June 7, 2010 | Author: Greg Phillips
There’s nothing startling about the process. Four friends get together in a home studio, record an album’s worth of songs and release them independently. But when those four mates are Josh Pyke, Kav Temperley (Eskimo Joe), Kevin Mitchell (Jebediah and aka Bob Evans) and Steve Parkin (Autopilot), all singer-songwriters at the top of their game, the supergroup tag is inevitably bestowed upon them.
The idea had been brewing for three years. They had all previously toured or recorded together in one incarnation or another. In November 2009, they got serious and assembled at Temperley’s home studio in WA to complete some songs and commit them to tape. Three more sessions followed, the last one as recently as May. The upshot of it all is a dozen or so sweet acoustic-based, alt country tunes showcasing the amazing harmony talents of some of our finest frontmen. They call themselves Basement Birds, a title selected by fans over the internet from many names put forward by all four members. ‘Waiting for You’, the first single can already be heard on the airwaves. The remaining tracks are being released, not as a physical single album package (or at least not yet), but in two and three song bundles sold exclusively in digital form via iTunes. About six weeks prior to the project’s release, Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips spoke with Kav Temperley over the phone and Kevin Mitchell over a latte and discussed what it meant to be a Basement Bird.
GP: When you began the project were there any set rules or certain ways you thought things had to be done?
KT: We did talk about it a bit. We said we wanted to keep everything honest sounding with no fancy studio production tricks. Pretty much just us with acoustic instruments, not too many electrics or crazy synthesiser sounds or delayed drums. No studio production, just us and literally anything we could get our hands on in the jam room. That’s pretty much what we stuck to.
I guess with the first few songs everyone was feeling there way around it. We had done about three years of bits and pieces with people coming back and forward and doing bits of recording, then we decided to get serious about it and locked in time with a proper engineer and started doing it in November last year. So by the time we got to the second session which was around January or February, everything had started to fall into place. People were finding their roles and also songs seemed to come together really quickly. No one had to question how things were done by then. We were just getting on with it and doing it and everyone knew where we were all coming from.
Were you surprised with the way the others worked as far as writing and recording? Did you learn anything?
I guess so. I think it seeps into your subconscious as well. We all approach it quite differently. Kev is funny because he just burbles away and doesn’t have lyrics until the last minute. Melodies are just cruising around in his head. Steve is similar in that way but he tends to jump onto the lyrics pretty early. Josh is really lyrical which you can tell when you hear his music. There are ten thousand words per songs. So he really gets the lyrics down. In fact he tends to have too many lyrics to start with. And I guess I am somewhere in between. I think I come up with lyrics and melody pretty much straight away but everyone comes from a slightly different angle. It’s interesting because the other guys are kind of solid singer songwriters these days. They tend to write in that format, whereas when I write, even though I write quite personally, it always gets turned into a universal message because in Eskimo Joe we’re a band. For me it has been easy working with these guys because I am so used to collaborating. With Kev and Jebediah, he pretty much drove it. He’d present his songs and the band would play around that. Josh has always just been Josh Pyke. Me and Steve have been writing and mucking around with music together or years, so it hasn’t been too hard for us at all. In fact, it’s just an extension of the boozy jams we have in the jam room anyway.
If we were to flick through your CD collection, would we find a lot of harmony bands?
It’s hard to define what you are listening to because you are always listening to lots of different stuff. I love Neil Young and the Crosby, Stills, Nash era harmonies and I loved their album Deja Vu when I was younger. I have always loved harmonies and have been fascinated by them because I have been so crap at them. I think that is what has always attracted me to Steve Parkin as a performer and writer because he is so amazing with harmonies. Whereas I have got more ‘lead-singeritis’, where I can only ever hear my melody! So it has been a big challenge for me to lock into harmonyland. I guess with Eskimo Joe, Stu does a lot of the harmonies. I don’t have to worry about that so much.
Prior to recording did you have a mental picture or sound in your head as to how you might all sound together?
Through the entire process things have changed because the whole idea started three years ago. Coming up to the first session I was listening to the new Fleet Foxes record which has beautiful harmonies on it and really pure sounds. So I think we kind of felt it would be in that realm. I think we are all happy to let it be organic and let it go a bit. I think in our own personal projects, everyone is so precious about getting it right, whereas with this, everyone can have a holiday from it. We really just wanted an excuse to put a record out, go on the road together and get drunk and sing together which is such a joyful thing. I don’t think I have ever been in a band with such good singers. There’s a thing where you step around the microphone and we do these four part harmonies and as
soon as that happens, it’s when it feels really magical. When we hear it back, it’s like, cool, this is why we are doing this.
How much time was spent on the recording of the vocals as opposed to the instruments?
I assume the key was to get the voices right more than anything else? Was there much done with the vocals in Pro Tools afterwards?
Generally, the process goes … whoever has written their song will start off and do their main vocal. The next person will come in and do their bit and harmony and so on. That’s the process of everyone getting to know their harmony. Then we edit that up, make sure everything is in tune and we are happy with our phrasing and all that normal stuff you would do in a vocal editing process. Josh is really quick and usually gets it in one or two takes. I take a million takes to get it right because I go ‘ No, I want to sing that word like this!’ With Kev, it depends how much wine he’s had the night before in regard to his vocals. When it comes to the group vocals, we sing until we get it right. When you sing with three others, if anything is slightly out of tune you naturally just pull into line with everyone else in the
You had quite a collection of fretted instruments in the studio. You seemed to have had a bit of fun with those?
Obviously there’s just so many acoustic guitars you can put on things. We had a piano at my house and John Butler lent us a collection of really cool instruments. He lent us a banjitar, which is like a six string banjo. It was great because none of us actually know how to play banjo. He also lent us a mandolin, which again is like a guitar-mandolin, and then there were varied types of basses. I have a nice double bass and a ’57 Hofner. Just using a lot of those really earthy sounding instruments to get some good honest sounds. Then we had Lucky Oceans who is a fantastic pedal steel player come in and do some pedal steel. He’s local legend here and has a radio show on the ABC, and he won a Grammy for something (with US band Asleep At The Wheel). We were like ‘You know he won a Grammy!” So we were all impressed by that.
You’ve played with the Eskimo Joe guys for a long time. How important is it as a musician to get out occasionally and experience playing and recording with others musicians?
I think it is really important. You don’t want to spread yourself thin. I think we are at a good point with Eskimo Joe’s career where I can do that. I can step away a little bit and it’s a really healthy thing. For me, leading up to album number three, I was so obsessed with the songs I was writing for Eskimo Joe. By album number four I could still say yes I am enjoying this but I felt like I needed some other outlets. You become, whether you like it or not, we’re Eskimo Joe and there’s a certain sound and a certain kind of thing that we do. I love that, but I have other things going on in my head that I want to express. And you know, this has taken three years to get off the ground and we just want to play together and get drunk and do one tour together. Of course in the process, it becomes this really full on thing. But the great thing about this and why it is so healthy, is that it is so fun and inconsequential because we all have day jobs. We can do this and not be so precious about it and there’s lots of laughs.
Who came up with the distribution idea for the album?
Our manager Cath suggested it. We knew we wanted to do it independently because that was going to be the simplest thing. We all have labels. If we keep it as independent as possible then that’s going to keep everyone happier. Then Cath had a talk to the iTunes people and they said they could do it exclusively through them and do it in bundles. We thought it was a cool way to do it because it hasn’t been done before and it is a bit of litmus test for our own bands if it does well and we can apply it to our real jobs
Will it ever see the day as a physical release?
Yeah, we will do a physical release. We’ll do the bundles with iTunes then we’ll do a physical release and probably the first thing will be a kind of uber-special fan thing with nice artwork and vinyl and a CD and then later down the line, the packaging will probably get crappier and crappier!
GP: With three other guys bringing songs to the table that you’ve never heard before, is it an exciting feeling hearing something for the first time that you’re going to be working on?
KM: Yeah, it’s great. It’s good to be in that situation where you have that trust. In any other situation I wouldn’t dream of going into a studio and recording a song that I hadn’t even heard yet. You think, what if I don’t like it? What if it’s crap? But with this band, I have total faith that won’t happen, so that’s a pretty cool feeling to have. And also everybody has a fairly relaxed approach to it. We all went in with the attitude of just letting go. So if you do bring something in you just give it over and try not to be too precious. It’s been a really good learning experience to open yourself up to other people’s ideas. The song can sometimes go in a direction you never thought of. I brought in a song that didn’t have a chorus, and Josh wrote the chorus that I never would have written for a song like that.
Were you pleasantly surprised by the result of these recordings? Is it how you thought it would sound?
I think it’s actually better than I thought it was going to be. I think when I went into the first session, I didn’t really feel as emotionally invested in an album as I usually am, and that was a kind of weird feeling. And then over time, in fact it was really the last recording session – or the one before that, where the penny did drop and I had that sudden realisation of – I think I’m going to start falling in love. I think I’ve got feelings for this album. And it was a real relief actually, because normally I feel very emotionally invested in what I’m doing and with this it’s just been a gradual process. And now I really care about the record a lot. Much more than I thought I would.
It’s an acoustic sounding album, not a lot electric sounds. Was that always a criteria for the sound?
We set ourselves a challenge in a way, we were going to make a record without plugging in any instruments – everything had to be acoustic. We only cheated a couple of times where we’d use an electric guitar for a couple of tiny bits. So I think that was in as well. an organic, acoustic warm sounding record. As warm as you can get when you’re putting everything into Pro Tools.
Are you a student of recording history? Do you get into how artists used to record their albums?
I’m always really interested in production techniques. It’s a field of learning I am more interested in than the actual musicianship. Because there’s just so much to learn. Every time you record, there’s something to learn. I love picking up books about famous albums and seeing how they do things, tricks and stuff. Sometimes it can be the most simple thing like putting a wallet on a snare drum and you get that soft snare sounds and once you learn something like that, you think wow, so that’s how you do it. It’s easy.
Did you learn things from each other?
I think one of the trademarks of the albums is the group vocals, we’ll record the song where everyone will do their bit individually and once the song is tracked like that we’ll all go in and stand around the once mic and over-dub as a group. It’s good because it has given the album a style or a theme that runs through. So every time in the chorus when there are harmonies, you push up the groove and you get the ambience and that’s something I’ve never done in the studio, so that’s really, really cool. Another thing, with Josh, someone will always have an idea like two instruments dubbed together to achieve a certain sound and they’ve done that before on previous records and they’ll bring that in. You may never have done that before.
Who did the arrangements of the harmonies?
I think some members of the groups are more talented at harmonies than others. Josh and Steve particularly are really, really good at finding harmonies. But generally what we do is – the person who is singing lead or whoever hears the song first, gets the first harmony and if you’re the last person to hear it you get the fourth part. We’ve come up with the term ‘sloppy fourths’. Say I’m in the studio recording a part and the other three guys are out on the porch jamming on a song, I’ll walk out and they’ll be like “oh Kev, we’ve got this new song”. They’ll play it and I’ll be like – that’s awesome but I’m the last to hear it. So they’ve already sorted out their parts and I’m like shit, I’ve got sloppy fourths. I’m going to have to try and find a fourth part in it. Sometimes that can be a real challenge.
I imagine with Bob Evans etc thing are busy, but now you have added an extra pressure …
I know, it’s crazy I never really plan anything. Things come up and I roll with it. I have certainly never sat down by myself and thought, how can I have as many fingers in as many pies as possible? Things come up, opportunities come up and I roll with it. It’s something I don’t recommend planning. Because it’s really hard having three things going at once. It’s a lot of fun. But from a creative or artistic point of view, you never want to spread yourself too thin. So I always have to be mindful that I have enough in me to go round because if I’m struggling to come up with stuff I know it’s just too much. You do have to be wary of that because you still need to maintain some level of consistency that you decide for yourself. So far it’s been all good. Funnily enough too, doing more than one thing, working with lots of people or going from one thing to another does have the effect of making you more creative or inspired. I’ve found that writing new Bob Evans songs they’re coming really quickly. I’m actually fast tracking the next Bob Evans record far more than I thought I would. So, it is good.
With no record company involved with this project, who owns it?
We do. The publishing, we’re all signed to different publishing companies. But the recording is all owned by us. We knew that we were going to do it independently, that was figured out pretty quickly. So once you own your own recording and you’re independent, then I guess we thought it gives us an opportunity to experiment. And that’s what this iTunes thing is, it’s a massive experiment and I think it’s an experiment for iTunes as well, because they’ve never done something like this before either, so I guess if it works really well we might do it with our own projects. Who knows!
When you play live, you’ll no doubt have to fill with some covers. Will you play a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tune or is that too obvious?
I don’t think we could do it with a straight face. I would just love to do ‘Handle With Care’ by the Travelling Wilburys, but I don’t think we’d be able to take ourselves seriously. I would just love, with that song, to figure out who’d be Roy Orbison or who’s going to be Bob Dylan. Everyone’s going to fight over who is going to be which guy. I think I’d be Tom Petty.
Because he’s the coolest?
I think Dylan’s the coolest, isn’t he? Well, Roy Orbison was the best singer and I’m not the best singer in the group so I can’t be Roy. Bob Dylan was the best lyricist and I’m not the best lyricist, so I can’t be him. So that counts those guys out. George Harrison was the most popular of the Beatles, and I’m not that either. So that just leaves Tom Petty. Steve Parkin would be Jeff Lynne. The guy not many people know. I think Josh would have to be Bob Dylan, being the best lyricist and Kav would have the biggest voice.
And what about this alter ego, Bob Evans … has that created confusion for you? Any regrets?
I don’t have any regrets because it’s hard to say I’d do anything different. It would create confusion just to kill him off. And that’s where I’m at, at the moment. I think with my next record, I’m calling it a Bob Evans record, in a way I’d like to leave Bob Evans as the three albums I made like that. But then what do I do, go to Kevin Mitchell? I don’t really want to perform under that name. So then I’d have to come up with another name and that‘s just getting ridiculous isn’t it? Maybe I should just record as Kevin Mitchell and be done with it? It would certainly make some things easier. Even with the Basement Birds thing – I was like, am I Bob Evans or Kevin Mitchell? I’m still not sure. I think I’m Kevin Mitchell but I feel like I’m Bob Evans but everyone calls me Kevin, so confusing!