughter]
Conor: She’s actually a massive No Doubt fan. [laughter]
Like Ben said earlier, it’s a fucking great song.
Bridget: [laughs] Thank you.
I was listening to the album while I was on the internet, as background music. The song went through and it was ticking through my head, then I was like “I have to hear that again” so I sat back and listened to it that song. It blew me away.
Bridget: I’m glad you like it.
Ben: Told you! It’s not just us. [laughter] And it’s got such a sting in its tail, and it’s such a great song in that it can be – you can apply it as a metaphor for so many things. You can use it as a relationship metaphor, because it’s like a sonnet or something. It’s got the whole bulk of it within that last line of “if you live beside the bank, guess you’ve got yourselves to thank”. It’s such a… all the way through, you’re feeling really sorry for these people, but then you’re going – not quite “it’s not your own fault” – but it’s kind of like, “you reap what you sow”.
Ben: It’s mega deep.
Bridget: So was the water. [laughter] It really did carry a Falcon down into the creek. It was pretty intense.
Ben: There’s lots of storm metaphors in King Lear, which we’re about to go and see, as well.
Conor, I want to ask you about ‘I Am My Own Partner’. It seems to come from a deeply personal place. Is there hesitation before sharing that kind of thing?
Conor: Oh no, not really. I don’t think about…
Ben: Conor’s so emo, he loves it.
Conor: That’s awful. I have my songs and I sing them, but I don’t really think about people listening to them when I write them, or when I sing them. ‘I Am My Own Partner’ is fairly straight forward. I think it’s kind of funny as well.
Ben: It’s pretty emo though. [laughter]
Bridget: I love the way it’s got lots of animals in it.
Conor: A lot of my songs have lots of animals in them, so it’s the same as before. I feel like I write two kinds of songs, and try to get better at writing them. I think ‘I Am My Own Partner’ is probably the best song I’ve written of that type.
Is it a matter of creating a positive thing out of a negative experience?
Conor: Not especially, but having said that it is kind of positive, I think. It’s not just a miserable song. I like being fairly self-reliant so it’s fairly important to me to be able to look after myself.
Ben: I think it’s magnificent. I don’t think it’s entirely sad, but it’s a real ‘me against the universe’ kind of sadness, that desolation of going, “There’s nothing else”. I find that honesty so amazing, in songs like that. There’s just this real existential – not dread, but affirmation almost – of all around there’s darkness and all around the edges fall away to infinity or whatever, and you’ve just got to go on. That’s the image it conjures up to me.
Conor: I did have a cat that I loved very much and she disappeared, and I was pretty devo about that. Still am. [laughter]
Okay, moving on. I want to talk about the notion of making a career as musicians. In each of your minds, what makes successful independent musician?
Ben: It depends on what you mean by success. To my mind, we’re a successful independent band in that we have – the most important thing to us is the respect of our peers, and mostly our peers are each other and we all seem to like what we do. And then we have people like The Drones and Tim Rogers and Mick Thomas, to name just three, who all think our band is really good and I constantly scratch my head and go, “They don’t really like it, they like it because of some other reason.”
People go “What is that reason?” and I go “I don’t know, but there’s some other reason. They think that they’ll appear cool if they like us, but they don’t really like us.” And I have to constantly be reminded and told they actually like our band because we’re good at what we do. In that respect I think we’re very successful, but to be self-sufficient and to make a living, I guess that’s the aim of every musician, independent or otherwise.
I just think those days of – it’s one thing, everyone goes “Oh, back in the ‘80s, everyone went to see bands…”. Back in the ‘60s, as someone else pointed out to Conor and I the other day, and something that I know anyway, even in the ‘80s or early ‘90s a band like us would have got a major label deal fairly quickly. But then maybe not, because logistically it’s a bit tricky, but the quality of the music, I think, is really high, but those days are gone. There’s no use getting nostalgic; things need to change and it comes back to that thing, in my opinion, that no one owes us a living.
We make music. We are privileged to live in a society where we can make music and even make money out of it, and have a job, and say what we want, and play what we want, and go where we want. It’s a privilege, not a right and it’s something that even though I bitch and moan all the time about it, I’m able to pretty much support myself through the generosity and patronage, a lot of the time ,of the people around me who are very tolerant.
I’m pretty much the only person in the band apart from Gus, sometimes, who makes their living out of doing music all the time. I’ve got to be in like four bands or something and play all sorts of other gigs to do it, but I just feel that’s an absolute privilege. So I feel that we really are successful. We release albums, they’re good, I think, and people come to our shows. Most of all, we have the respect of our peers.
Bridget: From a purely financial perspective, we do well enough to keep doing what we’re doing without us all having to chip in all the time and pay for everything ourselves. We have some debts, but…
Ben: They’re not like major label debts.
Bridget: Largely, we can keep doing what we’re doing and it’s self sufficient. I think that’s terrific.
Ben: My biggest regret is that we’re not able to travel more. I would really love for us to be able to go to Europe or America, because I want to travel. That’s one of the reasons I love being in a band, because we get to travel around Australia so much and we’ve been to Canada and we’ve been to the States, and we’ve been to New Zealand. That’s one of the main things I think is great about being a musician and being an entertainer, and it’s upsetting to me that we aren’t able to do that more.
At the same time, we get to go to America and New Zealand and Canada. We really can’t complain. If I did complain – I just can’t stand that. I think you can have the artistic integrity and I’m all for that; I’m deeply passionate about artistic integrity and about art and about abstractness and I’m constantly defending stuff that’s crappy, or perceived to be crappy, because I think the intent is there. But I think that it has to be separated from the sense of privilege or expectation or entitlement, this sense that ‘just because I care deeply about art that everyone should give me money’. Those two don’t necessarily go together, I don’t think.
Picking up on your comment about music that’s perceived to be crappy, can that be applied to La Roux’s ‘In For The Kill’, which you throw into ‘Drugflowers’ live?
Ben: I don’t know if that many people think that’s crappy. This is one of the many things I’m always raving about: people seem to think that because a lot of people like something, it must be bad. Which is just such bullshit. The only difference between popular music and indie music is a production aesthetic and a name.
If you’re talking about avant garde metal or experimental noise music, that’s different because it’s challenging peoples’ perceptions of what a hook is, or what an aesthetic experience is, but all [The Gin Club] do is really pop music. People call us indie but what we do is kind of, MOR-y pop. It might be delivered with a certain honesty of intent, or honesty of conviction, but really it’s not that different from what La Roux is doing except that she like synthesisers. That chord progression is beautiful. I guess that’s what I’m kind of talking about, but that’s just within this band that I was talking about, not in general. [laughter] We all have our arguments about what’s crappy and what’s not.
I want to ask about the three album launch shows at The Troubadour [July 2-4, 2010]. Why is The Troubadour your favourite venue in Brisbane?
Bridget: It was the first place we ever had a show, in those early days where we pretty much had all our shows, The Troubadour, Ric’s, and the Bowery. As Conor said before, it’s kind of where we cut our teeth. We’ve become good friends with Jamie, who runs The Troubadour, and Cory and all the staff there.
Ben: They gave us our name.
Bridget: They named us. We didn’t have a name, and we drank a lot of gin.
Ben: Conor, myself, and Adrian were playing at Ric’s – or maybe it was just Conor and I playing at Ric’s – and these two guys in the crowd came up afterwards and said, “We’re starting a new venue over the road.” We were like [sarcastically] “Oh yeah,” because venues generally start and then they disappear. Then they said “Would you like to come and play on the opening night?” And we were like “Sure, that’d be great.”
We went up there and it was like “wow, this place is awesome”. Three of The Gin Club played the opening; we don’t go there as much as we used to. We just love it and we love the intimacy. That’s the reason why we wanted to limit the numbers because I can’t stand going to The Troubadour when it’s full, because you can’t see and you’re stepping on peoples’ toes.
Conor: You can’t get to the bar and you can’t get to the toilet.
Ben: We thought if we could do 100 people a night there’d be enough room for people to move and see, and it’d maintain all those things we love about the Troubadour without having heaps of people clogging up the place.
Conor: It’s the best sounding room in Brisbane. I’d rather play to 100 people a night for three nights than 300 people at The Zoo for one night, just because we get to play more songs. [laughter] It’s nicer for the crowd.
Bridget: We’ve done the last three or four launch type things in a room like The Zoo.
Ben: The Zoo is great, don’t get me wrong.
Bridget: But it’s nice to try something different.
Ben: It is, and once again, it’s coming down to this thing about there’s no money really playing in music anymore. So one of the things you have to do – and Brad would be so proud of me – you have to add value to stuff [laughter]. People want a unique experience, like this whole idea getting a live CD of a show after you’ve just seen it.
People want something that they saw, that no one else did. And this is getting beyond the whole [matter of] everyone taking video footage of everything. I’m not even going to get started on that. It just defeats the purpose. You want a unique experience that not everyone has on their mobile phone, and by limiting it and having 100 people per show, that’s our way of making it unique, and having a different setlist. The people that were there can say “I was one of only 100 people that saw that show.” That might not be a big deal, but for me it’s a way of giving the audience a bit more, something a bit special and unique.
My final question is about the quote “Someday this war’s going to end,” which appears in the album liner notes and on your MySpace. How does that relate to The Gin Club?
Ben: That’s my fault really.
Bridget: You brought this on us.
Ben: It’s from Apocalypse Now. I just loved it. I don’t necessarily love that movie, but I love that speech because it’s the ultimate nihilistic speech. I’m a big fan of – not so much nihilism, but –
Conor: I’m a pretty big fan of nihilism. [laughter]
Ben: I just think the ambiguity of that statement is because you can’t tell whether he’s happy or sad about it. That’s the thing that I love about it, when he just relates that “smell of napalm” and all, relating this horrific thing about something that’s happened in the war. My father and all my grandparents were soldiers, so I guess I have a certain affinity with that kind of shit. But then afterwards he says “Someday this war’s going to end” and it’s just so… you just don’t know whether he’s happy or sad.
Still to this day, I can’t figure it out, and it’s a bit of both. I think that’s what’s great about it. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. It can be a bit of both. You can be happy about something, and sad about it at the same time.
Something about when you’re in an intense situation, or a situation where your life is on the line and your whole existence is challenged, somehow everything is brought into perspective. You’re still in a horrible, life-threatening situation, so I guess it’s him saying “one day all this will be over, and I can’t decide whether I’m happy about that or not”.
Conor: I’ve always just figured it was about the war of life; the war against yourself.
Ben: Life is the war in a lot of ways. “This whole thing is hell, where we are now” [in reference to that scene in Apocalypse Now]. So we’re going to go watch King Lear and sort it all out. [laughter]
I’ll leave it there, guys.
Hear more Gin Club on MySpace, or visit their website. Their latest album, Deathwish, is outstanding. Go buy it. My Mess+Noise profile of the band is here. View the video for ‘Rain‘ below.