Cyclic Selects: Claire Birchall


So for quite a while we’d heard the name Claire Birchall in and around the Melbourne music scene, but we must confess we’d never heard her music. That’s all changed with her latest solo album Slow Motion. But lets go back to the beginning. In 2001 she released her debut album Captain Captain, a lofi experimental 4-track affair where she played guitars, keyboards, organ, pump organ, piano, mandolin, bass, drums, percussion, xylophone, recorder, as well as contributing vocals. Since then she’s fronted indie rockers Paper Planes as well as Claire Birchall & The Phantom Hitchhikers, played in garage country rock band The Happy Lonesome and is now in Kim Salmon’s band (amongst numerous other activities). Despite her love of fuzzy raucous rawk, she never really lost her fascination of the lo-fi 4-track aesthetic which is a great thing. Her latest solo album returns to the minimal lofi aesthetic yet takes on a really unique approach to dark wave synth pop sound. Running in Slow Motion has just been released by It Records, so we took the opportunity to catch up with Claire and find out about the music that moves her.

Dennis Wilson – Pacific Ocean Blue
It was the early 2000s, I was already big on the Beach Boys. A new friend at the time, upon hearing about my obsession with the Beach Boys, started raving about this difficult to find Dennis Wilson solo record, ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’. It had never had a CD release or reissue, and it could only be found as an original LP copy, which he had. He said is was the best Beach Boys stuff you’ll ever hear. Big call! I’d never even heard of the album, and as someone that was already big a fan of the Denny songs on Beach Boys albums, I was anxious to hear it. Lo and behold, a couple of weeks later, my friend dubbed his LP onto cassette and posted it down to me in Geelong (record crackling and all), along with a Dennis Wilson book. What a good sort! I heard the needle hitting the record at the start of the tape, then the River Song, and I was in love. It was Denny’s husky heartfelt vocals, the lush warm instrumentation, strings and all, and those songs! Classic songs that stick with you from first listen. The real clinchers came at the midpoint of the album, the big tearjerkers, the last track of side A, ‘Thoughts Of You’, and the side B opener, ‘Time’. I could not get enough of them. I started playing the album for anyone that came to my house, insisting that everyone should hear this underground gem. And I definitely converted a few! To me, this is one of the most perfect albums ever created. Honestly, I don’t know where I’d be without it.

Alan Vega – ‘Saturn Strip’
I hadn’t really heard much Alan Vega/Suicide until fairly recently. I was aware of him, for sure, and every time I’d hear something of his, my ears would prick up. But, he was someone I’d always forget to follow up on. Working in a record store, though, you have that fortunate thing where you’re staring at records all day, so you can be reminded of things you’ve been meaning to check out. Luckily a couple of years ago I spotted a copy of ‘Saturn Strip’ on top of a pile of LPs at the shop. The cover practically jumped out at me, all fluorescent pink and neon glows, and Vega decked out in leather jacket, bandana and a tiger t-shirt. Right up my alley, as someone that lived through the 80s as a kid. First listen hit me like a bolt of lightning, and I knew right away that I had to buy it. A punk rock cowboy with synthesizer, drum machine, and minimal guitar. Simple, repetitive, and unbelievably catchy songs that get your shoulders wiggling and your feet tapping. Completely addictive stuff. And that ‘Wipeout Beat’! God damn, I don’t know how many times I’ve cranked that song since buying the record. Chunky synth sounds and melodies to die for with that classic 80s beat, and a cool rhythmic spoken croon. Alan Vega combines my love of 80s pop music with my love of punk rock, country, and Elvis. I’m sure this record put some ideas in my head for my new album. No doubt about it.

Sly & The Family Stone – ‘There’s A Riot Going On’
I was listening to a fair bit of soul/funk in my early 20s, and my record collection was expanding with greats such as Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Dusty Springfield, Tina Turner, Isaac Hayes…. Then Sly came along, in the form of a cheap greatest hits CD and I knew he was really something special. What a cool dude. (Seriously, if you can watch the live footage from Woodstock and tell me otherwise, there is definitely something wrong!). Buying ‘There’s A Riot Going On’ after completely flogging the greatest hits CD showed me just how unbelievably unique and special he and his band were. It’s an album I still listen to frequently, and I don’t think it’s possible for it to ever lose its shine. Every time I hear songs like ‘Just Like A Baby’ and ‘Family Affair’, I’m compelled to stop whatever it is I’m doing and just listen. That vocal track on ‘Just Like A Baby’ is the best, with Sly lying on the floor singing super quiet in an ultra-relaxed (or stoned) drawl. It gets right under your skin. I love the use of drum machine on the album, and the driving bass lines. Great songs, great band, great performances, still with a certain looseness and jammy feel. Bloody great album.

Hank Williams – his entire catalogue
I can’t do a top 10 without including the greatest songwriter of all time, Hank Williams. That voice, those lyrics, that swagger. He was the whole package. How on earth do you write a 2 minute song that simultaneously makes you want to dance and cry? And how can you write such an impressive collection of songs, all by the age of 29? So many filled with such immense heartbreak. And absolutely all killer, no filler.
I’ve listened to a whole lot of Hank Williams for quite a long time now. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. And I don’t think I ever will. There is no doubt in my mind that popular music would not be the same if it wasn’t for Hank Williams.

Tonnes of people have covered Hank songs, and I’m no exception. ‘You’re Cheatin’ Heart’ is one I’ve been messing around with for a long time. I’ve played it live a bunch of times. I intended on putting it on an album a while back. But, there’s something almost scary about attempting such a song. Shouldn’t I just leave it alone? It’s perfect as it is. Maybe one day I’ll pluck up the courage. Maybe not. Regardless it’ll remain one of my favourite songs.

Kim Salmon – My Script
First time I saw Kim play was back in ’93 when The Surrealists played on the Torquay footy oval, alongside The Meanies and The Poppin’ Mammas. I was 15, decked out in my grunge attire, and here’s Kim and the Surrealists in unbuttoned lace shirts, flares and platforms. I remember thinking how damn cool they were. I caught Kim live a few more times over the years, including a couple of excellent Scientists gigs, but I’d never seen so many Kim Salmon shows than in the last few years, around the ‘My Script’ era. Living in Melbourne, we’re treated to more incredible gigs than you can possibly get to. And I count myself lucky that I live in the same town as Kim Salmon. I’ve seen big and small shows, solo and with a band, and every time he blows me away and leaves me grinning.

‘My Script’ really struck a chord with me. It was simultaneously written and recorded, and is basically Kim doing most things on the record (with producer/engineer Myles Mumford), with a few guests throughout. It’s a damn fine album. The songs are fantastic. The lyrics are clever, and sometimes quite funny. He really has a way with words. And the guitar playing is out of this world. The album has now been out for 5 years, and I’m still listening to it on high rotation. And, as fate would have it, I’ve recently joined Kim’s live band, and I’ve been playing a lot of these songs on stage with him, and I’m still not sick of them. It’s actually made me love the songs even more (if that was even possible).
Kim’s an innovator, an unbelievable songwriter, musician, performer and artist. A lovely guy too. He makes the music he wants when he wants. He can do it all on his own, or with a band. If there was anyone out there I could take more inspiration from, I don’t know who they’d be.

Adalita – S/T
As a teenager growing up in Geelong in the ’90s, I’m lucky to have been around for the early years of Magic Dirt, and all of those all-ages shows. I was a huge fan from the very first moment I saw the band on stage, and Adalita immediately became my favourite woman in music. Someone I could really look up to. Her voice was incredible, and she had all the rock moves and kick arse guitar to go with it. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Over the years, I’ve seen MD countless times, and still have their very first 7″ single in my collection, along all of their other releases. I’ve also been blessed to get to know the band, and play a few gigs with them myself. They’re lovely people, and have all been so supportive of my music for a long time now.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from an Adalita solo record. I was so used to seeing her rocking out with the Dirtbags. I couldn’t have been prepared for how much her solo stuff would move me. That first record ended up on repeat on the stereo for many months. It’s a swag of brilliantly written and delivered songs, with ‘The Repairer’ a particular favourite. When I saw her play solo supporting Fred and Toody from Dead Moon at the Tote, I actually cried. It was amazing. The starkness of just guitar, voice, simple loops, and minimal percussion, with those incredible songs. You know, you can see a tonne of people play solo with guitar and vocals, and it can absolutely bore you to death. But this really shows what a great songwriter and captivating performer she is. I absolutely cannot wait for the new record.

Dinosaur Jr – Dinosaur
I’ve been in love with J Mascis since I was a teenager. Dinosaur Jr, for me, very much filled the void left by the departed Kurt Cobain. Sure, I’ll always love Nirvana, but Dinosaur Jr, I’ve been often heard to say, are most likely my favourite band. I’ve seen J Mascis live (solo, with Dinosaur Jr, and the Fog) probably more times than any other band. You’ll always find me down front, staring up at J and getting blasted in the face by his Marshall stacks. Needless to say, this probably has something to do with my terrible hearing and years of tinnitus!

For few summers straight, as a teenager, I went busking in Geelong mall with my acoustic guitar, playing a bunch of covers, songs I was into. Lots of Sebadoh and Dinosaur for sure. One song that I would absolutely always play was Dinosaur Jr’s ‘Severed Lips’, from their first album. To this day, it’s still one of my favourite Mascis songs. Such classic lines “I won’t cry if you walk by, but if we both kind of stumble, maybe I’ll say hi”, and “I never knew a rubber doll would be so hard to please”. This song, and Mascis songs in general, have had a huge influence on my guitar playing and writing. I also became a huge FX pedal nerd, mainly thanks to J. I spent countless hours as a teenager, with guitar in hand, playing and rewinding tapes and trying to work out his songs note for note (leadbreaks and all). J helped me to really step up my guitar playing and learn how to not be afraid of playing lead guitar. For a shy teenage girl, it was just what I needed to be able to stand up to all the boys. These days, my main guitar that I play is a Mascis signature model Jazzmaster, and my favourite guitar pedal is the BIg Muff. There’s no doubt that I’m a huge fan, and will always will be. I’ll continue to buy every album and go to every show I can.

Neil Young – Trans
I’ve got to admit, when I was a kid, and dad would crank ‘Harvest’ and ‘After The Goldrush’ in the house, I’d complain “he sounds like Kermit the Frog!”. (Though I actually love the Muppets, Kermit included). I just didn’t get it. After I moved out of home, it didn’t take long for me to realise how much I missed some of my parent’s record collection, Neil included. When I was introduced to the Crazy Horse stuff too, that was it, I was well and truly sold. I got right into Neil. Everything.

Aside from Keith Richards, could there be anyone cooler than Neil Young? Sure he’s had some unusual and questionable moments (need I mention the recent Netflix movie he made with Darryl Hanna?). However there’s not much from Neil’s extensive career that I don’t agree with. He’s always done what he wants, even if it’s not what the fans (or the record label) wants. And that’s ok, ’cause he’s Neil Young, and he can do whatever the hell he wants! There’s some albums that were completely canned that are some of my favourites, 1982’s ‘Trans’ being one of them. The unusual use of Vocoder and synth, it actually made people angry. Calm down people, the songs are still Neil songs, just presented in a different way! Wow, ‘Sample and Hold’ with the vocoder and the octave fuzz guitar that sounds like it’s choking on its deathbed. It’s pretty mind-blowing really.

Neil has taught me to experiment. That there are no rules. Do whatever you want. Just keep making music. If people don’t like it, that’s their problem.

Cat Power – Moon Pix
Already a fan of artists like Bill Callahan/Smog, Will Oldham/Palace, and Elliott Smith, Cat Power / Chan Marshall was the girl I needed to hear. A mate showed me some songs from ‘What Would The Community Think’ taped on a cassette, and I was hooked right away. She had that kind of voice that didn’t sound like anyone else. It was feminine, but sort of low in register, and I was so relieved to hear another girl sing that didn’t sing particularly high and “girly”. Chan’s voice had guts, emotion, and her song writing was top notch. When ‘Moonpix’ came out, I was again visited by a friend with a newly dubbed cassette in hand. I couldn’t believe how accomplished it was. WWTCT was pretty lo-fi, with mainly guitar and vocals. On ‘Moonpix’ Chan had flown to Australia and teamed up with The Dirty Three, of all people! Amazing. They were the perfect band to back her. And these new songs were killer. Simple, yet completely engrossing. ‘The Colors And The Kids’, ‘Say’, ‘Metal Heart’….. Every song was a winner. And that single, ‘Cross Bones Style’, well, I listened to it over and over. Simple, groovy, cool, with a massively danceable beat. Yes, I’m a sucker for a catchy tune. I’ll never forget seeing the filmclip for for the first time, with its awkward choreographed dancing and Chan on rollerskates. The best.

Popolice – Forceback EP
Marc Regueiro-McKelvie is a star. We’ve been playing gigs together on the same bills for so many years now I’ve lost count. I first met him when he joined the fantastic Melbourne band New Estate (with another one of my favourite local musicians, Mia Schoen). Marc played wild lead guitar with a bit of a Lee Ranaldo vibe, on an old beaten up Strat with a home paint job, with slew of guitar pedals. He’s always baffled me with the sounds he can get out of that thing.

I remember one of the earliest gigs I saw Marc play solo as Popolice, supporting my band Paper Planes at the Public Bar. He had a discman on stage with some tape loops, bits and pieces, that he was playing along to with lots of noise guitar. It was a cool interesting set, and I dug it heaps. Not long after, I saw him at the Tote, and he had a drum machine that he’d programmed these incredibly huge sounding backing tracks on. I couldn’t believe it, he sounded like a full band all on his own. And the songs were incredible! Super catchy, killer vocal melodies and killer guitar. I’d never really thought about playing with a drum machine before. I’d always played in bands with real drums. But seeing Popolice like this really got the brain ticking. It was the initial spark that stuck with me all these years and made me realise the full potential of playing solo. Marc’s also a cassette 4-tracker like me. There certainly aren’t many of us left. And it’s lovely to have someone to relate to with recording in that way. Popolice’s recorded output is extensive and great, and I always look forward to hearing new stuff. The song ‘Be With Me’, from the debut EP ‘Forceback’ (2005) still makes me choke up when I hear it. Love it to death. And how’s that opening line “Goody goody goody gumdrops, baby”.

You can find Running in Slow Motion here.


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Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.