He is regarded as one of the most intense people in his field – a menacing, no-nonsense workhorse whose wrath has been felt by everyone from Amanda Palmer to the people that dared to touch his mixes on Nirvana’s 1993 classic In Utero. So, what do Sydney’s gypsy/folk/metal/baroque/whatever-else-have-you specialists The Crooked Fiddle Band make of legendary producer, musician and engineer Steve Albini?
“He’s a pussycat,” says drummer Joe Gould with a laugh.
“Way! I mean, he’s full of opinions; that much is true. It can reflect badly on him. He’s actually quite gentle and a very genuine guy. I had the same fear going into recording with him, thinking about his reputation. In the end – and this is fitting, given Lou Reed passed the other day – he just doesn’t value the media that much, and in turn it means that he doesn’t value interviews. So when he’s getting interviewed, he doesn’t always come across as the most pleasant guy. In the studio, though, his whole philosophy is that he wants to make the record sound exactly the way the band wants it to sound – it’s such a luxury, really.”
The band went into the studio with Albini in Chicago earlier this year to record their second album, Moving Pieces Of The Sea. The release showcases the band’s typically chaotic approach to what they describe as “chainsaw folk”, with violin screeches and galloping drums aplenty. It also offers a different side to the band, incorporating longer and more progressive movements, as well as the inclusion of vocals. Gould feels that the changes that have come with the writing and recording of the album are greatly reflective of the band’s present identity.
“I guess this was more an exploration of staying on an idea,” he says. “Anyone who knows The Crooked Fiddle Band will know that we often jump around in styles and genres and what have you. After listening to and being inspired by a bit more post-rock – that epic, soundscapey sort of stuff – we were really interested in exploring the possibilities of just a few notes. It was something that we hadn’t really done before – the first track, ‘The Vanishing Shapes Of A Better World’, felt like a statement, in that regard.”
As for the newfound vocals – which are shared on the album between Gould, guitarist Gordon Wallace and violinist Jess Randall – they were apparently brought into the mix by Wallace. Gould claims their inclusion was a long time coming for the band.
“We’ve sort of dipped our toes in the water over the years, but we really went for it with this record. Before The Crooked Fiddle Band, Gordon was in a folk duo with another singer-songwriter. He wrote songs and sang them in that duo all the time. If anything, we’ve just been holding him back from singing again! We have just utilised a skill that’s always sort of been there within the group. We found a way to put it in the forefront whilst still being mostly instrumental.”
Since forming in 2006, The Crooked Fiddle Band has managed to secure a live reputation that could rival even the country’s most popular acts. The stories often go that, no matter what you make of its recorded material, seeing the band live is necessary to catch its vibe. It’s a reputation that is not lost on Gould and his bandmates.
“We’ve gone about capturing the live energy in a few different ways now,” he says. “On our first album [2011’s Overgrown Tales], that was the entire aim. The sum of it was that we were going to try and record in a way that makes it sound like what we are when we’re onstage. With this one, it’s kind of combining that with a little more recognition of the fact that in order to have as much X-factor as the live show, it’s got to have some extra dimension in the recording. So the album is us live in the room, plus some cinematic elements – there’s some cello overdubs, I did some extra percussion stuff, some extra vocals. It’s not a whole lot, but these days it’s assumed that most albums are layered up with lots of extra layers. Compared to that, it’s quite bare-bones.”
The band has just begun a national tour in support of the album, taking in several capital cities as well as some parts less travelled by. For Gould, it’s all a matter of seeking out their kind of people – and the community that builds from there.
“The momentum of the crowds and the cities we play to can definitely change over the years. Various places can really feel like home at different times. Sydney is obviously our home town, but for years we’ve really found that Newcastle just feels like home – we found that DIY arts scene really early on. Just about everywhere has it, it’s just a matter of whether we’ve found some friends in other bands or we’ve played the right pub where those sort of people go. Sometimes it’s hard to work that out from the outside, but we love what we’ve found.”
BY DAVID JAMES YOUNG