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Escape Velocity

Uneasy Listening: An Interview With Sky Needle
Sanjay Fernandes , November 19th, 2013 03:18

Brisbane's Sky Needle are the sound of fever dreams and dehydrated desert hallucinations given physical form, churning out sickly improvisations on ramshackle home-built instruments. Sanjay Fernandes talks to the band's Joel Stern about new LP Debased Shapes and the art of self-sabotage

Photos by AK Photography

There's nothing easy about listening to Brisbane band Sky Needle. Their instruments are homemade and the vocals improvised. Their records are cut from lounge room jam sessions. And each of their live performances are completely improvised, intentionally ignoring the band's recorded material. Their recent album, Debased Shapes, on Parisian label bruit direct disques, possesses all of these traits. Even the record's name hints at their fuck-with-form mentality. But somehow Sky Needle's work manages to avoid abstraction. The polished vocals of Sarah Byrne dominate the LP and give it an accessible edge despite being "nonsensical and gibberish," as Joel Stern puts it. (He's the 'latex pump horn player' in the band.)

Sky Needle sound as though they're making tribal music in a junkyard, setting out the perfect blueprint for restrained anarchy. It's clear that the group sees this as a virtue. And though their music might be difficult to place within a broader musical movement, it makes much more sense within the context of the strong Brisbane experimental scene from which Sky Needle emerged. All of the members - Byrne and Stern, alongside Alex Cuffe, Michael Donnelly, Daniel Jenatsch and Ross Manning - are prominent figures from Queensland's frenetic margins.

Recently, on a sixteen date European Debased Shapes tour, Sky Needle bridged the gaping chasm that separates Europe from the antipodes. It might be the first step to unveiling many of Brisbane's unique projects that have been bubbling away, unnoticed for years. The Quietus caught up with band member Joel Stern to discuss improvisation, the Brisbane scene, and the art of self-sabotage.

Let's start with the recording of Debased Shapes.

Joel Stern: All of our records are phases in the band that span a period of a few months, or in this case a couple of years. So the record came out of a few jam sessions dotted throughout 2011/12. And after Rave Cave, Michael Donnelly joined the band. He'd been in bands such as Brothers Of The Occult Sisterhood and 6majik9, and we wanted it to be more of a full on rhythmic feeling, so he came on with these homemade drum kits made up of scrap metal and weird bits of wood, and he even modified a bicycle at one point and used the spokes and all the bicycle bits as his drum kit. All the jams were in my house in Brisbane which was sort of a lounge room studio space. I'd recorded a lot of bands there, like Primitive Motion and Kitchen's Floor, and lots of stuff like that. In fact, pretty much every Sky Needle record has been recorded at my place up till now, although now I live in Melbourne so that's kind of over, that period. Debased Shapes will be the last album that comes out of those Brisbane recording sessions that all happened in that lounge room.

The way our records come about involves just going back over every session we've recorded since the last record, and we just pick out things that have an intensity or coherence to them. So everything is improvised, and we generally wait till we have no recollection of the recording so when you listen back you're not listening back to something you remember playing, you're just listening back to something you can hear more objectively. We just went back through a couple of years' worth of recordings and found the parts we could bring together in an album. And we called it Debased Shapes because it's really about these weird formations or structures of sound that are collapsing or rudely proportioned.

Do you reinterpret those jam sessions in a separate session, or do just cut them straight to record?

JS: The record is made up entirely of those jam sessions, so nothing is reproduced or rerecorded. It's all improvised in real time, and from those improvisations we just take excerpts that seem to capture a moment, but we have never, ever, even once attempted to play anything that has appeared on our records or reproduce it.

So you're not playing anything that resembles your record in a performance setting?

JS: Absolutely not. I don't even think we'd be capable of doing that if we tried. A few times I've thought about it before shows, but I have to say that the rest of the band and especially Sarah, she hates the idea of even attempting something that resembles one of our songs. They're only really songs in retrospect. By virtue of putting them on the record they're fixed in a way that the only way you can repeat it is by listening to the record more than once.

I felt that Sarah's vocals were the glue that held the whole album together. The fact that she's always improvising makes it a little more impressive, I think.

JS: She's a very good singer. I think she makes the sound more accessible in a lot of ways and gives it that edge where it resembles conventional music, more than it would if she wasn't there. Also, you know, her relationship to language where something sounds like words, when in fact they're abstractions of certain words. So at the levels of the syllables, individual sounds they resemble words, but when you put them all together they're nonsensical or gibberish. That's probably our musical language.

How did this group dynamic come about?

JS: We started I think it was in 2008, sometime, in Brisbane. It was started by me and Alex. We were kind of hanging out and he was from a sculpture background - he's a practising visual artist, which is still the main thing that he does - and he'd gotten into building musical instruments as a sculptural practice. He had this thing that he called a bass guitar - and it sort of is, but it's a big wooden box with a speaker built into it and fishing line and other things in place of strings. He was showing it to me, and I had an idea for an instrument that I'd performed with a couple of times that were these two foot pumps - like the camping type for pumping up air mattresses - with horns on the end of the tubes, so I was playing two horns simultaneously with my feet and tuning them with my hands.

So we had these two instruments, and basically decided to start a band together based around them, and what sort of things we could do just using very limited means, without trying to embellish too much. We were interested in the minimum you could do for it to operate as music. And we had a third guy called Ross Manning who we really respected. He's another artist who also made noise music, so he joined us and we were a trio. Our first record, the 'Time'/'Hammer' 7", was actually our first jam. We got together at my place and improvised this thing, and we had no idea what it would be. We didn't really discuss it or anything, we just had this idea that the three instruments - and Ross had a plank of wood with other bits of wood acting as a bridge and string strung across it, like a really primitive zither or dulcimer - which all had very limited range of sounds, but we played them in a minimal repetitive kind of way, and between the three of us, we managed to make this kind of music that sound pretty different from anything else we'd done before, or were aware of. That was our first record.

And it really just evolved from there. When we started playing live, we wanted to introduce more energy and have some way of really confronting the audience a bit more, and we invited Sarah Byrne to join as a vocalist. She gets into a sort of trance, and in a way, what our instruments are in relation to normal instruments, her voice is in relation to normal vocals.

Joel Stern

I'm particularly interested in Sky Needle's influences. What was the music you guys bonded over?

JS: Honestly, almost nothing. I don't even think we talked about music really. I can honestly say we each have our own references and some things in common, but with Sky Needle we never used other people's music to describe our own. For me, when we're playing and sometimes when I'm listening to Sky Needle there's something of the tendencies of minimalist composers like Steve Reich and people like that. Because our instruments have a range of sounds - maybe I can make seven or eight different notes on my instrument, and Alex only has three strings on his bass and no frets. Often what we're left with is patterns and repetition. So, in a way, because we're working with these limitations, some of the strategies of minimalism are quite relevant to us. Things like the early Residents and the more fucked up nonsensical side of electronic music, in its punk side, like early Residents and Ralph records where it's electronic but it's has that messiness.

Music with less form?

JS: Yeah, but it might have form that's just not obvious. It might reveal itself to you in an obtuse way. Like, I think in 'form' we're quite coherent, it's just you have to listen closely for that to emerge.

Are you aware of it? Do you hear it in performance?

JS: Well, I think what happens with us now is when we're playing, whether it's live or recording, it's very free form and there's sounds happening in quite an unstructured way, but then certain elements cohere and we hear the structure that's about to emerge. And we probably hear that well before the audience hears it, so we hear certain things that are happening and they coalesce into a structure, and for the audience that's really surprising because they just hear that structure and they're like, 'Oh ok, shit, where did that come from.' But for us, because we understand the logic of how we're playing, we hear that structure emerging before it's fully formed. It's a bit of a trick - there are certain cues we have. Like a certain kind of staccato character of a sound or when something repeats a certain way, we all understand what's happening.

How did European audiences react? I imagine it's tough to come in as a relatively unknown quantity and win over a crowd with this kind of music. Or maybe it's completely the opposite?

JS: We had a really diverse range of shows in Europe so it's hard to generalise. For people seeing us for the first time in Europe and where we'd been going in the last four years now, it feels really good to have done four years of work on this band and taken it to a point where we're a lot more confident and in control of what we're doing, and to have the opportunity for someone to see us for the first time at this stage. And we feel like we can really blow people away, because they didn't know what was coming. They might just be expecting a regular sort of band that sounds like some other bands, because everyone expects bands to sound like the bands they already know, at least to some degree. And it's always amazing when you see something really out of left field. So we feel pretty confident that they're not going to be like, 'Oh they're like some other shit that I saw last week.'

For me, the distinctiveness of a band or of any sort of artistic practice is how different it is from other things - it's pretty important for me. With Sky Needle, in a way, because we don't sound like other bands and you can't directly compare us to other bands, it puts people off guard a bit. It's hard to say if it's good or bad or a failure or a success, because there's no standard to apply. In a way, we have our own criteria that only apply to us. We feel like we're doing something different and that's probably the main thing about the group. And especially with the instruments that we play, even if we tried to sound like other bands it's impossible. We can only sound the way we do.

I imagine the touring pace would have been quite tiring.

JS: Well, it was the opposite. It was super inspiring. We were sad that it ended. We were getting good. You start to become super aware of what you're doing, when you play night after night you get conditioned. It starts to operate on a high level. Especially a group like us where, because we're not playing songs and it's all about quality of our thinking in the moment, it really helps to do it over and over.

Were there particularly memorable shows?

JS: We played with this composer Ghedalia Tazartes at Incubate festival in Tilburg. That was an amazing show for us. And then, at the other end of the spectrum, we played in this tiny, empty room in a shopfront in Antwerp at this place called City Limits, which is run by a guy who runs a label called Ultra Excema - Dennis Typhus. And that was jam-packed, maybe forty people in this tiny shop front. It was a real pop up kind of show. It was awesome. It was probably the most fun show of the whole tour, in a way. We saw this tour as an adventure. Some of the shows were sure things, like Oto and Instants Chavires in Paris, and Incubate Festival and Ausland and Urban Spree in Berlin - we knew they'd be cool shows. And some were just stabs in the dark. The main thing for the band was playing sixteen gigs in a row. In Australia that's impossible. You play three or four in quick succession and then that's it, you can't really do any more.

Do these differences affect the way Sky Needle developed? Or even Australian bands more generally?

JS: In some ways this band could have happened anywhere, but I do think that we came out of a Brisbane scene that at the time felt very fresh and energetic and healthy in its lack of regard for musical conventions. And there was a really big scene in Brisbane of 'no-technique' bands. People who could not play, but whose ideas were so good that their lack of technique actually became a virtue.

Which acts or projects specifically?

JS: Cured Pink, we played a lot with Andrew, I would put in that category. Kitchen's Floor have become more consummate over time, but they were at their best when they didn't know what they were doing. Brendon Annesley, of the Negative Guest List imprint, was the king of that attitude. He hated anything that was technically refined or slick. The more fucked up it was, the more praiseworthy. But fucked up in a way that there was a certain clarity of intention. The trick is, you can have 'fucked up' in a way that tends towards real obscurity, but you can have people who have something quite clear to say and say it without any technical proficiency getting in the way, like as direct as possible.

If there's any connection between Sky Needle and Brisbane it would be this tendency towards very direct ways of making music. Bands don't have to practice for six months before they do a gig - you do the gig first. And there was a real scene where people would start a new band every week. You'd come up with a name and who was in the band, and then gig before you'd even practiced. There was a real confidence that if you had good ideas and an original approach you didn't need any technique or practice at all. So I think a lot of very good things came out of that. Brendon Annesley's band Meat Thump were unbelievable, and they really didn't, as a band, have any idea what they were doing. But just the strength of personality came through. This kind of atmosphere of irreverent creativity [is what kept me in Brisbane]. People being very creative but with no aspirations to be successful or have a career. It just had this weird, very uncompromising, outsider-ish mentality.

This apathy towards convention and tradition, for the most part, always seems to be reacting against something. Is that true of the Brisbane scene that Sky Needle was part of?

JS: A lot of the underground activity was a reaction against that assumption that something had to be serious for it to be avant garde or experimental. And I think the punk sensibility is a little more evident in this underground stuff. Maybe that's the thing missing from these academic circles. Within the parameters of avant garde music it's not subverting its own conventions. It's consistent with the conventions of its own scene. Whereas the scene that Sky Needle was part of, there were a lot more people actively sabotaging their own stuff. If you play every week, you'd do something one week and the next you'd fuck with the thing you did the previous week. The whole scene around Breakdance The Dawn and Matt Earle and xNoBBQx and Craft Bandits, all of that stuff, is the absolute epitome of that. One million different band names. Most of them don't exist beyond a notional concept. You have no idea what's going on with his work, it's so confusing. It could all be him or it could be him standing outside a practice room recording four other bands playing at once. It never settles into anything that you could predict or could be resolved.

Sounds hectic.

JS: I found the Brisbane scene to be a lot more enjoyable and fun at that time. Primarily because nobody took themselves seriously because they didn't have serious aspirations. In that lack of seriousness, other things were able to emerge. Ridiculous things. Probably Sky Needle as well, which has a ridiculousness about it. Maybe it was nurtured by that environment.

Sky Needle's Debased Shapes is out now via Bruit Direct Disques