Barney McAll is a Melbourne composer and musician (predominantly piano and keys) who has worked with some of the jazz and funk greats, like Gary Bartz, Fred Wesley and the JB’s, Billy Harper and Roy Ayers amongst numerous others. His musical interests transcend genres, he has also been the musical director for Sia and Daniel Merriweather delving into pop and electronic realms. His last album, the sublime Transitive Cycles was an astounding work recorded live at its Melbourne International Jazz Festival premiere, featuring interactive improvisation between the bells and an ensemble comprising of some of the best musicians in the country, with McAll directing proceedings via his keyboards and self-made instrument ‘Chucky’ (various music boxes, glockenspiel, kalimba and electronics). It was one of our favourite albums of last year (you can read our review here). We even roped him in to do a Cyclic Selects for us which featured everyone from Conlon Nancarrow to some pretty incredible gospel music. You can find that here.
His new album. Precious Energy is a total change of pace, an upbeat funky vocally driven work of good vibes and killer grooves. It’s audacious and ostentatious, featuring some incredible vocals from the likes of Laneous, Rita Satch, Jace XL, and Belle Bangard as well as contributions from the likes of Julian Wilson and Gary Bartz – as well as a host of some of Melbourne’s best players. It feels like a reward for living through the last two years. It’s totally infectious and we cant get enough of it. So we spoke to McAll to find out how it all ended up here.
Cyclic Defrost: So Precious Energy is quite the Departure from Transitive Cycles not just sonically but also conceptually. What were you thinking prior to recording?
Barney McAll: I suppose that Transitive Cycles was the last time I thought about more through composed complex musical possibilities. When Covid hit, and after two years of “terrorism” and two years of “Trumpism” I felt that I wanted simplify my expression into something like a warm bath. For me! I have always loved soul and funk music and I had been working random gigs with the players on Precious Energy and loving that rhythmic and sonic place. Through Laneous’ project called “uncomfortable science” (which you should probably do a feature on!), I got to connect with the Hiatus Kaiyote players and various young people in the scene. It was inspiring to me and fresh so, I decided to go all the way and make a record that is soulful and more accessible. Not for the sake of accessibility but because, that’s where I was lead by whatever the hell it is, that leads people to make stuff!
I had played the song Precious Energy” with Gary Bartz for many years and to me it speaks to the healing force of Black music that was used to combat the chaos of civil rights and that whole period of the 60- 70s. My idea was to honour that period of music making and to honour the greatness of people like Leon Thomas, Pharaoh Sanders and Gary Bartz. Also, I just loved the song and actually I released it on my “Extra Celestial Christmas” album before this album. It suddenly got more traction and hype than any song I had ever released. Not that I follow external validation because, if I did that, I would have given up a long time ago – but because it spoke to people and it spoke to me, I thought, why not make a whole album along these lines? The vibe of this record is what I hear and love most right now I suppose.
Cyclic Defrost: It also feels warm, sweet, fun and healing, particularly after the last couple of years. Do you believe in music’s power to heal?
Barney McAll: I would hate to be one of those people who feels their music should heal others… but…I am definitely lifted by music and it has saved me. “Music is my sanctuary”. I mean, do you ever find yourself driving along and suddenly singing along at the top of your voice to something that touches you and really hits the spot? Is that healing? I’m not sure, but its very important to us as humans. I love what Gary Bartz says “music is the first and only religion”. I tell my students, we practice and play music because it heals us! It may heal others in some way, but, you gotta find it within yourself first. Having done my 10, 000 hours – music has been a meditation that has helped me a lot. There has been a focus and a mindfulness that has resonated out into my life and kept me young at heart. I’m so grateful for music and maybe, that is also why I have made this, as you say, “warm sweet fun offering”… my own gratitude is inside this album.
I have made some 20 art music albums to date by the way, and with this one I decided to make something less abstract and less earnest. More fun. The last few years have certainly put a new spin on things and given us all new lenses. This music, for me, is a positive reflection against the state of things and which, instead of going down with the sorrows and darkness, seeks to express ideas like sun rays are miraculous, the present moment is all we really have, I am grateful.
Cyclic Defrost: You’ve worked with an amazing array of local music talent, how did you go about putting this album together, are we talking charts and sheet music?
Barney McAll: Love your questions. You need to make an album! The songs came about in various ways. I had some lead sheets, some sketches and sometimes I just called the chords out to people in the studio. I did some studio stuff with the Hiatus Kaiyote rhythm section (Paul bender on bass, Simon Mavin on keys and Perrin Moss on drums or ben Vanderwal on drums) and in these sessions I just wanted to let those freaks run wild with the simple info I gave them. I did meet with them beforehand and talk about the sonics of bands like “BadBadNotGood” but, what I love about the HK crew, is they are always seeking new avenues, new sonic landscapes and fresh outcomes. Not to mentions they are all virtuosic local legends.
In the recording sessions we would all have one small glass of desert wine and then we would just repeat the songs until we found a sweet spot. These days when I go into the studio, I am thinking like a film maker in the sense that, I have in my minds eye all the scenes , some forms, and cuts I want and when we have tracked them, I can piece the final outcome together in my home studio. I am also at this point of the process, very open to serendipity.
For songs like “Wild Horses”, “Stevland” , “Sun Rays” and “Sweet Water” I had no idea what they would be or what lyrics I would write, I just knew I had all the pieces of the musical Meccano set that I could piece together later. Once I have the forms I will write melodies and lyrics and also sing them into the track myself. I then send my vocal guides to the vocalists so they can get familiar with them. That way, when they come into my studio, they take it to a whole other level using the info I gave them and filtering it through their feelings. Its super fun to have a brilliant singer like Rita Satch or Laneous sing your song. I find this process more fulfilling these days than labouring over some complex atonal harmony or some mixed meter layers of doom. That being said, who knows what’s next for me, I am open. I just jot it all down as it appears. My albums are all a sonic journal and I like to free associate and stream the influx as best I can. Whatever seems apparent at any given time, or is revealing itself in some abstract way ;I really try to interpret and follow as best I can.
Cyclic Defrost: What kind of parameters did you put around your collaborators performances? Also how involved were you with lyrics?
Barney McAll: In terms of parameters, my process is to send vocalists the melodies and harmonies I have written but then also stay very open to the vocalists visions for a song. I send a proto-type and they generally clear up for me what it is I’m trying to get to. On trick I love to do is, we spend a long time doing parts and getting stacks of lush vocals happening and then, just before we are finished and kind of tired but open, I ask the singers to ad lib across the whole track, no stopping, no fear, just flow and fun and play. I might do three takes of full pass ad libs and then, I close the session and take a break – and said singer departs. Next time I open the session I can comp the ad-libs or, the ad-libs may set me off into the new possibilities for vocal harmonies etc. I suppose in a way, I’m trying to catch people off guard and get an open free flow tracked.
This process is also one of the most interesting things about music to me. Finding things within ourselves that we didn’t know were there. Catching mistakes that are better than conscious choices, sacrificing familiarity for a possible lighten bolt of newness that can spur a whole new direction. This stuff fascinates me. I suppose I want to keep discovering new colours and new sounds and be an eternal beginner.
Sometimes I might talk to singers about the feelings I want to express and I might say to someone “remember how your ex cheated on you and how mean spirited they were? How did you really deeply feel about that? Can you add a dash of that to this line”? It’s so interesting to impose this kind of thing onto a vocal expression. I truly believe it changes what comes out and as Brian Eno says, “you can have all sorts of amazing equipment and mic placement and all that but the main things is how does a musician feel when they are recording? Because that is what translates”.
Regarding the lyrics for this album, I wrote most of them. Again, I am searching for new ways to make stuff because If I don’t do that, I might lose the plot, seriously. I’m not saying I’m a great lyricist at all, it’s just that I have arrived at a certain point in my life where words come out so I’m gonna follow that. I like to see what the songs might mean in five years. They are like dreams in that they always speak symbolically to stuff that’s below the surface. For me, I just so love voices and vocal harmony and I just found myself writing lyrics so I could hear the melodies with words.
Cyclic Defrost: I love how Precious Energy starts with those (cheesy?) preset organ beats and chord combinations. I also love how it continues throughout yet you go in an entirely different direction with soulful vocals and soul jazzy instrumentation – which kind’ve seems to be the opposite of the preset. Just wondering what your thoughts are?
Barney McAll: I started some of the songs in my shed where I have this amazing three tier home organ, a Kawai DX800. I purchased it in Geelong and when I arrived at the guys house he said to me “I purchased this organ for my wife in the 80s and it was $20,000. I also purchased the block of land next door for $20, 000. I am selling this organ now to you for $250 but the block of land next door is worth $300,000”.
Anyway, this thing is a beast and so I often use it to set up a bed of sound and write to it. In the case of the title track “Precious Energy”, I was just futzing about with the rhythm presets one day and I suddenly thought “wow this would be hilarious as the backing for Precious Energy”. I then played the chords down and put the bass on with the DX800 and bam it was to be! I sent it to the brilliant Ben Vanderwal (Perth drummer) and he sent back these amazing drum stems. Once I had that I got “the North Coburg Community Choir”(Rita Satch, Angus Leslie, Grace Robinson) to attend the recording sessions where they were offered fairy bread and red cordial.
I do like the juxtaposition of cornball and soul but also, the great master Sly Stone didn’t stray too far from the maestro rhythm king so there’s that.
Cyclic Defrost: I’m curious about the vocals. I guess everyone multi-tracks but these seem to be some kind of larger mystical force – and clearly this was a mixing decision. I’m not sure I’m describing it well – but what was the thinking when it came to the vocal sound across the album?
Barney McAll: Thanks for that compliment! I would say that possibly the vocal sound you are referring to is somewhat influenced by the many years I played spirituals in church back when I lived in Brooklyn New York. For all those years I was kind of studying the Gospel harmonies and the way the vocals are voiced. I would take note of the way these great church composers would voice vocal lines. I have a book I made of my favourite hymns or harmonic movements that I can refer to. I also have listen to a lot of Clark Sisters and Donald Vails and Ethel Caffie and so I am always applying what I have learned to my vocal harmony writing. I so love the old school Gospel music.
A lot of the vocal voicings are triadic but, when you start applying upper structure triads and pit them against regular triads, and then if you have really good singers singing each part beautifully, it really starts to shine. As far as the actual vocal mix, I have Theo Carbo and Gareth Thomson to thank for that! We really put a lot of time into capturing these harmonies. I love the way D’Angelo’s vocals are sometimes obscure, so you don’t know what the melody even is. When you mess with the levels of each part you can create this effect and we did this to some degree, where we make the lead line slightly ambiguous. It was a long process and I have been working on this album for two years. I find the best thing I can do to reach conclusions about these things is to employ all the different Barneys. By this I mean, I listen to roughs in many different states of mind, when I’m walking the dog, when I feel low, when I fell elated, when I’m on the tram, when I’m dressed as a clown. And I take note of mix ideas from all these angles. I am grateful to the engineers for enduring the many revisions that evolve from this process but I feel like using the entire ‘Barney jury’ creates an objectivity somehow.
Cyclic Defrost: I can hear everything from Prince to Funkadelic, even bits of smooth jazz and some real soulful music, then there are dedications to Coltrane, Stevie Wonder, Pharaoh Sanders, Doris Akers etc. Why the musical homage or tip of the hat for this album?
Barney McAll: I am honouring the African American Diaspora. I am honouring Black music and the immense impact it has had on my life. I have been very blessed by Black music. It has enriched my life beyond compare. I have been afforded the chance to learn about it on the bandstand with some of its great practitioners and mavericks and in this day and age when racist fuckery, discrimination and manipulation continues I just wanted to be clear that, the only reason this music exists is through the lens of Black music. As a seven year old child I discovered Pinetop Smith and Mary Lou Williams and had I not done that, things would have been … well, I don’t even know but, not good. Not to mention I spent 15 years touring with Fred Wesley and The JBs where I got to play with Maceo Parker, Clyde Stubbelfield, Jabo Starks, Fred Thomas and Pee Wee Ellis for gods sake. I remember the buzz of playing “Doin It To Death’ for the first time with Fred. Those interlocking parts, the simplicity and power of that music. So “Precious Energy” is stemming from all these amazing experiences as well. I pinch myself.
Cyclic Defrost: You’ve played with some real legends such as Fred Wesley, Gary Bartz, Dewey Redman and Billy Harper when you were living in NYC. And Bartz even appears on three of your pieces (which are just joyous). What did it mean to play with such iconic players and what can you take away from those experiences?
Barney McAll: What I take from those experiences is what I will play for the rest of my life. The chance to play music with these people has changed me forever and taught me everything. Their music is an aural tradition and I am so lucky to have absorbed certain arcane unspeakable lessons on the bandstand with them, through sound. I mean when I think about it, if you’re playing with Gary Bartz, and he takes a solo and its always heavy and its a lot, and everyone claps wildly…then you better dig deep and find something to say musically pretty quick! Gary gave me this opportunity and gift. All these people did.
Here are a few Gary Bartz aphorisms that might help me explain:
“Its not your show, its the music’s show” – This is also what I have learned from all these people. They play music in service of music itself. They stay true to it.
“Many are afraid to hear, because of music paper” – All of the people you mention play feelings before notes, theory or chords. They transmute feelings, abstract concepts in all manner of deep ways, outside of theoretical ‘data dumping’. When you play with them if you don’t learn to do that, you probably won’t be on the gig for long.
Cyclic Defrost: When did you return to Melbourne?
Barney McAll: I came back to Sydney in 2015 to do the year long Peggy Glanville-Hicks composer residency.
After this great experience my family and I decided to stay on in Australia so we moved to Melbourne.
Cyclic Defrost: What has your experience of Melbourne been like after so long away and what impact has this had on your approach to music?
Barney McAll: Well this album is the answer to that question. I have skulked about the graffiti covered alleys, I have had beers at the Evelyn, I have done many gigs at the Jazz Lab and it really is a lab, I have connected with younger forward thinking Melbourne artists and what happened is, I mixed a lot of what I refined and learned in New York with the way all the players on this album make music. I then added my mentor and friend Gary Bartz to the recipe and its just fantastic to have these sounds blended on one album. Sometimes I wonder why we all make music because, it really is a hard life but at the same time, its just an incredible gift and privilege. Melbourne is really blossoming at the moment. There is such a wealth of new freaks coming up out of the concrete like exotic saplings of defiance and integrity. Melbourne is more important as a music city than ever before. I am really happy to be here.
Cyclic Defrost: You’ve mentioned that you’re really proud of this album in particular – what makes you so proud of it?
Barney McAll: This album is my rainbow in the oil slick response to dark times. What makes me proud is that its fun, groovy, lush and its very different to anything else I have done. Also, its on vinyl and that is rare for me.
If I can just keep changing and moving and evolving I am grateful. I hope people can have a BBQ and listen to it. Or drive through the forest and listen to it. I hope it brings joy but I know it brings joy to me and I love all the wonderful artists I have the pleasure of making the album with.
Cyclic Defrost: What’s next? Death metal?
Barney McAll: My 15 year old son has an 8 string guitar and is playing some deep dark mixed meter sonic atrocities that I may never understand. I wouldn’t dare delve into that realm! I do have another album almost finished which is called “A Corona Of Thorns” and it has many poems on it and I actually perform a squeak rap on it. Like a kind of very high pitched auto-tuned mumble rap. You are gonna LOVE IT! It’s a series of songs that look at the impacts of Covid, but in a way that is positive and individually expressive.
Cyclic Defrost: I get the sense that musically you like to move around a lot. What does this do for you?
Barney McAll: I love how Miles Davis once said in the 1980’s “My players don’t need to know about all the stuff from the 60s, they just need to know what’s floating in the air today. Lazy people try to play like us in the 60s”.
And to me, this means keep changing, and reflect your current life. i.e.. Don’t follow others and make stuff that is fresh to you. Not that I am the fresh Prince of North Coburg, but that I’m gonna keep searching and trying to grow, grow, grow.
Precious Energy will be available via Extra Celestial Arts on the 18th of Feb 2022. You can find it here.
Precious Energy will be launched at the Nightcat in Melbourne on the 25th of February. You can find details here.