Originally Published at Trespass Magazine, December 1st, 2008
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Dead Letter Chorus started in 2006 with five Sydney musicians from local bands coming together to form a new side project. Lead singer/songwriter Cameron Potts recalls spending the trip to Splendour in the Grass listening to demos he had “roughed up” at uni when he should have been studying the counterpoint of Bach preludes and fugues. The band spent the journey deconstructing the tracks and “when [they] got back [they] put it back together and started rehearsing.”
Cameron and fellow debutante Gabrielle Huber front the band, alongside drummer Lee Carey, bassist Andrew Rose and guitarist Mike Faber. But with so much personality, and two lead singers, are there power dynamics behind the scenes? Potts says that “all the relationships in the band are pretty close but we’re not precious about anything so it doesn’t really affect any dynamic. We write songs separately but are always interested in each other’s opinions and suggestions. We don’t really have main influences and we are not trying to sound like any type of band. We listen to a lot of different music all the time. It’s other people [who tell us that we sound like such-and-such a band] when maybe we realise and say ‘Oh yeah, that does sound a little like said band.’”
The Dead Letter Chorus sound varies from track to track, echoing like a folk record in an abandoned rail yard one minute and dancing through the vineyard the next (”Kill the King” and “Magnolia Farm” to give examples) but through it all there is the thread of authenticity, like they are ever willing to tell you the bone-truth about themselves, and smile while they do it. Potts seems to agree, adding his name to the register of bands out there who are drawn to the joy of performance, rather than worrying about the market. “The music scene is a myth. There is no one way to approach it. We just do what we do, play shows, get out name out there, and hope for the best.”
As I wait for Gabrielle, I look out the window of Glebe’s Well Connected cafe and watch the light beginning to fade to orange against the sides of the residential buildings. The street outside has just been repaved so the area is quieter than it has been in weeks, though the in house speaker system is projecting a rather intrusive mix of half tracks, skipped at the whim of cafe staff working downstairs. She arrives with a smile, dressed in a dark casual dress and orders coffee, then sits with one leg folded underneath.
She says, “I know, I always sit strangely in these seats” and I wonder whether she realises I have imagined this entire scene as a 1930s crime fiction thriller. I can’t be blamed, her songs made me do it.
“I have a list of questions to ask, but they all sound pretentious now that I read them back.” I confess, wishing that I was the person who could chew a cigar purely as an affectation.
“Oh, I want to hear them!” she says, calm and intelligent.
For the next two hours we work our way through the regularities of interviewing, stopping to lament the price of Leonard Cohen tickets, the exact location of Miranda, and the way in which Sydney seems to engulf any suburb between Wollongong and Newcastle for its greedy self.
Firstly, could you tell us about the song writing experience within Dead Letter Chorus?
Song writing is actually a difficult process for me because I’m a perfectionist down to a tee. I don’t know if it’s the curse of being a Virgo or just…me. I’ve been writing songs for about two years, since the band started, and being a pianist it’s funny because I can’t actually write on piano. I can write an instrumental but I can never seem to add lyrics to a piano piece. I only write on guitar. I’m the type of person that will get an idea and I’ll work on it for a few weeks and then I’ll be like, “It’s crap, It’s crap, It’s so stupid, I’m not even going to play it for Cameron” and then two months down the track I’ll bring it out again and I’ll just keep working on it until I find it’s possibly a finished song and I’ll play it for the band and they’ll say, “That’s alright, you know?” and I’ll be like “Really?”
You’ve said elsewhere that you one of the interesting parts of creating The August Magnificent was building your own home studio. Did you specifically want to do this one on your own, or was it just easier that way?
We wanted to feel really comfortable in a space where we weren’t looking at the clock 24/7 and thinking “Oh my God, it’s going to cost us $200 if we do another take of drums in this section”. We didn’t want to feel rushed. With our EP it was the complete opposite, we were in a studio and we did six tracks in one day. We were really tight and we’d rehearsed enough so we could just go in and nail it but with this album we wanted it to be completely different. If we did a vocal take one day and it wasn’t ‘right’, we could be like “OK, well maybe today’s not the day, tomorrow will be a new day and we’ll do it again.’ With this album we just wanted it to be really organic and we didn’t want it to be rushed or anything like that.
So where does a band living in Sydney fit a recording studio?
It’s in our manager’s house. He’d been wanting to build a studio for years. Literally, Cameron and him were nailing things and I was painting. I was “Team Ambiance”, so I was in charge of fairy lights and painting and frames and all that kind of stuff” It was really good to have that kind of relaxed vibe…We are very much a live band, we’re not really ‘recording artists’, and we wanted it to still sound real and earthy, not overproduced or anything.
The production of the album has that sort of ‘honest’ quality to it, even in the more poppy numbers… but it’s certainly an epic release. Was it a matter of the songs just getting bigger in the studio day by day?
We always wanted it to be a big deal. We knew we wanted a choir. Cameron and I had written Horn parts or String parts. We knew that we wanted it to sound big and polyphonic on certain songs and we knew we had the time for that, because we weren’t under studio time.
Speaking of the two of you, one of the difficulties of writing about Dead Letter Chorus is it’s hard to designate a lead singer. There’s a great duality to the way you guys work together. That is, it never feels like Cameron is just ‘giving you a song here and there.’
It’s more evident in our live performance because Cameron is the front man. I sing just as much but I don’t say very much, mainly because I think there has to be one person that’s leading the band, to interact with the crowd and stuff. If too many people talk on stage, it’s too distracting and I, most of the time, don’t have anything to say anyway, so I’ll just giggle a bit and that’s it!
On the recording, the songs really seem to suit whichever of you is behind the microphone. For example, The Long Goodnight paints this fantastic scene of a femme fatale, left behind in the rain, I really can’t imagine it being sung by anyone else.
Yeah that’s a very feminine song. Though, Cameron had a demo of that and it was quite masculine. It was a bit faster, all acoustic guitar and very rhythmically driven, but with our recording version of it has the strings, and the reverbed vocal and all that… With those songs, I just made them my own in terms of the melody. I changed the melody to suit me. I think those songs are quite feminine in a sense, like the melody is quite ‘floaty’, you know?
Having two singers seems to solidify the self-consciousness of the album, rather than love songs to unseen muses in the wings, it’s almost like the album has to confront things because there’s both a male and a female presence.
That’s a really cool way of seeing it because I think that’s the way we see it as well. It’s like a journey, it’s about us and our relationships as a band as well, and I think you can feel that in the arrangements, especially in 11th Dream, like it’s slowly building and then it’s craziness…
That’s a tumultuous song!
Haha, it’s intense isn’t it? That song had the most tracks, so many guitars and vocals and strings and horns and percussion… I remember the first time we ever played Fight The Morning was at [Sydney’s] Manning Bar earlier this year. It was so intense performing that, I felt like I was going to pass out. It was just such an intense song and the melody was intense… Our songs really demand a lot from us.
Yeah, I feel like ‘Wow, I’ve gotta be engaged for this…’
I think half of the album can’t be listened to just in the car, driving or whatever. Some of the songs you have to sit down at home with a glass of wine, turn it up and really listen to it. Even when I heard it after it was mixed and all that, it was really different for me, even though I had performed and written some of the songs. I really had to listen, you just see these little inflections that you didn’t think would come through.
Lyrically, it’s quite complex as well. Because the images are so important, especially 11th Dream about Aeroplanes. It’s like line by line, you’re kind of being ripped to shreds.
It’s really up and down, it’s a journey in itself that song. Cameron writes really nice love songs and that song he actually had ten dreams (over ten nights) about being in a plane crash, and he died in all of those dreams. And on the eleventh night, he had the same dream but they saved each other. It’s just about being strong together.
It sums up that idea of absolute tragedy coming out of love.
My mum, when she listens to the album, she’s like: ‘Cameron writes a lot about death, is that normal?’ and I think he’s actually writing it in an appreciation of life more so by looking at it from the other end. He’s always had vivid dreams about death and stuff, but I think it’s because he loves life so much; he’s a vivacious person.
The August Magnificent
1. The Peaceful Sleep Of Death
2. Magnolia Farm
3. Down In Your Valley
4. Chasing Hearts
5. Fight The Morning
6. Oscar Moland
7. 11th Dream About Aeroplanes
8. The Long Goodnight
9. Modern Faith
10. Silly Little Man / Kill The King
11. Misery’s Widow
12. Fathers and Daughters
As music reviewers, we often find ourselves drawn towards cliché, the tried and proven phrases we’ve used for album after album, the empty levity of musical comparison.
“Shall it be Dylan, Radiohead or Buckley today?” we muse to ourselves.
Luckily for us, we are not reviewed for our reviews nor criticised for our critique. The same cannot be said for those who we subject to our opinionated correspondence. No, they must avoid cliché so that we don’t pull them up on it.
Dead Letter Chorus’ debut album avoids cliché through their clever appropriation of musical antiquity. To speak of The August Magnificent without mentioning the sheer beauty of its folk nostalgia would be a shame given an album of this standard. It drives us out to Magnolia Farm and then leaves us on the porch, with a shovel and broken bucket, to find our way home in the rain. The album shines in the cracks between table manners and historical debris, with a song writing style which is quaint and honest. Gabrielle, the sweet femme fatale of this film noir fairytale, draws us in with her sweet and worn melodic lines while Cameron Potts tugs us down from the clouds to gaze forever at the bare paths we’ve worn in the sand.
I watched you walk into the bar that night.
I knew exactly where you were going,
where everyone seemed to be going,
(The Long Goodnight)
As the opening lines of “The Long Goodnight” lilt over a subtle waltz, we begin to wonder, is the true August Magnificent life or love? Or perhaps both?
Many of the songs lean towards the feeling that we are intruding on personal correspondence between two war torn lovers, an intrusion which clashes with the very honest nature of the song. When I first heard “Misery’s Widow”, I made a note to let Gabrielle know during the interview how much I loved the song, and how much I would hate for it to be about me. On the other hand, my favourite track on The August Magnificent, “11th Dream About Aeroplanes” I would take as my lover’s ode any day, the ethereal concoction of fragmentary images makes for a lover’s dream which is disconcerting but comforting. It extrapolates on an idea not dissimilar to Milan Kundera’s Identity, the feeling that love is strong enough to make you fear the very thought of losing it.
I looked to the sky, and I outlined the moon,
It was a soundwave and it was breakin’ in two
Well I felt the end and it was comin’ soon, my love.
(11th Dream about Aeroplanes)
I wish I could take you to coffee and explain to you with wild gesticulations just why this album is a breath of fresh air, but you are just a reader. You don’t want my sporadic outbursts. You are a reader, a dear reader, but only that.
I’ll be at Magnolia Farm, I hope you’ll join me.
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