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The Collapse Board interview – The John Steel Singers

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Sitting in the window of Melbourne’s famous Zappa Café, we are waiting for The John Steel Singers’ lead singer and charisma magnate Tim Morrisey to roll up. “He’s not normally late,” Luke McDonald, their floppy-haired guitarist assures me, “it’s just that your cab system kind of sucks.” The Brisbane sextet are down warming their fret boards ahead of their album launch tour, but are unfortunately also freezing off their fingerprints. The faux-winter chills are soothed by coffee as McDonald takes me through the motions of their debut album:

Tangalooma. Twelve tracks, six musicians, one rollicking record. The jingle jangle of their pop hooks sound like maracas filled with pop rocks – an eclectic, bursting bunch of songs in a tightly contained space. Odd time signatures and odder instruments complete a debut album that sounds as tight and developed as the average band’s third record. But these guys are certainly not average.

Basking in the youthful glow of a hangover, the conversation eventually falls into a discussion of the debauchery from the night before. Y’know – things that wouldn’t normally come out until after a drink or four. Especially to a journalist. But here we are, 10 past 11 on a Saturday morning, and McDonald is so laidback he is practically draped across the coffee table.

… Have you guys even been media-trained yet?
LM: We’ve had it in the past few days. I’m probably not meant to talk about media training to the media! That’s like the first rule of media training.

What do they tell you? Fear the enemy?
LM: Well, it’s about being nice and stock standard and getting sound-bites. Like, after you’re finished an album, you never want to listen to it again. So it’s hard to talk positively about it. I think that if most bands had their way, they’d probably say, “Yeah, this album ain’t too good. I don’t even really like this album” … [considered pause]… I have clearly just gone and thrown all of this media-training out the window! I’m not very good at it.

It’s a little bit like helicopter parenting – helicopter labeling, right?
LM:
Absolutely. It’s mainly the whole Twittersphere, I think.

The Kanye West Effect?
LM:
Yeah, exactly! “Any comments could be career breaking or damaging”. They’re very, very persistent about it now.

It applies more to bands that are known to be straight edge. If Pete Doherty tweeted some insane drug-addled garbage, you wouldn’t blink. You guys have a pretty notorious party reputation, so you’re in the clear.
LM:
Yeah, we can get away with saying a lot of stuff.

From what I’ve heard, Dew Process are chillers, though.
LM:
Yeah, they’re a really good label. In regards to being open with the band, they’re great like that. Our A&R guy is like one of our good friends.

[Morrisey strides into the café, complains about Melbourne’s taxis, orders a flat white and a suitable sop-up meal called ‘Eggs Purgatory’, all before I can reorganise the chairs. Morrisey is a quick paced and even quicker-witted chap. After a brief debrief about the debauchery from the night before, where we decide that McDonald’s bag has been lost to the cider Gods, we turn back to the interview.]

Well, I have two of you now. Did you guys blow out to six members because you wanted a horn section?
TM:
No, I didn’t actually! It was just me and Scott [Bromiley], then we added Ross [Chandler] on drums, and then we got Pete [Bernoth] in to play keyboard. And then we got [he glances at Luke, looking for a cue] umm, the other guy – Conan – to play bass, then he left to tour around the world with The Grates. He was only ever going to be temporary. He played with us at Ric’s in Brisbane to 60 people, then he went straight to 10,000 people with The Grates at the Big Day Out! Then around the world and stuff. I can hardly blame him. [Pointing at Luke] he was actually the last! He came in six months after our existence. We didn’t even mean to add horns. Pete was like, “I used to play trombone in school”. And then Scott was like, “Well, let’s bring in my trumpet”. And this was after we were a little bit known. So it was never intentional at all – the brass, or the numbers. There was a stigma at the time that horn bands sounded like Reel Big Fish, and terrible ska bands. So I’m pretty sure that it was someway interesting to get the horns in. We got an awesome compliment recently. Someone said, “So, you have a horns section, but you don’t suck”. That was great.

So it has nothing to do with you guys liking being called a sextet?
[they both stare at each other and start laughing]
TM: Oh! I’ve never thought of it like that! We should use that more often! It has only taken five years for someone to tell us that we’re a sextet!

Really, no one has ever mentioned that before?
LM:
No! That’s great!

Well, a lot of people find it hard to define you guys without referring to the fact that there are six of you, or that there is a horn section. You’re a bit hard to pigeonhole. How do you think that gives you longevity?
TM:
It is something we’ve definitely got in mind. When we first did ‘Rainbow Trout’, it’s so much heavier. And now we have it sitting next to ‘Strawberry Wine’ when we’re playing live. And after that contrast, if people are still with us after that, then we can pretty much do whatever we want. Which is a really great thing.

You’ve had a lot of time to play around with your songs and sound. The album has been a long time coming…
TM:
It certainly has. We delayed sound recording by months. Then the delays to get it out. It was finished pretty much last October, mostly.
LM: There was another track that we added to it about six months ago.
TM: But it has mostly been finished, so we’ve just been waiting on it to come back – like, all of the music business side of things to happen. But it was good, because in that time, we had time to write the second album!

So you’re planning to have to releases quite close together?
TM:
Well, it depends on how this release goes. There’s quite a lot of trepidation.

Why is there a lot of trepidation?
TM:
Well… I’m personally happy with it. There’s always trepidation.

You’ve been around for ages, too. Four, five years now? How did you decide what was going on the album? Is it a retrospective of your time together, or is it where you are sitting now?
TM
: A lot of the songs were written no longer than a year before the album started. There was a band called Wire that we were listening to quite a lot during recording. And they have all of these two-minute pop songs that are just clean and sound awesome, and then they’ve got a dirty, seven-minute track next. And then straight after that is a two-minute perfect pop song, and then a 10-minute track with the same riff repeated that just gets louder. And listening to that variety made us see that you could have crazy variety, and it would work.

What are you planning for your headline tour? It must be nice finally having your own one planned after being supports for so long.
TM:
We’ve been pretty lucky with the bands that we’ve toured with recently. We did Dappled Cities a few months ago. They’re rad guys. The World Cup was pretty much on for the duration of that whole tour. So we took a soccer ball on tour, and in Perth, we went and had a big game on the soccer field – Dappled verses John Steel. We won 10-9, by the way! Pete scored a goal right at the end. It makes touring a lot more fun. It’s odd, because for a month you’ll have the most crazy intense relationship with these people that you’ve never met before, then by the end, you’re all best friends. Then it’s all over! Then you go to meet a new bunch of best friends. You have shared experience. There’s always this family bond for a month.

I think that might be a Brisbane thing. You guys seem much more supportive than Melbourne. I’ve got a good friend who lives up there, Danny Moffit, from the garage band Villains Of Wilhelm? And he said that—
TM:
Oh! Man! Danny? I just recorded his new band! Dune Rats! I’m going to finish mixing their EP tomorrow, or whenever we get back. When do we get back?
LM: … Today.
TM: Oh.

This is exactly what I mean! In Melbourne, everyone is trying to get ahead, and everything tends to get really cliquey. Little musical groups form that only ever support each other. Brisbane is like a giant hug compared to that.
TM:
Yeah, it might be because it’s smaller. If you were in whatever scene, then you’re the only band in that scene. You are the scene. Whereas in Melbourne, there’s probably about 10 bands doing the same thing.

There’s also less chance for you to influence each other, because your sounds are all so different.
LM:
Hopefully, yes.

What about within the band? How does the family fit together?
LM:
[pointing at Tim] He’s the dad! Pete’s the useless one. He always rocks up at family gatherings and asks for money.
TM: Scott’s the eccentric uncle.
LM: Actually, I think that we’re all uncles!
TM: Who’s the son?
LM: I think Scott might be the son. He’s not very good at organising anything.
TM: I’m like, “Have you packed a jumper?” Literally!
LM: “Where’s your keyboard?” “Oh, I didn’t think I’d need it…” He got called from his friend in WA, and he was like, “Do you want to meet you where you’re over here?” And he was like, “…We’re going over there?” and he’s like, “Yeah, you’re going tomorrow”. He’s getting told by his friend that he’s going to Perth, and he didn’t even know.
TM: Basically.
LM: And Ross would be the son who never comes home, but then when he comes home, he’ll just be in his room smoking bongs and listening to albums.

Every family has one of those. I think I know who your grandfather would be: Robert Forster. How did you guys get him on to produce your debut album?
TM:
There was a last minute charity thing organised at The Tivoli in Brisbane, and Robert was playing. His drummer Glen Thompson and his bassist Adele [Pickvance] couldn’t make it, so he contacted us and asked if we wanted to play as his backup band. Playing Go-Betweens songs! And we were like [does a very animated jog]. So we got to play The Tivoli, which is one of my favourite venues, as Robert Forster’s backup band, playing some of our favourite Go-Betweens songs. It was just ridiculously good.

I’m smiling so widely on your behalf right now.
TM:
Well, I don’t actually smile that much – I physically can’t – but everyone kept on saying that I had a smile plastered on my face the whole show. That was definitely a highlight of being in a band thus far.

And I guess producing would have come about pretty organically after that?
TM:
Yeah. We got to know each other a bit better, then the producer thing was suggested by one of our managers. It was amazing working with Robert. He’s just got such a good pop sensibility. He’s an amazing presence to have around when you’re recording an album. If we were doing a live take, he’d often be in the middle of the room with his headphones on, just dancing. So when you’re doing a take, Robert is like, [jigs again, arms flailing]. He just brought that energy into it.
LM: I think that every recording we do from now on, we’re going to have to visualise Robert in the room, in a three-piece suit, dancing.
TM: That’s another thing. He just always rocks up in a three-piece suit. Even at Mount Nebo, with no one else around, and with a picnic basket as well. He’s always got coffee and biscuits and raisin toast and stuff.

So aside from how to make good raisin toast, what do you feel that you’ve learned from Robert?
TM:
He’s really good at trimming fat from songs. He’s got a pop brain. He’s just wired to make good pop songs.

Do you actually think that there is a wiring for a good pop song?
LM:
Yes, definitely.
TM: I think that my favourite pop song ever goes for about a minute fourth. ‘Outdoor Miner’ by Wire? It’s five chords, and it’s perfect. If you give anyone five chords, you can’t just make something like that. I don’t know what it is.

With the way that we’re consuming music changing, do you think that punchy pop like that is going to have another rising? Our attention span seems to be changing.
TM:
I hope not! I am as much a fan of the seven-minute rambling song as much as I am the one-minute. I think with that song personally, it’s too short. I have to listen to it three times. But I guess the point is that it leaves you wanting more and more and more. I certainly hope that it’s not all going to be really short.

And what about albums? What about your album?
TM:
I like the idea that the more music heads are listening to the full albums, how they’re meant to be heard: the chronological order.

[Suddenly the rest of the band stumble in, nearly filling up the tiny café. They are a bedraggled, bearded lot with enough collective hair to block even the largest of shower drains. “Shit, were we meant to be here?” one laughs heartily. They exude calm confidence. Each of them file past and say goodbye into the recorder before peeling outside; the collective consciousness of the band declares our talk over. We wander to the courtyard where they smoke rollies through calloused fingers. The sun shines.]

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