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By: Gilbert Potts
When I catch up with Joe Shrewsbury from Sheffield band 65daysofstatic outside the Northcote Social Club in Melbourne, they have already played here the night before and the first act is doing their sound check. Even though it’s a Monday night there’s a few people about, and our conversation is not without interruptions, including the odd truck, the odd drunk, the odd 30 year old Toyota trying to do burnouts at the lights, and the odd guy in his underpants running down the middle of the street yelling at no one in particular. Well it was a warm night.
I ask Joe what the most beautiful sound is that he’s ever heard. “O -kay, it’s that sort of interview”, he says as he sits up and his head rolls back.
“Oh no, it’s that sort of interview”, I think to myself, but it wasn’t. Not only is Joe articulate and talkative, he speaks with the voice of someone who thinks a lot about music and life. He’s got strong views on politics and the politics of music, on the way we behave as a society, and where we’ve gone off track. But he also applies that critical eye to himself and his music. So rather than sounding preachy, he strikes me as someone who accepts you can’t change everything in the world, so he’s always looking for where to improve and make change in what he can influence. But back to the most beautiful sound he’s heard.
Joe: I don’t know, I’m increasingly interested in small sounds that are, what you’d call sound design, as opposed to writing composition. We’re doing a little bit of sound design for a project we’re doing, my brother’s trained to be a sound designer, and it’s a different way of listening to things. For instance, I was just in the botanical gardens here in Melbourne, and there’s something called a Bell Bird, and they make a noise that I’d really like to record because to me, it sounds like a spaceship door opening. Sounds out of context like that are really, really interesting, I can’t answer your question directly, but I’m increasingly aware that, I don’t know, I’ve always felt like I was catching up with sound, and sound as texture is becoming increasingly interesting to us, I think as a band.
Unfortunately you get to a point where, our problem is that we end up combining two or three quite abrasive sounds into a single sound, and then feeling like we could listen to that for hours, and the temptation is to release an hour of that and say “this is it”, because it’s a very creative way to work, it’s very minimal. And I think the noise in our heads, the noise I would like to hear shut in a small dark room is like that, but the band’s history sort of demands something more… architectural in songwriting. But I think increasingly the four of us would like to just put three or four noises together and listen to that for a great amount of time.
(((o))): Thinking of your first album The Fall of Math, well of its name, do you think that composers are perhaps the mathematicians of the art world?
Joe: Yes quite possibly, but I think we got caught up increasingly in time signatures and technicality about six or seven years ago, and I think it’s a really dangerous path to go down because the best music is really, really simple.
There was an interview with Adrian Utley recently about doing the last Portishead album and he said, and I paraphrase, “I pursued virtuosity, pursued keys and chords and the way they relate to each other and the ability to improvise immediately which keys relate to which”, and he said “you know, I did that for years and years and years and I’m just not interested any more because it doesn’t produce results that are emotionally.. well you can get caught in the process”.
I think the best music comes from people where you have somebody, like Paul and Si are very, I think, very mathematical and rational about music, whereas to an extent I’m sort of feeling my way, and I think smashing those two things together comes up with really good results, because you have someone who understands absolutely how that music fits within a wider framework, and then you have someone who’s sort of, I don’t know? Accidental? Which I think yields really good results.
(When composing) we spend half our time trying to get back to something that we played first thing in the morning on a day’s work where we didn’t hit record, no-one’s miced up, the kettles boiling, and that feels just so good and so pure, and then we try to get back to that – how did we do that? I think there’s something really interesting in that.
It’s a little bit like Neil Young recording Tonight’s The Night, and teaching musicians “here’s the changes, this is the song” and they say “right, we’ve got it, let’s go” and he’d say “no, I’ve already recorded it”. That only comes together from playing for a long time, and it only comes from knowing the tools that you’re using, and knowing what you’re capable of really, really well. That’s how we felt writing Wild Light certainly, when we look back on it. That record’s really great, but it’s part of a ten-year process of working together. There was no possible way we could have done this record at any other time in our narrative. It’s only because we’ve gone through certain things together. I think those sort of ephemeral, intangible parts of the process are actually the key ones, and they are very hard to articulate.
(((o))): So there’s all these things you can now do because of all the experiences you’ve had as a band, but what is it that has since vanished – what do bands lose, and how much do you miss that?
Joe: I’m not sure, I think what vanishes is naivety, and I wouldn’t say passion because there’s lots of bands I know who have been around as long as us and are completely passionate about what they do, as are we. But I think there’s a naivety that you can bend the world, through youth and energy and music to your will, and what do we learn in our twenties, that the world is hard and unfair. So there’s something about starting out, and the mentality of being together. I think lots of people in bands tend to be people who were not part of the crowd at school, and I think the older you get you realise that’s what life’s like. Human beings aren’t nice to each other.
So, that friendship, that sense of togetherness, that sense of ‘us-against-them’, which is not a feeling I’ve wanted to take with me, and I think as you get older it can be quite a destructive feeling. There is that sense that when you’re starting out it gives you this sort of edge and I think there’s something about the veracity of playing music at that age, that the human brain recognises when it hears it being done. Something about the physicality of music. That’s why you can’t get a laptop and make music with preprogrammed and pre-recorded samples that will sound anything like as passionate as something like a Clash record. Because the human brain hears those guitars and hears the physicality of it.
(((o))): The music industry seems to think it invented music and it owns music, but it doesn’t because music’s been around for 40,000 years or more and people make music every day in how they talk and do things. When the music “industry” dies, will music ownership go back to the hands of the people?
Joe: There’s two ways to answer that, one is practical and one is theoretical. I mean, as you say, the people who say the music industry is dying, I think a very small group of people and what they mean is the systems they use to monetise music have failed, I don’t actually think the music industry is dying at all. There are more bands than ever, there’s more music than ever, there’s more democracy in how music’s getting heard. I don’t necessarily think that means there’s better music out there. I think a lot to do with music in the last 50 years, the music industry if you like, is the struggle to stay together as a band means the good stuff rises, but It’s not all great. But what will happen to music, I don’t know.
There’s two sides of what we do, the playing live and touring thing, we could do that indefinitely. But recording music, recording albums costs money. And you can’t make records that sound good in your bedroom. You can work on them in your bedroom, but to actually record that music, so you can hear the playing of it, to line up the music, to achieve what the brain is capable of, you need more expensive methods. And so the studio, for me, if I think about the first time I went to a studio, I had absolutely no clue what anything was or what anything did, and the guy in the studio was kind of the wizard who could bring all that together. If I think of what I know now, and I am by no means an engineer or a producer, I understand what that process is and the importance of that process, and the things that we have learnt about each other as musicians and about the music we make.
That’s how we end up with records like Wild Light. If the band broke up tomorrow, I’d have been proud to have been involved in that record. That record, from start to finish, was an absolute joy to be a part of. It felt like being part of something inarticulable to anyone else, and even to each other. We didn’t talk about what we were doing, we just had this excitement that it was coming together.
That record cost money to make, it cost more money than we had together to make, we had to have a record label who put that money up. And I don’t like that system, I don’t particularly like our record label, I don’t particularly like having to answer to them, and I don’t particularly like the implications of having other people own your music. It seems to me impossible that anyone could own that music, but that’s the situation you’re in, and when we come to make another record, they’re the methods we’ll resort to until something better comes along. So recorded music? I don’t know. It’s so impossible for people who came from where we came from, every generation from the ’60s to now, how do we know what’s coming. The kids coming up, they’re already great with technology that we can’t even understand.
But music will get made forever, won’t it.
(((o))): How significant are those few words at the start of Wild Light to how people respond given that it’s instrumental music?
Joe: I personally think that in the context of the album, the words are very significant, and in the context of life itself, I like words, and I like what words do and I like what words do with music. It’s so hard, “no-one knows what’s happening”, it’s sort of like… we didn’t write the words, we discovered them. They’re a woman translating a homemade documentary, and she almost didn’t let us use the sample, this was literally to the point where we had to send the record off to be printed, and she still hadn’t agreed that we could use her voice. She might see this interview, we don’t know who she was, but we only found her through her YouTube alias, I think she was really freaked out, that we had this sample, and it was some late night sifting through YouTube, and it resonated with us on so many levels and on so many personal levels that we haven’t talked about between each other. But at the time we were looking for record labels, the phrase ‘no-one knows what’s happening’ describes perfectly the British the music industry, it’s full of people that have no fucking clue what they’re doing, they’re grasping at straws, and terrified of losing their jobs.
But it’s also applicable to global and environmental politics, the mistakes that are being made every day in terms of going forward as a species, in terms of how wildlife, ecology, transport is managed, you know the mistakes we seem to be making as a species, simply by the nature of trying to communicate with one another all seems failed. At one point the album, for me, I wrote a whole narrative about the end of the world because I think what she’s talking about, she’s translating from Russian a documentary about Tunguska or Vostok, and there’s a lake two miles underground, and the water down there was two million years old, and they didn’t know what they’d find down there but they drilled anyway. It’s that sort of stupidity, the blurredness of life on a very basic level, it just sets the album up, it says you’re here, and go, and it’s absolutely crucial, I can’t imagine what that record would be like without it.
But as with so many things, it’s an accident. It’s just an accident. It’s just chaos isn’t it, and I think that’s what ‘Heat Death’ is about – chaos. We think we know what’s going on and what we’re doing, but we don’t.
(((o))): And this is what happens in politics, we just make shit up and politicians don’t want to make decisions and no one speaks naturally any more. It’s all sound grabs…
Joe: …which is driven by the media…
(((o))): …yeah and the media doesn’t give a fuck if the world dies.
Joe: It’s about positioning, isn’t it? And it’s so rigid, ideology becomes always dogmatic, you always have to have a position, you have to have a public face, so no real discussion ever occurs. I don’t think politics is the driving force of any good in the world anymore. It all seems to be happening elsewhere – the only way you get anything done is by limiting your involvement in politics or being savvy about how the system works, and you think about this stuff, and the outlook in that case is really grim, because you have leaders who either wanted power for good reasons and became immediately corrupted, look at Obama, if he did want good things in the beginning, let’s say he did, he’s immediately killing more people, and drone attacks, more and more. I dunno?
(((o))): We had a government here in Australia that introduced initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and the new government threw that out and replaced it with nothing. So we went from world leaders to being laggers. It doesn’t matter that Australia is small, you have to start somewhere?
Joe: One day it will come, and people who were working on that, and who were apolitical, who simply wanted that change, they may not even live to see it, but there will have been people who begin to erode… they put that seed out there. And I think if you look at anything like that, in the end this is why the systems of power can claim that they change things, because in the end top-down regulation tends to be what changes things. So I think it’s a convergence of factors, you have all these people who are willing to sacrifice their lives really, they dedicate their lives to it and they don’t get a chance to see the benefits of it. (At this point Joe turns the conversation around and starts asking me the questions.)
Joe: Were you at the show last night?
Joe: We’re not going to play the Fall of Math tonight I don’t think. I don’t think it worked. We played it in England and and the UK as part of a tenth anniversary thing at much bigger shows (The band had played The Fall of Math straight through, then after a break played an additional set comprising of the songs from Wild Light and a few others).
(((o))): Well half way through Math you said “this isn’t really working”, and I don’t think it works that well as an album live. So like ‘Retreat! Retreat!’ was three songs in, but we shouldn’t be hearing that for an hour. I think Wild Light works right through…
Joe: …I’d play that through twice if I could.
(((o))): It sounded like you were playing Math because it seemed like a good idea at the time rather than because you thought it was a good set.
Joe: Yes. To be honest, we’re not really here in Australia to promote something we did ten years ago, we’ve just written an album that I think is the best thing we’ve ever done, it might be the best thing we ever do, I don’t know, but it’s certainly the thing I’m most interested in pushing. There’s loads of room in our set for The Fall of Math in its component parts and it works better like that, so that’s what we’re going to do. And who knows, there may not even be anybody here tonight.
(((o))): With The Fall of Math, it sounds like you’re angry about all this stuff?
Joe: Well, no, not really angry…
(((o))): … perhaps distressed?
Joe: Well yeah, I think distressed is a better word, I think we have veered wildly into despair, and we knocked that on the head, we wrote Destruction of Small Ideas, and I don’t think it’s a great record, I think there’s great songs on it, but we were wrapped up in a lot of stuff about what it meant to be in a band, what it meant to do any of this, and flying around the world. Who is that useful to really? It became a negative place really, and that’s not what we’re interested in as people. As young, much younger people, pre The Fall of Math, I had huge idealism about the world and what needed saving and that’s not the reality is it, of being a grown up person, so in the end we realised the band must be about making the greatest record possible, the music that expresses the things that you truly cannot articulate. How can I tell you what life’s about? It expresses something that is wordless.
That’s what I’m interested in now, I don’t think it’s useful for hundreds of people to fly around the world, but it’s my life, it’s fifteen years of our lives, and of course I want to come play in Australia. Does it help us as a species? No, but does it help the kids who’ve waited ten years to see us, who said this album got me through high school and thank you, yes it fucking does, and that’s the greatest thing I could possibly say about the music. So in the end you compromise, fence off some things you don’t compromise, and you get the work done.
(((o))): So it’s about many different complexities of life, it’s about your own personal world, you and your friends, the whole world, all these things collide when you create the music?
Joe: Yeah I was talking about positioning earlier. Everyone’s guilty of positioning, I don’t know what it’s like to not be in 65 days, so the question we really have to ask ourselves is are we now privy to lifestyle and a set of things we really enjoy doing, namely, going around the world, playing to people, are we simply trying to make that last, or are we actually trying to go on a journey with the music, and I think that as long as we’re doing that second thing, then it’s relevant. I don’t mean “relevant” in media terms, it’s an important thing to be doing.
(((o))): I heard Dave Grohl describing Foo Fighters as being in a bubble, where nothing changes in their style and they keep the same fans and play the same music, and they see music moving past them as they float in this bubble. Are you in a bubble or moving forward musically?
Joe: Yes, I do want to move forward, and I think making music like any art is about response more than people realise. You listen to things and you see things and you respond to them, and in turn people respond to what you’ve done, and I’m interested in that conversation. I’m not interested in being part of a scene or a movement or a fashion per se. I don’t know what 65 can claim to have achieved or have done, and one thing that’s probably true of us is that we’re outsiders, so it means that we’re not given the accolades that, I don’t know, name another instrumental band, a bigger one…
(((o))): We just saw Mogwai in this amazing hall in the city…
Joe: …what, not this one?
(((o))): No, but you couldn’t dance there. But yeah I can’t work out why some post-rock bands are so much better known than a lot of others. What does your Venn Diagram look like in terms of your electronic fans and your rock fans?
Joe: I’ve no idea and maybe if I did know I’d be playing that big hall down the road (laughs).
(((o))): To me your music has so much more emotion than electronic music…
Joe: Well I don’t think we use electronic music in a purist way. Maybe that’s one of the problems, is that people don’t really know what it is, because it’s not pure instrumental post-rock, and I’ve never understood why we’re called that. And by all means it’s not live electronica. I dunno.
All I know is that some bands, not the ones we’ve just mentioned because I’m not interested in that, have maybe been guilty of pushing the form that they’ve found and not taking risks, and you have to constantly break things down as you create things, you have to destroy them. The minute you find a form or a formula you’re in danger. It’s OK to build that and work within it for a time, but then you have to kill it.
We’ve just written a soundtrack to a computer game, and if we’re in a studio and someone goes “right, this could be a bit like ‘Prisms’ or a bit like ‘Heat Death'”, we throw it out because, kill it, we’ve done it, we’ve gotta do something else. And in that sense we’re in a bubble.
I listen to, like the John Hopkins album that came out a couple of years ago, or the Tim Hecker record, or this amazing cellist called Ernst Reijseger and I don’t want to to do that, but I hear things in music and I know I’m going to respond to it. I absolutely love Mogwai, when I was 15 they were hugely influential on what I wanted to do, what I thought about when I took drugs, where I felt my place in the world was. But I don’t listen to their music and respond to it artistically now, that’s not what I do. I listen to it and appreciate it, sure, but you hear these things and you think right, this is something else, this is a way of putting sounds together that I know I’ll respond to even if it’s in a subconscious way.
(((o))): So how big do you imagine the chasm to be between how a musician hears music, and how a punter, someone like me who just hears music, to be? Is there any benefit to either group or just is it different?
Joe: I was really worried when we made Exploding that I’d never listen to music in the same way again, that I’d listened to that collection of songs and sort of atomised them to such a degree that I thought I’d never be able to hear any other piece of music again. And I still walk past the radio and hear something that I fucking don’t like, like Taylor Swift, and I think, great, what a great place to put a snare drum in a mix. I don’t think everyone thinks that when they walk past a radio. But I think it’s possible to do both. I’m still capable of putting a record on and just taking it for what it is. How do you explain how people listen to music anyway, how do you explain what people are hearing? It’s almost impossible to work out what people are hearing. So it didn’t ruin music for me, I really love listening to music.
The only that I think is notable, from my experience from being in this band, is that I listen to so much less music, much less music does it for me. And increasingly like, classical or even some jazz music is what I will choose to listen to because it is so alien to me, and to anything I could ever think of doing. The skill needed to do that is beyond anything, it’s not my skill, it’s not where my talent lies. So that’s sort of opened that door for me. I don’t know anything about jazz, I just know what I do like and what I don’t like, and that’s a great way to listen to music, there’s no sort of authority, there’s no sort of ideology and that’s the point of music, isn’t it? It’s free to anyone.
I get asked a question a lot, normally by young journalists or teenagers, who say ‘what’s your guilty secret, what are you embarrassed to listen to?’ It’s like well, I’m not embarrassed by anything, because if I like it that’s a completely valid response. Something being embarrassing or a guilty secret is about what that music represents culturally, and fuck that.
And if you’re angry about the definition of the genre of math rock, and whether something is or isn’t, then you need to take a serious look at your life and put that energy into something else, because it doesn’t matter.
And I might leave it there.