Interview by Emmy Hennings
It’s early on a humid summer’ evening and the Newtown Theatre has yet to open its doors. Sunset light the colour of peach filters in through the high windows, along with passing traffic noise. There’ a scattering of staff, partners and friends in the foyer, as the Because Of Ghosts trio arrange themselves in a semi-circle around a temperamental dictaphone. To the left sits Domenic Stanton, bassplayer and eldest brother; to the right, guitarist Reuben Stanton, whose blue t-shirt proclaims him to be â€œNot anti-social. Just shy!â€, as if he were a spruiker for reticence. Opposite sits drummer Jacob Pearce, youngest of the three, who’ constantly leaping out of his backwards-facing chair to answer telephone calls or fine-tune arrangements for tonight’s gig.
Speaking of fine-tuning, support act Seth Rees (occasionally of the delicate, breathy Melbourne duo I Want A Hovercraft) is in the middle of his soundcheck, unleashing guttural skruunnnks and billowing whooooshes from his solo guitar. The sound echoes around the building; another impediment, along with the stop-start dictaphone to a clear transcript. Still, it seems appropriate somehow that what Because of Ghosts have to say is half-obscured by instrumentation. Instrumentation is what they specialise in, after all; when words make the mix, it’s generally as snatched field recordings. I could probably release this interview tape as a high-concept, limited edition 12â€.
Tonight’s low-key show marks the postscript to the band’ recent national tour, in support of their debut album, last year’ The Tomorrow We Were Promised Yesterday. The album has been a long time coming, and some time again in finding a place in people’ hearts. It’s a grower, and that’s not bad at all – it’s brave. Most bands strive to release albums that knock you over the head upon first listen, but deliver diminishing returns. Not so Because of Ghosts.
â€œIt did take a while,â€ agrees Jacob. â€œWe released the album in October, and there were hardly any reviews, and then in December we suddenly started getting all these great reviews. It’s been picking up a bit. We’ve already sold out one pressing and we’ve had to do a second one for these shows, because we didn’ have anything left to sell.â€
â€œIt was done as a package, thought through as a whole thing,â€ says Domenic of the band’ own approach, â€œso I expected that it might take a while [for people to get]â€¦ It’s taken us this long to record and release something that we’re – â€
â€œThat we’re happy with, â€ says Jacob, finishing the sentence. â€œThat we’re really happy with,â€ affirms Domenic.
â€œ..That’s pretty substantial and that’s matured a bit,â€ continues Jacob. â€œOne thing I’ve found listening to the newer stuff is that I think there’ a sound that travels the whole way through the new album, which is what I think of as Because of Ghosts. Whereas (with) the really early stuff, the different tracks really could have been different bands, sometimes. There were different influences coming in here and there. But I think that we’ve reached a point now where we’ve got a real distinctive sound.â€
The band is surprisingly critical of their pre-album recordings, which alone compromise a substantial body of work. There were two very early EPs: No More Reason, No More Doubt (2002) and Because Of Ghosts (2003) – the former released in an edition of 20, which is hardly fair. Then two more – still limited, but of slightly wider circulation: Make Amends With Your Adversary Before Dawn (2003) and Your House Is Built On A Frozen Lake (2004). There was also a live 12â€, recorded at Sydney’ Hopetoun; a scattering of 7â€s, split discs and compilation tracks; and highlights from the lot gathered together on last year’ No More Reason, No More Doubt: Selected Recordings 2002 – 2004 collection.
These early releases have a particular intimacy, though nothing sounds roughshod or – dread the term – lo-fi. The music’ momentum, buoyed along by a carefully cross-hatched network of guitar loops and percussion that sound like the dislodged contents of a cutlery drawer, is at times extremely self-assured. At other times the pace slows, and “wander’ – as in “The Stars Did Wander’, becomes the operative term. You can hear it when a pair of drumsticks are picked up or put down again. Bum notes become a part of the mix. Listening, it sounds as if the band could be playing in the next room to you, as if you were overhearing a particularly good rehearsal. And as far as circumstances go, that was pretty much the case.
â€œPast recordings that we’ve done have always been put out straight away,â€ explains Reuben. â€œEverything in the past has been done over a weekend or two,â€ Jacob adds.
Explaining that the band has always taped their rehearsals, Domenic points to the limitations of their DIY recording technique as a factor in the band’ early sound, as much as any still-to-be-digested influence (perhaps, one could hazard a guess, Do Make Say Think chief among them).
â€œI think that the early stuff was heavily influenced by the time constraints that we had, and the money constraints that we had,â€ he says. â€œLeading up to the album I think that we learnt a lot more about the actual recording process. Particularly working with Richard [Andrews, engineer] and the 2-inch tape machine, and seeing the absolute importance of getting sound right.â€
Aside from the careful recording process – which took months, rather than days, what distinguishes The Tomorrow We Were Promised Yesterday from its predecessors is, as the band acknowledges, a clear sense of cohesion. It’s a cohesion that applies not only to the album itself, which is carefully and seamlessly sequenced, but also to the music, which has grown noticeably more supple. Like somebody learning to swim, Because of Ghosts have reached a point where every element – stroke-counting guitar, fingertip glockenspiel, frog-kick bass and foot-splashing cymbals – has come together. Now their sound cleaves through the water, pausing occasionally for a tumble-turn, or a breath that changes the pace.
â€œI think that it’s partly becoming familiar in playing with each other,â€ answers Reuben, in regard to this well-learned integration. â€œAnd so it doesn’ sound as much like a guitar and a bass and some drums. It sounds like a band. We play as one band. We know where it’s going and what kind of sound the other person is trying to get out of the music, and we work towards that together. There’ not so much fighting. Not that we were always fighting, but in terms of the sound – if that makes sense.â€
â€œThere are lots of things that we’ve learnt over the past few years,â€ says Jacob. â€œWe used to have to sit down and say “Let’s listen to each other more’. Now we know the songs so well that we don’ rehearse much. We do maybe two, three songs and then say “Let’s save our energy for the live shows’.â€ And these are occasions where – as tonight will prove – all sorts of unexpected things might occur.
They must parcel up their forbearance along with their energy, for accidents happen at the Newtown Theatre that would sorely test the onstage patience of most other bands. First of all, there’ Reuben’ snapped guitar string – after only one song, which is so stubborn to the idea of removal that eventually, it has to be poked out with a kindly volunteered hairpin. Then there’ the disintegrating kick-drum pedal, which sends Jacob under the kit in search of rogue bolts. It takes several minutes of careful reconstruction to get it working again, but nobody seems to mind. The small audience take the delays as good-humouredly as the band does, appreciative of the relaxedness which, when translated to the music, makes for an instrumental sound that rolls with the current, sometimes head-down, occasionally sidelong, never sounding – though the band may know these songs by heart – as if it knows exactly what lies ahead. This is open water, and, as Reuben had been trying to explain, there is no fighting it.
Partners join them onstage for their one vocal number, “Bright Things Come To Confusion’ – an impromptu choir. They encourage more volunteers, but the audience proves bashful – not anti-social, just shy. As they leave the stage, Jacob exhorts people to join their mailing list: â€œWe’re trying not to use the street-press.â€ It’s all of a piece with their modus operandi of can-do self-reliance, which appears to extend from everything to their recording practices to the zip-lock bag of receipts they carry with them on tour. â€œWe’re always asking engineers “Tell us what you’re doing’, so that we can play an active role in recording stuff,â€ says Jacob. â€œWe like to keep it in the family,â€ smiles Jacob again, of his role as self-appointed group accountant.
â€œWe’d much rather rely on word-of-mouth than put an ad in the press,â€ says Domenic before the show of their approach to publicity. Indeed, affable as they are, it’s clear that all three hold that (dis)honourable institution of the music press in very low regard. â€œDon’ put us in quotes,â€ warns Reuben, looking dubiously at the failing dictaphone. â€œI hate it when interviewers quote you but have actually not written down what you said. Or they say, “Because of Ghosts have been doing this: â€œQuote – quote – quoteâ€’,â€ says Jacob, signalling his disapproval of block-text.
I vow to avoid such writerly sins. The band are talking about where they’re going next – â€œAs soon as we’re finished these shows we’re going to start writing again,â€ promises Jacob – and where they’ve come from to get here, with an album born from the groundswell of instrumental bands that has changed the texture of Australian independent music over the past half-dozen years, though already, Because of Ghosts sound like one of the last outfits standing. People compare them to The Dirty Three, long the great beacon of local leftfield instrumentalists. But The Dirty Three have become musically predictable, complacent – Because of Ghosts have not. These three brothers are a better band.
â€œThis band’ four, almost four and half years old,â€ says Reuben. â€œSo it took us a couple of years to get ourselves together and a few more to find where weâ€¦â€ He breaks off, shrugging, hand in his hair. â€œI’m not gonna give you the line,â€ he says. â€œYou know what I mean.â€
With an album that sounds like a warehouse, a city, a swimmer; that reveals new aspects upon every listen – soft and like a tapestry, loud and charging with bulldozer force – aware, alive, intelligent?
Yes, I think I do know what he means.