Benedict Moleta: “I’m not into cultivating an atmosphere of phoney reverence.” Interview by Joshua Meggitt

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Perth is a funny old place. The most isolated city in the world. This fact – among many – contributes to the bizarre socio-cultural makeup of the Western Australian capital. Because – or in spite – of this, Perth has a unique and thriving art and music scene, one largely (although decreasingly) divorced from happenings in other parts of the world, fostering close relationships from practitioners, strong domestic niche pursuits, and the creation of personal, original work.

This city is a subject close to musician, artist and Perth native Benedict Moleta’s heart and work. Growing up in the beachside suburb of Swanborne, Perth icons – both breathing and geographic – populate his songs, and he remains a stalwart performer on Perth stages, long after many of his friends and bandmates have left.

“Perth has undergone some queer developments in the past five years, thanks to the latest mineral boom. There’s a lot of money around, and a lot of brash frontier type behaviour. Nevertheless I like living here. Some of my friends have left over the years, but a lot of my friends are still here, and there are always new friends to be made. There are lots of unusual places to go for walks on the weekend. I find all this inspiring.”

I met Benedict when we were both skating, in the deeply unpopular ‘skater faggot’s days of the early nineties. As a scrawny kid three years younger than me I was impressed with his dedication to creative practice, the youngest ‘zine producer and clothing manufacturer that I’ve ever known. I wonder whether this period influenced his later music?

“I definitely heard a lot of cool things on skating video soundtracks. That’s how I first heard The Supremes, Steve Miller, Al Green and The Mamas and the Papas, and lots of great early nineties hip-hop. But it’s really the skating itself that’s influenced my music – odd as this may sound. In those weird teenage years, when I guess a lot of people are discovering rock ‘n’ roll and partying, I was spending my weekends getting buses out to the suburbs to go skating at primary schools and shopping centres, usually with a bunch of older skaters, who were finished with high school and were keen on smoking the weed etc. Come five pm, the other dudes would continue their adventures, ending up crowding into someone’s hatchback and fogging up the windows while listening to some dope hip-hop. But I had to get home before dark like a good boy. Those train trips coming home alone, with scabby shins, Suzanne Vega on the Walkman, and school looming the next day are big memories for me. Since I got into taking photos a few years ago, I often go walking around these kinds of places on Sunday afternoons, taking photos of the buildings and the streets.”

Among these older skaters was Daniel Erickson of slowcore group Bluetile Lounge and later Mukaizake. Did these bands, and the myriad musicians in their circle, make much of an impact then?

“I spent some time living with Dan and his family over the summer of ’91-’92. Through Dan I heard a lot of early nineties indie bands like Uncle Tupelo, Sonic Youth, American Music Club,Teenage Fanclub, Red House Painters, Slint, Palace Brothers etc. Dan’s younger brother Tim was mad into Billy Bragg, whose album Don’t Try This at Home had just been released. Some of these things have stayed with me over the years. But I was only 13 at the time, and I didn’t start writing songs, or really getting into music until eight or nine years later, after school and after university. As far as early musical influences are concerned, the Traveling Wilburys album was a big hitter for me. That’s the first album I bought, I guess when I was 12. The first time I heard Handle with Care, I knew that there was some kind of magic going on. Also the soundtrack to Stand By Me – I watched that movie lots of times when I was growing up, and Buddy Holly’s Everyday always sounded like perfect music to me.”

Given these unusual starting points, I wonder what prompted the move to start making music?

“Started pretty late I guess. I wasn’t mad into music in high-school – skateboarding was really my whole world. I was also into art, and after university I had a crack at being an artist, setting up a studio at home and exhibiting a few times. I only started writing songs and playing guitar when I was about 20 or 21. Several of my friends told me I should keep at it, and gradually it took over the artwork. I started playing shows in 2001, and released my first EP in 2002.”

Moleta’s music is an interesting blend of slow, confessional acoustic balladry and more dynamic group interplay. The Benedict Moleta Band is now his favoured avenue, providing a more varied sonic palette – he lists seventies American AOR artists like Tom Petty, Heart, Bob Seger and Bonnie Raitt among his influences. Unlike them, however, there’s a measured austerity to the band; an almost intellectual restraint, even in their livelier moments, that vaguely recalls classical lieder.

“My late mother was a pianist and piano teacher, and my dad has always been involved in organising classical music events. My three sisters all learned instruments, and my eldest sister Sophie is a songwriter who has released a bunch of albums. I grew up with Catholic parents, and sang in school and church choirs, plus Christmas carols at home. So there was a lot of music around, but as a kid really I was more interested in drawing and painting than music.

“As far as classical music influencing the actual style of my songs, I know it’s easy to draw fanciful comparisons in retrospect, but check this out. My dad sang in a plain chant choir when I was growing up, and I heard them rehearsing and singing week after week throughout my high school years. I guess one of the most striking things about plain chant is the monophonic vibe it has – one melody line. I’ve always been attracted to singers with very straight singing styles, like Neil Tennant or Tracey Thorn, and my songs usually have lots of words, with the syllables fitting into the beat in a very straight, sometimes repetitive way. This style of singing might be related to hearing a lot of plain chant when I was growing up. Probably also why I find hip-hop so appealing. The way the words fit into the rhythms in my songs also probably has something to do with the fact that I mostly make up the songs singing to myself in my head, while walking to work, or going for a walk on the weekend. The songs tend to have a walky-talky kind of vibe.”

Beyond these interesting linkages, the influence of classical performance has clearly influenced the way in which he chooses to perform live.

“There was a lot of classical music in my upbringing, and I’ve worked in a classical CD shop since 2003. Of course these things have some kind of long-term effect, but I don’t listen to much classical music at home, and don’t really go to concerts. I do organise shows outside the pub scene, which have more of a concert vibe than a gig vibe. A lot of my music is pretty quiet, and suits a low-noise environment. So I’ve been putting on shows in town halls, yacht clubs, art galleries and that sort of thing since my first album launch in 2005. I guess you could say this style of show owes a lot to growing up around seated, silent listening environments. I’m not into cultivating an atmosphere of phony reverence around the music, but it’s a lot of fun putting on a show in a yacht club by the river. The environment is beautiful, you can start early so that people of all ages can come along, the acoustics of the room are naturally good, so setting up the PA is easy, etc etc. Likewise it’s fun to hire a hall in a country town and driving out there with the band, having an adventure, meeting new people out there – all sorts of different people, and not just the ones who would normally go to shows in established city venues.

“It also means the night can start at 7:30pm instead of 9 or 10. So by 9 or 9:30 the music is over, and there’s an opportunity to hang out together properly – not being hustled out the door by security, not dealing with pub carparks at midnight etc etc etc. The shows are BYO, so there’s no booze money factor – people just bring eskies and snacks. There tends to be a more social, easy vibe. It seems to open the shows to a lot of different people who, for whatever reason, aren’t really keen on going to pub shows.

Having attended a number of these I can attest to the dedication and commitment that goes into their staging, and it’s a far better environment for seeing music, such as Benedict’s, concerned with detailed sound and lyric content. But Perth’s pub scene remains vital for emerging and established bands to perform – how is the music scene in Perth today? And what of the future for standard pub rock shows, and the types of events Moleta like to stage?

“I was keen on normal pub shows in the first couple of years of playing (2002-2003). Being new to the music scene, I was stoked on seeing people play, and making friends with people who wanted to hang out every night having a good time. But 10 years later I haven’t exactly gathered a big regular following at normal pub shows, and my music sometimes fights a losing battle against noise from the bar etc. Of course there are exceptions – there have been great pub shows over the years, and there are a few venues in Perth at the moment which are definitely developing a listening environment for a broad range of music. But I gotta say, all the shows I’ve put on outside the normal venues since 2005 have been 100 per cent satisfying. A small regular following for these shows has developed over the years, and when new people come along, it’s good to be able to hang with them in a fairly neutral environment. It’s nice to play music for people in an interesting old building – it feels like in this kind of environment exciting and surprising things might happen. Don’t get me wrong – I still like doing normal gigs, but doing it this other way often feels more straightforward and effective in presenting the songs to all sorts of different people.

“This year I’ve started take these shows out of the metro area, hiring halls in interesting towns and localities outside Perth. I’ve been enjoying the process of corresponding with the local newspapers and radio stations in advance, and meeting lots of new people along the way. I’ve got a few of these shows booked this year, with the band, on my own, and with a bunch of other collaborators. Of course once you’ve made the effort to go to some small locality and put on a show, and a few people have come along and liked it, the best thing you can do is to go back there six months later, so you gradually develop something real with the people there. I find all this exciting and satisfying, and I want to do more of it as time goes on.”

Benedict Moleta’s White Marble Heyday was released in October and is available through Bandcamp (download) and benedictmoleta.com (download and CD).

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