The back cover of Melbourne guitarist Chris Smith’s new album Second Hand Smoke is a mysterious, double-exposure image of a young woman. The long, semi-bouffant black hair and heavy eyeliner are from another time; her gaze at once uncertain and inscrutable. To her left, two similarly-coifed companions are obscured almost beyond recognition. A bleached, soft-focus quality adds another layer of distance and intrigue. On closer inspection, it becomes apparent that we are looking at the underside of a skateboard, adorned with a photo of the Ronettes from early 1964. Constant use has scratched the board so severely that, entirely by accident, only 20-year-old Veronica Bennett, later known as Ronnie Spector, is clearly visible.
Those familiar with Smith’s particular brand of wall-of-noise guitar-playing might find this a surprising choice of imagery, but it has multiple layers of meaning. For although Second Hand Smoke contains all Smith’s sonic trademarks—feedback, layered found sounds, obsolete technology, distorted spoken/sung vocals—it is imbued to a new degree with Smith’s love of pop music. ‘New Blossom’ is his most obviously beautiful song yet, a shimmering, reverb-laden beauty that wouldn’t be out of place on a Mazzy Star record. ‘Animal’ finds Smith in an introspective cavern haunted by Neil Young, quavering singing and all, with “a melody that came from listening to Dusty in Memphis for the umpteenth time” and a nod to ‘Wonderful World.’ The album’s closer is a sun-drenched version of ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin’’ from easily the most accessible and overtly pop of the Velvet Underground’s oeuvre, Loaded. All this is a logical trajectory in Smith’s body of work: Cabin Fever (1998) shares an interest in structure, song and melody, albeit in more embryonic form, and even in the midst of his most abstract explorations—Replacement (2000), for instance—Smith’s uncanny ear for a hook or catchy sound phrase has always been evident.
What really took Second Hand Smoke in a more pop-oriented direction was a long stint in the country raising his young daughter, Cael MacLeod-Smith (whose mother is ZOND guitarist Marney MacLeod). Smith relocated with Cael to his hometown of Rosedale, Gippsland when she was a toddler, and they lived there for around a decade. “I was not listening to what I’d largely been listening to for the twenty years prior”, says Smith, “and really just embraced pop music of yesteryear. There were some difficult circumstances in the lead up to that [country move]and pop music was my saviour throughout that time. I had less desire to listen to sheet noise guitar music (although part of my heart still lies there) and was drawn to artists with something to say that allowed me to feel a little better in the moment and in my circumstance of figuring out how to be a parent. I thrived on the buoyancy of sweet melody and music that uplifted me, as opposed to a lot of music in which people were hiding behind an instrument.”
Smith’s observation about “hiding behind an instrument” is a telling one, particularly in reference to his singing, which has often taken the form of largely inaudible words obscured by noise. However, on Second Hand Smoke, the curtain of distortion has begun to part. “As much as anything, a lack of confidence had me hiding away behind that approach,” Smith explains. “In the past, any vocal had been gratuitous—I wanted voice there, but just to fill some space. I didn’t have anything of importance to say. So, murmur murmur, down in mix, distortion, but you can end up painting yourself into a corner with that approach and this time I did want to be more openly communicative. We all glom onto music that speaks to us in one way or another (whether literally or metaphorically) and I just got to a point and realised I was limiting myself by burying vocals and obscuring them in that way. A lot of music I love is a vocal, front and centre, warts and all, and I just wanted to have a go at that.”
Here, Smith has drawn a parallel between being more communicative (whether in a literal/narrative or more abstract, emotional way) and his embracing of pop music. Pop almost always comes off second-best in the pop/rock dichotomy however, being perceived by rock cognoscenti as superficial, emotional, and impossibly inauthentic in comparison to loud/heavy rock music. “I was a snob,” says Smith. “I got over myself! Started having more fun with what I was listening to, and it didn’t have to be obscure, underground…it could be cheesy, from the ‘80s or what have you. Dramatic soul, pop, the Shangri-Las, a lot of Roy Orbison. And Oasis compilations! I would never have listened to that twenty years ago, I’d have deemed it uncool or something. But Cael liked Oasis, so I’d put them on as she’d ride around in circles on her tricycle in the kitchen, with her head thrown back in reverie!”
Smith wasn’t the only one “thriving on the buoyancy of sweet melody” during that ten years in the country—his young daughter was as well. Now 16, Cael has been central to Smith’s life for a decade and a half, and her influence happily pervades Second Hand Smoke. “It turns out that she is now a huge music fan,” Smith effuses, “and early on she would gravitate toward certain things, so I would play more of that. She’d ask what else I had or knew about that was like that, and I’d pull out something else and we’d listen to it together. I’ve lost track of a lot of artists that I love but now find that she’s got six albums that I haven’t heard by them! And so I got to reset myself in many ways over that decade. There was a reappraisal of music when hearing it with a child, and in a sense getting to hear it for the first time all over again myself.”
Cael’s presence on Second Hand Smoke is evident in another significant way. She is now Smith’s official photographer, and it’s already clear that she has a very good eye. “It’s one of her favourite things!” he says excitedly. “She was using her phone a lot for a few years and taking photos reminiscent of what I used to do with an old SLR that belonged to my grandfather. So I bought her a Polaroid that does double-exposure and a few other things – that’s one of hers, the Ronettes on the back cover of the record. I then got her a Canon 800D or some such a few months ago, so she’s been going nuts with that. Part of my devious plan was to get her a nice camera so she could do press shots for me because I find that stuff agonizing — so now we can just be out for a walk and take a shot that we can use. But it also coincided with lockdown when you can’t book and meet up with a photographer anyway!”
It seems things are working out well for this father/daughter team. Second Hand Smoke has been a long time coming and although it finds Smith in a more peaceful place, it’s no less intense a journey than his previous musical outings. “Starting out to record something”, he says, “it’s catharsis, first and foremost, and so in certain moments I’m preparing to record the saddest song in the world. It’s my attempt to record the saddest song in the world, over and over. But hopefully they’re all different saddest songs in the world.”
All Photos by Cael Macleod-Smith
Second Hand Smoke is out now on It Records. You can find it here.