Interview with Perfect Black Swan by Dan Rule


This is the interview transcript from a story I wrote about Perfect Black Swan – the new collaborative music and photography project of Melbourne-raised singer-songwriter Toby Burke and Melbourne photographer Warwick Baker – for The Age. The project saw Burke, who is most commonly known as the man behind LA-based band Horse Stories, step away from the song and lyric-based compositions for which he is renowned to instead focus on sparse, ambient and largely improvised guitar pieces. Baker, a celebrated music photographer, responded to the pieces with an austere, highly detailed and somehow, very personal series of photographs.

Dan: Toby, for someone who is essentially a writer – and a writer of lyrics – what do you feel the shift was for you to move to a more amorphous, unstructured form of music?

Toby: It was probably a reaction to all that, and just breaking out of that and seeing what would happen. It seemed like a time where I needed to do something somewhat therapeutic. Whatever it was I was feeling this time around wasn’ expressing itself in any words. It just became a matter of getting up, turning on the amplifier and the computer, and just going for it; just seeing what came out, basically.

Dan: What about the process of putting the tracks together – how were they constructed?

Toby: They all started with a guitar improvisation; just hitting a chord or just playing whatever felt right. Except one, which started with a bass improvisation, which is not something I would usually do – I’m not a big bass player. And that was done really quickly. It was like, have an idea, improvise through it, wait for a while, maybe go back and trim it back, but only a few takes improvising if need be, until I got something that I felt had an interesting texture to it. And then it was just a matter of adding on, whether it was another guitar or a harmonica or a piano. It’s definitely my piano playing (laughs). It’s not something that I’ll be playing at Carnegie Hall anytime soon.

The other thing is that often when you’re recording any music, the first or the second take might not be the most technically great, but often you capture a certain feeling in initial takes that you’ll never get back. There’ an excitement and a spontaneity to it that eventually gets worn down. That’s not always the case, but it happens to me a lot, so I committed to only doing a maximum of two takes for every over dub. So the over dubs are very much on the move and the initial improvisations, I never wrote the songs and never really figured out when the changes were coming up or knew which chord it was going to change into. So that helped keep it all alive. It was kind of a dogma that I put on myself during the process to see what would happen. I don’ know whether I would do it again, but it was a great thing to do.

Dan: What I found interesting is that, on the other hand, the song titles are quite specific.

Toby: It was mostly an afterthought, just of what the feeling was at the time. And yeah, it was just a really weird time, to be honest, and just playing the songs was expunging something that I couldn’ with words. The words in the titles were about as much as I could possibly say.

Dan: Do you now know what that time was about a little more now?

Toby: It’s becoming a little bit clearer. I guess I’ve gone through a bit of an interesting period in terms of reflecting upon what music means to me in the last couple of years, since living back in Australia. And part of that was rediscovering what it really means to me, which is that it’s ultimately very therapeutic. I’d gone through a period where song-writing didn’ feel as urgent as it had in the last six or seven years, after doing so many records and going through the mill in terms of the process of making records and touring and dealing with labels and the press and so on and so forth. I’d sort of grown a little weary of that.

There was a time when I used to feel this urgency to write all the time and express myself via writing songs, and I felt that that had kind of ended; that urgency stopped at some point. Then the inspiration came back for it in a different form, and this is that form. It’s unexpected, but this is just how it came out. But also, I’ve just been getting more interested in more experimental kinds of music as well. You know, why shouldn’ I express my self in that way? Why am I so glued to the institution of song-writing. So when that got old and I was like “I can’ be fucked doing formal songs at the moment’, essentially this kind of opened up.

Dan: Where does Warwick fit into this from your perspective? Why did you ask Warwick to contribute to the songs?

Toby: To go back to when I first started making it, it was the kind of music that I would put on if I was reading, or if I wasn’ really concentrating on music, but just letting it happen. So I just thought, maybe I could write some stuff that could act as a companion to it. And that was, in a sense, just me being attached to writing and thinking that everything has to do with fucking writing. And then I realised that, no, that was a bit silly; it was kind of like me saying the same thing twice.

But I certainly thought that it might be interesting to get someone to respond to it, because I felt like it was fairly emotive music and I’d get someone to offer their own creative input. And because I’d done so much on my own, also, it was good to get someone else involved. Being an admirer of Warwick’ work, he was one of the first people who came to mind.

Dan: Warwick, having worked as a music photographer in a number of different contexts, what was it like taking a creative and collaborative role in the project?

Warwick: I found it a breath of fresh air because I had full control, but I still had guidance; I still had the record, you know. When I first heard it, I saw pictures in my head straight away; it’s a very visual record. And it was great to create something so personal where it doesn’ actually have a picture of the musician involved.

I found so much freedom in it from not having to deal with the usual music shit. You know, the awful managers, the labels and all of that side. But yeah, because the record was so visual and a very still record as well, every time I was taking the photos I could hear the music in my head and it was very easy to portray.

I didn’ really go too much into it with Toby about what it meant to him because I wanted the music to speak for itself. It kind of reminded me of a fairytale or something. I was thinking that there’ this character and he or she is in this scene – and I was reading a lot about Stockholm Syndrome at the time, where people who have been captured grow obsessed with their captors and they miss them after they’ve escaped – and this person is in this scene and they’re missing their confined world.

Dan: Your photographs are so empty and spare – Toby and I were talking about them as scenes without subjects the other day – but seem so personal and human at the same time. There’ evidence that people have been there, but no longer.

Warwick: That’s exactly right. Someone told me yesterday that when she was listening to the CD on the train and looking at the art, the cover picture reminded her of Never Ending Story.

Dan: Ironically, the photos look strikingly similar to a place that is very dear to Toby’ heart – Wonboyn Lake, on the South Coast of New South Wales.

Warwick: Yeah, Toby was showing me pictures of that place and it was really eerie.

Toby: Last time I went up there, there were these dead logs in front of the lake and it was very similar looking to Warwick’ cover image.

Warwick: I wasn’t aware that Wonboyn had so much significance to Toby.

Dan: Whereabouts were the photos taken?

Warwick: I find it kind of irrelevant, where they were taken, because they’re sort of more symbolic. But they were taken – a couple of the shots were taken in the Abbotsford convent, which is pretty cool because there is a lot of weird history there with single mothers being confined in there and rehabilitated – and the landscapes were taken at a dam near Ballarat.

Dan: How do you guys see the show working?

Toby: It’s been hard to figure out. I’ve kind of seen as an exhibition first, and if you want to listen to the music, you buy the CD. But for me, it’s more an exhibition in the sense that it’s an opportunity to see the images in a much more imposing sort of form, and in colour, which is the way they were originally shot.

Warwick: I was doubting whether it should have been one night or not, but I think it will be a good event, with Toby playing a short set, the large pictures on the walls and CD being looped. It should be interesting.

And hopefully the exhibition well help me stop being pigeon holed as a music photographer. I just want to keep pushing that I’m an artist, not just a music photographer.

Dan: The packaging – it’s a limited run; it has lovely print aesthetics; the hand stamping and numbering – is obviously entwined in the concept as well.

Toby: Having done a bunch of records with labels and having friends contribute artwork and that sort of thing, I was just sick of seeing it get butchered by CD manufacturers, and come out looking just okay, you know, and getting treated like that was alright, that was normal. “It’s just a CD, get used to it’. And so part of the experiment for me – which was moving away from what I normally do – was also moving away from the usual production methods. So yeah, using a book printer and doing the photos justice, you know, in a time when music isn’ always bought physically, this project is numbered, it’s limited, it’s nice to look at and nice to touch. So hopefully it’s something that people can feel comfortable about buying, you know, and not feel put off, and not for me to feel put off either. Because you can feel really put off when you’re dealing with a lot of the big companies who produce CDs and stuff. It’s horrible; a lot of them just have no respect for what you’re trying to do. I don’ care if you’re only making 500 or 1000 copies; you’re a customer and you’re paying them, and they should bloody well do a good job.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to go back to the old system. I guess I just won’ ask friends whose work I care about to contribute (laughs). Or if I do, just keep it really simple.

Perfect Black Swan’ first release, 1, will be launched at Per Square Metre Gallery, 191-193 Johnston Street, Collingwood, on Sunday, March 11, 6pm.


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