Marcus, Jo and Rob are listening to Wake Up Now, It’s Time by Goodnight Japan
Marcus: Are we going to review Goodnight Japan properly this time?
Rob: The last Goodnight Japan review was improper?
Jo: It was fascinating, but I think we can do even better.
Marcus: Let’s start at the beginning. How did we come across Goodnight Japan?
Jo: Abel (Goodnight Japan) contacted Deep Space Supergoop about a gig, then you and Rob listened to the Bandcamp and got excited. Rob came home and made me listen to it.
Rob: And what was your impression? I remember I played you the Bowie’s Neighbour album, which was the most recent at the time.
Jo: I was convinced. Kind of like hearing Marcus’s brother Fergus sing for the first time in Bored Nothing, when he started putting up free EPs on Bandcamp. Some people you hear and you know immediately they have something special. You sense a real intelligence behind it. Abel’s recordings are quite loose and experimental. He records a lot of rough sketches, trying different things. But you know the songwriting is there.
Rob: The sound drew me in immediately, because it seems to share a lot of my personal influences as a songwriter, though the outcome is quite distinct. I’m talking about the early albums by Songs Ohia, Smog, Palace Brothers, Silver Jews, Spacemen 3 and Cat Power, all of whom eventually moved on to greater complexity in their later records as Bill Callahan, Jason Molina, Bonnie Prince Billy, Spiritualized and so on. But I’m particularly fascinated by the minimalism and repetition of their early work. This century, I guess you could also point to the early records of people like Iron and Wine and Bon Iver.
Jo: I also thought of The Microphones, Dirty Beaches or Angel Olsen, though she is more of a virtuoso singer, but she shares many of those influences. She worked with Will Oldham as we talked about last time.
Rob: Her song White Fire also has a lyrical reference to Hit The Ground Running by Smog. Anyway, you guys know I’m a huge fan of his Knock Knock and Red Apple Falls albums. He has a stunning ability to transmit subtle emotions through the simplest arrangements. When I heard Goodnight Japan I was captured by the conceptual similarity. This song, Wake Up Now, It’s Time is exemplary. It sounds simple, but there is a compressed subtlety in the performance.
Marcus: You’ve been going on about Smog ever since I met you. It’s funny when you get obsessed with someone nobody else has ever heard of. You either end up drunkenly lecturing people who’ve never heard the music and are probably never going to follow your recommendation, or you very occasionally meet someone who is already into it. The name itself, ‘Smog’ is particularly depressing and non recommendable.
Rob: But when I do find someone who has heard it, they’re usually obsessed like me. And then I make a brilliant and discerning new friend. It’s all worth it in the end. Like when you start going on about Fennesz or some other noise person…
Marcus: “Noise person?”
Rob: I like noise too, just not as much as you. Is there a better way to describe Fennesz?
Marcus: He does some noise and some ambient music. I would just describe him as an experimental musician.
Rob: Yes, well, semantics. But you meet someone who clicks with one of those obscure references and you know there is a conversation there. I saw that happen just recently when you met our new friend Alex. You started talking about noise artists and I saw you both light up when you realised you both knew what each other were talking about.
Jo: You make it sound like that line from Best in Show – “We have so much in common. We both love soup.”
Rob: Well that line is kind of accurate for a lot of relationships. I think that’s why it’s so funny. I still think Smog is relatively famous. He was on the High Fidelity movie soundtrack. He dated Joanna Newsom and Cat Power. He is signed to the iconic Drag City label. He has made so many good albums I’ve lost count.
Marcus: He’s famous in a sort of global tiny circle, which is probably the ideal way to be famous. You never get too popular so you can never fall down from a high place and fail. I like Smog too, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t cover his songs in my free time.
Rob: I only did that one electronic cover of Teenage Spaceship. I just did that for fun when I was figuring out how to use the soft-synths on my laptop. I substituted a bunch of cheesy electronic noises for the Smog guitar line to distinguish my version. I felt even closer to the song afterwards, because I had to get around the odd phrasing of his vocal performance. It sounds simple until you try to sing the same way. My friend Matt told me it was good, so I sleep ok at night.
Jo: You covered Blood Red Bird and Ex Con at open mic in Osaka too. I remember people looked completely bored or alienated. Nobody had ever heard of Smog in Japan, unsurprisingly. You had that funny argument with the MC who asked you why you kept coming in and playing songs nobody knew.
Rob: I enjoyed abusing the stupid concept of open mic. That was tough, that period before I had a band. Some people need to have an outlet.
Jo: I think you song Sara is pretty much a homage to Smog too.
Rob: I didn’t particularly set out to do that, but as the song came together it became clear that was the way to sing it. I believe I may have finally got it out of my system with that one.
Jo: I thought that worked in terms of being a lot of you showing a lot of love for his music. When you talk about common influences with Goodnight Japan, that song is the clearest illustration.
Rob: That works for me. I’m sure Abel could cover that song without it sticking out in his set. He would probably sing it better than me. Gemma (the bass player in Goodnight Japan) did suggest at one point that I should try recording one of Abel’s songs, and he should try recording one of mine. Because my songs are very fixed and complete in my imagination, and I get attached to the personal meaning of the arrangement and fine details as much as the basic lyrics and melody. Abel is capable of playing his songs a different way every night, and he seems to enjoy recording and releasing material with an unfinished quality, or multiple versions of the same tune. So he has a very different approach to me, but similar taste and influences, is my impression. I don’t know if he would agree.
Jo: I’m looking forward to hearing full band recordings of Goodnight Japan soon. He said he’s going to record with Joel and Gemma some time this year.
Marcus: I hope it comes out better than the full band Bon Iver and Iron and Wine records. I think both those guys lost it when they added other players.
Jo: I don’t think Abel is going to start singing with autotune and touring with an orchestra. I don’t like Bon Iver’s later records either. I get a horrible Phil Collins vibe from some of those tracks.
Rob: Goodnight Japan is evolving in a good way with Joel and Gemma live. Sometimes I get sort of a Dirty Three feeling when they really open up.
Marcus: When we first heard the tracks on Bowie’s Neighbour, including this one, Wake Up Now, It’s Time, you and I were fascinated with the lo-fi vocal sound, and we had a long conversation about how technically difficult it is to achieve a so-called ‘lo-fi’ sound that actually has non-standard charisma as opposed to just sounding like a poor quality, amateurish recording.
Rob: It’s kind of a big deal for me when anyone captures that. Most underground artists in Australia lack the studio budget or the home recording skills to achieve the non-standard recordings they would prefer to the hi-fi outcome they get. I think it’s just a fact of our small industry that budget will always be a barrier. Ask any underground rock musician about their their favourite records and they come up with very non-standard twentieth century classics like Unknown Pleasures, The Velvet Underground and Nico, Loveless, or Sister. Is this it? was probably the most influential album this century so far.
Marcus: Did you know Julian Casablancas did all of his vocals through a guitar amp for that record? I just read that recently.
Jo: He also said in Meet Me in the Bathroom that they recorded those tracks several times with different engineers and it sounded ordinary until Gordon Raphael stepped in and came up with that wierd, tinny recorded sound everyone loves so much.
Rob: It’s funny they were so obsessed with the sound to begin with and now they seem so indifferent. I haven’t been able to listen to anything all the way through after the third album.
Marcus: But how many people have made any albums as good as those first two?
Rob: Few Australian records have that kind of signature production, because it takes a lot of time in the studio and a committed producer to actually capture a sound that represents what the live experience feels like. Local bands save up their money and go into an expensive studio and try to do what they can in the shortest time possible. The producer often has no relationship with the band. The records sometimes sound great, but almost invariably different from your impression of the live act, and you end up judging it as superior or inferior or just different from what you think of as the band’s presence.
Marcus: I think some people do actually spend a lot of money, especially if they’re signed, but they go to those topline Sydney studios who tailor everything with a clichéd FM radio sound that doesn’t do much for my ears. I’m not talking about the music Echo Room is releasing. But you aren’t going to go in those fancy places and ask to sing through a guitar amp. The engineer would say, “We could do that, but there’s no guarantee that it will sound good, and there’s no way for me to fix that later in the mix.” The whole experience is very risk-averse.
Rob: Have you ever heard an Australian album that sounds perfectly messy, like, say, Slanted and Enchanted by Pavement?
Marcus: I would say Fergus got there with Bored Nothing. Not the same as Pavement but in terms of achieving a perfect hi-fi rendition of a lo-fi sound profile.
Rob: Yeah, certainly, but Ferg was a bedroom wizard. He did all that with one microphone and an old version of Cubase. I think he outclassed everyone in that regard. I don’t think any studio would have improved on that sound.
Jo: Cloud Tangle does a beautiful job of recording herself at home, too. It feels exactly like her live performance, with no loss of presence.
Marcus: She is performing with a laptop, though, so it’s going to sound very similar.
Jo: That’s the interesting point though. She is singing and playing guitar with a laptop and you experience the performance as full and present and live. I’ve seen lots of people do boring gigs with laptops where they couldn’t reproduce their recorded aura in a live situation.
Rob: I agree about Cloud Tangle. I love watching her live, and the laptop feels integrated into the performance without feeling ‘taped’. That’s also because the recorded backing has so much texture. There are several people we’ve had on Echo Room with great home recording chops. Kigo is also spot on in terms of capturing exactly what he is aiming for.
Marcus: Blush Response impressed me too when I was mastering Volume 3 for vinyl. Alister records everything by himself.
Rob: We could list more. I’m just saying, that level of production is not so common and it’s obviously something we are digging for in this project. It’s one thing to have the songs and the performance, but it’s a challenge to capture it on record.
Marcus: Learning how to mix your own music is becoming more and more important. The best situation would be to have access to your own studio, like LCD Soundsystem, Brian Jonestown Massacre, or the Microphones. Or to set up your home that way if you can find the space. Have you seen that little video of Kevin Parker recording Tame Impala? He’s running back and forth making drum loops by himself and building songs piece by piece. It occurred to me when I was watching that having unlimited time to experiment at home changes the way you record, and that results in more distinctive records.
Rob: Yes, if you have someone in the band who can mix. The Panda Bear record, Person Pitch was also obsessive and loopy in a way that studio albums can rarely afford to be. It’s like you and I used to say that in underground music, having a good concept is more important than being a trained musician. That’s why most underground music comes out of art schools, not music schools. Now that there is no money in record sales, and therefore no significant studio budget for most artists, having the ability to mix your own music is becoming as important as the concept and the musicianship. You’re at a real disadvantage if you don’t know how to document yourself effectively, because you can no longer expect to get signed and receive enough money to realise your concept in a studio.
Marcus: That’s why I took that TAFE sound engineering course last year. Highly recommended.
Rob: Anyway, back to Goodnight Japan, you and I were very surprised when we asked Abel how he achieved that weird charismatic vocal sound on this song, Wake Up Now, It’s Time.
Marcus: Should we tell people the secret? It’s pretty funny.
Rob: I don’t know. We felt pretty stupid when he told us. I think we should just preserve the mystery.