Interview: The Glorious North

TGN_TheWidow_cdsize_hi.jpgMelbourne band The Glorious North recently released their debut album, Welcome To The Glorious North, and have a new single out: ‘The Widow’, which is a twist on a murder ballad.

The band play regularly in Melbourne and have performed at festivals including Beer InCider Experience in Brisbane, Tamworth Country Music Festival and the Fat Yak BBQ Festival in Melbourne. Recently I spoke to singer/guitarist PJ.

 

Do you all have stage names?

No, we don’t. I mean my schoolyard nickname was PJ because I am Patrick James. So I use it as a slight degree of separation from my real life and The Glorious North life. Our guitarist you know as Tele Dee but that is not his real name. He has the real full onstage name.

 

I also like the fact you have made a distinction between real life and musical life. Your music isn’t integrated into your real life?

Well, it is to a very large degree but it does help with dislocating the responsibility of day jobs and fatherhood from drinking a lot of beer and carrying on onstage.

 

I like to do research before I do interviews but there is actually not a huge amount about your band that I could find – which is good, because it means I get to ask you questions like how did the band form? How do you all know each other and how long ago did you get together?

The nucleus of the band is myself and Tele, our guitarist, and we have been playing together for 20 years in and out of different outfits. We are kind of refugees from indie guitar rock, if you like. And then, as we have got a little bit older and wiser, we have moved increasingly towards more balanced-style songwriting and storytelling, which ended up where I began, really. I began as a little, little boy listening to country music. So we started playing as a duo and we were pouring out all these country songs and we, over a beer one day, said, ‘Let’s find another couple of people to play in a band.’

 

So was that because you felt like the songs needed a bigger sound than you could get in a duo or it was that their fullest expression would be with a four piece?

Yes, and we had a distinct idea of the sound. So that was, sort of, a country rock sound with a bit of an urban tinge to it, even though the songwriting itself and the structure of that song is very traditional in many ways, traditional sort of country songs. But we have kept somewhat of a hard edge to the guitars and that kind of thing. So we thought, to bring those things together we really needed a full band.

 

I find with songwriters who have maybe not been in country the whole time, it’s almost like people feel country music gives them permission to tell stories in a way, that other genres are a little more restrictive in terms of what the audience expects, and I think in pop and rock that can certainly be the case. But in country there is a huge amount of leeway there.

I agree and it’s funny – you can be so explicit with your tale that you are telling with country, I find. Whereas I listen to the sort of music my children listen to and the poetry is quite slippery and it is very much about personal empowerment, I find. So that there is a real focus on the self and it is okay to love yourself and you are beautiful and I am beautiful and everyone is beautiful kind of message. And it is interesting how far away the stuff I write and perform for The Glorious North is from that sort of pop world now.

 

I actually haven’t thought of it in those terms but it is true. There is a lot of the self as the nucleus of the universe, but in country music there is definitely a sense that you are part of a bigger whole. Because there are usually lots of characters in the song. It is very rarely about just one person.

That’s right and I also like the fact that the self, when it is put at the centre, is often flawed, and has done damaging things to people and they have to deal with that. And a lot of our music comes back to those themes.

 

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What  sparked this interview was your latest single, The Widow, and even in that there is a cast of characters and there are flawed individuals. So it’s a song, it is not a novel, but there is a whole world in that song.

That’s right. And it is very much told from obviously the perspective of this pathetic, in many ways, lovesick killer. But we are also hearing it through, seeing it just through his eyes and hearing only his story. So I am thinking one day I need to write a follow-up and tell it through the eyes of the widow herself to see if there is a different perspective to it all.

 

Well, given that he is the murderer, he does come across somewhat sympathetically – but I don’t know that she would.

No, and that would be the challenge of writing a sequel, because it might be that if she has a different slant on things and perhaps she misunderstood, I haven’t flushed out the story but I do think about it every now and again.

 

When you write stories, do you tend to keep a notebook? Story ideas come to you and you jot them down? Or do you like to focus your attention when you are writing and just see what turns up at that time.

Little bits of both. I will occasionally scratch something into my phone because that is what I carry around with me these days. So if I have an idea for a lyric, it normally sparks from a couplet or something like that, or I have a rhyme that sounds good. The most recent song I wrote – which may never turn into a band song but is another murder ballad. interestingly enough – I just started with the poetry, which was, ‘Her hair as black as a raven’s wings, her eyes like skies of blue, her lips as red as blood that bled, my darling Mary Lou.’ I walk around a lot and these sort of things occur to me from time to time and that is the genesis of the song. I don’t hang onto them for a long time. It happens reasonably quickly.

 

And then, given you have the genesis of the song, it sounds like you document it and then you don’t fret away about it. You just leave it there until you might pick it up later.

That’s right and I rarely put myself through any angst writing a lyric. If I do it over the course of an afternoon or a night.

 

The country music you listened to as a younger person, what sort of acts were there?

What burned in my brain most clearly is the song by Burl Ives. Burl Ives’s version of a song called ‘Ghostriders in the Sky’ – most people know some version of that song. And I remember as a four- or five-year-old asking my brother to put that song on the record player. We had one of those record players that looked like a giant sideboard with an AM radio built into it and all that sort of stuff. And we were living in Townsville and I remember asking him to put it on again and again and again, and just staring out at the sky and the clouds in the sky and imagining the lyrics of the song come to life, and that song is about this guy who is heading to hell and gets an intervention from beyond the grave. And the other song that I remember as a real young kid is ‘Don’t Take Your Guns to Town’ by Johnny Cash. So it is that really traditional, kind of, these men or young men with scars and character flaws and how they dealt with it that formed the basis of my appreciation and opinion of country music.

 

But also, that is heavy material for a little person to be listening to.

It is, and you never think of it but it was just the influences around me, I suppose. I always thought ‘Don’t Take Your Guns to Town’ was sad because he died but I also remember thinking if only he had listened to his mum. So that was a morality tale for me.

 

As you grew up and moved away from country music, did you find that there was other music that gave you that same kind of lyrical satisfaction, for want of a better term?

Well, to a degree and so I’d focus in on specific lyrics in some songs, for instance. So even things like those singer/songwriters of the ’70s are moving into folk rock. You can easily see the connection or the lineages from country music to that sort of stuff. Carole King and Elton John and Bernie Taupin. But then latterly through the ’90s and 2000s Nick Cave really did that for me and, to a degree, Crowded House as well.

 

So I think Neil Finn is a great storytelling songwriter.

He is undoubtedly that and I love somatically how Nick Cave turns a song as well, and the phrases he used to describe it. He is a little bit like what Raymond Chandler was to novel writing for me, Nick Cave is to songwriting.

 

It sounds like throughout your life you have given yourself creative opportunities, because you have been writing songs for a long time and playing as well as having the day job and doing other things. I think where I am going with this is that a lot of adults who have day jobs and families find it hard almost to give themselves permission to be creative but it sounds like you have had that balance for a long time.

It’s something I noticed actually when I was at university and I was studying for exams or doing an assignment or something. And I was having ideas for songs at the same time and I noticed a correlation between how active I kept my brain in other areas to the creative output, and there was a direct sort of correlation there. And I notice the same thing now so, where my work is very busy and that does require a lot of thinking, where I strategise and sit down and write down things on large pieces of paper and that sort of stuff, that tends to stimulate creative output as well.

 

So it is almost like a left brain/right brain integration?

Perhaps so. It would be interesting to see what is going on in there with a CAT scan or something.

 

Because I do think it is so easy as you grow up, go through your teenage years and get into early adulthood, to shut down the imagination, because there is also a lot of information coming in from elsewhere. There is a lot of music to listen to, a lot of TV shows to watch or whatever, and it can be really tempting to just not engage in your own imagination. So to have a practice, as you have obviously had, of being imaginative can be really useful for all sorts of things in your life.

Exactly, and it does help as well, it helps with the way that you relate to people and particularly the kids. I have got a ten-year-old and an eight-year-old and they are very creative and they are always making up stories and shifting around stories that they have seen in TV shows or read in books or seen themselves. And that sort of rubs off on you to a degree as well.

 

But I will come back to the band, in particular – you applied the label ‘slacker country’ to yourselves. But, from the work you have just described that you have been doing for a long time, you are hardly slack, so I wondered why you would apply that label to yourselves?

It did have a specific genesis story, this term. We were playing a song called ‘Strange New World’. We were just rehearsing in our rehearsal rooms in Sound Park, which is in Northcote in Melbourne. And our bass player at the time, Loretta, was saying, ‘I am getting a real Dinosaur Jr feel with this song.’ And I said, ‘Oh, slacker country.’ And then it stuck because it did harken back to the music I used to play – the indie guitar, loose, rock stuff – and there are threads of that definitely in The Glorious North still.

 

I can hear a bit of that. It is an interesting combination to have. I can’t think of many other bands who could say that they have that kind of influence going on in their country music.

No, and I think it works both ways for us. Obviously we are not an especially well-known band or particularly successful or anything like that, but we do run the risk of alienating some country fans. When we went to Tamworth I think we alienated a few. We won over a lot of fans as well with that sort of style, but it is perhaps a little bit challenging for the dyed-in-the-wool Garth Brooks type.

 

Tamworth is organised very much around the venues and the venues tend to be good at booking bands that suit them. And so if I happened to wander into your show and expect Garth Brooks I wouldn’t know the venues well enough.

That’s right. And the last show we played, I can’t remember whether it was at the Locomotive Hotel and it was a 1 o’clock in the morning slot. And when we walked in the place it was absolutely full of people who were enjoying themselves and they were obviously a covers band and they were actually playing a Garth Brooks song. And we walked in and I thought to myself, we are going to get ripped limb from limb in this place. And fortunately it didn’t work out that way. They actually quite enjoyed us.

 

You have obviously played bars and some bigger venues and you have also played festivals. Do you have a preference for what sort of venue you are in?

 

Not particularly, and the reason for that is that we do get to play different-sized venues. Playing at pubs in Melbourne is great and even here, where the live music standard is still pretty good, there is only a certain amount of places that you can cram into the circuits every six or twelve months. But the intimacy of those shows, the unexpected things that can happen and work as a result, is really terrific. On the other side of the equation, playing at a festival with 4000 or 5000 people listening is wonderful as well, because it doesn’t happen to us all that often and you get a real adrenaline buzz from those kinds of situations.

 

Are you working on more songs? You did have the potentially new murder ballad to work on but are you working on songs for a new album?

We are and we have got – Tele and I write songs singly and then we bring them to the band. We have got a whole new raft of songs actually, probably between six and eight, which we hope will form the nucleus of a new album which we hope to record probably at the end of this year.

 

Do you have to set aside special rehearsal time or do you just tend to sort it out once you are in the studio?

No, we will rehearse it up and we will try them live as much as possible because that irons out a lot of kinks in the arrangement for the songs.

 

As you said, you and Tele have been playing together for 20 years now and so you write separately? So have you ever collaborated on a song?

Yes, we have occasionally and we have sat down together and said, ‘Let’s write a song together.’ But just the logistics of it these days makes it really, really hard. So we might suggest a slightly different approach so the bridge first or ‘why don’t you try A sharp minor instead of a D here’ or something like that, and that is as far as the collaboration goes in terms of the actual writing of the song itself.

 

This current album was produced by Dave Rogers – do you think you will invite him back to dance with you next time?

I reckon so, yeah. We have got a great relationship with Dave. Also, can’t afford not to do it with him because he is a multi-instrumentalist and you hear a lot of him in some of those keyboard sounds in particular. So we want to utilise his multiple talents without having to pay someone else to do it.

 

Well, that is as good a reason as any and it also sounds like you are in a good studio space in Hamer Hall.

It was spectacular in there and, you know, you pull back the curtains and there is Melbourne and the Yarra River. It is a wonderful place to go..

 

Welcome to the Glorious North is out now.

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