Initially the solo project of vocalist and guitarist Thomas Rawle, local band Papa vs Pretty have been quiet achievers for the past six years. A consistent and understated force in the Sydney music scene, with solid touring and a succession of EPs throughout that time, it’s been a gradual yet consistent climb for the group, all leading towards second album White Deer Park – a melancholy exploration to a point of clarity. Recorded in three different studios and produced by the legendary Dave Trumfio (Wilco, Grandaddy, My Morning Jacket), White Deer Park is indicative of what makes Papa vs Pretty such a great band: modest, deep, tight and quietly understated.
While many bands rush to get their sophomore album out to the public in order to capitalise on a successful first, Papa vs Pretty have taken their time to ensure it’s been done right. Speaking on his sixth anniversary of joining the band, and a week out from the album’s release, bassist Gus Gardiner admits he’s “a little anxious”.
“I am not worried about the quality of it. I know I am proud of it personally. I guess we started working on the album maybe even two years ago when we finished touring the first one. It’s been a very long process with a lot of writing and a lot of demoing.”
The recording process itself took over a year, with rigorous rehearsals and ruthless song culls. “We tried to up our game a lot,” says Gardiner. “We wrote a lot of songs and we tried to make a few leaps and bounds in our development as a band.” The group dealt with the notorious pressure of a second album by throwing itself headfirst into the job at hand. “We got into an obsessive sort of rehearsal regime. We were rehearsing with the click track on but with the upbeat only one click every eight bars. We were really obsessive with getting the performances perfect.”
This quest for perfection led the boys to record in three places altogether. The bulk of the tracking was initially done at Sydney’s Studios 301. “We had this massive great reverb space there. There is a song on the album called ‘Let It Begin’, which has this slow Phil Spector-style beat. You can really hear the snare was ringing out in that room.” Leaving the “super schlick” business environment of 301 behind, the band then took a sojourn to Mangrove Mountain on the Central Coast to record in Scott Horscroft’s studio, Forgotten Valley, before jetting off to LA to work in producer Dave Trumfio’s house. “Tom and I were doing a lot of tracking on our laptops in Dave’s backyard using little synths and keyboards and layering them,” says Gardiner. “Then we were bringing them together and putting them over tracks. It was recorded on two opposite sides of the world, which I guess is cool!”
In addition to the actual recording, a big part of making White Deer Park was whittling down the 70-odd songs they’d written. “I guess what narrowed it was what thematically, sonically and individually our favourite songs were. It was quite a traumatic process at times, just to cut off good songs, but just came down to how cohesive we wanted the album to be.”
In process and in subject matter, then, the whole concept behind White Deer Park was an arrival at an instantaneous point of clarity and understanding through a struggle of comprehension. Bizarrely enough, the album’s title refers to the 1990s cartoon The Animals Of Farthing Wood.“Everyone our age who had TV has this strange, unconscious memory of this show,” Gardiner explains. “When you hear the theme music you are like, ‘What is that?’ You know it but you don’t know what the hell it is. Then you see it and all these nostalgic memories of when you were a kid flood back.” White Deer Park, says Gardiner, is “about having that moment of realisation or of understanding… something you know but you’re not conscious of. It’s about arriving at a place of understanding and clarity.”
It’s a feeling the band experienced while making the record, Gardiner says, and is given airtime on the single ‘My Life Is Yours’. “It’s about going through a profound personal change and regarding your previous self as a different person. I guess that is something we all went through as a band and as individuals.”
In order to encapsulate that feeling, the band got experimental with many of the sounds on the album. In addition to overlaying synth tracks and playing through “metal boxes”, they used voice recordings to create a spooky soundscape between tracks.
“We set up this answering machine in the studio and people could ring up and leave messages,” says Gardiner. “We sort of wove those into soundscapes between songs so when people listen back they will have this vivid memory of this voicemail they left. My favourite one is the sample coming into ‘Smother’. It’s really quiet and there is this pissed off girl and she says, ‘I have been with my boyfriend for over two years and we still haven’t played Scrabble!’ It’s rad.”
White Deer Park out now through Peace & Riot/EMI.