Songs From The 86 Tram – Track by Track (Mess+Noise 2010)
MIDDLE AGED MUM
I went down to the cross-roads late one night (corner of Smith and Johnston) and just as I thought he would, the devil appeared. He was wearing a long jacket, big leather hat and twisted sunglasses with a psychedelic reflection. The Devil said ‘whaddaya want?’ I said ‘Look, I’m trying to write a musical comedy show called Songs From The 86 Tram, what should I have as the first song?’ The Devil thought about it and took a long slug on his rollie before blowing smoke in my face. ‘A depressive ballad about a suburban empty nester missing her kids.’ Flames appeared and he disappeared into the night, not before handing me a flyer for the rose street markets. This is how I found the inspiration for this song. Many have come before me and tried to question the Devil’s logic. ‘But Justin’ they cry, ‘it’s the first track, you can’t start an album with this song, it’s too morose and not obviously funny enough.’ I laugh in their faces, and eat my Velish soup straight from the saucepan. The truth is folks, the Devil knows comedy and he knows the darkness in our hearts and the humour that is born from it. This song was originally written on guitar but the producer and I realised that transposing it to piano would suit it more. It makes you think of a mother getting up at a high school concert in her best blouse and belting out her troubles politely. For me, the opening line sums up the entire album ‘I’m not sure this is the direction I wanted to be going in / and I’m not just talking about Preston.’ The thing with this record is that unlike most musical comedy I’m not ‘trying to be’ this kind of song I am ‘being’ this kind of song, that’s why the vocals are down in the mix and nestled in with the piano. I know this will rub people up the wrong way but enough about my love life. Ageing women tend to feel invisible in society, so I suppose I like the idea of reflecting that through meek vocals.
WE ARE TRAMILY
I love writing white boy raps. Being a big Beck fan I’m inspired by his slouchy hip-hop ways on Odelay. I had a crack with Folkstar, and hadn’t written one for a long time. The album is lifted straight from the stage show, and I retained the sequencing. I felt the second track needed to be an in your face ‘call to arms’ for passengers. What better way to deliver this than through some Aussie hip-hop. Again, the difference here is I didn’t want it to be a pastiche or winking at the audience affair so this is technically one of the less “funny” tracks that is hopefully just cool. I channelled OziBattler’s voice for this one, and tried to ride that Aussie rap pronunciation. I like the fact the character within is actually quite earnest and says stuff like ‘I wish everyone would just rap all the time / we’d have a better time’ along with ‘I fit in, like a nun with a hymn / like a derro with a dim sim.’ Production wise the second producer Chris Scallan put that big ol’ beat under it I was like a little kid at Christmas. Look Mum, I’m a real song. There’s also a nice element of sitar underneath, which you don’t often get in this genre. A timely pro-indian salute? In the live show the Smith St junkie gets a whole monologue, but I couldn’t get him a song on here, so the solution was to have him wandering around in the background carrying on. There was some great moments where I’d be in the studio going nuts only to wander out and find the producer slouched at his desk in tears.
This song was a real challenge for me. I never write political or controversial stuff, but realised that if 86 was going to be legit, then it needed an ethnic character in the mix. Us lefties are getting a bit too PC, especially with comedy. It’s like: ‘don’t do ANY accents or it’s racist.’ Thing is, in Australia satire and ribbing can be a sign that you’re comfortable with another people. Anyway, this song is performed in an African accent that I devised studying periodicals such as YouTube. (I’d also just read Dave Eggers What Is The What). I then did some homework making sure the lyrics weren’t offensive. I sent them to a chap who works with Sudanese people and this was the one he pulled out: ‘You have things that we don’t have, like rage top 50 and bubble o bills / We just have militia pops, it’s just an angry face with a liquorice gun.’ He said the one thing that annoys them most is being constantly associated with warfare. I like the way the vocals sit right out in front of the mix, it’s intimate and channels that documentary vibe. I wanted to make the instrumental chorus more profound so we added some synth and sampled African singing and drums. The first thing my guitarist said was ‘that’s a bit lion king.’
So basically, I sort of think Trishine is the most structurally perfect Australian comedy song ever written. It’s all there: it makes fun of bogans, it’s high brow and low brow, it has swearing, wordplays, a high concept musical key change gag not to mention some eloquent, intelligent chord progressions and heart-achingly understated string arrangements. I should be given an order of Australia for this, or at least get a phone call from Rudd. I’ve channelled eighteen years of growing up in Burnie, being looked at funny by bullies, feeling nervous when I walk past pubs with hard men in hats peering out from silent beers, wasting my teenage years playing football, desperate to be accepted by the well-liked kids with their expensive football boots and sideline dads, macho fronts and dirty jokes when I could have started some psych-rock band and been touring America by now. That endless nebulous of self-loathing and alienation I endured at the hands of witless, tactless, blue singleted, meat faced bar accessories, I’ve burned it up like coal and powered this delicate, beautiful, multi faceted phoenix, flying high above the Australian zeitgeist like a galah with the plumage of a peacock and the heart of a wedge-tailed eagle.
I thought hard about how much incidental stuff to include from the live show, like sounds of the tram and conversations between characters. Despite being the guy who brought out Wow Wow’s Song I am actually conscious of not wanting to annoy people too much. I remembered back to year 12 parties and how frustrating Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction soundtrack was and how’d you’d always be skipping the talking bits. I included this little snippet just to help bring home the concept nature of the album. I wonder if this is the first example of an album sampling itself from a later point within the same album. Ie the Northcote kid is listening to Old Man At End, the last track on the record
NORTHCOTE (So Hungover)
Musically, this is one of the strongest dudes on the album, which I think is why it’s had so much radio love. This really shows off the prowess of my band ‘The Awkwardstra’ locking in nicely on bass (Andy Hazel) and drums (Hugh Rabinovici). The guitarist (Gordon Blake) does some great first take fuckabouts and captures that ‘first band at Pony’ vibe, while Hitz Rodriguez (Jamie Power) is safe as houses on tambo.(The track was written on tambourine). This wasn’t an easy one to record as I was trying to lay the music down first then do the vocals, but the monologue is a different length every time I do it. Thank goodness for ProTools and the cut and paste feature. I was chuffed to hear someone compare it to ‘The Gift’ by The Velvets. Normally I just get compared to Joe Dulci or Crazy Frog. I’ve always believed that for musical comedy to justify itself as a valid art form, the music needs to be just as good as the lyrics and the two need to service each other, not compromise. This is a good example of the musical bed providing the context for the vocals while allowing for a ‘rockout bridge’ so the music has its time in the sun. I like how thoughtfully mixed it is too, you can hear the lyrics easily without sacrificing sonic oomph. I’ve been trying to find that sweet blend between music and humour for years and I think this is it.
The Irish accent provided a suitable mask to pull off the female voice, otherwise it’d sound too much like me. It was also a good vehicle to explore some frustrations like the backpacker being marooned in another country. The song was incredibly difficult to record, because we wanted to get the guitar down first then do vocals separate, but like Northcote, timing wise there’s no way to control how long the vocals go for. For such a simple song it took a whole day, and the producer had to make loops out of each of the three guitar chords and after I’d done my vocals go back in and layer the guitar chords over the top. Then the picking pattern would change mid chord and it wouldn’t match up! This is the first time I’ve recorded with my first ever guitar, a nylon Yamaha I bought when I was eleven. That boppin’ harmonium sound that comes in for the second verse is me playing an accordion really rapidly so it makes this continuous oscillating sound. It’s my trademark. I use it in ‘I’m So Post Modern’ and on ‘Orange’ on Brown & Orange. I tried very hard to write a character that represented the modern young woman, without being cliché or dumbed down. I was criticised by an early girlfriend for making Irish Girl too cynical and negative, and became paranoid that it might come across as misogynistic, like I’ve disempowered her by making her unlikeable. And I’m like, shit no, I’m trying to show that a man can write a thoughtful, three dimensional portrayal of a woman and make her funny and witty and intelligent. I even borrowed a line from my female friend ‘For Christmas I’d like the ability to get my period before or after music festivals’ which always gets a huge laugh live as all the girls in the room go ‘yeah!’
This is a good example of juxtaposition. I’ve thought ‘what’s the lamest most stagnant and dull thing in the world? Getting a tram ticket.’ Therefore, it should be matched with the sexiest, slinkiest most jivin tune available. Songwriting wise this is my best to date. It has a pre-chorus and everything! I’m not sure if ‘yacht folk’ has been invented but I can’t find the genre on Myspace. Studio wise I laid down my guitar and vocal and then got each of The Awkwardstra to step in and work their magic. The drums are a combo of synth and real. The thing about studio recording is even when you think you’ve got plenty of wickets in hand (Oz version of ‘covered all your bases), you are met with the most obtuse of problems, like the drummers snare sound wasn’t matching up with the synth snare. (Hugh’s a jazz man and has a tightly wound kit) So Chris had to take apart the percussion bed and put it back together again, placing a sampled handclap sound to repair it. It reminds me of Bowie’s Golden Years which I adored as a child, there’s a real lightness and a swing which my music’s never had before. (not to mention listenability). A reviewer mentioned Beck and I’m like ‘ok, ready to retire now.’ Harry Angus lays down some nice brass too, he’s a great improviser, at the end I said ‘it needs something dramatic and weird here’ and he just nodded and did his thing. I’m fairly annoyed that national radio didn’t touch this. Too Melbourney? Not funny enough? C’mon – the chimney’s smoking and I got an armful of logs!
MAN ON A TRAM
Again, a bit of playful juxtaposition here. Take most predictable middle of the road character – conservative business man and provide unlikely format ‘dr suess style spoken word piece.’ Of all the tracks this is by far the most simple, just voice and guitar and the producer often cites this as his favourite. For most of my stuff its musician and comedian doing battle to win out, but with this one the music has been mutated and made a bit clowny itself. The guitar is providing bass and percussion, rather than melody and has a jittery timing to it, like the way a spider moves up a wall. I’m wary of making albums where every song starts to sound like the next and there’s not much chance of that happening here. Brown and Orange was a bit like that too but I think on 86 it makes more sense as each song is a different character.
SONG TO NOD OFF TO
So, the next night, I went back to the cross-roads. Once again the devil appeared. ‘Oh whaddisit this time?’ he roared. ‘I was playing five hundred with Kurt Cobain.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I need some help. I’m about halfway through my show and I’m not sure what the next song should be.’ The Devil stroked his dirty goatee and pondered. ‘Musical comedy….alright, whattabout a four and a half minute multi-layered instrumental?’ He grinned at me and drank a frothy glass of milo. ‘That’s perfect I said, thanks’ ‘Now fuckoff!’ he declared, ‘down to the rose street markets, I hear they’ve got some good childrens book handbags!’ I hurried home and wrote the most ‘god I wish I wasn’t who I am but actually Boards Of Canada or Lemon Jelly’ piece of dreamy acoustic escapism. No synths!
IN MY DAY (Nan)
I first wrote this song in one hit, (of cocaine) on a cassette, the whole structure was there, and most of the lines. (of coke) I spent the next year or so performing it and redrafting the lyrics until I found a set of gags (to hold audience hostage) I was happy with. This is the beauty of doing the comedy cross-over, you can ‘work your material’ (polyester) up in front of an audience and work out which lines (of people, trying to get out the door) are sticking and which aren’t so by the time you hit the studio (anger issues) you’ve got a final version that you’re happy with. Most of the tracks (of heroin) on this album were written like this, I’d pretty much fart out the whole thing in one take (toke) and then go back and hone the lyrics. Most songs had about ten different drafts (of beer), and each line has to fight for its right to (party) be there. I guess that’s the writer in me (so tell us about your longterm battle with being a wanker) coming to the fray and realising the importance of redrafting. (your hair). This track made me nervous cos it’s the most ‘Comedy 101’ on there and I was real worried that it would stick out too much and annoy people. (a bedroom philosopher song? Never.) I was going to leave it off for a while. This was one track that required quite a few takes (tokes) as I couldn’t do the guitar and vocals separate because (I’m shit) it was just too weird, it really kills the (brain cells) flow of the track and means the pauses aren’t the right length and it messes with the comedy timing. So I think we spliced (splice! Great combo of icecream and icypole) a few vocal takes together which is quite a common process for me (sorry, were you talking? I just zoned out, I was thinking about the girl off madmen) Initially we turned up the treble and record noise and made it sound like an old 78 but it was a bit distracting so I toned down the record effect so you just get the basic idea. (the basics? When are they playing? When’s the next Gotye record? When’s dinner? I want wedges).
Oh dear, poor old Melbourne artists, why do I seem to have it in for you so much? Is it because I feel like a perennial outsider and can’t help but be fascinated and intimidated by the gracefully aloof shopfront of fashionably nondescript cool you maintain with your exhibitions, bikes, black jackets and beards? Is it because I am Australian and my psychological instinct is to attack anyone who appears to be lauding themselves over society in any way? Is it because I’ve had one too many friends send me a Facebook invite to their ‘cross-platform’ project, only to turn up and see a ceramic owl set on fire next to a bowl of ballbearings, accompanied by a 10, 000 word artist statement, telling me how it reflects the internal struggle of man’s fascination with the contextless universe and god’s disconnection to his genitals? Dunno. But it’s fun. So here it is. This song is a real live favourite, cos I have friends come up with the BEST expression of slight hurt and bemused disbelief saying ‘but I’ve had my jeans on for six weeks.’ These are the kinds of songs where I’m not sure how much to ‘band it up’ on record cos live it works real well just me and guitar. But then my biggest fear is making some novelty thing that you listen to twice and sit on your bookshelf and ultimately I want to make music that you can a) put on at a party and not have everyone call cabs and b) maybe fool about to on your bed. I’m still a while away from that and my back catalogue could act as contraception. I like that there’s more sitar in there (I’m a big Cornershop fan) and you don’t often hear it being used as a background texture. This song has a pay-off bigger than Slash’s guitar solo in ‘November Rain’ with Chris channelling his days mixing the soundtrack for Baz Luhmann’s Australia. Pompous. Bombastic. Ridiculous. Everything good art should be. Take that Melbourne you sweet denim bitch. You know I love you right?
OLD MAN AT END
With light rain starting to fall from an overcast Fitzroy sky I strolled back to the cross-roads and waited. This time the Devil did not come. I waited for three hours and where normally he would have appeared in a firework of flame there was only a big ol’ tram dinging its bell. I moved out of the way but the tram kept clangin’. I went to the driver’s side and peered in. From the dark space a familiar face leered around. He waved an arm and opened the tram doors for me to climb on The carriage was empty. I stood next to the driver’s window as the Devil cracked a can of beer and floored it. ‘Where we goin?’ I asked, lurching backwards and grabbing onto a green pole. ‘The end my friend, to the eeeend.’ He was yelling and waving his arms around so I guessed he’d had a few by now. Together we rolled through the night. The moonlight casting off the glittery floor like dirty diamonds. We were somewhere past Preston when the Devil reached into his jacket and pulled out an old black tape. He pressed it into the stereo and a simple, moody song came through the speakers. ‘I’m coming to the end of my tram ride / and I’m not just talking about Telstra dome.’ It was strange. It was my voice, but I couldn’t recognise it. ‘Who is this?’ I asked ‘It’s you’ said the Devil. ‘This is the end mate. The eeeend’ he started coughing and laughing wildly, swigging his beer and swaying from side to side. I sat on a seat and listened to the rest of the song. It was amazing. The old man’s monologue finished with him repeating ‘find out what the hell it’s all about’ while those graceful, brooding minor chords cycled over and over. Then, the backing vocals started, soaring and pleading, following the chords like a jetstream of melancholy. They continued to build until I detected bass and electric through the tinny speakers. The vocals soared, floating for a moment before being pushed over the edge by a powerful drum roll. The song erupted into a sonic fireball, undulating and crying primeval into the ambient abyss. It was the song of my dreams. Epic, grandiose and defiant as the ghostly electrics pleaded to the melodic moon. I closed my eyes and saw neon orange and green energy spheres gunning through time, pushing a tired old body higher and higher. My heart overheated and my brain ordered the release of tears. I was hearing myself for the first time, whispering some truth, a message, just for me, so gentle, so pretty ‘you …are.…OY GET OFF! My eyes opened. The tram had stopped. The song had ended. The devil loomed over me, his crude mouth blowing me a beery belch. ‘Get the fuck off.’ I stood up faintly, I really needed to wee. ‘What now?’ I asked, but he was gone. I stepped out and saw that I was inside a tram depot. I zipped up my jacket and trudged toward the front gate, that amazing song still playing in my ears.