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LUKE

Oh wow, I found a 2016 blog entry I wrote but forget to post! This concerns the EP In A Day 3 sequence, what ultimately became the grant-winning, NFSA-showcasing (and increasingly ambitious) This Band Will Self-Destruct.

Presented below for your immediate pleasure:

I said to Nick the other day – half-joking – these sessions have started to feel like The Five Obstructions, except we are now onto obstructions 13 through 20. There’s only so many ways to make a music video out of an in-studio band performance. To counter this, we’ve spent more time ahead of filming generating ideas to differentiate each song. In the first Ep In A Day, all the songs were filmed with an identical camera set-up; the challenge was making each unique via editing and post-production tricks. In EP In A Day 2, I went in with specific ideas about filming/framing each song differently – for instance, I knew I wanted to film only close-ups of each performer’s face in My Own Little Girl, and I wanted a single take for Song To Be Played In The Event Of My Death.

For EP In A Day 3, the point of difference is wardrobe, set design and lighting.  Nick engaged the services of Imogen Keen, one of Canberra’s best and most in-demand stage designers. I came in with some strong ideas, and over several meetings between the three of us, we hashed out four different set-ups.

At a You Are Here meeting a couple of years ago, someone said they always throw out their first idea because it’s invariably terrible or lazy. However, I remain a firm advocate in the adage ‘first thought, best thought’. Lightbulbs is testament –  literally, I had Nick hold a lightbulb. It’s not without precedent – I love concert footage of Tom Waits with a similar apparatus to what we used.

The remaining band is filmed (and lit) by a roving spotlight attached to the camera.  The song is lyric-heavy, and Imogen struck upon the idea to highlight the words – these hang in cut-up segments strung above the performer’s heads – a point of interest in the inky darkness. The band is in white, providing a unity and simplicity to the set-up  – it also helps them stand out against the background.

My one concern at the outset was length – at nearly eight minutes, I worried the lighting gambit wouldn’t be enough. Thankfully, Nick is an increasingly magnetic screen presence – the clip leans on his ability to deliver the song direct to camera.

My Captain Obvious tendencies also resulted in a warmer/brighter light each time Nick sung ‘sun’ (get it?). Aside from the lyrical connection, it gave needed variation to the palette.  Some makeshift strobe lighting at the end complemented the rhythmic change in the outro, serving as a adrenaline hit (and recalling the lighting in numerous metal videos).

When coming up with ideas for music videos, my process is to listen to the song a few times, writing ideas as they come. Most are junk, but rough diamonds always emerge. Typically, I get one strong visual, and then build outwards. In Lightbulbs, it was Nick holding the bulb to his face. In this case, I saw the band looking towards a camera above, spinning as if in a Busby Berkeley sequence.

It didn’t make it into the clip, but something Technicolor and Busby Berkeley inspired (albeit on a Playschool budget) was the genesis for this bright and camp video. The set design is an abstraction on an under-the-water theme – the blue balloons are the ocean, the green netting is seaweed, the pink metallic streamers are… I don’t know, coral? I don’t know if it’s because the song is the most up-tempo of the group, or if it’s because it was the last performance of the day, but the excitement and energy of the band is palpable. The last things we filmed were the band goofing around – this included everyone swapping instruments and miming along.  A special shout-out to drummer/bandleader Grahame Thompson for his fully committed lead singer performance – probably the funniest moment in a day full of them. One day the footage of that incendiary performance will emerge (slash be leaked by me) and leave all lesser front-persons running for their mothers.

My other idea for this clip – and one of my favourite things I’ve filmed – is a mimed story about a relationship played out through the studio window. I still can’t believe how well this worked out – in most art-making you aim bigger than you need, knowing you will fall short. This is the rare occurrence where reality exceeded my expectations – all credit should go to the performers Aaron Kirby and Fiona McLeod (and to Nick for casting them). I explained the concept to Aaron and Fi and then they invented their own routine, far funnier and personal than what I envisioned. It’s a mid-video Easter Egg and I love how it is not referenced or explained in any way – just a slice of vaudeville sandwiched into a live performance.

Talking with Imogen and Nick in our pre-production meetings, our most elaborate ideas were reserved for this clip. I remember looking over my notes and having a panic attack – if we’d proceeded with what we had in mind, this clip would have taken all day to shoot.

Essentially, our raft of visual ideas needed set-up and filming independent of the actual song recording. In many ways, this is the natural progression for the series (the closer the sessions move to full-blown music videos, the happier I am – it’s more my wheelhouse than documenting live performance). In other ways, it’s a digression (and a distraction) from the central premise of the project.

However, removed from these philosophical concerns, it remained unfeasible to add more set-ups to what would already be our longest and most exhausting EP In A Day yet. We did keep the coolest one though – the idea of opening on a wound bleeding through a shirt. Imogen came up with the apparatus (and brought the blood) – however, in testing we used up two of our three white t-shirts. We got the shot on our third and last try, but I think our second attempt looked better on film. Unfortunately, the second attempt was with cameraman/stand-in Shane Parsons wearing the shirt – this meant I couldn’t use it for the opening, but I did end up using it (reversed) in the closing of the clip.

Another high-minded idea was an overarching throughline across all four videos. Eyelash opens the sequence with the band waking up, beginning in a seated/static position, and with a desaturated palette. Deadly Game Of Cat & Mouse is the last video – thus we start with the least animated and conclude with the most animated (emphasis on animated, DGOC&M being the most cartoonish). We don’t integrate this throughline as successfully in the other videos but I like that we were thinking of these things, and it’s something I want to explore further in other sessions (and other projects).

When I heard we had a set designer, this was one of the first ideas I had – to dress two different spaces and have Nick perform in one and the band in the other, only revealing at the end they are performing next to each other. The rest built from ideas Nick and Imogen had about making one space warm and earthy, the other cool and silvery. Nick performs a series of costume changes while singing the song, which also must have come from him or Imogen – while Nick always rises to these challenges, it’s a big ask for a performer and not one I’d be inclined to suggest.

On the day, camera maverick Shane Parsons had the idea to film Nick’s section in portrait. It’s a novel (and cool) idea which also serves to further differentiate the two segments. Filmmakers rarely monkey with aspect ratios and split-screens (especially during a piece) – I think part of this is that it dates a film to a specific era. Knowing this, and still using it for aesthetic effect, is increasingly in vogue – Grand Budapest Hotel is one of the recent (and most successful) examples. More and more music videos are tinkering with framing (particularly portrait vs. landscape, noting their audience use smartphones to watch their content). Recent great videos from Chance The RapperPusha T, and Charli XCX all shirk from using the entire widescreen/landscape frame available to them. For Going Home, I wanted to treat the frame similarly – to not feel obliged to fill it up entirely and to mess with people’s expectations around size and spatial relationships.

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I decided this year to learn the drums. The idea’s been burning in the back of my head for a little while. It’s likely the confluence of a few thoughts – I’ve always imagined Violet’s first instrument as the drums and want to be able to teach her. Also, I’ve programmed so many drum patterns over the last couple of years that playing an actual kit feels like the next step to up-skill my arsenal. When Lou suggested we convert our junk-filled garage into a rumpus room, the carrot she dangled was there’d be space for drums. And now there is! 20180410_193738.jpg

One of the amazing things about learning an instrument (or any new skill) is how you notice and appreciate things you never did before. I’ve played with some amazing drummers but never considered the extraordinary coordination and dexterity they possess. I’m going to gigs and just watching the drummer. Songs I’ve loved for years I hear with new ears.

I’ve been taking lessons for the last couple of months and loving it. In another six months or so, I hope to have worked up my technique and speed to start playing with others – Lou, Nick and I have already discussed a live version of Lulu & The Tantrums!

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This is the second video I have done for Ups & Downs, following my video remix for True Love Waste. Darren – Ups & Downs drummer, alongside bandmate with me and Catherine in Faux Faux Amis – had heard about our Cell Block 69 Dance Off exploits. He thought the whole thing sounded like a great music video concept for Ups & Downs song Disco In My Head, right down to the 80s costumes and the venue (the Polish Club). The Ups & Downs would begin as judges, then be judged themselves performing the song on stage, and finally everyone would be up and dancing at the end.

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With all that already in place, as director I had to have it make visual and narrative sense (well, narrative for a music video).

I added a meta-textual element to mirror the lyrics and provide a structure to the role reversal. I like the idea of the lyric ‘when you go there’s no disco in my head‘ being about how other people can affect our mind and mood, and wanted to play with how the mind can scramble our thoughts and memories. To do so, I introduced another character – an actor in Tudor garb (he’s holding a skull so we infer he’s delivering the Yorick monologue). The dancers and the band thus represent parts of the lead singer’s mind in conflict with each other, but by the end of the song they are working in harmony. The Tudor actor represents Freud’s concept of ego, trying to restore balance. I sent a breakdown to the Ups & Downs, who loved the concept.

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Schedules meant Catherine wasn’t able to get all of the original Cell Block 69 dancers together for the shoot, but herself, Gem, Cris, and Hayley knocked it out of the park. All of them brought surplus energy and a ‘try anything’ attitude which made the shoot a breeze. The Polish Club was a perfect venue to film in, and already came with the lighting rig and smoke machine (we made liberal use of the smoke machine).

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The Ups & Downs were really good sports as well and indulged all of my directorial whims and requests. Cameron Thomas was the true star of the day, turning up in his full Elizabethan garb, and even bringing two of his own skulls for me to select from! He brought a much needed pathos to balance out some of the ham and goofiness of the rest of the set-ups. He’s a tremendous talent and I wish he was already starring in a Netflix series. disco pic 1

The band and I went back and forth on the edit a few times, and a lot of my story work (as in the above breakdown) got cut or truncated. That’s part of the nature of being a director-for-hire, but they were some of my favourite bits, so I was disappointed. Looking at it now (the video was released in February), I’m a lot less worried – it holds together and the energy is retained.

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Coolio approached me to direct a clip for Infinite Pandits. The track’s underlying sample is from Falco’s Der Komissar, and he thought it would be fun to also reference the clip (multi-level sampling).

A lo-fi greenscreen clip is just something I needed a good excuse to give a crack – like most of the video assignments I have taken on of late, if I haven’t done it before, that’s what I want to do next.

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Also, it goes without saying that Coolio & Housemouse are one of my favourite acts, and Infinite Pandits is an undisputed masterpiece. Of course I said yes!

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A good location is worth thousands in production value, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of including Canberra’s own NASA base in the clip. Coolio and Housemouse loved the idea, and Lou and I did a reccy a couple of weeks beforehand – Tidbinbilla Tracking Station is a hidden gem, with a cool permanent space exhibit and rolling hillsides dotted with satellite dishes.

pandits title screen

I used Tidbinbilla to add a bait-and-switch beginning to the clip, the long, quiet intro and title screens suggestive of a pastoral indie flick more than the subsequent bangin’ sci-fi comedy. It also bookended the clip well, the final shot static and turning to sepia, setting in amber the gallant space crew of the HMAS Solid Rolled Gold.

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The nature of greenscreen means the majority of the work is in post. Once you have edited the clip – the point you’d normally finish – the work starts. It was time-consuming sourcing appropriate backdrops, but thankfully there is a great community sharing free greenscreen elements (including the inside of space carriers!), and I eventually found everything I needed.

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This is the most effects-and-automation heavy clip I have done – my next challenge should be adding in more interactive greenscreen elements rather than passive backdrops.

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The clip was timely as Nick soon approached me to do a fun karaoke video for Adelaide’s birthday – I took what I learnt this time around and we shot a high-energy dance-a-thon, with several ideas I am definitely going to re-use for future videos (shout-out to Yen Tso who suggested making the Fleetwood Mac segment resemble the cover to Rumours).

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This is the second time Coolio and I have collaborated on film – expect more!

 

Faux Faux Amis launched their new album Beg For Merci Beaucoup in November last year.

Combined with X, it represents a near-complete documentation of the band’s musical output (I think there’s only two songs we’ve played out that now don’t have a proper recording).  Pulling back the curtain for a second, here’s the press release I wrote:


JUST SAY OUI!

***FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE*** 

Faux Faux Amis drop their second album Beg For Merci Beaucoup  

Listening to the new FAUX FAUX AMIS album Beg For Merci Beaucoup is a dizzying experience. The band cartwheel between scuzzy r’n’b, French-sung pop, garage rock and swampy blues, all delivered with passion and smiles on their faces. ‘Muppet Rock, I like to call it’, laughs lead singer Luke McGrath, ‘it’s heavy but it still sounds happy’.

 The band have been performing in Canberra since 2013, already releasing an album on experimental label Early Music. ‘Our first album was very conceptual – it was ten one-minute songs, designed to give you a full album experience in a concentrated burst. This time we really branched out – some songs are even over three minutes!’ smirks McGrath, adding ‘three minutes feels like some prog-rock epic to us’.

Beginning as a humble (but noisy) three piece, their ranks swelled to seven before settling into their current five member configuration. ‘We’ve always had guitar, bass and drums as the foundation, but now with Claire Leske on trumpet and Catherine James adding vocals, percussion and keyboard, it adds so much texture and variety to our sound’, says McGrath, ‘It allowed us to lean into our soul and r’n’b influences on this album’.

After initial sessions at Merloc Studios, the band’s drummer/renaissance man Darren Atkinson produced this new album, drawing on his years of experience with bands like The Ups & Downs and Big Heavy Stuff. ‘Darren is basically Oz Rock royalty, so we knew we were in safe hands. Darren drums but he also sings, so he is uniquely sensitive to both rhythm and melody – he had a lot of ideas for extra percussion and vocal harmonies that made us sound more polished than we actually are!’ says McGrath.

It was celebrated poet CJ Bowerbird (who contributed liner notes) who noticed that despite the upbeat tempos and sunny harmonies, the album possesses a darker undercurrent. ‘Yeah, trust a poet to zero in on the lyrics – I hadn’t even realised that myself until CJ pointed it out, but it’s true’, remarks McGrath. ‘There are several songs about mortality and the passing of time, not to mention a song called Take A Chance On Murder! Even our feel-good summer hit (and upcoming single) is called Summer Frownz, so I guess a melancholic thread is woven through the album’.

 The album’s high watermark is its final track, a Pogues-influenced ballad which builds to the repeated coda ‘If I’m going down, I’m going down swinging/And if I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die singing’. The song is gilded with swooping violin melodies, played by special guest Emma Kelly (aka Happy Axe). ‘It was a treat to have Emma on the record’ says bassist Kevin Lauro. ‘The clapping at the end of that song – it was actually the band spontaneously applauding Emma after she did her first take! We left the first take and the applause in’.

And finally, what’s with all the French, both the band name and the punny title of the new record, Beg For Merci Beaucoup? ‘I was going through a Francophile period when I started the band,’ explains McGrath, ‘watching Godard and listening to Gainsbourg, and their influence crept in. France and the French language is perceived by outsiders as very cool and sophisticated, which I thought would make a curious contrast with the hot-blooded rock’n’roll I wanted to make. Now it’s just part of the band identity – I plan to have a song sung in French on every release we do.’

Listen to Faux Faux Amis’ new album ‘Beg For Merci Beaucoup’ at fauxfauxamis.bandcamp.com or pick up a copy at their album launch November 19th at the Phoenix, supported by Hi New Low and Kilroy.


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Photo by Adam Thomas

We were blessed to have new faves Kilroy, and Hi New Low support us – special thanks to Hi New Low who came up from Melbourne for the launch, bandleader Ramsay being ¼ of Fun Machine and one of my vocal inspirations (that’s me doing my best impersonation of him on Sno-Globe).

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Suffice to say, I am incredibly proud of the record – the best sounding and most polished suite of my songs so far.  I have to single out the stellar artwork by Fiona McLeod – I asked Fiona to draw inspiration from the cover of one of my favourite albums, Love’s Forever Changes. As you can see, she knocked it out of the park – it was the final touch, the one that made it feel complete, like a real album to me. Front Cover - v1 copy.jpg

We were pleasantly shocked to find we made both BMA’s and 2XX’s year-end best-of-Canberra lists, for the songs The Last Hurrah, and Faux Amis respectively (both songs featuring uber-violinist Emma Kelly, perhaps not coincidentally).

Faux Faux Amis - Beg For Merci Beaucoup back cover updated

I am especially chuffed to see The Last Hurrah honoured, as the song has had a long gestation – the title and chorus lyric have been floating in my head for at least a decade. The song didn’t coalesce until I was writing tracks for my shelved musical L’Assassiner de Faux Faux Amis three years ago. The musical was as much about mortality as it was ‘murder’ per se, and in the show, The Last Hurrah fulfilled a similar role as on the album, an exultant and passionate finale, urging us all to not go gently against the dying of the light, to remember to find joy where we can, no matter how absurd and meaningless life can seem. It’s a rare ‘mature’ song from me, a resolutely playful artist – its execution and delivery on the album is everything I wanted it to be, and the reception to it has been extremely satisfying. It’s first public performance was at the launch, where we played the album in its entirety.

For 2018, we’ve been discussing some themed EPs – I look forward to getting stuck into those soon!

Babyfreeze launched their new EP Sometimes Leather back in November.

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Set to play at LoBrow, the venue sadly closed a week before our launch! After scrambling to find another venue, I had a ‘eureka!’ moment – what if we put on the gig ourselves, guerrilla-style? I’ve always wanted to do a guerrilla show like Hashemoto and The Cashews, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity. We hired a generator, I brought my PA and the gig went ahead at Commonwealth Park amphitheatre (previously the location for this amazing video).

To be honest, I thought we might run into more issues, but the entire night went smoothly, both the acts and the audience galvanised by the clandestine novelty (I counted fifty punters). Listening to devdsp as the sun set over the lake was one of my musical highlights of the year.

Typically this is the point in the blog post where we’d breakdown the making of the EP, but that got its own one page splash in BMA!  

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Here’s the transcript:


BABYFREEZE have been making electro-waves across Canberra since 2008 (even fronting the cover of this esteemed publication in 2012). Despite that, they’ve only just dropped their second EP – the fantastic Sometimes Leather. We invited the core duo – Luke McGrath (L) and Nick Delatovic (N) – to do a track-by-track breakdown of its four songs.

Hound In A Collar 

LM: We recorded the EP in the spare bedroom of my house. All Nick’s vocals were recorded with my one year old daughter Violet at his feet – you can hear her banging percussion in the background of this track. It was in time so we left it in!

I wanted this song to sound like a party – my model was Swingin’ Medallion’s Double Shot Of My Baby’s Love. The most important thing you need for a party is PEOPLE and as such, it didn’t really come together until adding bass from Kevin Lauro, guitar from Fossil Rabbit, vocals from Lulu Tantrum, and congas, scratching, and rapping from Coolio Desgracias.

Fun fact: the synth solo is actually Nick’s voice run through a guitar amp and re-pitched.

ND: I’d been re-reading a lot of 80s X-Men comics by the famously perverted writer Chris Claremont. He constantly uses sexually-charged mind control scenarios and sub/dom imagery; it was all pretty formative on me as a kid. This song ended up a Submissive’s Anthem but a few of the specific lines are direct quotes from Storm and Wolverine. 

Luke’s track is mega bouncy and friendly so I wrote a vocal that deliberately didn’t match the chords or bass line, so it could only work as an obnoxious shout. 

Frantic 

LM: This is the song that kicked off the project – I had the high concept that the EP should be garage rock except played on electronic instruments. I wrote the riff on guitar then listened to a lot of Tobacco, and decided it needed to be pitch-bent synth. I wanted the verses to mirror the title so performed them in an out-of-breath full-on style. For me, being in a band is like being an actor – I love to play characters different to myself.

ND: Luke’s lead vocal turns are always the highlight of our live set. We knew this was a good track but the first time we played it live it was like we forgot we were even at a gig with a crowd – we both started pogoing around like we were alone in our bedrooms. This whole record has a level of self-indulgence that I really like.

Pussy Mad

LM: Nick came in and recorded the vocal with just single root bass notes as backing, allowing me to build the rest of the track around it, doing my best impression of Future Islands. Fossil Rabbit added the guitar which raises the anthem-ness to U2 levels.

ND: I wrote this song about four years ago, back when I had a lot less modelling for how to handle my non-monogamous wiring. It’s a 100% earnest, serious song about being trapped by your own limited vocabulary around sex and relationships. The word choice will be a dealbreaker for some, which is more than valid of course, but this record was the perfect place for it to finally land and I’m thrilled with it. 

No Solomon

LM: I got the title from watching Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship. Kate Beckinsdale describes a particularly dense character as being ‘no Solomon’. I thought that made a great opening line for a list-song, where we sing to an imagined ex-girlfriend and list all of the things her new boyfriend is NOT.

ND: The chorus is my favourite thing that I wrote for the record, it’s like a genderless sci-fi version of an Isaac Hayes ‘Lover Man’ thing. Which I’m sure will be the premise of a whole future Babyfreeze record one day. 

LM: The first and last sounds on the record are Coolio Desgracias scratching. This is not a coincidence.


To cap off a bumper year for Babyfreeze, Hound In A Collar was recently named ‘party track of the year’ in 2XX Local’n’Live’s top 20 songs of the year!

2018 is set to be even bigger – Nick and I are currently working on several Babyfreeze projects, including a Dead DJ Joke helmed EP, a Coolio Desgracias collaboration, and our first full length album, Disco Room.