In 2004 the band ii subtly waved a welcome sign under my nose, as their track “Little Paper Body,’ a part of the SBS Whatever Sessions 2 compile, lulled its way into my consciousness. Close to four years later that same band has released their debut full length recording, and with it a number of melodies that will maunder into your memory, but only just. Through sonic developments and harmonic progressions ii deliver Landlakes, and it’s not a moment too soon.
With one handset and a bad line I have ii on the phone. Choosing who to ask which question is a difficult task, since the two seem indecipherable on record. Jon Tjhia, one half of the self described sound/noise/ambient/instrumental pop two-piece agrees.
â€œI know that when listening back to things often it’s hard to tell who’ done what and that, to me, is a really good sign because it means that we’re both on the same page and we’re not just ploughing away with our own distinctive motifs and sounds. And it also means that hopefully we’ve got enough varied methods that our own creations aren’ instantly recognisable and therefore a bit predictable.â€
Having worked together in various outfits over the last seven years, ii seems to be the one that fits for Jon and Alex Nosek, the other half of one of Melbourne’ most understated acts. Through soundscapes the two piece together melodies and intrigue with arrangements, hinting at so many genres but failing to fall into any of them. Their debut record, Landlakes, captures that perfectly, in a tight finished package of just under 40 minutes. To get it to that point took a little longer.
â€œWe probably started recording it, or bits and pieces that appeared on it, over the last two years. And we did it all in various studio arrangements in the last two houses I’ve lived in. We pretty much did it all ourselves, besides a bit of help from Danny [Jumpertz, Alpen/Plankton, and co-runs Feral Media, home to ii and Landlakes]. Danny came down to Melbourne once and recorded us with his stuff, and that kind of just freed us up to use my computer as a processing thing in a live situation rather than doing it later on. But it was just basically putting it together for a long time, and being pretty meticulous about all the details, working very carefully through it all.â€
The process surprises me a little. Even though I have ears, and a listen to Landlakes makes it quite obvious it’s not a record that could be done, live, by two people, I’ve always thought of ii as an improvisational group, and have come to expect an improv-like evolution in the way their songs develop. The evolution might be appropriately ascribed, but it seems I’m mildly off point with the rest.
â€œI don’ really think of us as strictly improvisational [in approach],â€ Alex suggests. â€œI think we do whatever to get to something we’re happy with. Whether that’s really meticulous arrangements in the studio, or – I think a lot of the things on there were just random takes that I think at the time we weren’ even contemplating would end up on the record.
â€œI guess, you know, I think studios – using the studio as an instrument was a big part of the record, and if we did have sections that we weren’ happy with amongst sections that we were happy with, then we would cut and paste amongst itâ€¦ [There was] a lot of reviewing, kind of knowing where something deliberate might fit nicely with something that’s improvised. That kind of sounds like cheatingâ€¦
â€œI think that a lot of the things that we come up with in improvisation, if they don’ end up in their pure form on the record – which a lot of things did – they kind of prompt us in a certain direction or hint at an idea that we can develop, so in that senseâ€¦â€ Jon adds, â€œthe whole idea of improvisation isn’ contained to doing one take in real time, it might be that we sort of have something, and we think it needs something else, so we’ll go and improvise in that direction and see what that can produce in terms of recordings, and see where the two meet – see where things fit together. It might be that one sound comes from one piece, and we might think that it fits better in another piece so we’ll bring it over.â€
The two explain that this can be as specific as lifting one of their sounds and relocating it in a different context, so essentially taking improvisation as a sound source where the end point is as much the product of the way sounds are arranged and interact with each other as the actual sounds that are used.
â€œIt’s really flexible,â€ Jon continues. â€œI guess in addition to what Alex was saying before about the way we approached recording, and how he said it felt like cheating a bit to go back and edit things that we didn’ like from improv – my personal view is that when you have a five piece band or a ten piece band versus having a two piece band it’s pretty unfair in terms of what you can produce live, and there’ a huge gap between what two people can do in front of an audience and what ten people can do, and it’s not to say one’ better, it’s just a different range of capabilities, but I think the studio’ a pretty good thing to have in terms of creating a level playing field. To me there’ not really such a thing as cheating because people don’ listen to records because – well some people listen to records because they want to record people playing in a room but for us that’s not really the underlying philosophy – the studio’ there as part of the process to making a disc that has, you know, however many elements of music on it which we like and which we want to show people.â€
So duos aren’ the least common band formation, right? But with ii it seems less default, more a defining feature. Quite simply, it’s literally there in the band name, but beyond that their music plays out like an intimate and involved conversation between two minds, rather than a restricted movement towards a finishing point.
â€œI think it’s a lot easier to be decisive [in a two piece], and you can kind of – I find with a bigger group of people if you’re not the loudest one, or the loudest three, it’s quite easy to let your ideas just slip by because people have already added so many things you feel like, you know, too many cooks and maybe you should just let things go the direction they’re going,â€ Jon states as an informed opinion, rather than a comment laced with malice.
â€œI think we’re pretty good at communicating what sort of direction we want to go in and also what we like and don’ like about certain things. For better or worse the filtering process is pretty brutal because if one of us doesn’ like something, if one of us really doesn’ like something, that’s 50% of the vote against and that means that hopefully the stuff we do keep is – I don’ know about better – but it’s more agreeable to both of us so we can get behind it fully.
â€œI don’ think we could have had five people in a room obsessing over things with more detail than which we did, the two of us.â€
And that’s what it comes down to. Even though they’re Jon’ words, they reflect the driving force of ii as a democratic collaboration: obsession. Jon spends his spare time writing songs as Scissors for Sparrow and drumming in Aleks and the Ramps, while Alex is a contributor to both Scissors for Sparrow and Oblako Lodka, which are projects they work on after tetrising all their other commitments (like full time work) together and finding the gaps in between. When you’re using words like tetris to describe your free time you know that you’re running on passion, and obsession as its natural derivative.
â€œWe don’ talk about what we’re going to do before we start playing so there’ an extra little thrill when something great happens and we both like it,â€ Jon buzzes down the line. â€œSometimes you’re sitting there with a guitar or a keyboard under your fingers and your mind pauses for a second and realises that all this stuff that you’re hearing wasn’ really planned in any way and it just kind of came out of the musical conversation with somebody.â€
Throw two music nerds in a room together with instruments with a seemingly endless recording process and similarly endless musical conversation – condensing the hours upon hours of tape to something that’s not going to soundtrack the rest of your year is going to require some obsession.
â€œI think Jon’ really creative in the studio and he probably thinks about sound in a different way to the way I think about it. Particularly adding little bits and pieces that skirt around the outside of the core idea,â€ Alex suggests, when trying to isolate what it is that makes ii ii, and what each i brings to the collective.
And for Alex? â€œTexture in the sound is really important to me and even though we are often making music that’s quite ambient I’m really into building momentum, but quite gradually. I don’ want it to sound like we’re into these big crescendos or whatever, like a lot of bands are, but kind of like there is movement, that it’s not all this vague wafty background sound, but that there actually is movement and transition. I guess even in straight up pop songs I think when there is a transition between a chorus or a verse that’s what I like about music in general. I [also]think melody is really crucial.â€ In the notes I made for myself going into this interview I had â€œchoose your own adventureâ€ scrawled in my page’ margin. A little embarrassed to admit it now, but throughout my first and second rotation of Landlakes my mind would pick up motifs, different ones on each occasion, and almost create a different listening experience, nae, different records through that shifting focus. Obviously I was as important in making Landlakes as Jon and Alex were. No. Not really.
While we’re talking about ambitious listeners, where Alex cites the importance of melody in what is a predominantly texturally focused record, he plays his part in the super couple and passes over the handset while suggesting Jon might have something to say on the topic of melody.
â€œLike Alex said, it’s really important even though a lot of the music is quite noisy, to keep an element of melody in there – definitely for me.â€ For the sake of full disclosure I know this – on Jon’ (music social networking site) last.fm page he clocks up a massive 2,384 listens of Broadcast, the epitome of noise pop.
â€œI listen to a lot of noisy music, maybe a little earlier on; I don’ listen to that much pure noisy music now. [Our sound] kind of comes a lot from our influences as well – at least definitely for me – I listen to a lot of girly music.â€ He clarifies that by that he means Broadcast, but I think the gendering is unnecessary, and that involved pop is really what he means.
â€œI feel like [Broadcast’] whole schtick is to kind of create melodic pop songs with interesting sonic things going on, and introducing noisy things to that kind of paradigm. Whereas for us it’s not always like this but in some ways it’s kind of the opposite, a lot of the things that we put together in the studio especially try to kind of add a pop music element to this music that would otherwise be kind of inaccessibleâ€¦ I can’ say that it’s always a conscious thing. I guess personally speaking pieces don’ tend to feel complete unless they’ve got the things we like to listen to in them.â€
ii: perfectly fulfilling the adage of making music for the right reasons, and comfortably co-opting pieces of your heart, your brain and your smiles along the way.
ii’s Landlakes is available from Feral Media/Fuse.