Growth & accessibility nurtures the return of Collarbones
Gripping, sickly, expansive and beautiful. If Collarbones returned any differently, an issued cause for concern would be effective immediately. Hiding out from the headlines for a little over two years has allowed the Sydney / Adelaide duo to enter a new phase in their artistry. Sticking to their self-promise of not performing until the unveiling of new material resulted in the powerhouse comeback single, ‘A.I’, pushed out at the tail-end of 2018.
Having the pleasure of performing the release at the Sydney Mardi Gras Film Festival program launch, their repertoire expands further with the landing of ‘Everything I Want’.
Introducing real live instrumentation, the framework of Collarbones‘ forthcoming fifth album is looking very interesting. Celebrating and embracing joy and devastation, these two opening singles could not land on any further ends of the spectrum, shedding light on what is to come. Translating diary entries into colours and sound, we’re expecting a divine journey that feeds back into the self, highlighting the human experience.
We grabbed a coffee with both Marcus Whale and Travis Cook whilst they were in Sydney. Read up on where Collarbones have been, what they’re doing now and how they’re directing us into their next exciting phase.
You’ve just come out of a two-year hibernation period with your new track ‘A.I’. Had much Collarbones work filled those two years or was a break intended?
Marcus Whale: Yeah, we’d been making music the entire time. It just took a long time to work out what the sound of this next album was going to be. Also, it took a long time trying to work out how to release it; which we decided we will do through this distributor – AWAL. It easily became the best way to do it in this day and age when ultimately what you need is someone to talk to Spotify or radio stations, and that’s kind of all you do?
The machine of releasing physical products is kind of gone, which is fine. It took us a long time to work out how to do that, and to get over our archaic idea that we need a label.
Travis Cook: I guess it was a public hibernation, but we weren’t necessarily away.
MW: And we really shut down the live shows, like we’re not playing any shows until we come back with music. It just took a bit longer than we thought it would [laughs].
So you’re releasing independently with a distributor?
MW: That’s it.
‘A.I’ breaks the silence with a dark, cinematic feel. Did you intend to come back with such a powerhouse single or was it the natural itch of giving life to new music?
MW: It was intentional, it was very intentional. This song is a lot more turbo than any of the other songs we’ve made. Maybe in a way, because of that Flume remix, it was like we kind of need to match that level of extra. It’s a bit of a red herring in a way with the music that’s going to come out soon. Our next single is way mellower, but I think in order for us to be like, “Hey we actually are back, we are releasing music again”, it needed to be this histrionic scream of a song rather than coming back with something that sounded like business as usual. We’ve changed a lot since 2014 [last album release].
TC: And 2016 [last single release].
MW: Yeah 2016 as well, we’re always changing.
You’ve stated that ‘A.I’ marks the “beginning of a new phase”. What direction can we expect you to steer into?
MW: It’s more pop. The music is more direct. I think a lot of the time, the music that we used to make was almost about the materiality of digital music and sampled music, and about processing it; like diving into a computer and seeing what it sounds like. Particularly because all our music was made on a computer and sent back and forth.
TC: Yeah, there is some of that digital feel on the new album, but there’s also quite a bit of guitar and piano and things that you wouldn’t expect after listening to ‘A.I’, even. So it truly is a bit of a red herring.
MW: I suppose for me, the feeling of this batch of songs that’s about to come out is very journalistic? And I was just thinking way more about the lyrics and being less of a character.
Is that from a non-fictional perspective? Is that your diary?
MW: Yeah, it’s sort of autobiographical, but also everything is fiction to me [laughs]. I actually read non-fiction more than fiction, but in this sense that I appreciate that on the level that I believe in, nothing is truly non-fictional, to me. Especially music, it’s like always a deception, there’s always some kind of magic trick going on to make you think something.
I guess the artist has the control of that, too. Puppeteering almost.
MW: Yeah! I think making art is so about control, and just being like, “Hey I’m going to make you feel something, and I’m going to take you to this place” and you can’t actually do anything about that, except stop listening which is something people will do.
You’re about to put ‘Everything I Want’ out into the world. Featuring some really beautiful guitar work, can we expect more live instrumentation on future tracks?
MW: There’s a lot of songs with piano. I played piano from when I was four, and learnt until I was 14, or something, so it’s almost innate for me. Since I moved out of home when I was 20, I haven’t really lived in a house with a working piano, so I never wrote like that; and we would always be making tracks with the most minimal of material – some drum sounds and like, a vocal sound, and kind of have to make something out of that. So, more recently I started to use the piano to write songs, and I’ve worked out that it’s just way less stressful for me and simpler, and more pleasurable.
The guitar stuff is maybe on a similar level, like it just makes me feel so much less stressed about writing, and it’s easier to write over it. I guess it’s also that diaristic strategy as well, like in a way wouldn’t it be nice to just sit in your bedroom and sing about your feelings and play the guitar? Wouldn’t that be nice?
TC: I guess it’s about stripping it down to its purest form.
MW: It’s like folk music [laughs].
These songs belong to a forthcoming body of work. One of the tracks is quite large, where this new one is very soft. Can we expect a myriad of moods throughout the album?
MW: Yeah, there’s a song which is just piano and singing, and there’s a song which sounds like SOPHIE or something – really brutal, industrial sort of sounds.
TC: There’s a rave track.
MW: Yeah! There’s a rave track. It’s a mess.
A Beautiful mess.
TC: That’s the way I want it to be.
MW: We’ve always been quite messy. Maybe our second album, Die Young was the most cohesive, but the cohesion, for me, comes from the flow of it. I love listening to pop albums that have a lot of different vibes that it navigates through. Aggressive changes in mood – I love that in an album.
I know that people don’t listen to albums as much as they used to, but I’m a real advocate for the album as someone who was born in the early ‘90s. I really get a kick out of ordering those songs and making it into this wild journey.
So this new album is to be listened from start to finish?
MW: I would like it to be! I know it’s wishful thinking, but I think if you were to spend 40 minutes with us [laughs], then spend it sequentially in the album… When it comes out! Who knows when that’s going to happen.
Despite the different shapes of Australian electronic music shifting over the past decade, Collarbones manages to retain a metallic, futuristic soundscape that has become distinctive. Is this crucial to your songwriting?
MW: I think a lot of it is to do with the limited materials that we’ve always had to work with. I didn’t start using the software that I currently use to make music until after we made our last album Return. Before that… Maybe even the first two albums were all made in Audacity which is free software, and a lot of it was very lo-fi and processed in these horrible ways that you wouldn’t do today, like you just wouldn’t do it. If you did do it, you’d put it in the context of some more hi-fi sounding kind of things.
So then it became this sort of thing of like, “Well, we’re making this music and it sounds weird, but how do we make it pop?” I maybe took a bit of pride being able to sing in pop melodies over some really weird vibes. Often these kind of digital sounding, synth sort of things and then crunchy samples.
I think with this next album I have, there’s more room for my voice. There’s less of the murky sounding stuff in the instruments.
More of a growth from when you started.
MW: Yeah, but I think people have just become better at producing now. Everyone is so much more creative and adept at the same time.
TC: It’s easier to make something that sounds hi-fi.
MW: It’s also easier to make something that sounds different, you know? When we started out, not many people were making electronic music the way we were making it. Obviously, there’s like dance music, but in terms of electronic music that was between the world of dance music and hip hop and experimental music and so-called “indie” music, that was a small area. Now it’s like gone through this whole thing as a whole world that has come and gone.
If we made the music that we made 10 years ago, today, we’d be laughed out of the room. And that’s great! There’s such a rich range of different types of music that people make today using computers.
I guess what I’m saying is that we had to kind of step up a bit. Maybe focusing more on the songs and on the singing and on playing. I sit down at a computer and try and make a track and usually just abandon it really quickly, because I don’t feel that confident as a producer.
TC: I don’t want to show the world the amount of things that I’ve made and abandoned, cause that’s literally hundreds of projects I’ve started and have sometimes thrown to Marcus to see if he can salvage them.
MW: It’s tough. This is what I mean about feeling so much less stressed about making music on a guitar or a piano. The world of possibilities is really daunting and more and more I find myself unable to connect what’s in my brain to what I can do with my hands.
So at this point, I don’t even make music that often, but when I do it’s good – it feels good.
I also feel like your sounds are personified in that they each carry their own set of feelings and emotions. This is accentuated visually, such as in Michael Salerno’s short film Die Young and GUSSY’s direction of ‘A.I’. Would you say you’re very particular when it comes to what type of synths and software you use, or is it more what you have access to?
MW: Wow! It’s definitely more what we have access to. We’re not masters of sound (to quote the Sydney Festival show that just happened [laughs]). It’s definitely very grasping at straws; and maybe in some ways that’s where the character comes from in the sound. Our limited capabilities come together to make it a flavour.
TC: I like to have them to not have too much equipment. I’m indecisive enough as it is, why would I want to make more options for myself?
MW: I wonder what the character is, like this personification that you’re talking about. I know what you meant though.
It’s more than just a cool sound you know? There’s something really substantial.
TC: I guess there’s an attitude to how we treat sounds that might come through.
MW: I think sometimes we’re looking for something that maybe makes it a little bit uncanny or weird? Or just a little bit pushed off centre. Again, it’s this thing we’re I’m trying to sing these really direct top-lines where something just needs to take it a bit into a filtered world, to put on a pair of cheap sunglasses and like hear the song through them. I feel like maybe, maybe that’s something you can say is consistent across our four albums.
Maybe that’s the distinction. You’ve changed and grown over those albums but that’s what makes us recognise your music and say, “Ah that’s Collarbones!”
MW: I’m glad you say that because sometimes I don’t even know the continuity, because we’re inside it. I don’t listen to those older albums anymore really. When I do, it’s like “Woah this is a different person! I couldn’t even recreate that today if you’d paid me”. I suppose that’s great, I love that.
TC: There’s still part of you in it.
MW: It’s just a good analogue for your life. You wouldn’t make the same decisions that you’d make when you were 20.
It’s also a different time as well.
MW: Yeah, a different time, different technology, different strategies, different politics… All of that gets transformed. I don’t think it’s necessarily a happy thing to still be the same person I was in 2010.
TC: It’s nice to have that curveball there. If you’re not evolving in some sort of way, that’s just depression.
Travis, you’re in Sydney for the moment. Are you here to work on any Collarbones material?
TC: I flew over because we played ‘A.I’ at the Mardi Gras Film Festival program launch, so I’ve been telling everyone I’m coming to Sydney to play one song; it sounds funny when I put it that way [laughs]. But we are trying to pack in as much as we can, because it’s become less frequent that I do come here. We do have things planned, so it’s nice to use the time.
You’ve been announced to perform at By The Meadow in Victoria. If ‘A.I’ is opening a new phase, should audiences expect to look into the future with a whole new set or will there be an array of material across your whole discography?
MW: We’ll play older stuff with the new stuff. It would be interesting to play all new stuff, but I think we would need a band or something, to really make it feel like it’s all new.
TC: We’re really rethinking how we’re going to go about that. It has been a while, so we don’t want to be repeating ourselves.
MW: Also, I’m not used to rendering electronic songs into band form, so I think we will be doing something that’s pretty continuous with what our live shows used to be but with our new songs. I’ll probably play the guitar and keyboard, which is different from normal – as you maybe know.
I’m thinking a lot about the set at the moment with both excitement and trepidation. Also because I haven’t played a festival in years! It’s a logistical nightmare [laughs]! Even just getting there, like limping to the stage to hopefully deliver something… No, it’ll be good. If nothing else, I can sing acapella [laughs].
TC: If all else fails. I can do stand-up comedy.
Can Sydney expect a Collarbones show soon?
MW: Yes! In March. We’re going to play a show in March. The details will be forthcoming [laughs]. That’ll be our comeback show, it’s going to be an extravaganza. Anyone who has ever liked Collarbones should come [laughs].
Collarbones – The Comeback Show
with DIN & DJ Kilimi
Saturday, 23rd March
Red Rattler, Sydney
Tickets via Collarbones’ website
Photo credit: Ricardo Morales
Words by Hannah Galvin.