The transcendental essence of Children of the Wave’s debut record Carapace does little to prepare you for the gloriously eccentric, wildly contrasting characters that are behind this recording.
Mark Rayner and Daniel Flynn are the duo responsible for the ethereal sounds emanating from Carapace‘s aural space. A reductive definition would label a carapace a shell – a term that suggests tender regions hidden beneath this exoskeleton. At the same time it also presents the possibility of a void, or an absence left by something that once lived within its hardened borders.
There is a mystique of sorts that surrounds this word, a concept that defines the album more than any individual song, any particular ‘sound’ that a critic might label this release with. There are a few clues, but not many, in the bands Rayner and Flynn are (or have been) involved in. Rayner’s rockier Front of Van and Flynn’s Sleeping Pilot and folk-pop Major Chord projects are relatively different to one another, making Children of the Wave all the more intriguing.
Usually the story goes something along the lines of band members meet, band members bond through common interests and influences, and finally, band members record debut album. Not so for Rayner and Flynn, a veritable odd couple from their own admission (yet as is usually the case, they share more in common than either of them could know).
Initiating our correspondence, Flynn forewarns me of his musical companion. “Mark is a compulsive liar and rather unstable mentally. All you have to do is listen to some of his Front of Van stuff and you’ll understand. Having said this, his music intrigued me and although I found it very abrasive I was oddly compelled. I took him on initially because I felt sorry for him – and I was intrigued by his sad music.”
It’s a curious way to start our acquaintance, but nothing short of captivating. “Oh and he’s not such a bad fellow to hang out with” he adds, as a small token of appreciation for his musical companion.
Rayner paints a prettier image of their humble beginnings. “Dan and I have known each other for years. I’d always enjoyed the soul of his music, a certain sweetness or sincerity. He was playing a folk, pop, country kind of thing with Sleeping Pilot whilst I was playing in a raucous experimental rock orientated project called Front of Van. We always spoke about having a jam together, yet it all seemed kind of ludicrous as our worlds were so different. Eventually, 3 or 4 years ago we did, we recorded it and Dan did some mixing and a few weeks later gave me this music that really surprised us.”
They are determined to highlight their differences and point out each other’s flaws, but such is the consistency of their record that none of these divides become apparent in their music. It’s the bridge between pop sensibility and ambient, abstract noise that is most compelling, and given the pair’s respective musical backgrounds, this successful combination shouldn’t be too surprising at all.
Determined to outline his motivations, Flynn again turns to amusing put-downs and witty one-liners. “Mark is a very sad person. I made a decision to change him. To do this I had to make him believe we were going to ‘blend’ our styles of music together. The truth is, you listen to the album and you notice it has many melodies – it is mellow and intimate. I WON. Yes, I converted Mark over to my side of the musical force.”
This character was becoming harder and harder to read. So now to Rayner – his musical epiphany was not grounded in unmelodic elements as much as Flynn might think. In fact, it began in dislocation. Moving to Traralgon, two hours outside of Melbourne, he found the combination of a lacklustre radio service and few acquaintances provided the impetus to pick up various instruments. “I’d go into my spare room and just do these experiments with sound, feedback, a bit of toy keyboard and bass guitar and whatever sound making device I could find and put it down to 4-track. I knew it wasn’t music but there were some musical elements.”
“I’d play it to my friends who played in bands and they wouldn’t get it. I had no idea there was this scene out there of experimental music, so it all seemed kind of worthless…I was too incompetent or lazy to learn to play music properly so I just dived into that and it’s just evolved through Front of Van, who got one of my 4-track experiment tapes, and now into Children of the Wave.”
The transformation from abstract noise to contemplative, otherworldly pop has much to do with the swathes of field recordings and ambient sounds that weave their way throughout the band’s debut. Nestled deep within their compositions rather than sitting triumphantly on top of melodies, these sounds were mostly sourced from Rayner’s month-long visit to Kakadu. “I had all these incredible recordings of bats, creeks, wild dogs, birds and the like. They seemed to fuse really well with Dan’s melodic sensibility, his guitar loops, glockenspiel, Casio etc. So we decided to continue on a very sporadic basis between our other bands, not really sure what we were doing, just enjoying the process.”
The recording sessions were (according to Flynn) initiated and driven by Rayner. Again, the dissident voice speaks: “I was merely staring at him wondering if this was going to be a complete waste of time.”
Fortunately, it wasn’t. “When Mark went home, however, I found myself fiddling with these weird sounds and thinking ‘well he’s not here now, I can do whatever the hell I want!’ So I began organising the sounds and mixing them (and adding to them) in a way that was kinda similar to how I produced my own ‘pop’ music. I think that’s the interesting thing about Children of the Wave – Mark comes up with these strange ideas and I help translate them into something altogether more listenable!”
There are many sensations throughout their compositions, a result of intensive overdubbing and layering to give a particularly visceral texture. Banging heaters, whirring fans and thwacked bins could all produce disastrous sounds in the wrong hands, but not with these two at the helm. As Rayner recalls: “One of the first tracks was ‘The Underwater Song’, as was ‘Happy Bats’. I would just arrive at his house bringing with me whatever stupid sound making device or musical obsession I was focussing on with Front of Van, lower the volume and intensity and without thinking just spit it out. Grabbing whatever’s at hand in some kind of sound making, musical frenzy.”
With their love of such a diverse set of instruments, from violin to kora and back through the harmonium, it would have been easy for their compositions to err on the side of cacophonous, a mash of sounds having a temper tantrum. The result is fortunately far from this, and Rayner credits his musical companion with subduing the ‘rubbish’ and filtering out the more melodic elements. “A lot of the time however Dan would just have this wry pained smile on his face like I was tormenting his dog but didn’t want to be so impolite as to tell me off.”
This sound, then, owes much to the vivacity of Animal Collective, and the tenacity of far too many folk-pop troubadours to name, but for all these reference points, the duo share very few influences. Differing opinions are raised again when Rayner points out he and his musical companion have little common ground, musically at least. “When I look through his CD collection I struggle, it’s full of boring folk dudes. The other day I gladly pulled out Nancy Sinatra and explained how amazing Lee Hazelwood was to him. Herbert, Squarepusher, Fela Kuti, Anthony Pateras, Qua, Merzbow; he’s got no idea who these people are.”
Neil Young appears to be the only point of reference that links these two together, at least within the aural space. But it seems to be the most serendipitous of influences on both of them – it’s there in the breezy “Something Good” that unfurls after a good two minutes into something as achingly pretty as one of Young’s finer moments like “Expecting to Fly”. Upon further contemplation, this curious segue in “Something Good” that turns an ambient excursion into a fully fledged folk-pop number is totally and utterly reflective of the two men who created it. Their stop-start notions and mid-sentence cutaways are ideal templates for this musical palette.
Like any music lover who desires to share their most intimate moments in song, Rayner feels that there are more introductions that need to be made, but he is quick to hold off these suggestions on further thought. “I was trying to tell him today about Fennesz and how amazing Endless Summer is, so I’ll bring it around next time. But I kind of don’t want to turn him on to this stuff because he’s approaching working with experimental techniques in such a sincere, melodic, earnest and idiosyncratic way that I don’t want it sullied by outside influences.” He readily admits that this wasn’t all a selfless gesture; “I’m learning so much about melody and mixing.”
Rayner also credits much of their distinctive sound to mastering engineer Byron Scullin, who has worked with All India Radio and Midnight Juggernauts. “He knows so much about technique, approach, plug-ins, computers…it makes your head spin. He’s also a sick bastard and we share a very similar (read: juvenile) sense of humour.”
“We both credit Byron with really elevating our music during the mastering process, strengthening the bottom end and both broadening and thickening the sound. We were very happy with the results. We really wanted someone who understood textures as well as more musical elements…he gave us credibility and made us sound more wide screen which I hope is now the Children of the Wave sound.”
There is still the niggling thought of the carapace, the tentative shell left behind at some place in time which is now permanent. A mark on the landscape. They both think the other was responsible for this word – this phrase – that seems to bring them both together. “As for Carapace, Dan says that I arrived one day muttering about it, you can actually hear me wailing it at one point on the album.” Rayner continues. “But I swear it was he who raised it with me. When we were thinking of a title for the album we returned to it because it seemed like the perfect metaphor for what an album is. These are the sounds, approaches, emotions, memories of a specific time in our lives. We have since moved on, working our next exoskeleton and left this CD behind – this carapace.”
Moving on is a recurrent theme for both of them. Flynn enacts a similar modus operandi when asked about this double meaning encapsulated in one word. “A carapace is essentially the evidence of life – frozen in almost exact form – but has now moved on. An album is a lot like that.”
“I like thinking about this concept when I think of Children of the Wave. Mark and I spent 3 years making this album and it was a side project for both of us. Children of the Wave quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) existed on the outskirts of our lives during that time.”
“When I listen to Children of the Wave now I have a strong sense that I was never in control of it – that it came about in its own way. I believe that about music. Some music is very controlled and other music evolves almost like it has an agenda of its own. I imagine that’s how the next project will emerge.”
Flynn interjects with another thought on his own approach to music. “I want to create a world for people while they listen to the music. I want to transmit a piece of my experience, via the speakers, to other people so they can perhaps create something new or think of a new idea or daydream about something or trip out…anything.”
Rayner jumps in here. “I view music as an expression of self. I’ve found it really difficult and challenging with Children of the Wave because it represents a side of my personality that I’m not altogether comfortable with offering up to people so easily. So releasing the album with its elements of vulnerability, melancholy and sincerity has been a little difficult. That said I was looking to move away from the noisier bombast of some of my other projects, so in a sense it was entirely the reason I wanted to work with Dan in the first place.”
“I think I was thinking more about process initially. I thought we could create some gentle atmospheric music that maintains experimental elements yet also melodic ones, without one completely eclipsing the other. I’d given no thought to the emotional investment, however in the process of creation and possibly more so now, I’ve realised it is unavoidable.”
The emotion within this remnant is paramount. Rayner admits he was confronted by the feelings stirred up and captured on the record for posterity. It’s not necessarily to do with the style of music they laid down, or the events surrounding the recording at the time. “It’s not necessarily catharsis – that was probably in my noisier projects. I think Tom Waits said ‘it’s not always about making a fist, sometimes it’s about opening your hand.’ Carapace is the opening of our hand.”
On Carapace, the shell is not so much the absence of something that once was, but something you take with you – this curious, joyous, playful journey that lives on wherever you take it – unless it takes you there first.
Carapace is released through Sensory Projects/Inertia.