It’s past midday at the river-end of the idyllic rolling hills and endless railways of Sydney’s Newington Armory. I’ve been trailing Seaworthy’s Cameron Webb through the dens and trenches that permeate this converted military base. The landscape here, away from the roads and cars that have recently snaked through the property, is pre-World War I. There’s a functional efficiency here that contrasts with modern Sydney, with the bunkers, mounds and concrete slabs making the Armory seem like a museum. One expects these functional designs to be surrounded by people, but the premises are totally barren today.
It’s difficult to ignore the nearby café and the small portion of preserved mangroves extending out into Parramatta River. Webb has done field work here in his role as an environmental scientist, primarily in the study of mosquitoes. The Armory is an apt setting for the interview because of the contrasts in the nearby environments. As Seaworthy, Webb – with the assistance of Sam Shinazzi (an indie folk songwriter) and Greg Bird – directly references both urban and natural environments, with wetland field recordings often providing a base for the sweet guitar progressions and laptop processing that usually forms the centre of live performances and some Seaworthy recordings.
Recently, Webb’s methodology has expanded to include the history of the environment itself, specifically this very locale. Seaworthy’s lauded third album 1897 was recorded in a decommissioned munitions bunker here in the Newington Armory, summoning the ghosts of workers accidentally killed by explosions. Standing in the thin, metres-tall gutter behind the bunker, Webb imparts the Armory’s ghost legend. It’s fitting, because the cold starkness of the recordings in 1897’s opening track ‘Inside’ sounds like a seance.
1897 places Seaworthy’s recording output in an entirely unfamiliar place. Previous releases, particularly the second full-length album Map In Hand, presented a sun-dappled daylight sound, largely encouraged by Webb’s warm rubato guitarwork. 1897 progresses like a frigid winter night enclosed in barren rooms, only truly emerging from the dark during the final track, ‘Outside’. The field recordings so common throughout previous Seaworthy releases are reserved for this luminous, cathartic conclusion – birdcalls in a morning sun shower.
Seaworthy’s first album – It’s Humbling When Two Saints Meet – is an important starting point when considering the processes that have laid the foundations for the sound associated with Seaworthy today. The beginning of Seaworthy’s career overlapped with the demise of Sydney indie pop group, Twelve24, for whom Webb played guitar.
“I think the project had run its course,” says Webb. “We were all doing high level Uni degrees [and] didn’t really have the time to do big tours, which at the time you really needed to do to break through. It was the time to end.
“I’d started playing around with some home recordings, [which were] different to what we were doing in the band at the time. Here we were creating this quieter, atmospheric, ambient sort of stuff and, I guess, like a lot of these projects you fluke it with a couple of good recordings. Next thing you know, people are asking you to do shows and other releases.
“I started off making music that was like the music I listened to,” Webb continues “but I maintain that the music I make resembles what I always wanted to hear when I bought a CD, but never quite got.” Webb’s attitude to the music he makes now, in response to the music he listens to, provides insight into the way this shift from the indie rock of Twelve24 occurred.
“I might be wanting something ambient and slow moving, but the stuff I was buying was more erratic – chopping and changing, or too testosterone driven. I wanted something quiet.”
Webb politely mentions throughout the interview that a lot of his success – signing to New York label 12k in particular – is a matter of luck. Certainly, some of the experimental and lo-fi approaches Seaworthy has executed have involved trial and error. It’s Humbling… has a very personal, bedroom quality: more intimate than later releases because of the happy imperfections that came as a result of this dynamic.
“It’s Humbling When Two Saints Meet was recorded for 20 dollars on an old four track tape deck,” Webb explains. “It was mixed live to a CD burner because we couldn’t really afford to go into a studio at the time. It’s another example of how a record won’t sound the same if you go into a studio.”
In an interview with Godsend Online conducted shortly after the release of It’s Humbling…, Greg Bird confirms this notion, describing Seaworthy before and after joining Webb in the lineup.
“The early… Seaworthy was these remarkable songs about love and the ocean. When I heard the first single (‘Tide In Knots’) it sounded like a fisherman who lived in his shack on the beach recording guitar songs to four track … I think the music comes from our love of warm music and comforting sounds and that other-worldly feeling you get from listening to other bands. Trying to produce that ‘feeling’ and getting it onto four track, listening back and realising you captured the way you felt at that moment is a lot of fun. Hopefully people will get that ‘feeling’.”
Webb agrees. “One of the reasons I like doing Seaworthy is the lo-fi recording, and how the recording process becomes a part of the creative process. I’ve been in studios to record and you have to have one eye on the clock. It’s expensive and not really a good environment for the creative process.
“[Recording constraints] affect the recording on different levels. The cheapness allows for trial and error [while] recording on dodgy old tape, or with a cheap microphone, adds another sonic flavour. Sometimes it’s out of your control, but it can add a grittiness, a different type of sound you can’t make with pristine equipment.
“I’ve become marginally less frustrated with my inability to have a technical knowledge of the equipment,” Webb continues. “But everything’s a learning process. As you learn more, you tend to get a hold of your stuff. Something as simple as knowing a different place to put the microphone to record, through to using different types of tape or other recording media. It’s constantly changing, maybe the stuff I used earlier on I’ve forgotten about, and have to re-learn.”
The latest developments in this process are evidenced in 1897 and contributions to a split 3 inch CD-R release with laptop musician M. Rösner. The exploration of laptop processing has produced entirely new elements within the Seaworthy sound. Webb has produced an increasing amount of Seaworthy’s output himself, with Bird moving overseas and Shinazzi increasingly occupied with his work and solo output, leaving Webb to sculpt Seaworthy alone.
Many solo ambient musicians use a laptop as their primary tool due to its flexibility in building thicker textures, which suggests a pragmatism in Webb’s shift. Certainly, musical pragmatism has been a part of Webb’s use of the computer.
“In some ways I use the computer the same way as I use a four track, it’s just another process. For me the computer might be a practical tool to record, but at the same time it might be a real, genuine musical instrument. If I play guitar for instance, I might use a pick, an e-bow, fingers, a bit of metal or anything. You’re using the same instrument, but you’re changing the sound. In the same way the computer allows you to use a pre-recorded sound or some sort of synth sound, or a computer generated tone. [Overall] you’re adding that extra texture that might make it sound good. I don’t know why it should make the process different from buying a four track machine or even a new guitar pick.”
Webb’s recent interactions with laptop musicians such as Taylor Deupree and Philip Jeck appear to have had a more profound effect on him personally, rather than musically.
“I’m probably more influenced by having the opportunity to hang out and talk with people like Taylor Deupree and Philip Jeck. That has as much to do with being influenced by these kinds of artists as listening to them. Sometimes you can be influenced in an almost unmusical way.”
Webb cites everyone from Dirty Three’s Mick Turner to New Zealand drone musician Birchville Cat Motel to Australian sound artists Oren Ambarchi and Lawrence English as influences on his work. It is important, when tracking the general trajectory of Seaworthy since its inception ten years ago, to consider the enormous cross-sections that characterise its sound.
Stylistically, Seaworthy’s static, guitar-based compositions seem to hark at a delicious midpoint between broad indie rock paradigms and the comparatively highbrow world of ambient sound art, via a field recording-focused sound design, and increasingly deconstructed laptop processing.
ccupying this Venn diagram for Seaworthy hasn’t involved unfocused mediocrity, but precisely the opposite. Seaworthy places itself in a very specific musical space, whether it be the recurring sentimental chord progressions scattered densely through releases between 2004 and 2006, or the harsher drone pieces and field recordings that often frame both. There’s snatches of John Fahey’s timeless solo guitar sensibility, but contextualised by an entirely foreign design. In a 2007 Mess+Noise interview Webb talks openly about the stillness in Seaworthy’s music – “People say ‘your songs go nowhere’ … [but] that’s the point; we’re not taking you somewhere, we’re showing you this one place.”
Today, this attitude continues to endure. “The thing that unifies Seaworthy is its slow moving nature,” Webb relates. “Whether it’s the very minute layering of notes on one guitar or the glacial changes of the drones, it’s these subtle shifts that give them a ‘Seaworthy’ sound.”
In fact most of Seaworthy’s output, rather than being meandering, is utterly precise – there’s an intellectual focus in the design of many Seaworthy releases which frames the more intuitive, spontaneous and emotional forms of musical production. Webb spent over a year torturously editing hours of recordings for 1897, resulting in a meticulous sound design and a progressive arc that envelops the entire work.
“It’s extremely difficult to cut down that quantity of stuff,” says Webb, regarding the process of pruning three hours worth of material recorded for 1897. “I could have made life easier for myself if I had pre-planned some structure, but that’s the price you pay for having the time to improvise – there’s more time spent on editing after.”
Beyond the intellectual processes that lie behind the polish of some releases, there’s something deeply personal about the loving way many of Seaworthy’s short run CD-R releases have been packaged. Sold out editions of 2006’s Distant Hills Burn Bright – with its paint-dipped recycled card sleeve – and the sewn sleeve of Kiola are prized artifacts, constructed like elaborate love letters.
One such handmade CD-R release is 2005’s Map In Hand, the album that brought Seaworthy to wider attention via its re-release on the universally renowned 12k label in 2006. “Map In Hand’s first pressing was just 100 CD-Rs simply to sell at an upcoming Melbourne tour or Sydney show,” says Webb of the experience. “It was sent to 12k simply as a sort of ‘hey, I’ve been buying your records for a little while, here’s something to say thanks’. Taylor just happened to like it and wanted to release it and it’s gone from there.”
In Sydney, Seaworthy has gained a reputation for frequently supporting a diverse range of acts, from the post-hardcore of Ohana; the sentimental indie rock of Charge Group; ambient noise groups such as Moonmilk and Castings, and the experimental sound art of Lawrence English. Additionally 2009 has seen a full-length album in collaboration with sound artist Fabio Orsi, Near And Faraway and live improvisations with guitar dronescapist Seth Rees and free jazz deconstructors Spartak among numerous others.
It’s this ability and desire to transcend genre divisions that makes Seaworthy’s position in Sydney’s live music world an enviable one. Webb explains, “I don’t want to stick to playing warehouse shows or gallery shows, and I don’t necessarily want to play venues that Seaworthy might be expected to play.
“Musically, a lot of the bands I play with might differ from Seaworthy and I quite like the challenge of playing the kind of music that’s unfamiliar to the regular rock crowd.” Webb says that some of the most unlikely crowds he’s played to are the ones who offer the best feedback. Over the several occasions I’ve seen Seaworthy play the opening set at Sydney’s (now closed) indie rock haunt Hopetoun Hotel, an initially chatty, disinterested crowd was transformed as the punters move from the bar, taking seat on the floor, blanketed by the delicate, enveloping bed of sounds that characterises the group’s live performances.
For Seaworthy, the link is between realising live improvisations and recordings is almost arbitrary, since both recordings and performances are drawn from improvisations – each performance, for whichever purpose has its own quality.
“It’s a little different in that people don’t come to shows to hear track three off the new record,” Webb explains. “I like to think people come as much for the experience of watching the process of creation – what piece of technology I may be using or how I play the guitar, or even something unusual I might do in one show that’s impossible to recreate in the next.
“Sometimes it’s just that interaction with the audience and the space – scenarios in which you’re able to play more quietly for a quiet audience, or perhaps louder in a pub environment.”
Even past the e-bow drone that characterises some live performances and releases, this louder, more abrasive sound Webb mentions is present on releases such as Serrata, released on Campbell Kneale’s Celebrate Psi Phenomenon label in 2006. Recent live shows have featured abrasive dictaphone recordings of electronically realised sounds being fed through distortion pedals into a guitar amp.
“In the grand scheme of things, I don’t get all that loud,” Webb says. “As a musician, you want to play differently [sometimes], whether it’s a different mood or feel for the audience or the other bands on the bill for that matter. I certainly don’t mind playing louder or more abrasive sometimes. It’s still Seaworthy.”
Some of these performances have incorporated field recordings that hark back to that counterpoint between the natural and urban. Indeed, as Webb and I are sitting along the Parramatta River, it occurs to me just how evident this is along the overdeveloped Sydney harbour foreshore. Does this counterpoint resonate very strongly with Seaworthy?
“I think so,” replies Webb. “In my line of work I spend a lot of time, not just in Sydney, but in some pretty remote areas on the coast. I’ve spent many years surfing, travelling up and down the coast, to some pretty beautiful places, places that have strong links to memory. These all pile up in my creative resources.
“That doesn’t mean that the grittiness of urban Sydney or the inner west doesn’t have just as equal place. I think, even from an aesthetic point of view, it doesn’t have to be the coast or the mountains, there’s a certain beauty in the city as well. It might be urban decay, or for that matter, it might be a modern skyline at night. People can take some aesthetic beauty out of almost every landscape in a way and Seaworthy sort of mashes them together.
“Something Seaworthy makes might be recorded in a century old ammunitions bunker, but if someone’s listening to it driving up the coast through green hills, they’re going to have a lot of extra memory from where they hear it, or where they’re used to hearing it,” suggests Webb. “Sometimes, a barren concrete space is going to be the furthest from their mind.”
I suggest my own association with Seaworthy is more akin to the “barren concrete space”, since those are the spaces Seaworthy generally plays.
“You know, I think if Seaworthy played outside, we’d probably be blown away, but it’s a shame there aren’t more opportunities to play outside in Sydney,” Webb contends. “Maybe that’s why I try to use visual projections; they’re usually of outdoor mountains, grasslands and wetlands, which is a counterpoint to the places the music’s played in.”
It’s this counterpoint – this occupying of a number of spaces at once – that makes Seaworthy so intimately appealing; there’s a striking depth to the way Seaworthy channels such contrasting environments. From the mechanised to the organic, the abrasive to the sweet, the intellectual to the emotional, Seaworthy occupies the mid-point yet traverses the extremes of either end. The walk from the café, past the bunkers, and to the mangroves is a short distance, each space holding distinctive characteristics. Like the Armory, it’s these intersections, these collisions which keep letting you unfold Seaworthy’s interior.
Seaworthy’s 1897 is available from 12k.