Ball Park Music: “What would Rick Rubin do?”
Ahead of their third album and their most expansive national tour to date, charmingly neurotic Ball Park Music frontman Sam Cromack chatted with PERRI CASSIE about his anxieties, squeezing in cheeky lyrics, and pretending like Rick Rubin is in the studio.
To be called a puddinghead is to be referred to as someone who “consistently fucks up the simplest of tasks”. It’s a strange choice of an album title for Ball Park Music, a band doing the hard yards themselves and doing it right with their third, self-produced studio album, Puddinghead. The Brisbane indie darlings debuted in 2010 with Happiness and Surrounding Suburbs which was followed by the equally impressive, but more mature, Museum in 2012. For their third release the band spent time revising their direction and where their true strengths lie, deciding they wanted an album of “all killer, no filler” creating a direct album where each track could be a single. Puddinghead is arguably the band’s finest effort to date, recreating the energy of their debut with infectious lyrics and melodies, while retaining the growth featured on Museum.
The band have self-produced the album and it seems they have a knack for it, as Puddinghead comes across as a well glossed, celebration of the band’s inner anxieties. Frontman Sam Cromack is in his converted garage studio when FL calls and although he fails to offer a list of other insults the band could have used as an album title – “I try not to insult people too often” – he’s feeling about a million percent and excited about the release of the new record.
Tell me a little bit about the conditions you worked in for this new album? I heard they were pretty grimy?
[Laughs] That was definitely added into the press release to make it sound worse than it was. They certainly weren’t the worst conditions in the world, but they weren’t the greatest. We just rented a really cheap house in Brisbane and moved all our gear there to record. This place is in the northern suburbs and it’s three bedrooms and really old and rundown with no air-conditioning. So it was an unbearable place to work sometimes. That’s why the rent was so cheap. It suited us because no one was really keeping an eye on it and it gave us a place where we could make a mess and do our own thing. I think it’s certainly different to what a lot of artists are chasing these days in terms of fancy studios, but it really suited us well.
Tell me a little bit about your decision to produce this album yourselves as opposed to getting in an outsider? How was it for you?
I think we always dreamt of one day producing ourselves. I don’t think we necessarily thought it’d be on this album that we’d do it, so it came about quicker than we expected. We were on tour and a member of our crew had an audio technology magazine with a DYI special in it. I started reading that and I think when we started reading that article all of a sudden the possibilities felt more real than ever before. So we kind of got talking about it and we all started committing to the idea, and everyone was on board including the label and everything. It came about very quickly, I remember a few times during the process I had to pinch myself and be like “Holy shit, we’re actually doing this record on our own”, and I was sort of responsible for doing a lot of that studio work.
Did you ever get a bit lost?
Yeah, absolutely. There were definitely times where I felt quite lost but ultimately it was a great decision and I would like to do it again. I feel like it’s in my blood to record. Since packing up in the space we’ve moved a lot of the equipment back to my house and I promised myself that I wouldn’t set it up and that I would just leave it all packed away and that I would take some time off recording but I’ve set it all up and I really want to do some more recording in my spare time. It’s a passion of mine. The thing we wanted more than anything was just additional time in the studio. I think going to a proper studio and being in there such a long time, you really rack up a massive bill; it’s an expensive thing to do. When we had our own place, we could go there as long as we wanted, any day of the week, and achieve what we want to achieve until it was done, and that was the greatest part about it. When you do it that way you can get lost, because you have all the extra time but ultimately it’s my ideal way to work.
“I’ve accepted a strength of ours is to deliver short, energetic, indie pop songs”
This is a more direct album and a good combination of the sounds in your first two albums, what were some of your influences for Puddinghead?
There are staples in our band that we always look to; some of them are fairly common. We’re all big Beatles fans, they always help direct where we’re going. I think for a lot of the sessions we liked to imagine that Rick Rubin was in the studio with us even though obviously we can’t afford him and he wasn’t there – we just produced a lot of songs by saying “What would Rick do?” because he’s got a pop sensibility and sense to cut the fat. So if there’s like a guitar solo he’ll just encourage the guitarist to mirror the vocals and melody that’s already established instead of creating a brand new melody, so we tried to do a lot of that stuff. We were also listening to a lot of The Dandy Warhols and some of their big hits like ‘Bohemian Like You’ and ‘We Used To Be Friends’ – so really indie-flavoured smash hits. We wanted to try and create a few of those.
We also listened to a lot of artists that our mixer Tony Hoffer had mixed previously. I think we were super excited that he was going to mix for us, so we got into the habit of listen to a lot of artists that mixed like Beck, Belle and Sebastian, M83. A lot of pretty diverse, great artists. I think also in our band there’s a huge undercurrent of dance and funk that doesn’t come across massively in our music. We definitely indulge in it, when we jam as a group we definitely do a lot of that stuff, so we tried to let that influence come through a little more on this record without having to make it daggy.
You have said that you have gone for more of a direct singles approach on this album that was missing on Museum. Why did you lean away from the style on Museum?
I think after doing the first two records we were in a good position to reflect on both of those records on what worked and what didn’t work and figure out how those albums resonated with fans. We had this overwhelming feeling that the first album resonated well with the fans and even after all that time we still felt like we respected the first album, even though there are things on there that I can identify that I dislike, there was some sort of charm. I think we sort of began to accept what type of band we were and sometimes that’s a hard thing to do but eventually you have to accept that this is our band. We have to play to our strengths, and leave some of those other styles to the bands that do them well.
There’s a Strokes song [‘Ask Me Anything’] with the lyrics “We could drag it out, but that’s for other bands to do” and that’s always stuck in the back of my mind because it sort of applies to us as well. Some bands are really good at having long, jammy, brooding tracks that are really developed and take you on a journey, or are a bit more mysterious and abstract, but just in Ball Park Music that’s not really a strength of ours. I’ve accepted a strength of ours is to deliver short, energetic, indie pop songs, and I’m just trying to do that and focus on the best of my ability.
You said it was full of more instantly loveable lines. What’s your favourite line from Puddinghead?
‘Trippin’ The Light Fantastic’ starts with “I got my mojo back ” and then it says something like “I feel one hundred percent” but then in the second verse we decided to say “I feel a million percent”, which doesn’t make any sense at all but we had a good laugh writing that. I still like that lyric “I feel a million percent”. I think the things I end up feeling most proud of lyrically are some of the more abstract lines that I manage to squeeze into some of songs like ‘Cocaine Lion’ there’s a lyric “I’m now hunting empty gastropod shells.” And then in ‘Error Playin’ I say “a parsnip look like a rats tail”. I don’t really know why I’ve put those into songs but I always feel proud and cheeky that I manage to get things like that into the song.
What do you do to get your mojo back?
Well I actually had that song for a long time, well at least the structure and the tune and stuff but I rewrote all the lyrics for that song going into this record. The last two or three years were such a busy and turbulent time for me, there we some big highs, but some big lows for me where I felt particularly burnt out and overwhelmed by the stuff we were doing. Mostly the boring business side of things was a lot of hard work and learning for me, and there were times where I was really struggling to enjoy that I was doing, so this record like a breath of fresh air. I deliberately tried to write a song that was a feel good tune about getting your mojo back and being able to feel content and happy about what you’re doing and focusing on enjoying yourself. We considered for a long time as having that as the first single so the first line that anyone hears from the new record is “I’ve got my mojo back” which I think would have been a strong way to enter, but things change. I hope people relate to that, it’s a good feeling to feel like “Fuck, I’m back. I’m ready to actually enjoy myself and not let anything get in my way”.
You really have an interesting and great grasp on song writing, particularly this album, who are some of the songwriters that have influenced your style and why?
John Lennon is my number one idol; I think I love everything about what he does. He’s got a real knack for melody and pop song writing craft. His lyrics are so wonderfully abstract and direct at the same time. He’s got some weird and wonderful things that are difficult to understand but then he’ll come along with a song like ‘All You Need Is Love’ and it’s so direct and feels like “How has nobody already said that?” but I really respect him. I am also a massive Radiohead fan, especially as a teenager but I think as I grow older I sort of drift away from that a little bit more, I guess when you’re trying to discover your own style you drift away from it, but I love Thom Yorke. I think he really opened me up to having random lines, like stream of consciousness sort of thoughts. I also love Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel his style is so beautiful – again, it’s kind of got that John Lennon thing going on where you don’t know what he’s saying a lot of the time but it’s sung with such emotion and sincerity that you buy into it and are totally transported to this other world.
I’ve read interviews in the past where you’ve sort of worried about how far you have to go as a band, and where you’re heading – you can actually hear a lot of that paranoia on Puddinghead. Do you think this album will be able to ease some of that tension for you and push you that step forward?
[Laughs] Maybe, it sometimes does feel like a disease, I guess like the old Rolling Stones song goes “I can’t get no satisfaction”. It’s like with every step forward you find a new bunch of things to worry about, and as an artist you really can’t be satisfied, no matter what I do achieve I still find a way to see it as a part of where I’m going. I’m sure it’ll open up some doors of where I need to go next. I definitely am an anxious writer and I don’t know if I ever will have some tangible achievement that will make me realise that I’m going okay. I guess it contributes to my style, that anxiety and paranoia is always present in the lyrics. I’m always trying to have a sense modesty in the lyrics and not let some rock star cockiness get in the way, I think that sort of confidence and arrogance would pollute my songwriting style because it guess I rely on fragility and being sincere.
Puddinghead is out on Friday, April 4 via Stop/Start. The band will launch the album with a 21-date national tour in April. Check out the tour dates here