It’s difficult to believe that United In Isolation is the very first album from Sydney based outfit Papa vs Pretty. Over the last few years, the prolific Thomas Rawle and his band have regularly generated recorded product, just never before in long player mode. However, recording formats have never been a measure of this band’s popularity or a gauge of how industrious they’ve been. Much like Thomas Rawle’s mind, they’re just always busy. They have recently come off one national tour, (at the time of this article) about to tour with The Kaiser Chiefs, then The Vines, then yet another tour of their own before possibly exploring other territories. SInger-songwriter and Something For Kate main man Paul Dempsey is a fan of Papa Vs Pretty. He co produced their last EP ‘Heavy Harm’, took the band on tour as a support act and has become somewhat of a mentor to the guys. Paul is currently in America where his current solo album has just been released. He’s also writing for a new Something For Kate album and is due back in Australia in November as part of the ‘They Will Have Their Way (Songs of Tim and Neil Finn)’ national tour. Paul Dempsey and Thomas Rawle heard about our special Amplifier issue of the magazine and kindly agreed to add their thoughts on the topic via telephone.
Thomas: So how’s America and everything? I have never actually been overseas yet, so I have no idea what it would be like.
Paul: I’m sure you would love it here. New York is the non stop city. There is always something going on. Even just walking down the street going to get a coffee, you end up watching some incredible piece of street theatre or something. Steph and I were out shopping yesterday and there was a guy trying to install one of those window air conditioners that just sit in your window.
Thomas: Like the one in Seinfeld where it drops out of the window.
Paul: I was just about to say have you seen that episode of Seinfeld. It was exactly that. The guy half dropped the air conditioning unit above a really busy street and people were screaming and this guy is hanging on to the air conditioner by the cord. He was trying to pull it up but he couldn’t pull it inside the window, it was too heavy and hanging on this ledge and people below were trying to tell people to keep clear. It’s like something like that happens every time you go outside. You should get over here and do some shows
Thomas: I hope to at some point. It’s like my life goal to go overseas tied to something musical.
Paul: So we’re supposed to be discussing amps for the magazine so let’s jump into it. The first question is what kinds of amps do you use and why?
Thomas: I have a Vox AC30 but this time around we also used a Fender Deville going at the same time. We couldn’t get a guitar sound which was ridiculous enough. So we used two amps. One was overdriven and one was slightly more clean. So we got this textured attack, that had the clean clarity to it.
Paul: Yeah, so you get all the distortion you want but also clean it up if you need to.
Thomas: And you can run certain effects on one and others through the other amp. On the last song, one of the amps was phased and the other was not and it created this Big Star guitar sound.
Paul: I used to do that live. I don’t anymore but for a while I was running two amps, one totally clean and the other totally dirty and I would let our front of house guy Clinton choose the blend out front. You never know in different rooms how it’s going to sound. I just got over that and use one amp with the right pedals. So the next question is … how do you have your amps set for a gig? Are you now using two amps live ?
Thomas: No I am not but I’d like to use two amps live. As you kind of said, it takes a while to find the sound that you are after. It takes ages and ages of experimenting to get comfortable with a sound. I have got comfortable using one amp live because I’ve got one of those Blues Driver pedals, the Robert Keeley one and also a Blue Boy, the M Audio one.
Paul: I know the ones, it’s what I use as well. I have a bunch which are like two in one Blue Boys.
Thomas: Yeah, so the thing with using those with one amp, you can get really defined feedback. Especially with the Les Paul, you can stand in a certain spot and if you know where to put the guitar, you can feedback this harmonic feel as opposed to shrieking. I’d like to use two amps but I’m not great with logistics!
Paul: Like I said, I used to use two amps, there were even times when I had three. It was always because I was using different guitars. You get one amp sounding perfect with certain pedals, then as soon as you plug a different guitar in, it’s a whole new ball game.
Thomas: Yeah totally. Especially with tuning as well. I have the Les Paul in open B and the Italia in regular tuning. Because the Les Paul has so much body in it, you plug that in and it naturally overdrives more. So you have to fiddle with the volume knob live to get it right.
Paul: There are many different guitar sounds on the record though. Has your pedal board got ridiculously out of control?
Thomas: No. in the studio I guess there are some strange guitar sounds as I was distorting them directly. I was literally plugging them into the mixer and overdriving them in the mixer. On the first track, it sounds kind of metallic and freaks me out. I got a really defined straight distortion then put it through reverb and it almost sounds like a synthesiser.
Paul: I know what you mean, it’s sort of brittle.
Thomas: Yeah it sounds like it is breaking.
Paul: It has that quality almost of when you play an electric guitar unplugged.
Thomas: It can sound horrendous but if you get the right mix, it can sound really cool. My pedal board is pretty much the same and a lot of the songs on the album I double tracked a lot of the guitar parts. I layered them, playing them over and over. I don’t know why I did that. I got obsessed when recording trying to make the shapes of the songs more bare. So I wanted these moving textures as well as chords.
Paul: I know exactly what you are saying. With our first few records, I couldn’t help myself from layering everything up and wanting different textures all the time. Just layer upon layer and it ends up making the mixing of the record a real challenge because you have so many different sounds going on. I still find it really hard to control that impulse. I think I am learning as time goes on that if you can just get one right tone all by itself, you can make a whole song work. You can force yourself to play things to work with that tone. Are you still playing as a three piece?
Thomas: Yeah, still a three piece. I agree with you actually. I have been listening to a lot of REM records recently. The IRS Years and it has the song These Days. Everything is really concise and there’s not a lot going on. The melody is the main centrepiece of every song and I think that’s what I would like to be next time, more concise. I think with the layering I’m kind of trying to hide my voice a little bit and I hope that disappears.
Paul: I think it probably does. It comes with confidence, but you’ve got that already. That track I Still Believe In Us, that’s gutsy! Half of that song is just you and this acoustic guitar part in a really delicate way. It doesn’t get much more naked than that. It’s not that you’re scared to do it.
Thomas: On this record there aren’t many moments like that. There’s one song which is just guitar and vocals. Even listening to Radiohead which is electronic, the sounds are so clearly defined. Even though it is multi-layered, they’re really concise sounds.
Paul: Those more recent Radiohead records sound so incredibly clean and clinical and it’s like every sound was recorded in a vacuum.
Thomas: Yeah it’s pretty ridiculous on the new album how incredibly accurate everything is.
Paul: Do you use the amp clean and run everything through the pedals? Do you drive the AC30 amp?
Thomas: It’s driven a bit, not too much though. Just enough that you can make it totally clean by a little tweak on the volume on the guitar and if you tweak it you can get a bit of grunt. Is that what you mean?
Paul: I mean something that has a drive channel and a master volume, which the AC30s don’t, but really the only way to drive them is that you can cross patch the channels in that tricky way or just turn them up really loud.
Thomas: The new AC30s have pre amps. You have your master then a pre amp. I could be wrong, but there’s like two pre-amps on mine and you can actually join them and have 3 levels of gain, but I’m not entirely sure about that.
Paul: I didn’t know that. I am thinking about the older AC30s. I have never owned one. I have an AC15 which does have a volume pot and a master pot so you can drive the volume really hard but I didn’t know the AC30s could do that. That’s cool.
Thomas: It’s an interesting amp. The one I have isn’t particularly flash or anything. I think it’s a Chinese model, a cheaper one. When I went in to record I used a whole bunch of variations of things. I used an Orange head through a 60s Marshall stack, which was ridiculous and we didn’t end up using. It was more for the look! Also a bunch of Fenders which were really nice and I even had a really old AC30 which was very simple, but I found my new Chinese Vox to be the best. I guess it has a lot to do with how you play the guitar as well.
Paul: Yeah it’s a combination of all the variables. I have never believed that there is one perfect guitar or one perfect amp. There are people who make Marshall amps sound good but I have never liked a single note I have played through one. Other people make them sound incredible but I just can’t do them.
Thomas: I think a lot of the gear I have collected has been for superficial reasons. I remember getting the AC30 while I was at school because of Radiohead and Jonny Greenwood who had an AC30 and Brian May. I thought, oh I have to get one of those.
Paul: Have you seen the Brian May signature AC30s?
Thomas: There was actually one in the studio when we recorded but it didn’t work, so I didn’t get to hear it.
Paul: I was in at the Guitar Centre which is this huge guitar store and they had one of these Brian May AC30s and it literally just had one knob at the top, a volume knob. You just turn it on and you’re supped to somehow sound like Brian May.
Thomas: He had like 30 Vox amps on stage at one point I think.
Paul: Yeah I’m sure most of them didn’t even have speakers in them.
Thomas: I heard that he chained them and had a different effect through each one of them. I remember watching that classic albums show on A Night At The Opera.
Paul: I wouldn’t put it past him. He does actually have a PHD in astrophysics.
Thomas: Yeah, I’m pretty obsessed with Queen. I also remember watching Iron Maiden with 10 Marshall stacks too but maybe only one of them is on, but I’m pretty sure Brian May has something really crazy going on.
Paul: What’s coming up for you guys?
Thomas: On tour the rest of this month (July), then we go on tour with The Kaiser Chiefs. Then we do a tour with The Vines which will be pretty interesting! Then we’ll do another of our won tours and maybe go overseas. I’m already thinking about the next record actually. I’m itching to record stuff again.
Paul: It’s a good way to be if you’ve got stuff to work on. I’m going on tour too but at the same time I am trying to write songs for a new Something For Kate record.
Thomas: Is it good being somewhere else to write? I have always wanted to do that because I have always written in the same space.
Paul: It works for me. I like being in different places where everything is unfamiliar. You tend to be more observant. You have your antennas up more because you’re in different surroundings. You tend to see things with fresh eyes. I get the same feeling from being on tour. I like to be in motion and be busy.
Thomas: I’m the same. Even after this record I made like a solo record that I won’t release or anything but it’s just that vehicle. You know how there’s that weird lag between before it’s release and before touring. You’re just sorting dates and everything. It freaks me out. You know that Age of Adz album that Sufjan Stevens did? Well for whatever reason, I tried to make my own version of that. So I sampled some stuff and got pretty obsessed, but yes, I agree, always creating is a good way to be.
Paul: Absolutely. It’s like a muscle and being an athlete. If you don’t train and keep using the muscles, you get soft and flabby and you forget how to do it. You just have to make it so that there is no down time. That always works best for me. As soon as I see any empty space on the calendar, I just try to get it filled up with stuff.
Thomas: I think the best thing about being songwriter is that you can never not be busy. There’s always a song to write and you can’t not be writing. It makes it incredibly frustrating if I get writers block but even if I do, I will keep writing anyway, even if it isn’t any good.
Paul: I think that is still a good thing. As long as stuff is coming out. Even if it might be thrown away later, like I said earlier, it’s still exercise. I find that if I don’t write for weeks or months, when I come back to it, it seems harder.
Thomas: I find that the best songs just come out anyway. It’s like you are writing a bunch of songs to get to THAT song. That song will almost be like a combined effort of all of the previous songs … like the better version of those songs.