THE SLEEPY JACKSON
August 29, 2006 | Author: Jenny Valentish
The Sleepy Jackson’s second album is made up of equal parts love, reverb and harmony. Jenny Valentish discovers Luke Steele is going to be feel-good if it kills him… “It was pretty strict in the studio, hey?” Luke Steele says with a snap of his fingers. “Everyone had to wear a suit, there was no alcohol, it was a real kind of Dean Martin session. The song’s there, the band’s looking good and we’re running a real tight schedule.”
Luke’s wearing a suit as we speak, a smooth black number with some nautical accessories. His handshake is crushing. An acoustic guitar helps him to articulate feelings and ideas that can’t be put into words. With the release of The Sleepys’ second album, Personality: One Was A Spider One Was A Bird, it becomes clear Luke shares both the symphonic style and eccentricity of luminaries like Phil Spector and Brian Wilson. It’s an intricately crafted epic eked out of sweat and tears.
“It surprises me how much energy I have because I take it so seriously, you know? I get up, make sure I have breakfast, have only two coffees and only so many cigarettes. I was working everyone so hard. Everyone’s getting tired and I’m still singing ten hours a day,” he says, looking weary at the thought.
For some reason people like to criticise Luke Steele’s work ethic, but it’s a simple theory of if you want something done properly do it yourself. Can’t hack it? Well never mind. Neither could the previous band.
It’s a mentality acquired through grafting at an early age. Luke describes the chicken-wired dives he and brother Jesse used to play as teens, particularly his father’s Perth Blues Club, the website of which declares with strangely familiar bombast: “You will note we have carefully avoided revealing the secret of Club President Rick Steele’s charisma – we want you to do that for us.”
“My father would be playing JJ Cale songs to 500 people and he’d go: ‘Luke’s in the crowd!’” says Steele Jnr, “so I’d have to be able to show off. We did a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and I went through my Kenny Burrell stage and my Chet Atkins stage. I went out with this girl from Norway, she went back to Norway and I fell into my James Taylor phase. Then there’s Stevie and Hendrix.”
Can he shred, then?
“Ye-a-h,” he intones, looking at me like I’m crazy. “I’ve got a few chops down. I got sick of 12-bar blues – it’s the cement mixer of music for me – and when I was about 16 I realised I had to start writing melodies. But I could always play blues leads through that whole period of writing pop songs. These latest songs are 140 tempo and they’re starting to get more spritey, but I’m coming back to futuristic Beefheart blues, music that you can dance to.”
The guitar’s a lot more subtle on this album, used as the backbone that holds everything together. The minimalistic solos and frisky rhythm parts are structured in mathematical grids in Luke’s head, which he describes with almost autistic fervour. He references Kraftwerk, Prince and Cornelius, and gesticulates what I presume to mean a funky feel. The vocals, too, shift like sands in the tide, obeying an undulating rhythm over articulation. “On You Needed More,” he says, enunciating a verse for me like he’s nudging forth an awkward child, “it’s really pushing it so that it’s got a perfect hop about it.”
While Luke allows the song to wander off whimsically in the middle-eight, everything lands perfectly and precisely back on that grid for the chorus, like a sonic boom. Through hand gestures and waves, I’m starting to understand.
The androgynous harmonies throughout the album are layered up to 80 times, then bounced down for a thick, ethereal quality. It’s mainly Luke alone (at one point he was forced to record at The Hyatt after he lost his voice during studio time), but on Dream On and I Understand What You Want But I Just Don’t Agree he’s joined by Juanita Tippens, a renowned Maori backing singer. “Her voice always reminds me of jumping off a diving board,” Luke says fondly.
Demos were recorded in Luke’s rather anarchic home studio (“you’ve got to throw everything against the wall to get it working”), and then at BigJesusBurger with Scott Horcroft. “He’s a real experimental soundscaper,” Luke says approvingly. “He’d buy these condoms that vibrate and put them on a set of vibraphones so that they would resonate like an eBow. Or he’d get those little handheld fans and touch them to the guitar strings. He was all about slapbacks, so you’d have a short slapback on the snare, like ‘t, t, t’, with a longer one on the vocal.”
Perhaps because Luke’s a keen surfer, these new songs have the breathing rhythm of the sea. As well as being huge – with a brass section and an orchestra brought in from Prague – the production’s warm, with many instruments running through a plate reverb. “It was all recorded on analogue, bounced down to 96k, which is the highest sampling rate on ProTools,” Luke says.
It’s easy to imagine Steele as the crazed conductor, energetically directing the bass “up and jumping” ahead of the beat, and getting everything to “hiccup” together. His latest crew consists of Lee Jones from Perth band Spencer Tracy, Dave Symes on bass, session percussionist Felix Boxsom and the ever faithful Malcolm Clark
There were also some notable guests: You Am I’s Davey Lane on guitar and Julian Hamilton from The Presets, who organised the orchestral arrangements. “Jim Moginie from Midnight Oil came in and played on the record, and he brought his guitars with him,” Luke is pleased to report. “He had a Vox with a tremolo built in [possibly a rare Phantom], and we were also using heaps of Telecasters, big Martin acoustics and a really nice Rickenbacker 12-string. I played the solo of Play A Little Bit For Love on a Thinline Tele because the humbuckers sound real warm, but my favourite guitar has to be an old Fender Jaguar. It has a ’50s-style mute on the bridge so you can click it down on the strings, Johnny Cash style. It was so killer. So most of the record is the Jaguar with the mute on as a backbone, like a progrock Neu thing. You can hardly hear it.”
Luke occasionally detuned his guitar to a standard tuning in low C, inspired by Beck. “You hit a chord and the strings are slack. I love that, hey? Especially when you play blues. It’s a bastard to keep in tune because the strings are all flappy.”Ampwise, Marshall was the order of the day, with Luke mainly utilising an old ’70s head and some JCM800 cabs. While he doesn’t get time to browse on tour, he’s a new convert to eBay, where his proudest purchase is an Electro-Harmonix Hot Tubes pedal for $150 – a vast improvement on the $700 he paid for its predecessor.
“I still reckon Boss Bluesdrivers are a killer sound,” he says. “In the old days it was Tubescreamers because Stevie Ray used them. I reckon Tubescreamers sound cool through a Strat, but Teles need clean overdrive you can get from Bluesdrivers. I use three of them, each with increasing levels of gain so it doesn’t get too square and lose all its guts. Then digital delays pedals are the best. Every muso should have a Line 6, man. If they were around in the old days… if you play a wrong note then you stuff up a loop, so you’ve got to be tight.”
I enquire whether Luke’s landed any plum endorsement deals with any home brands. “We’d love an endorsement from Maton … so maybe I should mention here how great their 12-strings and big jumbo acoustics are.”
Although you can bet your boots the next Sleepys album will be 180 degrees different, Luke’s into the idea of working with Scott again.
“He’s so forgiving,” he admits, describing how Horscroft likes to get something down and move on. “I’m more about pushing the artist until they’re just about going crazy to get that perfect take. But we’re quite similar – it’s all about creating more art and keeping inspired. It got hard at the end because we were just both so exhausted. It changed both of our lives drastically. We’ll always be mates because we got through it. “With the last record things got tough and then I had a huge fight with John Burnside,” Luke says in some bewilderment, “and I never spoke to him again.”
THE SLEEPY JACKSON