Having only recently separated ways with their record company, the Eskimo Joe trio found themselves playing around with a bunch of vintage synthesisers and experimenting with some refreshing, new sounds within the confines of their creative studio space, The Wastelands.
After playing some of Australia’s more intimate and unique venues for their Winter Warmer tour earlier this year, they’ve announced they’ll be sweeping the nation again this October, armed this time with their latest material.
With their sixth studio album Wastelands due for release on Friday 20 September, we caught up with guitarist Stuart MacLeod to hear about their inspired, new sound.
Alana Mitchelson: You’ve just played a string of acoustic shows for your Winter Warmer tour. Did playing at some of Australia’s more unique, intimate venues take you back to your old days of playing the smaller venues when you first started out?
Stuart MacLeod: Yeah, I guess it did in some ways. They were small and intimate but they were also quite grand and a little bit different and special, so that was kind of unique and cool for us as well. We actually just recently did a few shows up North and down South at regional pubs and that was more of a rock, full-band set so that really brought us back to the old days. It felt great to just have the sweat off the front row kind of thing and having that immediate contact with the front row and with everyone in the room really. It was really fun.
AM: For the Winter Warmer tour, you not only stripped back a collection of your old songs, but you pretty much reinterpreted them. What was the process like for you, as a band, in almost taking a step back from yourselves in order to reinvent your own work?
SM: It was great. I think we got inspired to do that from making this latest record. We went into it with no preconceived idea of how the record would sound. We just had a bunch of songs that we hadn’t produced. They were just bare bones and may as well have been sheet music so throughout the recording process, when we would reinvent the songs, some of them were actually re-imagined about three or four times almost to completion. We got a real kick out of being able to just completely change the whole feeling of a song.
I guess we wanted to bring an element of that to some of the other songs and that was heaps of fun. I just wish we had more time, we only had 10 days to come up with and rehearse all those songs.
AM: Sounds pretty full on. Can we expect to hear some of those versions during your album tour?
SM: Yeah, the response from those shows was just so overwhelmingly positive that we want to try to grab elements of that and bring those intimate elements to a live stage show.
AM: Awesome, sounds good. So how important are tours nowadays in playing a full album to fans when typically they wouldn’t necessarily be sitting down and listening to every single song on a record?
SM: It’s a good question. For us it’s very important because we still really treasure the actual concept of an album as an entire body of work rather than just a bunch of songs. We’ve always tried to create an album that stands alone as a separate entity; there has to be some link between each song, there has to be a story arc, there has to be flow and dynamics within the record. These days it’s very easy just to download one song at a time and that’s great for the immediacy of it, but I think somewhere along the way we need to be mindful that we don’t lose the album as a standalone concept.
Playing a whole album in its entirety is great for the artist but is sometimes a bit much for some of the people in the audience because they haven’t actually spent enough time with the record. But it’s special because when you go and hear a band play an entire record, you really are hearing a slice of someone’s life.
AM: I was actually lucky enough to have a listen to your new album. Congratulations! It was so incredibly different from anything we’ve heard from Eskimo Joe in the past. What triggered this new venture into experimenting with more so electronic sounds and synths?
SM: That was a very serendipitous kind of moment. We had music producer Burke Reid come over from Canada and he used to play in the band Gerling. We’ve always been a massive fan of that band’s great mix of energy and grit. So we wanted him to come and just throw a real spanner into everything and we were all under the illusion that this was going to be a really organic, live sounding record. We thought the three of us were just gonna sit around playing these songs live with one or two room mics and that would be the record.
We set up on the first day in our studio, which we call The Wastelands, sat down and thought we’d have a bit of a jam to get the juices flowing. We set an old, 1980s CompuRhythm-1000 drum machine onto this drum loop, Kav had this vintage synthesiser Roland Jupiter-4, I was playing bass and Joel was on the drums, and there was this electricity in the air like that still before a storm. We all got this buzz of excitement and the next day we came in for the autopsy of what we thought was great and it was still all sounding really great. So we started using elements from that as a backbone to the songs and so it began. We couldn’t put the Jupiter-4 down. Every time we needed a sound we’d try a bunch of different instruments but we always found that we came back to the Jupiter-4. It just seemed like the real lifeblood of the record. Every time we picked up an electric guitar it just sounded awful (laughs), so we just kept using the keys and it grew from there.
AM: What do you hope your new material will offer listeners?
SM: A sense of excitement and fun. It’s just a really relaxed record. We’re not trying to push anything down anyone’s throats. There are some darker moments on the record too, some of the lyrical content is really dark, but the feeling of the record as a whole just makes me wanna smile and have a good time.
AM: In the past you’ve said that if a song sounds good on guitar only, it can then be translated to pretty much any other medium and go whatever direction you want to take it. Is this Eskimo Joe’s rule of thumb when deciding on what tracks to include on a record?
SM: I guess it has been in the past. With this record, we sort of started from that blueprint but then we mangled the songs and smashed them up through so many different processes that they were pretty unrecognisable from their original demos. So we approached these songs from a much more simplistic place, whereas in the past we’d have a chorus with ten chords which were all tricky and clever and brought the listener through this amazing musical journey. On this record, we had these choruses which had all these tricks in them, suspended chords and diminished, and then we’d strip it all back to just two chords and all of a sudden the song would have this energy and this life breathing through it which felt so much more effortless.
AM: Just personally, I’ve found that a distinguishing feature of your music are the underpinning keyboard tones. Do you think that’s something you’ve maintained throughout your albums despite experimenting with different sounds?
SM: I guess we’ve relied pretty heavily on guitars in the past too. There’s always been piano elements underpinning a lot of our songs and that does sort of add a lot of weight to the darker, rock numbers especially. If you have the lower end of the piano ringing out underneath, it does lend a huge amount of weight to a song.
We’ve used keyboards in a much different way for this record. It’s more about their spontaneity and their naivety, and experimenting with something you’re not familiar with. So I think we’ve got a lot of crazy and inspirational sounds out of these old machines that we would never have imagined until we pressed a couple of buttons and hit the keys.
AM: Had you used the machines in the past?
SM: No, we had this Jupiter-4 for a couple of years but never really managed to fit in on any record. We borrowed a Moog and an old Korg off a friend and kept exploring them. I think that’s why we had so much fun with this record because it was all new and exciting to us. I think that’s also why a lot of the songs are a lot simpler because we were exploring this new territory and the more simply we played anything, the better it seemed to sound.
AM: So why did you you choose to use the crowdfunding platform for your new album?
SM: Well we’d just separated ways with our record company and this was the first record we’d ever made independently. In the past we’d always relied on the record company to advance us money to make a record and we’d heard about the crowdfunding phenomenon that was going around the world within different industries. We liked the idea of involving the fans from day one and it turned out to be an overwhelmingly positive thing, just in terms of getting to know a lot of our fan base personally.
We started at $1 for an advanced preview listening of the single and then it worked up towards digital copies of the album pre-ordered, physical albums and physical vinyl copies, your name in the liner notes, a smashed guitar that Kav had smashed onstage one night, all the way up to a barbecue complete with an acoustic performance at your house.
AM: Wow, sounds like you had a lot of fun. Now Stuart, a couple of years back you were announced as the number-one ticket holder for the Fremantle Football Club and joked about penning a club song. Any chance this is still on the cards?
SM: (laughs) Well funnily enough we were approached by the Dockers to write a new theme song and they put it to the members for a vote among other options. It was apparently a very close race and we came second, so they chose to just rework the old version. But we had a lot of fun. We tried to make a very old, Victorian heritage sounding theme. It was heaps of fun.
AM: Yeah, I bet. And just curious, have you ever been to Eskimo Joe’s bar in Oklahoma?
SM: No, we did actually get an email from them many many years ago. They were stoked that someone else in the world was using the Eskimo Joe moniker and that anytime we were in Stillwater we should drop in for a free meal and a T-shirt (laughs). We were driving in the tour bus once and we happened to see a sign ‘To Oklahoma’ and we were like ‘Oh, we should go past Stillwater’ and the bus driver said it’s a good eight-hour drive. So a 16-hour round trip was just a bit too much out of the way (laughs).
AM: And I heard you’ve only just finished filming the music video for the single ‘Got What You Need’ last weekend. Can you tell us a bit about that?
SM: Basically, a friend of Joel’s had remarked that the song sounded like having a deep, relationship conversation with your girlfriend at a really bangin’ party. So naturally, we took that idea and held a big animal onesie party, brought a lot of alcohol and invited a bunch of people, and then just had a few cameras floating around. So everything is real, it’s just us having a party and enjoying ourselves. It ended up being a great night. It actually got a bit weird towards the end of the night and so the cameras kind of got put away and I’m wishing they’d stayed on to capture it all because it would have been pretty amazing footage.
AM: The tracks off this latest record have this especially clean sound to them. How will you translate that to suit your live performance?
SM: We’ve already started, some of the songs are a lot easier to translate than others but we’re pretty much six songs down now – so we’ve just got four to go – and we’ve just had a lot of fun working out how we’re gonna do it. I think now it’s coming a lot clearer and easier to figure it out. We’re just looking forward to getting out there and showing everyone.
AM: I know you’ve had years of experience in the industry, but I’m just interested, are you ever still apprehensive as to how a new song is going to be received when performing it live for the first time?
SM: Oh, definitely. Yeah, especially with this new record. We have no idea of knowing how crowds will respond but there are a couple of songs in particular which have had the best response we’ve ever had from a new piece of music.
AM: That’s fantastic. So what can fans expect from your tour?
SM: A lot of fun. A lot more dancing and a lot less foot stomping and fists in the air (laughs). It’s gonna be just one big dance party I think.
AM: With some animal onesies maybe?
SM: (laughs) We might have to bust a couple out onstage. They are a hell of a lot of fun to dance in.
AM: Thanks so much for your time Stuart and best of luck for the tour!
SM: Nah, it’s a pleasure. Thank you.
Wastelands is due for release on Friday 20 September.
Originally published at Everguide.