ThisIsNotAScene‘s Ian was taken with the latest release from Dumbsaint. After reviewing their release “Something You Feel Will Find Its Own Form”, Ian got the opportunity to sit down and talk with the band about the album, influences, the visuals that accompany the music and much more…
“Something That You Feel Will Find Its Own Form” is a great album, with so much going on that it’s almost dizzying. You must be very pleased with the final result?
That’s so cool of you to write that, thank you! Making this thing has been a huge deal for the three of us, and I’m sure that Nick and Ron would have a lot of thoughts on how to answer this question as well. I can’t really speak for them, but my own relationship with “Something” is a weird, ever-changing thing. It’s a love/hate saga.
During recording there were some things I wanted to hear but just never did, and in the months that have followed there have been things I’ve felt very unhappy about. But as I listen back again from time to time I am noticing more and more things that I like, or finding new ways to enjoy what we managed to create.
So maybe it’s really a matter of not seeing the forest for the trees. I’ve written elsewhere that spending an intense eighteen-day period in a hugely expensive recording studio trying to land perfect renditions of tracks you have been working on for as many as seven years is not an ideal way to make an album – even when you’re working with the best possible people. But for better or worse, it’s a document of a lot of hard work.
I would like to be able to put the album on one day and listen to it with fresh ears, but I’m sure I’m far too close to the thing to ever be objective about it at all. It strikes me now that even though I may have started playing in a band in order to make the kind of music I’d love to listen to, I didn’t ever really get to sit down and listen to my own album for the first time, you know?
I think the most pleased I ever felt with a lot of these tracks was when I listened back to the rough rehearsal takes at home after our jams. That was my greatest experience of this music; when it really affected me. Back when it was still new to me – four or more years before we ever went into 301 to record the album.
While listening to the album I realised that as well as being an excellent ensemble piece, each of Dumbsaint’s members should be listened to individually to really appreciate all of the intricate details. How do you manage to contain so much within the structures of the songs?
I don’t think we’ve ever started out with a clear plan for any track we’ve written and we usually don’t use words like verse or chorus or solo when we write. We just find something we like the sound of and then we see how many different shapes and colours it can work in. We’ll try a riff or a musical idea in every variation we can think of – kind of like the musical equivalent of taking three numbers and rearranging them into every possible combination. We’ll take a guitar melody and try it on bass, or we’ll rebuild a riff in a different rhythm.
Each instrument has a chance to take the lead, but I’m not sure that “lead” is really the right word for us either. We’re probably at our best when we meet in the middle and find these interesting exchanges that serve the song. I think if there is any kind of richness to the music we make, it’s probably in those exchanges. It’s not good enough to throw in everything but the kitchen sink. We’ll always reel one another in if we feel like some part is becoming too bloated or convoluted.
Musically, who are your main influences?
I guess they’ve mutated as time has gone on. In high school it was all Tool and A Perfect Circle. Then we discovered bands like ISIS and Jakob and toe. Now, we are all listening to a wider range of stuff than ever before, and that includes a lot of shoegaze, drone, creep-out electronica, jazz, film music and all kinds of other things.
I think whenever we’re excited about something we’ve been listening to it will have some kind of impact on what we write. A lot of the time we hear it happening and end up fighting against ourselves to make sure we don’t come out with something completely derivative.
The video to “Don’t Forget To Bring Down The Sky” is a powerful and challenging experience; can you expand a little on the concept and the narrative?
We wanted to make a video that would match the two distinct halves of the song, so we decided to edit together those two different stories and see how we could make them intersect.
The black-and-white sequences were originally part of a short film Nick made in uni. All the stuff involving the girl in the park was shot much later – and that section of the video is kind of just a literal acting out of the track’s title, which was something we thought might be interesting to see on screen.
Throwing up the pyramid and bringing down the rain was Nick’s idea, and our talented friend Matt Fezz created our storm on his computer. I won’t say too much about the concept behind the video, because I think it’s nice when people create their own meanings. But see if you can read what it says on the package that gets delivered to the apartment – that holds a bit of a clue as to what’s going on.
Each song is clearly a labour of love. Can you tell me a bit about your writing process?
We’ve always been most comfortable to just get in a room and jam, then if we like what we’ve come up with we’ll spend some time developing it and trimming out the bits that feel dull or that drag on a little too long. The song is rarely clear to us in the beginning; we sort of feel it out as we go.
Sometimes we’ll write ourselves into corners or tumble down these musical rabbit holes and that will mean backtracking and starting again. A lot of the time we end up with an overabundance of little moments and sounds, and the hardest part becomes finding ways to connect the dots and write them into something that feels cohesive.
Sometimes a track just doesn’t quite work, until one day something wonderful will happen and it will suddenly feel right. So our writing process is not all that sophisticated, and it’s definitely messy. But it works for us.
Music videos tend to be promotional exercises created after the song. Your band ethos is steeped so heavily in film that the accompanying visual is so much more than that. How much do you have the visuals in mind when you are writing the music?
Sometimes the videos will grow out of the track early on, but it’s often well into the final stages of songwriting when we start throwing around visual ideas.
When we first started bringing the visuals into the band it was during this time when we were forced to try and catch up with ourselves – our singer had left and we suddenly had at least three finished tracks that needed videos.
I guess it was probably that shaky entry into the visual side of the band which led to this compartmentalised way of working we now have, where the track is almost always completely finished before we start on the video. Working this way is useful though, because it means we can use the finished track as a template. That allows us to treat certain musical themes as characters, or use choruses and climaxes to mark key moments in the narrative.
I think this is something that we are going to attempt to do differently on our next bunch of short films, though. We have some ideas about putting together a larger story, over the course of several tracks. Kind of like a series. So if we do that, it will involve a lot more foresight and planning as we write.
How did you approach adapting the live experience for a CD release?
We had a few different thoughts about that. First it was going to be a DVD, then it was going to be two discs (one with the album and the other with the shorts). In the end we realised that it was going to cost us far too much to produce as a two-disc release and we were also worried about what it might mean to put out everything we have in one go.
We still wanted people to be able to come to shows and see something they couldn’t just watch at home. We decided that there were some videos, like “She Was His”, which were really more effective when they could be experienced away from a live gig – in an environment where you could engage with the story a bit more comfortably.
So we put those ones up as optional downloads with the album. The other, more visual effects-heavy videos like “Cinematic” and “Rivers” we chose to keep just for the stage. That’s the best setting for those ones, I think. They’re a bit more visceral and less narrative-based. When we play those ones in a pub, people can turn away from the screen for a minute without completely losing track of what’s happening.
The music on the album works perfectly without any visuals but given that so much of what you do is a combination of music and film, were there ever any misgivings about allowing the music to stand on its own?
We talked about this a lot before we went in the studio to record the album. I like to imagine our band as being that moment of interaction between sound and image, but the reality is that so much more time is spent in the rehearsal room jamming, writing, practicing – that’s where Dumbsaint really happens. So in the end we all decided that making a traditional album was the right thing to do, and that the music was strong enough to be put out without the videos. But I do think it’s debatable just how well it plays on its own.
We are very aware of our limitations as an instrumental band, and putting out this album has taught us that it’s not wise to presume we have the undivided attention of our listeners. In the future we will be working on finding new ways for our music and our images to interact, but we’ll also be searching for new ways to move the band forward musically. That could mean bringing in different instruments or collaborating with other artists; I wouldn’t be surprised if we decide to try out some vocals on a track or two in the next little while.
“Don’t Forget To Bring Down The Sky”, “INT. A CHEERLESS ROOM. A MAN IS SCARED.” and “I Am An Image” are wonderfully named. Does the title come once the song has been written, or is the music inspired by the title?
Thanks a lot! We usually don’t worry about finding a title until after we’ve finished writing the track, unless someone thinks of a cool working title and we decide to keep it. That’s how we ended up with the title “Don’t Forget To Bring Down The Sky”. That began as something I thought I could see, scratched into a wooden desk, from across the room on some level of the UNSW library. I remember thinking it sounded weirdly compelling and sort of wishing it was something I had come up with. Then as I crossed the room later I noticed it actually said something completely different! So we used it.
A lot of the time track titles come out of things we read, or little daydreams we’ve had, or even jokes. The only time we’ve had trouble finding a title for one of our tracks was with “Cheerless”. We knew we couldn’t just give it any random name, because we were working with vocal samples from two different, unrelated sources, and in the video for the track we were appropriating footage from somewhere else again. We felt like we couldn’t ignore all that and just make up some name that didn’t at least allude to any of those things.
I think of that track as a sort of Frankenstein‘s monster of influences for us, with some of our most overt references to films and filmmakers that have inspired us, particularly the dialogue from “Mulholland Dr.” and the edit style, which is deliberately reminiscent of “Pièce Touchée” by Martin Arnold. Because there was so much different stuff going on, we felt like the best thing to do would be to call it something that felt more like a label than a name – something a bit more clinical or matter-of-fact. A scene heading from a screenplay just seemed like the most appropriate thing to us at the time.
“Something That You Feel Will Find Its Own Form” has been released 5 years after the band’s formation. What made you decide that the time was right to do it now?
We say it’s been five years, but the truth is Nick and I have been making music together for more like eight or nine years, and large parts of tracks like “Lying in Sign” and “Image” have been floating around since as early as 2005.
All of that old material has grown and changed with us over the years, and I’m sure the tracks are better for it in a lot of ways. But really this album could have, and maybe should have, been made years ago.
Making an album just seemed like something that was somewhere very far ahead of us, for a very long time. It was something we never talked about. But when our first guitarist Brendan left the band and Ron started playing with us, it quickly became very clear that this recording was sorely overdue. I know that Nick and I both felt like these tracks finally needed a home if we were ever to move on to something new.
So for me, making this album has largely been about being able to put these tracks up on the shelf once and for all and say “we’re done with those”. Now that we are playing with Ron and possibly some other new collaborators as well, we’re all just much more interested in what might happen next.
The band’s name comes from Jack Kerouac; how much of an influence is literature on what you do?
Almost none at all. I became aware of the word “Dumbsaint” when I was right in the middle of a Kerouac binge, but at the time it was just one idea being thrown in a hat with a whole lot of other would-be band names.
I have noticed though, that as we get more ambitious with the shorts we are making, it is becoming much more important for us to consider how we tell stories with our images. We’re sometimes crossing this line where we begin to seem less like a band and more like filmmakers who play music, which I don’t mind all that much. But as storytellers I suppose we have generally looked more to our favourite filmmakers for inspiration than to particular authors. Having said that, I’m sure there are plenty of writers who we probably borrow from.
Personally, I would acknowledge the surrealism and weird mystery of Haruki Murakami, or the paranoid science fiction of Phillip K. Dick. I’m sure Nick and Ron could name a few others as well.
What are your plans now – do you have any more live performances scheduled?
Right now, we are doing a lot of writing, which is a slow and sometimes painful process. We’re hoping to finally be able to play this new material for people at some shows over the next couple of months.
Our next show will be at the Sandringham Hotel in Newtown, on Saturday 28th July, when we will be playing in support of the American band Rosetta. We will also be playing a festival-type show called Sans Vox, with some other really good Australian instrumental bands. That one will be in August.
Beyond that, we may be heading out on our second little tour up and down the east coast in September, which will be a lot of fun. We might also have something quite big to announce in the next few weeks as well, so keep an eye on our facebook page!