Northern Transmissions talks to James Milne (Lawrence Arabia) about a bit about life in England, technology, and Zac Efron.
NT: You are from New Zealand, but your music contains just as much as a West coast Americana sound as it does Flying Nun. Is this intentional?
JM: It’s not intentional to get away from Flying Nun per se – I love that stuff and am increasingly obsessive about it now. The music that was playing in my house as a child though was the Beatles and the Beach Boys, and the Eagles, Pink Floyd – classic rock, solid gold radio. Later on, when I was about seventeen and starting to make music, I discovered The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers and I think those harmonies and musical styles also really informed my instincts.
NT: Was it a big step for you moving to England? Have you got used to the weather?
JM: It was a natural step in many ways. My mother’s English, and I had a lot of friends living over there to cushion the blow when I moved there. It’s quite a common thing for New Zealanders to go and do their time in the UK. The weather in England is not unimaginably different from New Zealand, though on the whole it’s a little colder and a little greyer. I’m back living in New Zealand at the moment – it wasn’t the weather that got me though, just the difficulty of living on the other side of the world from my family and friends.
NT: Your last album was pretty successful in New Zealand and other places, but kind of ignored by North American media, was this frustrating to you? Will you be doing more shows in North America?
JM: I’m going to be living in New York from the end of July for about six months, so I’ll definitely be doing more shows in North America. The last album wasn’t a massive Stateside smash by any means, but I still feel totally privileged to even have a record deal and the opportunity to travel all around such an iconic and confounding continent. It’s always going to be difficult making your mark amid the thousands of other mildly successful acts…
NT: Can we expect a big departure musically on “The Sparrow”, from the
JM: I think so. It’s more mysterious, more ponderous. It has dramatic string arrangements and moments of deep woe, and songs about what goes on 4:30am.
NT: Apparently you are not a big fan of new recording technologies like ‘Pro Tools’ what annoys you so much about it?
JM: Well, that’s half true… I use ProTools to record all my stuff, and have always done so – I’m immensely grateful for the technology actually! But, it offers seemingly infinite possibilities in terms of tracks, the effects you can put on the tracks, and also when you’re producing and playing most of the instruments you have endless options with the instruments you can choose to use, the melodies you choose to play. The upshot of this is it’s easy to get baffled and depressed by the process of trying to produce the perfect pop song or whatever. So I made a production decision with this album to record it in a way that was old-fashioned in the sense it was recorded with a live band, then overdubbed predominantly with a string section. We still used ProTools, but with this faux-analogue era limitation. How was a graffitied subway poster of Zac Efron an influence on the album?
It was just one image that became a lyric, which ended up on the song
Early Kneecappings. “I saw graffiti on a subway poster – crude
moustache, exposed brains. It made the pretty boy look quite highbrow
so I gave myself the same.”
NT: You filmed a concert of the whole album, is this a preview of what is to comet on the upcoming tour? What was behind the decision to do this?
JM: I was quite determined to do something more creative with the live presentation of this album, and set it apart from the usual rock band of unshaven guys rocking out in a bar thing. My ideal scenario for this was to have a string quartet plus a five piece band of multi instrumentalists. Obviously it wasn’t going to be financially feasible to tour this enormous ensemble around the world at least in the short term, so I wanted to record it as a live version so people could at least see the album online being performed in that format. Also it might potentially work to convince promoters to book a show that involves that whole set up
NT: Which five albums are at the top of your record collection right now?
Opossom – Electric Hawaii
Jorge Ben – Africa Brasil
Lee Scratch Perry – The Black Ark Years
Harry Nilsson – Nilsson Sings Newman
King Tuff – Was Dead