Between waltzing the wife of a widower and throwing bricks from the overpass, The John Steel Singers brought the sunshine, the wonder and the romance back to Brisbane’s indie pop scene. Their 2010 debut, Tangalooma, won over listeners, critics and musicians alike, scoring the adulation of heroes like Custard’s Dave McCormack and The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster, who produced the album. After a much-deserved break, the quintet regrouped and headed for the west coast of America to begin work on album number two – only to find their California dreaming would soon turn nightmarish.
“We worked with a producer in LA, who was this really awesome dude who was on the same level as us,” says Tim Morrissey, the band’s lead vocalist, guitarist and primary lyricist. “Once we got into the studio, though, you’re on the clock trying to pull the sound together – and it wasn’t quite working for us. We kept thinking that we were running out of time, always trying to move on to the next thing as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, we’re the kind of band that takes a lot of time with our stuff – and, eventually, if you keep doing that with every different part of a song, it just doesn’t work out the way that you want it to. When we got back from the States, we just decided to give it a go ourselves.”
It was with this that the band assigned itself to the idea that if you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself. Back through LAX and across to the starkly different surrounds of the Sunshine Coast, where they set up in the home of lead guitarist Luke McDonald’s parents. From there, JSS took their fresh new ideas and ran with them, basking in the kind of freedom that Los Angeles simply could not have offered. Making a departure from their brisk, sunny pop-rock, they leapt down the proverbial rabbit hole to see what they could find. Early in the process, they stumbled across one of the strangest tracks they’ve ever written – the album’s title track, ‘Everything’s A Thread’; its name ascribed by the aforementioned Forster.
“That song is really confusing,” Morrissey says of the unexpectedly popular tune. “I still don’t get that song or its structure – and I wrote it! There were a few times that we were thinking of cutting the song entirely from the album, and then the final mixes came back from Nicolas [Vernhes] in New York. Once we sent the songs to our label, they pointed to it as a song that could be a single. We were like, ‘What?!’ It has a crazy structure to begin with, but Nick made it even more crazy with his production, putting delays on the vocals and things like that. It was definitely strange that it was picked as a single, but there you are.”
The fearless freakiness continues throughout the album, as JSS match lush vocals with squiggly guitar lines and thumping drums. Perhaps the greatest musical departure, however, comes in the form of ‘MJ’s On Fire Again’, a shimmering roller-disco that’s equal parts ‘Dancing Queen’ and Dappled Cities. Morrissey points to it as his favourite song on the album, but also the one that has proven the most difficult to play live.
“It’s got a chorus that requires some high notes,” he explains, “and if you don’t hit them then you’re going to end up sounding like those yelling goats on YouTube. In the studio, things like that are fine – you can always do one more if you don’t get it right the first time around. Live, though, you’re only going to get one shot at it. It’s in quite a difficult vocal spot for a lot of us, and we had to try what seemed like hundreds of ways to work out how to actually sing it live. Everyone tried one another’s parts until we got it right – it was the first time we actually looked up singing lessons online in order to try and achieve the way that we wanted to sing. Hopefully it’s paid off.”
In September, the band undertook a brisk east coast run of club dates to not only promote then-current single ‘State Of Unrest’, but to reintroduce themselves to Australian audiences after an extended time away from playing live. The way these shows went, it was almost as if they’d never left. Naturally, they are anticipating bringing a full range of fresh material to fans both old and new as they undertake a proper national run of dates.
“Those shows were really good,” says Morrissey, reflecting on the State Of Unrest tour. “They were our first shows ‘back’, so to speak. I was actually kind of petrified that no-one was going to be there, so it was very nice to see a lot of faces out there. It was super pleasant to be playing live again. The difference this time around was the fact that we had to learn how to play all those new songs, as they hadn’t been played live before. It took a while, but I think we finally got there after a few months of intense practising. We’re looking forward to sharing these songs on a much more comprehensive tour.”
BY DAVID JAMES YOUNG
The John Steel Singers play Beach Road Hotel, Bondi on Wednesday November 13, The Small Ballroom, Newcastle on Friday November 15 and Oxford Art Factory, Darlinghurst on Saturday November 16. Support from Go Violets. Everything’s A Thread out now through Dew Process/Universal.