Grinspoon: “It’s the same four idiots who started this stupid band”

He wasn’t the biggest fan of 2009’s Six To Midnight, but Grinspoon’s Phil Jamieon assures SARAH SMITH that its follow-up Black Rabbits may be the band’s best yet.

“It’s the same four idiots who started this stupid band and it is really comforting to know they are still with me.” Seventeen years since Grinspoon came snarling into the nation’s consciousness with their debut single ‘Sickfest’, the band’s original four members – singer Phil Jamieson, guitarist Pat Davern, bass player Joe Hansen and drummer Kristian Hopes – are back with album number seven.

While the pigtails and guy-liner may be long gone, Phil Jamieson is adamant the creative spark has been reignited and that Black Rabbits may well be their best record to date. When I reach him on his mobile, he’s on the move in Melbourne, caught in pre-Grand Final traffic between the MCG and his next interview. Awake since 6am for a chat with Sunrise ’s Kochie and Mel, the always candid singer talks at break-neck speed about everything from shit music journalism to Grinners’ “irrelevant grunge band war” with Something For Kate.

How are you feeling about Black Rabbits now it is finally out for everyone to pick apart?

Honestly I usually hate our records, but on this one we worked pretty hard on it and it is kind of the best we can do. [Laughs] In all honesty, I think Six To Midnight was really raw, I was really angry in that a record and Pat really wanted to make this more power-pop. We wanted to expand our skill-set a bit and get better at different stuff. We could write songs, like detuned riff-rock songs, we can do that and we have probably proved that over the last 17 years. We are trying to expand what we can do and be really song-y and proud of our songs.

Have you read any reviews yet?

With reviews, if they are well-written I take criticisms on board, but if they are just slanderous and have some stigma – because we do have a lot of that in association with our band – if they are just one-sided and they already hate our band then it is pointless reading this reviews.

You are very vocal about people’s criticism of the band – has your skin gotten any thicker after 17 years?

I’m a fan of writing and I’m a fan of good music journalism and I think there is a handful of music journalists in this country that actually make the musicians better. Music journalists, we need them. Musicians need good music journalism and I think there are seven or maybe 10 [writers] that are doing a good job and probably only seven good bands funnily enough [laughs]. But my point is, good music journalism makes good bands regardless of what kind of band you are. Back when we released Easy we got pretty crappy reviews, regardless of whether it was successful or not, and we went on to write New Detention. It does help in some ways. And I’m a fan of writing. I love reading stuff, I’m all over it.

Did any of the reviews you received for Six To Midnight influence the direction you have taken with Black Rabbits. Given how poppy it is, it does sound like a reaction to the last record?

No, not really. I don’t think the last record was reviewed particularly well. I made the point that FL reviewed it poorly, I think Mess+Noise reviewed it poorly, and I think the Rolling Stone review was overly nice, it didn’t have a lot of constructive stuff to say. There wasn’t any point of difference there. The really heavy rock dudes let it through to the keeper and the really anti-Grinners [music journalists] were against the teen-angst side if it. The reason this is a pop album is because I’m happy, and I’ve reached a point where I want to sing and not yell.

“I don’t think the last record was reviewed particularly well.”

‘Beaujolais’ is one of the happiest sounding songs on the record and is a little Weezer-ish. How much did producer Dave Shiffman influence that sound, given he worked on Weezer’s “Red Album”?

‘Beaujolais’ was written a long time ago. We were actually approached by Joe Barresi, Ulrich Wild and Howard Benson to record the album, all LA producers. But all of them were hard rock producers or just way too expensive. So we wanted to find someone that had Bronx history but also had the Weezer history. Obviously, Dave had done The Dandy Warhols as well as Bronx and Weezer, basically three of my favourite bands at some point in my life. He had that ability to have pop as well as a bit of rock.

‘Beaujolais’ was already written. It wasn’t really his influence but he loved that song. That was one of the oldest songs written for this record – it was actually pitched for Six To Midnight but it didn’t make it across. It was one of the failures from that record. I wanted to have something that was a really fun song. I knew that Dave would be perfect for that and also he was perfect to work with Pat so it just worked out really well with him.

Another Sun is very strong and probably sounds the most different from what you have done in the past, is this a marker of where you see Grinspoon moving stylistically?

At the start of this writing process I had no idea where Grinspoon wanted to go with their music. I don’t have a hat on, I’m not like [Breaking Bad’s] Walt White about this. It’s not a scientific thing for me and I kind of wish it was because then I could break it down heaps easier in interviews, but it is really quite an unconscious thing. Pat wrote ‘Passerby’ early and then he brought ‘Another Sun’ in. It was all based on song strength and what we considered to be songs that we wouldn’t normally be good at, or what people would think we were shit at.

When we first played ‘Another Sun’ to Tim [Rogers, who contributed vocals to the track] he said, “This is kind of classic American FM rock” because he had just spent the last month touring around the States listening to classic FM. So I think we are just trying to, in essence, expand our skill set and broaden what we as composers, or want of a better term, artists, are doing. Trying to make ourselves broader – not fatter – but broader in what our ability is to write and how we can approach songs.

Chris Cheney, who contributes a guitar solo on ‘Another Sun,’ pushed the The Living End’s sound in a new direction on their most recent album ‘The End…’ and fans had mixed reactions to that shift. Were you ever concerned about how people might react to your “new sound”?

I think that will be a problem with any act that has been around for 17 years. We can’t constantly fear, and keep looking back. I think that Living End record for me was a little too slickly produced; a lot of the stuff was really rounded off. And maybe they are going to say that about our record. I can’t really fucking care about that shit, if I’m continually looking back how can I move forward? I get what happened with The Living End, but they had a huge successful record before it. White Noise was fucking multi dude, and we haven’t had a big record since Thrills [2004]. If you put it in context, whatever Chris and the gang did after White Noise was going to be difficult to top. and I think [producer] Brendan O’Brien really suffocated that and I’ve told Chris that to his face [laughs]. But I don’t think as a band you can constantly look back.

“I’ve reached a point where I want to sing and not yell.”

We want to be proud of a record and I think we’ve done something really quite good and not something that is ultimately cliched. There is a bit of ‘Dead Cat’ in there with [songs like] ‘Tightrope’ but there is also a lot of introspection. I love ‘Carry On’ and how sad that is. I think there is a lot of depth to this record. But in the end, fuck, I don’t know I can’t please everyone. All I’m trying to do is please myself. Ultimately this music game for me is essentially selfish and if people want to like it, well that’s awesome.

How did the collaboration with Tim Rogers and Chris Cheney come about?

With ‘Another Sun’ Pat wanted Chris to play the solo on the record because he didn’t want to play it, he just thought Chris could do a better job. He actually though Chris would say no, but then I kind of sweet-talked Chris into doing it. And Tim [Rogers] was in LA for a day and I went and picked him up from LAX and said, “Do you want to sing some ‘heys’ and ‘woahs’ on our album?”, and he was like, “Sure.”

It wasn’t some ultimate Kimbra and Sarah Blasko duet – they’re not doing anything that much. Whether they had sung or played on the record or not, it was just an amazing day to have our peers, people we respect as songwriters and people we dearly love, just being with us in LA. And I think they got a lot out of it as well. And not to sound too chummy, but it was just one of the greatest days I’ve ever had in the studio, just having those guys there. The opportunity was there to hang out with my best friends and people I also admire as songwriters, and there was an opportunity for them to go “heeeeyyy” and “wooooaaahhh” and why not? It took three seconds. And also Gareth Liddiard said “no”, so fuck him [laughs]. I’m joking.

I also needed their validation. I needed someone to go, “This is okay buddy.” Even on the last week before we released the album I had massive anxiety attacks. God, I sound like Sarah Blasko don’t I? But I was really nervous about it. It’s not something that I’m ever really comfortable with.

What are you nervous about?

Well, it’s a really personal record. I sing a lot on this record. I don’t know, I’m just nervous about it. I put a lot of hard work into this record. It wasn’t a Six To Midnight for me. And I’m not saying Six To Midnight wasn’t hard, but I didn’t have anything to do with that artwork, I just kind of hated that record when it was released and while I hate this record already, I’m actually proud of it. And that’s what makes me more scared – because I actually like the fucking thing.

When they said I was doing Sunrise I thought, “Give it to The Rubens. The Rubens would love to do Sunrise”. I can’t do Sunrise. I think The Rubens are the Motor Ace of 2012. I’m joking! I don’t want to be mean because I think they construct songs very well, they are very sharply dressed and good looking, but there is ultimately something very safe about it and I’m not saying that is bad. I just like rock’n’roll for different things. And all the best to The Rubens and all their shiny pop things. But for me it reminds me a bit of Motor Ace, but that’s ok Motor Ace were very successful.

“It’s the same four idiots who started this stupid band and it is really comforting to know they are still with me”

You’ve said before that you are much more comfortable once the band is away from the studio and on the road, is that still the case?

I like the writing process, but I’m not a huge fan of the studio. The writing is great, the creativity, and the endless songs I produce and the nutting down of lyrics. At the end of it we are a band who just really love playing live. It’s the same four idiots who started this stupid band and it is really comforting to know they are still with me. You look at Scott Russo [Unwritten Law] and he sacked every member of his band – I just don’t know how that’s a band anymore. I really believe in “four as one” [cackles]. In the end recording does give us an excuse to tour and I truly believe that is where we are at out best.

I think this record is one of our best recorded albums, but I sung the 14 songs in five days in the studio – the studio is not my friend it just drives me insane. I wish it was easier for me. I don’t really like listening to the sound of my own voice. So recording is really tedious because I have to listen to myself over and over and over again, and I’m like, “Oh God, Phillip please be quiet!”

I guess what I’m saying is that we really enjoyed the process in some respects, but in essence we are a live band and we are about to announce a huge national tour, it’s after Big Day Out. And we have a really exciting support and it will be huge. And the reason we aren’t touring until four months after the album is released is so Black Rabbits can sink in, people can know some of the songs off it. Rather than touring a week after it’s released then no one knows any tunes. So hopefully we get this album to sink in.

And you have timed the release well to coordinate with Something For Kate’s new album?

I can’t believe we are releasing the same week as Muse and One Direction, it’s great timing [laughs]. And Something For Kate, my old buddies. I actually in-boxed Clint and said, “Hey buddy, do you mind moving your album release date?” And he replied, “Hey buddy, do you mind giving us our Big Day Out slot back?” Then I said, “Sorry buddy, I didn’t know it was your spot, can I have my Homebake spot back?” So we have this kind of ‘90s irrelevant grunge band war between each other.

Black Rabbits is out now through Universal.

Grinspoon play Big Day Out 2013

Friday, January 18 – Showgrounds, Sydney

Sunday, January 20 – Parklands, Gold Coast

Friday, January 25 – Showgrounds, Adelaide

Saturday, January 26 – Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne

Monday, January 28 – Claremont Showgrounds, Perth