Earlier this year we asked Gilbert to review the debut album, ”Deaden the Fields,” from Tangled Thoughts of Leaving. He’s now had a chance to catch up with the band for a chat about the record, touring, and what not to assume about a one-armed man.
For those not familiar with Tangled Thoughts of Leaving, can you give us the brief history and tell us who’s in the band and your roles, both musical and non-musical?
TToL started in 2004 when Ron (piano, synth), Andy (guitar) and our original drummer James were about 15. I (Luke) played with them for the first few gigs before moving overseas for a couple of years. The guys kept gigging and writing during that time with another bass player, figuring out how to play their instruments to get them to speak in the way they wanted.
When I returned from overseas I re-joined the band. It was around then that we finally figured out the sonic direction we wanted to head in. As we were predominantly self-taught and Ron and Andy were so young, this took some time to establish. We found that we most enjoyed writing by jamming and pushing things in non-conventional directions. We went from having clean vocals in every song to almost completely instrumental during 2007. We released the “Tiny Fragments” EP in 2008, and followed it up with a split EP with sleepmakeswaves in 2009.
In 2009, James left and Ben Stacy joined the band on drums to form the current lineup. Ben studies jazz drumming at WAAPA and is very engaged in terms of progressive composition – so he was a perfect fit for TToL. His knowledge of musical theory complimented our jam-based, borderline-ignorant rejection of theory. We hit the ground running and set about re-learning our old material with him to continue playing live, while also writing new material. In 2011 we recorded and released our debut album “Deaden the Fields”.
The isolation of Perth influences those who live there. For many it builds a sense of WA versus the rest of Australia which has its up sides and down sides. Despite global access to your music, what barriers do the expense of touring and a relatively small home audience create, and conversely what are the good things about being a Perth band? Is this really any different from the issues all Australian bands face from a global perspective?
That us v them, east v west is always prevalent socially. I feel that the creative impact of the isolation of Perth is at times a little overstated – in terms of the musical quality anyway. Every city has good and bad bands. The biggest impact on us is obviously the expense of touring Australia.
To fit a small tour in around work – like 99% of Australian musicians have to do – it means you have to fly if you are coming from Perth. There is no option to jump in a van and drive to the next city for a show the next night, because there is literally nowhere else worth playing over here. The expense of getting to Perth also means that east coast bands are usually pretty well established before they come over here, so there are probably more bills with 100% local bands in Perth, than on the east coast. That does help build a sense of community within the bands and punters, but most bands would be striving to get a level of success where they can use their big Perth shows to help pay for expensive trips east. There is a loyal following of punters in Perth, which fantastic for us here. It really helps build towards playing interstate or overseas.
In a global sense, Perth bands are in the exact same position as other Australian bands. The Internet definitely helps get your music out to the average folk on the Internet – but it is very difficult to attract the attention of labels/tour promoters.
At one level people who write and perform music take a range of emotions, experiences and observations of the world and convert them into a narrative that others connect with. From what do you harvest your inspiration? What’s the narrative you seek to present to your listeners?
We are inspired by many things – music, film, art, life events. Ron brings in most of the riffs and song ideas on synth/piano. If he has had a particularly trying day/week for whatever reason, that is going to show in the stuff he writes. Then the rest of us will add on top of that once we jam out on it.
During the writing of “Deaden the Fields,” we had a few loose visual concepts related to movies like The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford. Both the film and score were an inspiration on the track ‘Deep Rivers Run Quiet’.
We usually have a few loose rules when we write. One of the main ones is that a piece of music has to invoke an emotional reaction. When we play live we like things to be intense and sometimes even uncomfortable… so the original ideas have to carry some kind of emotional weight to make this happen – its usually not enough to just be a cool sounding riff. Although that is usually just me complaining about riffs sounding too happy haha!
As far as conveying a narrative, we generally don’t apply an actual story. We have discussed doing it in the future, though, across a whole album. The interpretation on “DTF” is up to the listener. In terms of our own personal interpretation of song meaning, it is also up to us as individuals. Each song has significance for me that usually relates to something that was going in my life when we were writing or recording it.
Your music draws on elements from jazz, rock, extreme metal, post-metal, electronica and more. You play around with time signatures, stressed beats and pick-up notes and don’t follow the traditional 32-bar rock structure. Why don’t you play normal music?
Haha, we did play relatively normal music in our early days. At some point we made the focus of the band to create sounds that we wanted to hear, that we couldn’t get from our record collection, sounds that hadn’t been heard before. That is both ambitious and ridiculous in a sense – without hearing everything, how could you know if something is unique? There are so many bands making ‘normal music’ – some of which we do enjoy to listen to – but we wanted to do something that was unique and meant something to us.
In 2007, we played our first ever completely instrumental set, 30 minutes, 2 songs, some improv thrown in – after having previously played around 90 vocal-centric shows in Perth over the previous 3 years. It felt exhilarating at the time. That was a massive turning point. And then the reviews came in. One reviewer said this about the show:
“Tangled Thoughts of Leaving, who have abandoned the concept of the song, need to look back on their previous material and consider how far they have come”.
He also described our music as “pseudo-jazz embarrassment“. To be honest, that really stung initially and we discussed it at great length – but it was a massive validation for what we were trying to do creatively. We ended up embracing the concept of “abandoning the concept of song” and took ownership of it.
If we enjoy playing and listening to what we create, then we are sure there are open minded people who will also appreciate the music – we don’t need to dumb things down for people who aren’t prepared to get outside of their comfort zone. They can get what they want by turning on the radio.
Your first release “Tiny Fragments” cast a wide net and most of the elements your sound captured are found in the split EP and your debut full-length from last year “Deaden the Fields”. Do you feel you’ve found a way to embrace enough disparate elements to continue exploring the style you’ve built without becoming stale?
Good question! “Tiny Fragments” was intentionally abrasive, hyperactive and in-your-face. It was called “Tiny Fragments” because we literally had tons of small-but-related ideas that we wanted to meld together into one composition. It was very experimental in the sense that we had no idea what the finished product was going to sound like when we started recording it. We were really flying blind and the results are very raw.
However, each release after that has seen us do things that we previously weren’t capable of. While “Tiny Fragments” may have had elements of say post-metal and jazz – elements which are still prominent on “Deaden the Fields” – the overarching concepts and ‘musicality’ are more advanced and fully realised on “DTF”. Where we do touch on a different sound, we like to keep it on the very fringe of that sound or genre – it still has to be something exciting and unique. That is something we are continuing to explore during the writing of our new material, which has been quite noise-driven.
The different sounds we embrace are usually a by-product of the original riffs being created on piano/synth and then jammed out by the full band. There are no boundaries in place. This process usually gives the opportunity to take things in a new direction at any given time and I think that will keep us from becoming stagnant creatively.
Can you tell us how you go about composing your songs? What is the relationship between the whole record as a composition, and its parts?
Ron will usually bring in a riff on piano or synth and will explain his ideas for the concept or feel of the song. We will then jam on it as a full band. An idea of how to really flesh out the riff as a full band will usually come to fruition very quickly.
We will record that initial idea immediately in Ron’s studio, where we rehearse and write (Studio Sleepwalker’s Dread). Over time, we will continue to jam on it and find ways to add other progressions onto the initial riff and form a structure. If we have a few songs on the go at once, we generally try not to use the same structure, although it usually just happens without even discussing it. By the time we get to recording, the songs are usually about 80% complete, allowing for some improvising in the studio.
In terms of the whole record structure for “Deaden the Fields”, we knew that we wanted to start the album with ‘Landmarks’ and end it with ‘They Found My Skull…’. ‘Landmarks’ really establishes the musical themes and sets the tone for the whole record. We then focused on maintaining the momentum both musically and emotionally, trying to join the tracks so that it came together as almost a completely fluid single piece of music. ‘They Found My Skull In The Nest of a Bird’ brings closure to the whole thing, so it pretty much had to be positioned last. We haven’t performed the whole thing live start-to-finish yet, hopefully that will happen very soon.
There is a very strong improvised feel, particularly in songs like ‘Landmarks’ with a clear emotion, or emotional progression, at their core but a very free flow. To what degree do you improvise and play around with the songs when you perform them live?
Improvising is very important as we write, record and play live. Ron and Ben are really at the core of the band’s improvisational nature – they even play live often as a two-man noise/jazz improv project called The Ron Pollard Quintet. One of them will usually determine the direction and the rest of us will feed off it.
As we have spent so much time jamming together, we have a very weird sense of what each person will do next and the feel that is required from the rest of us. It is probably the number one strength of the band. Landmarks was the song that featured the most improvisation during the recording stage. Once a take is done in an improv-based approach during recording, everyone else has to change their approach to suit – which can be both exciting and frustrating!
In a live setting, we have sections that are played almost note-for-note as per the record, then other sections where what we play is meant only to ‘reflect’ the sound of the record, and we are free to improvise. We have little queues to know where to go back into playing the song accurately. We hope that the inclusion of improv sections gives each performance a sense of intimacy and emotional weight. Each show will end up being different and hopefully the audience can feel that in the room.
Improvising exposes you to a greater range of highs and lows when performing. How does this affect your feeling of satisfaction with a performance or a recording?
The improv sections definitely bring a heightened sense of emotion and awareness – you are forced to be playing in that moment. You can’t just belt it out. Sometimes playing live in this band is strangely overwhelming at the time, and afterwards you can barely remember doing it if things go well.
Like you weren’t even there. I would honestly say that the lowest points are when one of us messes up a part that is not improvised – that generally takes you out of the moment. If you can avoid that frustration and everyone is locked in and in sync – playing live is almost the greatest feeling in the world.
A lot of instrumental bands use images when playing live to complement the music or provide a focus in lieu of vocals. Is this something you have done and have you considered going that additional step and writing a film score?
We have performed with visuals twice out of about 200 shows – both times with the projectionist improvising the visual content. Those were probably interesting, but we don’t feel the need to provide a focus outside of the music itself – it is not something we will be doing going forward. We have seen it done really well by some bands, but we have also seen a lot of bands try it while using the same old images from David Attenborough’s Planet Earth DVDs. That isn’t what we want people to think about during our show.
A lot of our music is created as a reflection on the darker sides of humanity, not the beauty of nature. While Deaden the Fields has a few ‘nature’ references in song titles – they were not intended to be literal in any way. During our live show, we want people to feel whatever the music makes them feel. Visually, we like to use epic lights to set the tone, but the audience will likely get an idea of what the music means to us by the physical way we play (I am told Ben’s facial expressions are very entertaining).
That said, we have always floated ideas of videos or short films. We will do that at some point. We are definitely open to doing a film score – as that would be writing music as an emotional reflection of the visual content. We would love to do that.
You have some more tour dates coming up in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. What can people expect at these gigs?
Well, we are playing on fantastic bills in all three cities, so people can expect an awesome show each night. The set will still be mostly material from “Deaden the Fields’, with some other surprises thrown in. We haven’t played in Brisbane in over a year, so it will be great to get back there.
In Sydney we are supporting Grails, who we really admire, so that is going to be an amazing show. Melbourne is always great for us, we really enjoy it there. It’s our only headline show of the trip so we are looking forward to jamming out a bit more. These will be our first shows in over 5 months, so you can expect a lot of pent up excitement to come flying out.
What’s something you think readers should know about Tangled Thoughts of Leaving that they won’t find on your facebook or website?
On tour last year, we thought we saw a guy jacking off in the street, but it was actually just a one-armed man with his un-used sleeve tucked right down the front of his pants. We immediately felt bad but it won’t stop us looking out for other real-life Twin Peaks characters in your city this October.