Precious few Australian acts enjoy the status accorded to PVT. The degree of international critical regard for their work is attested to by their 2008 signing to electronic tastemaking label Warp. On a local level they straddle the odd position of playing party sets to New Year’s Eve revellers – Peats Ridge Festival 2010 – in addition to the more cerebral offerings presented at one-off, and increasingly rare, live shows at high-end venues like Sydney’s Opera House.
To suggest that such a rarified position is not deserving shoots woefully wide of the mark. The three men who form the band, Sydney brothers Richard and Laurence Pike and Perth’s Dave Miller, have been grinding out experimental music in some form since 1999. The group are certainly not averse to taking risks in the approach to the aesthetics of their sound, highlighted by the decision to release third album Church With No Magic in 2010 with a defined vocal element. Whereas their previous two albums had been largely instrumental affairs – with the exception of some faded vocals on the track ‘Sing You Sinners’ from 2008 sophomore album O Soundtrack My Heart – the decision to execute a radical shift in presentation showed some big cojones. Not all were immediately impressed with the change, but it’s one that has payed off for the band over time. Material from Church stands up alongside the anthems from O Soundtrack in their live sets, which is no mean feat given the power and favourite status with fans of the screaming riff that dominates the title track from their second album. As my sister said whilst we were watching the band perform the new album’s vocally-heavy lead single ‘Window’ at The Annandale Hotel in 2010: “I’m not really sure what I saw in there, and I don’t know whether I like it, but maybe that’s the point with these guys …”
Taking a brief leave from programming his complicated light show to accompany the band’s set at the Sydney Opera House for Vivid LIVE 2012, multi-instrumentalist and programmer-extraordinaire Dave Miller elucidates some of the hows and why-fors of such a complex beast of a band.
Cyclic Defrost: The three of you are somewhat scattered to the wind in terms of location. Laurence (drums and percussion) and yourself are in Sydney and Richard (guitars, keyboards, programming and vocals) is in London. Does that make it difficult when it comes to the songwriting process?
Dave Miller: Not really, it’s just meant that over time we’ve had to become more focused and productive when we do actually get together. We all keep fairly busy with our own projects, so when we are together there’s a lot of energy to make it all happen.
CD: I understand you’ve just finished some recording work. Was that for an EP release, or a new full length album?
DM: We’ve just finished recording our new album. We did it in a big country house halfway between Sydney and Canberra over a three week period, with Ivan Vizintin (ex-Ghoul) engineering and a whole lot of sheep dutifully protecting the property.
CD: Given the differences between your second and third albums, are we likely to see marked deviations from your previous releases again?
DM: I’d say this album is vastly different to the last one. There was a much greater degree of preparation in that we actually had the songs written before we started recording, which is a first. This time we had a better idea of the shape of the entire record, so it was more a matter of taking our work and doing as good a job as possible in the actual recording.
CD: So you’ve not previously had the songs written prior to recording your other albums? There seems to be so much accomplished production on your records I just assumed there was a great deal of work undertaken before you hit play.
DM: We definitely had ideas that we’d been developing over time with our other records. We would discuss the concepts, and riff them out a little bit, but when it came to recording it was more a case of jamming for a time and seeing what happened. Somewhere in that process I’d also take those main melodies and start creating loops, which also often changed the direction of the songs. I’d say that previous albums were improvised to an extent, but it was very much structured improvisation.
CD: And do you prefer the old way, or this newer method?
DM: I definitely prefer the new way now. The idea of demoing tracks and then recording them properly seems to be a more considered way of making music. It’s interesting too because the results are very different: the new tracks have ended up with this totally separate feel to our other music. In some ways I think we’ve created an album that a much more traditional structure to it.
CD: Do you think that the more considered approach has removed any of the spontaneity from the way you work?
DM: No, not at all. If anything I think that creating music over an extended space of time has allowed us to be more directed in our creativity. Rather than just making things up on the fly we’re now entering the recording process with a bunch of quite formed ideas that allow us to tweak and adjust aspects where we need to. It doesn’t seem as rushed, so I suppose there’s less room (for us) to be dissatisfied with the end product.
CD: I know in the past much of the writing has been done by yourself and Richard, was that the case with this record too?
DM: This album was actually much more collaborative in that we all came forward into the studio with our ideas for songs and structure. In the past it’s been Richard and I bringing along our computers to play some song ideas, and we’d go from there. This time the whole process collaborative from the start; from even before we got to the country house.
CD: Do you think that has anything to do with some sense of responsibility to your band as a whole? That the project has become more serious over time?
DM: Perhaps, I think it’s probably more that Laurence was a bit bored and wanted more stuff to do. I’ve been showing him a host of techniques for writing and programming with computers. As a result of that he was contributing right from the start this time.
CD: I’ve seen Laurence performing solo a few times in the last couple of years, in particular I recall this storming set at Goodgod Small Club where he opened for Kirin J. Callinan. I didn’t think I’d ever see one man on a drum kit play for thirty minutes unaccompanied and not be bored shitless, but it was really fascinating.
DM: I was at that gig too, it was a fun night. Like I said, I think he gets restless because PVT doesn’t really tour or play that much so he welcomes any opportunity to play drums in front of a whole bunch of admiring people.
CD: We haven’t actually seen you guys play in Australia in quite a while. Is that in relation to demands by your label at all?
DM: No, it’s not an instruction from Warp or anything like that. After O Soundtrack and Church we toured a lot in Europe. We have probably toured more in America all up. We did this massive tour with Warpaint across the States that was something like twenty-five shows in twenty-eight days, and it was a lot of fun. But there’s this sense that the more you spread yourself out the thinner you are around the world. Looking back we probably didn’t tour all that much after we released Church, but we still did a hundred shows in a few months.
CD: It seems odd that PVT has toured more in the States than in Europe, why do you think that is?
DM: Well, I think the way Europe is at the moment you have release albums at certain times to coincide with festivals. The reality is that we’ve always released our albums at the wrong time for the whole ‘festivals equals right time and right place’ aspect.
CD: So that European festival circuit is a consideration that weighs heavily, even on a band like PVT?
DM: I think it weighs heavily for anyone and everyone releasing music. Except if you’re the Arctic Monkeys – they can pretty much do whatever they like.
CD: But they’re still shit.
DM: Although I do like Alex Turner’s new haircut.
CD: Speaking of which, I heard a rumour you all became rather hirsute young gentlemen whilst recording the album?
DM: Ha! Indeed, we all grew beards, ranging from the stubbly and awful to the downright throaty and scary. It was quite an isolating process, being on this property that was forty-five minutes drive from the near shop with only the lonely stares of paddocks of sheep for company. Growing beards seemed like a natural part of the process.
PVT play The Opera Theatre at The Sydney Opera House, as part of the Vivid LIVE festival on Friday May 25 at 8:30pm.