“It’s about searching for meaning in the wrong places, you see that with the fringes of political movements whether its far right or far left, people are pushing further and further outwards, lost in social network echo chambers because they are trying to get that sense of belonging. Everyone is looking for that, whether it’s from family, everyone wants to belong, but it’s easy to get lost.” Jack Bourke singer and songwriter with Melbourne’s City Calm Down, talking about the grand existential themes that inform their impressively ambitious second album Echoes in Blue which sees the light of day in this country today.
Echoes in Blue is constantly grappling with the big questions of our age: “It is interested in the reality of being spread too thin, of being unable to shut out the noise, where we’re told to buy a house, with a mountain of debt, and do what we love, to be passionate and driven, whilst also making enough time for our wife or husband, boyfriend or girlfriend, for our children, parents and friends. Has life ever been more exciting or more artificial? Why are we so connected yet feel so alone? Perhaps, in all this excitement, we forget to be bored and examine ourselves a little more closely. Or maybe we should just embrace the rage.” It’s so easy to over produce this early ’80s influenced post-punk and new wave sound, but there’s a deftness about this songwriting and a humanity rooting the vocals and lyrics at every turn.
Echoes In Blue may grapple with grand themes but Bourke cautions against taking the songs and his message on face value though “So I’m putting forward a view; it’s only a view, it’s only a conclusion I have come to and the way I see the world and the excitement and power of pop music which includes the music we make try to make, is that people can find a common experience in it, or they can find their own narrative in whatever your singing about and its not about trying to provide a closed book on the song, the idea is to open avenues to different notions, to try and stand opposed to anything that’s too preachy.” Bourke wants to retain some mystery and ambiguity in the lyrics…”For instance, it’s very easy for Leonardo Dicaprio to go on about the environment and tell people what to do with their lives when he goes back home and to his yacht and doesn’t have to think about it, it’s not really about climate change that’s not a controversial issue but then it comes off as being more about vanity, there’s a lot of that in the arts.’ He notes ‘Life is complicated so if you find something that sounds true to you in the music at the time personally, rather than me saying: it means this. I want the lyrics to be a sort of conduit for that.”
Sonically Echoes In Blue possess the ambition of early synth led Simple Minds, (particularly on songs like ‘This Modern Land’ and ‘Distraction/Losing Sleep‘) with a grand palette of instrumentation, guitars, brass and keyboard parts that decorate each song. They become elements and motifs in their own right and are redolent of the way bands like Radiohead or Talk Talk used the synths and melodies to tap into deeper themes, to hook you into deeper listening. This is especially magnified on songs like the cinematic intimacy of ‘Joan…’, ‘Blame’ and the title track.
“Making that type of music, that new wave, post-punk electronic crossover there’s no real scene for that in Australia, so it’s been really good in many ways. We’ve never felt like we were part of a scene where they look at each other and they say you are part of this ‘we don’t do that.’ Explains Bourke “We are just this weird little outlier making this unfashionable new wave music, we’ve had a lot of freedom to do what we want. There are obviously bands out there we identify within a broad sense, a contemporary band I like is The War on drugs, who are doing their own thing. They are really pushing their horizons at the same time fighting this immense detailed sound. Every little detail opens up a new door every time you listen to it. We don’t sound anything like Fleet Foxes but they are another one of those bands trying to chart their own course. We have lots of influences but the drive is to make something different, we are far less talented than those bands I described but we have the same kind of drive.”
The first track I heard from City Calm Down was the exquisite ‘Joan, I’m disappearing’ which exists in the grand tradition of other Australian groups like the Triffids or Nick Cave, it comes complete with an accompanying cinematic video shot on 16mm on a desolate old farm in New South Wales. It’s about being so weighed down by a weariness of the world, chained to a job that makes you disappear from your loved ones lives that it can make you inadvertently drive others away “It’s not strictly autobiographical it was inspired by the way I was feeling at the time, I was working four days a week, and during evenings, I was burnt out and I was writing these lyrics around that time. I was having a coffee with my uncle who is a poet and it came up in conversation that a friend had got divorced. His whole life was the same thing, him getting home from work day after day, he ended up driving someone away. He cared about them but he couldn’t show it that was the theme of the song.’ Bourke explains.
Bourke’s desolate vocals are punctuated by moments of sudden cold realisation, while backed by enveloping drums fills and evocative guitars. The subtle use of synths and electronic textures that float in and out add a different dimension to this most poetic of songs ‘I think when I was writing it I was looking at some of Radiohead’s stuff. I always loved the way they had these little dissonant synth bits that float around that get stuck in your head, I was just playing around on the synth trying to give a sense of sadness, the chords are major minor major progression and by having that little keyboard part in gave it a different feeling.’ Also, as the opening track on the album it’s a brave move ‘I think we felt it was the opening song because it sort of signified that the album wasn’t just going to punch you in the face, that was part of the point. By putting that up front we are saying there’s more to come, there’s a whole record.’
A clear progression from the more heavy synth influenced new wave/post-punk influenced pop of their debut album ‘In a Restless House’ released in 2016, although punctuated by universal moments, Echoes in blue is more of a slow burner, that’s brooding tapestry of instrumentation and narrative perhaps offers more reward on repeated listens. ‘When we wrote the first album we were focussed on writing the catchiest songs, well not top 40 pop songs, but the catchiest songs we could write.” Bourke remembers.
“This time we had more freedom with what we could write; it was really good for us it captures that essence and not being so focused on writing that immediate song, by giving the music a bit more time to breathe. It felt like a risk though. In today’s music market if you chuck a song on Spotify if people don’t like the first ten or twenty seconds they can turn off. That’s the great thing about radio because its far more passive, although you can switch stations stations if it’s a station you like, you can listen for a long time and you might hear something you might not immediately like but that you may end up falling in love with. We found the songs of ours that do best on streaming are the more immediate ones, but we haven’t written concerned with this game.’
Recent single ‘This Modern Land’ is a gloriously swooping existential song laced in cinematic production and brass, keyboards and chiming guitars. It’s a combination that recalls the work of New Order, yet despite its cinematic scope Bourke’s boomingly delivered narratives speak intimately to the contradictions of modern life, the fact that we’ve never been more connected online but have often never been more alone, against a grand backdrop. “It was a funny one to write musically, it’s trying to be expansive but the lyrics are the opposite, I felt like if I wrote these open lyrics as well, it was going to come off a bit flimsy. When we were pulling the song together we were trying to emulate that openness and that melancholy, that calm behind the chaos of something like David Bowie‘s Heroes, its so open you could sing it at the top of your lungs, in a stadium or listen to in your headphones in your bedroom, it is trying to cross those divides,” points out Bourke.
Despite the songs grand ambitions and deeper themes, he was wary of writing an ’empty ‘stadium rock’ song. “It is only something you do if the only venue for your music is a stadium. With the last record what we found is it didn’t cross enough venues so that wasn’t a calculated issue, it was more that you want it to be able to reach people in different settings.” There are bands who just wrote songs that just happened to end up working in stadiums though, unintentionally. “A band that are masterful at being able to do that, are Radiohead with something like ‘Karma Police’ but they have never sounded like the music they were making was trying to be written for a stadium sound, it was just fantastic songs. U2 are the prime example as they played bigger shows the songs sounded more anthemic, that’s to do with Bono’s personality and what little I know of him he comes across as less introverted and he wants to preach to the very back. We had written this song that was very open and grand and we wanted to close it down lyrically, so it didn’t come across as vapid.”
Title track ‘Echoes in Blue’ is the final track on the album and perhaps the most experimental and verging on progressive pop, it’s built around a keyboard part and subtle vocals, swelling towards crescendo over six minutes. Its sonics perhaps point the way to an even more adventurous future for City Calm Down, like the harsh yet strangely beautiful coastal rocks and landscape shot in New South Wales that’s their album cover, there’s a storm that you are trying to see your way through to the distance: “When I started working on that, I was playing around there wasn’t too much intention behind it when I started. I was playing around with some sounds and as that song evolved we just wanted to create an experimental track just because it was really challenging to do that, it took you to a whole lot of different places. It was definitely the hardest song we ever had to write because of the changing of tempo and time signature, we wanted it to feel seamless but have all these sounds floating in. We all dabble around on our computers each of us tinker, but when we are playing live Sam plays the synth parts.”
Born out of a growing Australian music scene that is fostering different shades of independent artists in the last decade, City Calm Down emerged in 2015 and their fanbase has steadily grown with the band’s shows, releases and the exposure afforded to them back home “I guess we’re playing somewhere from 750 capacity rooms to 2000 capicity rooms dependent on the city, we’ve got a few small-cap cities. “ Bourke explains: “There’s a lot of really good bands coming up at the moment there’s heaps and heaps of top quality bands coming up in Australia at the moment, there’s a lot of support that comes from stations like Triple J and the community radio stations are really strong as well that help develop bands careers. if you have a strong live show you can build a following just off the back of that, there’s a band called the Tesky brothers who have built a strong following off their live shows, particularly in Melbourne,” he explains.
Australia isn’t immune to the challenges facing live music and the decline in nightlife in cities, generally though “The licensing laws are killing Sydney’s music scene because a lot of the bars can’t serve alcohol after a certain time. Two or three venues have shut down because nobody goes out anymore.”
With the dominance of Spotify and social media, the choices have become more vast and bewildering and the shifts in music listening and consumption have led to a passivity and a lessening of importance of the role of music in people’s lives, its something Bourke has thought about: “That’s definitely the sense I get especially if you look at the way Spotify works. There’s a lot of this easy listening and chill out music, even the stuff made by genuine artists, it’s like what’s the point? It all sounds the same. If you didn’t want to get anything out of music then it’s probably for you but it’s really prevalent on Spotify it seems to be what’s on the most highly played playlists.” He notes, “Ed Rosen from Grizzly Bear was saying something like in five or 10 years there won’t be a place for bands like us to play. Our audience is really spread from 18-65, it’s that sort of older generation that is still going to gigs it’s very easy to get home and put on Netflix or something like that. “
Perhaps it’s the abundance of choice that’s drowning out any of the quality, Bourke agrees: “It’s the fact you have all of that pop music at your fingertips; if I wanted to listen to say Bruce Springsteen or Led Zepplin in the past I used to have to go and buy a record. I think with buying a record it forms part of your identity, a record collection it says something about you. Whereas there are certain albums I’ve downloaded and listened to once and never listened to again. ‘Gladiator’ soundtrack was one. Then again I do sometimes wonder if that’s me. A lot of people don’t care about music, if you gave them the option between never watching Netflix or never having Spotify, they’d probably chose Netflix initially but would miss it later, I think music is more enriching than some of the crap on these services.’
Bourke thinks that our online life is often an airbrushed version of ourselves, the one we want to project to the world, when the reality can be quite different: Sometimes you overhear people talking about how many people like their photos – who gives a shit? – but at the same time people who are doing that – the most are musicians like us as we are using it for self-promotion. So I guess it’s a contradiction. I was chatting with a friend who plays in quite a well-known band and he said ‘the whole thing with social media and Instagram is about making people think you have an awesome life and you want to make them jealous of it, so we are driving along and see an awesome beach and stop and pretend we are holidaying and taking pictures of it. If we don’t do that we will be stuck in this backwater’ there’s this whole charade that goes on online.”
City Calm Down return to the UK this May: