After 16 years, eight ARIAs, six albums, two new members and countless shows around the world, Eskimo Joe are still having fun.
And you can hear it on the new album, Wastelands, which takes the Eskies into an unfamiliar territory – electronica. But this isn’t a cash in, this is the sound of three guys – who have been doing one thing for a long time – playing around with some new gear, new beats per minute, and a newfound energy.
“We just got to the point where we’d pushed a certain sound as far as we could push it,” explains guitarist, backup singer, studio drummer and all-round good dude Joel Quartermain. “By the time we’d finished Ghosts Of The Past, it was almost too easy to make an Eskimo Joe record. We could churn it out. And we didn’t wanna do that again.”
That “certain sound” can best be described as the dark stadium pop of the three-album cycle beginning with Black Fingernails, Red Wine and ending with the aforementioned Ghosts. But if you can remember back to 2006, the phrase ‘brand new sound’ was being used to describe Black Fingernails, and previously on 2004’s A Song Is A City – and even before that their debut album was being contrasted to earlier pop-punk singles.
The Eskies, it seems, are a band as well known for their chameleon-like changes as for their hits. “Yeah, we’ve changed direction a few times,” Quartermain laughs. “In our very early days we were producing music that felt like a comedy act or something.” At this point, it’s difficult not to break out into a verse of their 1998 debut effort, ‘Sweater’. That one was a tongue-in-cheek bubblegum punk mockery of hipsterism that still holds relevance with the consciously cool Gen Y.
Quartermain continues, “Eventually we sat down and said, ‘Alright, if we’re going to make albums now, we might wanna play music that we actually enjoy’.” And there has been much for the band to enjoy. They’ve gone from the smirking punks on ABC’s Recovery in the late ’90s to one of the country’s most solid live acts, with the triple-platinum albums to back it up. But despite their history, you can hear the enjoyment on this new album more than ever.
And it’s taken a lot of work to have this much fun. With this their first independent record, Joel cautiously discusses the “machine” that drives any major label recordings: “You feel like if you don’t get it right, innocent people might lose their jobs.” And how does it feel to be out on their own? “I think a pressure valve was released,” he says. “We felt that we could do whatever we want, have a laugh, and make a record that sounds like the albums we love. You know, LCD Soundsystem, Frank Ocean… Music that grooves.”
Did you ever think the ‘Black Fingernails’ guys would reference dance-punk DJs or polysexual R&B crooners? But a few tracks into the Burke Reid-produced record, you’ll be surprised you never saw it coming. They slip into mirror ball disco surprisingly smoothly, and if their run of shows in WA is anything to go by, audiences are getting into it just as easily.
“We weren’t sure how crowds would react to the new songs, but then the girls started busting out the dance moves. It was very cool,” Quartermain says.
It’s this close relationship with the fan base that Quartermain says has been the most rewarding part of going independent. Since parting ways with their major label Warner, Eskimo Joe have consciously kept it all about the music and the fans. The most obvious example of this is the highly successful, and highly publicised crowdfunding campaign that made the new record possible.
“I hope more bands do it. It’s very positive. Taking the power back. We had ‘experiences’ as part of [the pledge]. They’ve been great; having people over at our studios, us playing live for eight to ten people, playing the new songs to them face to face. They were great nights.”
Crowdfunding isn’t a new method of making art possible, but it’s still a rarity for groups of Eskimo Joe’s stature to utilise the. Quartermain insists the decision was borne out of a desire to engage with the “actual people buying the record”, but he can see that with more artists such as Kate Miller-Heidke and Amanda Palmer having success, this direction is where the industry might be headed. “You can already see it happening. My hope is that the profile our story got will allow other bands to see that as an option, and that it makes it possible for them to make a record”.
So, a lot has changed for the three-piece from Fremantle. At 16 years into their relationship, they’ve worked their way through the pubs, they’ve topped charts, and have now found themselves as role models to indie bands across the country. How has the Eskimo Joe mission changed?
“I think it changed in the mid-2000s when everything got more serious – planning world domination, hatching evil plans,” Quartermain laughs. “And now I think it’s back to where we started, trying to make music that we enjoy, and playing heaps of shows and having a laugh. I think we’ve come full circle”.
BY CAMERON JAMES