“I still lack the capacity to not write autobiographically… I get too sentimental and have to make it about me.”
In April of 2010 Lawrence Greenwood gave an interview to Mess+Noise explaining why he’d given up on the Whitley name – that it was a tool he didn’t feel the need to use anymore, that his music was changing, and that he was leaving the country for a fresh start in Europe. He would still make music, but would release it under a new name, perhaps even his own.
But three years later he’s back in Melbourne, has released a single as Whitley (a jittery dream called ‘My Heart Is Not a Machine’) with an album to follow (called Even the Stars Are a Mess), and is planning a tour. What changed?
“I felt very out of control of the Whitley thing,” Greenwood says, “and wasn’t enjoying myself and how things were run, so I thought it would be easy enough to change. I manage myself now and it’s a very DIY vibe and that gives me a lot of control and enjoyment that I wouldn’t have otherwise gotten. So I gradually leant towards doing it again, but I think when the album was done it was very obvious to me that it was a Whitley album. I thought it would be kind of bullshit if I didn’t put it out under the name Whitley.”
As well as sounding like his previous Whitley albums – he says that it shares their hopeful themes and “production-wise it’s very much a mixture of the two albums” – there’s also a more pragmatic reason for releasing the new album with the old brand on it. “Half of the people who listen to my music seem to come from the United States and I don’t have the capacity to advertise that I have a new album to them. I think because it’s a moniker they might not necessarily be able to search that I’m releasing an album under the name Lawrence Greenwood, or whatever I chose to release it under, so I thought that maybe it would be best if it was similar, in an aesthetic sense, to have it easily reachable by those people as well. It’s a multifaceted thing really.”
When Greenwood quit being Whitley back in 2010 he went on the road one more time with his old band, a farewell tour to give his fans a chance to say goodbye. The experience surprised him with its intensity. “It was insanely emotional,” he says. “I think I, up until this point, I’d never really considered the people that listen to the music. I think artists get an inflated view of their own self-importance by habit, but in one regard I didn’t have that, which was thinking everybody loved me. I assumed that everybody kind of hated what I did.”
Far from it – his fans were dedicated and passionate, as were the members of his band. “I assumed they weren’t 100% into playing [with me]. Then there was this one moment on the last tour when I turned around and Andy [Reed], the drummer, was playing this incredible shit on the drums, it was amazing, and I just could see tears coming out of his eyes. It really hit me then that this was actually a big thing that was stopping, whereas before it was just as if I was quitting a job.”
One of those final shows was at Splendour in the Grass, which was emotional for a different reason. “We went and watched The Vines after that,” he says, “like, we ran to go and see The Vines. When I was younger I was a massive Craig Nicholls fan. He’s a genius: pop wizard.” Completing the circle of life, this year Whitley’s on the Splendour bill again as part of the comeback tour. At first he doesn’t think there’s anyone he’ll race to see like he did The Vines in 2010, even suggesting he’s more interested in the catering.
“There’s actually a food van that I’ll run to see, which is the Beatbox Kitchen. I’m really excited about that. They do a shroomburger that’s off the fucking chain.” But then he remembers one band sharing the bill who do have him suitably pumped. “Oh shit, The Polyphonic Spree doing fucking Rocky Horror Picture Show! That’s gonna be amazing. I’m actually thinking of bringing out a Frank-N-Furter outfit just to have some fun.”
The comeback tour comes with a comeback album, one that was written while travelling the world (he wrote the single while snowed in at a house in Tuscany). Like all of his music, it’s very personal. “I still lack the capacity to not write autobiographically,” he confesses. “I just can’t do it; it seems insincere to me. I don’t have that level of emotional abstract thinking that you have to be capable of. I get too sentimental and have to make it about me.”
But no matter how much honesty he’s packed into his music, Greenwood feels like he was misunderstood last time around. “I think that happens when you write pretty ambiguous pop songs,” he says. “People don’t really want to research a pop song most of the time, unless they’re music fans. They just want to hear that fucking piano hook again. But I think there was an element of people thinking maybe I was just there to write pop music to be popular, which is not the case. I really, really, really love pop music. I love the aesthetic, I love the craft behind it, I love the history and I love it as a medium for expressing a connectedness that people can feel. I’d just like people to understand that I guess.”
Greenwood traces his love of pop back to a particular song, heard when the family got a shiny new CD player back when CD players were shiny and new. The song that he fell in love with was ‘The Obvious Child’ from Paul Simon’s 1990 album The Rhythm of the Saints. “It was fucked-up pop,” is how he describes its appeal. “It had a huge Brazilian samba drum band and this beautiful story about a guy called Sonny who is dealing with ageing and trying to still attain a sense of freedom through ageing. Even at that young age it resonated with me: the theme, the mixing of different cultures, yet still having that structure. That was when pop structure revealed itself to me. It was really beautiful, a really beautiful moment. I still listen to that song now when I need a kick.”
So Greenwood has come back, to the pop music he wants to make, to the Whitley name he’s comfortable making it under again, and to the country where it all began. Although he says that missing his family was the main motivation for moving home, he jokes that there’s one other reason to prefer Australia over Europe. “Europe is just the pits for good cafes. London’s OK, but the only places that everyone’s ‘You have to go and try fucking XYZ!’ you walk in there and it’s either a Kiwi or an Aussie running it.”
BY JODY MACGREGOR
Whitley plays Oxford Art Factory Thursday July 18, followed by Splendour in the Grass Saturday July 27. ‘Even the Stars Are a Mess‘ is out July 5 through Dew Process.