Papa Vs Pretty: “I want to market us like a brand of shampoo”
After a challenging three-year period that nearly brought them to the brink, Sydney rock act Papa Vs Pretty are learning to become a band, writes DARREN LEVIN.
Papa Vs Pretty frontman Thomas Rawle can be a hard man to rein in sometimes. He apologises repeatedly for going off topic in a sprawling 40-minute interview that’s ostensibly about the band’s second album White Deer Park, but also touches on a New York Times article about civilisation’s precarious future called “”Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene; Jaron Lanier’s anti-Web 2.0 screed You Are Not a Gadget; Alex Turner’s “rock is back” speech at the Brit Awards; and his unsolicited views on music journalism, which echo some of the assertions made by The Jezabels’ Hayley Mary recently.
“I love good music journalism, but it’s few and far between,” he says from his Sydney home, where he’s spent most of the morning mixing new music, drinking copious cups of coffee and reading. “I read a review for the first time in a long time yesterday. It was a good review, so I was lucky that that was the one I stumbled upon, but it was whining that it wasn’t uplifting enough. Well, I didn’t really feel that way. Does everything have to be uplifting? Is it all Pepsi commercials all day?”
Despite his caffeine-fuelled propensity to arc up, Rawle says he’s “oddly calm” about the release of the band’s second album White Deer Park. He puts that down to a complete change in mindset following the release of 2011 debut United In Isolation when he was just 18. Rawle has done a lot of soul-searching since then, frequently flitting between Sydney and Los Angeles, writing and recording relentlessly, hooking up with American producer Dave Trumfio (Wilco, My Morning Jacket) and recruiting a new band member in keyboardist/second guitarist Luke Liang. But for all the indecision, the aborted avant garde experiments and his own self-confessed “wig-outs”, White Deer Park is focused and direct, brimming with abrasive rock edges and sharp hooks, despite Rawle’s insistence that he has little interest in making music that’s accessible.
“I’ve changed my entire mentality on music and how to deal with artistry in the midst of an entertainment and media industry that’s 24-hour driven,” he admits. “In that turbulent ocean of information that’s just like a riot, the only thing you can ever focus on is becoming a better artist and saying things that you find culturally important … With art, I find it very difficult to imagine the next 20 years and the future in general with a lack of empathy. It feels like there’s a pyramid of people climbing over each other to get to the top … So I don’t focus on doing press or anything anymore.”
And yet, here he is doing press.
“I love doing interviews,” he backtracks, “and I love all that kind of stuff because you’re put under a flashlight and people are like ‘OK, explain yourself and what you’re doing.’ With the first record I found that difficult because I probably didn’t know what I was doing. But this time around I feel like there’s more of a clear purpose behind what I’m trying to do and what I’m trying to say.”
“I was gone for an untold amount of time and it was pretty random, so that freaked people out a bit.”
Are you at home today? What are you up to?
I’m actually doing some mix work. I’m mixing a saturated kick drum. I’m trying this new EQ I got … I have no idea how the fuck it works, it’s terrifying, so I probably won’t use it.
Are you mixing for your own band, or something else?
I’m just fucking around with stuff. I’m endlessly recording, and trying to get better.
Is that something you can see yourself doing down the track, self-producing or mixing a Papa record?
[Pauses] It’d be too weird producing the band stuff. It’s a band and it operates as a band. It adds an extra level of weird hierarchy if someone in the band is producing the band’s album, because the producer is meant to have the final say – or at least has some kind of authority in steering the project in times of doubt. I guess that would make for an odd working environment.
Is it fair to say you’re the driving force [behind Papa Vs Pretty]?
I dunno. It’s pretty equal these days. It’s gotten more and more equal as time has gone on. The whole thing started when I put stuff on MySpace when I was 15, and we used to play gigs at Candy’s [Apartment in Sydney] after school. I used to do that all the time. We started doing tours and becoming more of a band. I think now it’s actually a band, especially with Luke joining. I still record my own music, I just don’t do anything with it.
So there might be a solo record down the track?
Maybe, but the band wouldn’t be the band unless it was a collaborative project. If any member was not in it, it wouldn’t exist anymore. So it’s a band! [Laughs]
You started this process with 80 tracks. Are you always this prolific?
I write all the time because I’m trying to be a better songwriter. I’m never completely satisfied with my writing – there’s always things I can work on. With this record, we could’ve released one or two albums before this one. Part of me would’ve liked to, but at the same time we decided we’d keep working at it until we got something everyone was happy with. I went through a period there where I was writing some fairly avant garde kinda stuff, which probably scared a bunch of people….
Is that why it’s important for the band to have a producer, like Dave [Trumfio]. Was he an editor as well?
He helped pick the songs that went on the album. It’s good to have an outside influence that’s musically talented, that you respect in that way … It definitely helped.
So why did you end up going over to LA in the first place. Was it just you going over to write?
I went over there three times. The first time I went was to try and get rid of a fear of flying.
Were you successful?
Yeah, I was. Then I went over and lived there for three or four months. I had a bunch of friends who live there, so I stayed with them and wrote a lot, and met a bunch of music people. Then the third time was when we were finishing recording the album and mixing it. I really like it over there, just the way the entertainment side of thing works. Everything’s just so big, like in the language and the thinking and the talking. It’s infectious. The second time I went there I was just really happy – and I hadn’t been like that for ages. I don’t know if I’ve been like that since. [Laughs] It was just a really good time.
Did the ideas for the record start forming in LA?
Some of them did. Some of the songs were older. Most of the songs had an origin. ‘My Life Is Yours’ was written just before and finished after the first time I came back from Los Angeles. When I went back, ‘Whatever Works’ was written there. I’d bring back the idea for a song and then we’d work on it. Some songs like ‘Let It Begin’ were written together. It’s a myriad of different processes.
I heard there was a point where you thought about ending the band?
Um, well I did have a few complete wig-outs. I definitely had a few freak-outs. I was making a lot of odd music that had nothing to do with anything, so I think that freaked a bunch of people out. The second time I went to Los Angeles, I was gone for an untold amount of time and it was pretty random, so that freaked people out a bit. [Laughs] It kinda all worked out in the end. There was definitely some tough times.
When you look back on it all was it a tough record to make? Because that’s not what you hear on record – it almost appears like a complete vision to me, you’ve got all these interludes and everything holds together conceptually.
It was hard to put together. Musically, we were coming to grips with a lot of things. The one saving grace was that I changed how I look at things, in terms of it [Papa Vs Pretty] being a band. We will make decisions, and everyone’s voice is completely equal. That was the big change – and it was a change for the better. It’s important when you play in a band to utilise everyone’s talents as much as you can. Luke, Gus [Gardiner, bass] and Tom [Myers, drums] are all amazing players. It would be stupid for them not to do their thing. That was a big change, especially coming from a band where on the first record I was a bit more forceful with my ideas. The very first EP I recorded completely myself. It’s a changing process – we had Luke join the band and I wigged out a couple of times.
At what point did Luke join?
I can’t even remember now. It feels like forever.
Was it before the record?
Yeah, before the record. He was there from the start of it.
It feels like you wanted to push the stylistic boat out from the last record, with the horns and the Phil Spector touches on ‘Let It Begin’.
Yeah. Well, I was 18 when I made the first record and Tom was 17, I think. We were really young. We were kinda freaking out a bit. This album we thought “Let’s take our time and be cool about it.” I definitely wanted to push the boat out a little. I’m a bit like that. I always want to push the boat out as far as possible. [Laughs]
But it’s still really accessible as well. Is that important to you?
It’s never really been something I’ve thought about, just because I don’t really care if it’s accessible or not.
I guess something keeps drawing you back to those pop melodies?
Yeah, I like a lot of bands like Big Star, and that early power-pop stuff. Some of the stuff from the ‘90s as well – early Radiohead, Blur – because that’s when I grew up. I guess that’s where it comes from. I love good melodies. My favourite artist of all time is Elliott Smith – or Prince. I like good melodies and songs that sucker punch you … I don’t think our album has any pop hits, but I do really aspire to be able to write really good melodies.
I think the interesting thing about your band is you never get to an interesting melody in a conventional way.
People usually say it’s weird, and I’ve got a lot of criticism like “Why do you dance around the hook?” But I don’t care. I write music and maybe one day I’ll hit a hook, but I’m not going to try and write a hook. I don’t think about that. Imagine if someone said to Nick Cave or Leonard Cohen, “Where’s the hooks, man?” … Some people just want plain and simple hooks, but I write how I write. I can’t explain that. Hooks these days are different now to what they were. Nowadays it’s this particular melody that gets used over and over again. As soon as it’s missing it’s like “Where’s that hook that I love? I’ve heard it in five songs. It’s terrific.” [Laughs]
I have to ask about the ‘60s advertising campaign used to promote the album (see above).
Well, we were taking the piss basically. I really like that early-60s advertising where it’s just blatantly simple. I hate that we have press releases, but I guess it’s necessary … I wanted to do something that was just tongue-in-cheek and it was fun to make … I love that simple designer stuff. It just looks really good. We had these conversations, like “How are we going to market the album?” And I was like “I want to market us like we’re a brand of shampoo.” I wanted it to be completely different. I really like Tom Waits and how he goes about these things. I don’t know if you saw that video he made with the invisible audience? If you’re an artist, you’re in a position of making art and the marketing should be an extension of that. Otherwise it just becomes really boring.
White Deer Park is out now through EMI. Papa Vs Pretty is touring nationally with Ballpark Music in April. Click here for dates.