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PLAY IN MARCH.

March is flying past, the weather's turning rubbish and the days are getting shorter. Summer's over, but the month isn't yet - still plenty of time to bow, strum, hum, hit and holler for PLAY!

If you're a little low on inspiration for your music making, get surrounded by the people who create it. No matter where in the world you live, there are gigs to be found all over the place, on nearly every night of the week. Seek out a local band, join a crowd and get loud, whether it be rock, pop, rap, jazz, freeform electronica - no matter how niche your tastes, someone else will have them too. Find a free gig and get moving!

While you're at home, jump online and check out some music documentaries for a warts and all view of the industry and the people who make the music you love. Rolling Stone has a great list of the 40 Greatest Rock Documentaries, and Pitchfork has 20 Essential Music Docs. Get behind the politics, passion and power of it all, and then try a song or two out for yourself!

Follow us on Twitter and Instagram for easy-to-play songs this month, and use the hashtag #artolympics to share your own musical prowess with the world!

This week's interview is with frontman of The Harlots, Tom Pitts. He chats about figuring out the music you're meant to play, breaking yourself and your piano by rocking too hard, and wishing your idols would lose their voice and pull you up onstage. Settle in and have a read!

The Art Olympics gets up early and staggers out for a coffee and breakfast with Melbourne musician Tom Pitts.

9:24 am, in a cafe in North Melbourne. One bircher muesli, one grilled halloumi sandwich.   

Art Olympics: So, Tom, tell me about what you do, art-wise.

Tom Pitts: Okay. So, I play in a band called The Harlots, and we’ve been around for four years now. And I am trying to be a writer as well. I’m trying to be a playwright. I basically split my time between those.

AO: When it comes to music, when did you first start playing?

TP: Playing music? I think I started in year 8. I think my parents had tried to make me play music a number of times – I think I learnt four times, for a total of six months.

AO: Was it piano all those times?

TP: Piano, yeah, yeah. But it was something that I didn’t really connect with. I’d always done singing at church, but then my mum, she basically taught me how to play chords and then taught me how to look up songs on the internet, and then gave me a Powderfinger book.

Laughter.

TP: You know that song ‘Passenger’, by Powderfinger? Anyway, that album. So I had that, and I was able to look at the letters and work out the chords. I found it much more exciting. That was year 8. And from then on, I have played ever since.

AO: Did you continue to have lessons after that, or are you primarily self-taught?

TP: Primarily self-taught, but I got to the stage where I had to have lessons. I’ve stopped now, but I had a good two, two and a half years of classical lessons. 

AO: Was that quite recently?

TP: Yeah, I think I played for probably thirteen years without lessons. But then I got to the stage where – I think if you really want to do something, you have to know what you’re doing to some extent. I’d been playing a long time, but I was probably nowhere near as good as I should have been for the hours I’d spent. And Terry, my teacher, taught me boring things, like fingering and reading and stuff. He kind of opened everything up for me. 

Tom Pitts. Photo by Sarah Walker.

Tom Pitts. Photo by Sarah Walker.

AO: You managed to give yourself RSI from piano playing, didn’t you?

TP: Yep. When you’re just learning and you’re copying all the people that you like, one of mine was Ben Folds. Ben Folds either had awful trouble with RSI, I suspect – because I saw him recently, and his technique is completely different. He’s doing the same thing, now – gone into classical. He used to bash the keys, and I thought that was pretty cool, so I did the same thing.

Laughter.

TP: And I think that sort of action, along with making coffee for far too many years, sort of aggravated that.

AO: I must say, though, you still are a fairly aggressive pianist in performance. I took some video footage of you guys at the Gasometer, and you are fucking up that piano.

TP: I just got that piano fixed, actually, for that very reason. The guy calls me up and goes ‘Hi, it’ll be around $200.’ He calls me back and he’s like ‘Yeah, we’re looking at $270 now.’ He calls me back and he’s like ‘This is the worst piano that I’ve ever seen. What the hell have you done with it?’ It was $330. Apparently I’d bent the metal bit that holds all the keys in place. It was bent like arthritis fingers.

Laughter.

AO: It’s like every time I get my camera fixed, the last time I did it, they handed it back and they were like ‘So, that was the dirtiest camera we’re ever had.’ And I was like ‘Ooh, it smells like alcohol!’ and they were like ‘Yeah, we had to clean everything. Bits of the lens that never get dirty – how did you do that?’

Tom Pitts. Photo by Sarah Walker.

Tom Pitts. Photo by Sarah Walker.

TP: I had a piano in my room when I was younger, and I wanted to get it tuned. The tuning guy comes in, and says ‘Oh yes, I know these guys, should be a quick job.’ We come back later, and he’s fucking vacuuming cigarette butts out of the inside of the piano, which weren’t mine. My mum was not impressed. It was my cousin, I swear to god. Daniel!

Laughter.

AO: So was the first song you ever learnt to play ‘Passenger’ by Powderfinger?

TP: The first song I learnt to play – nup, it was ‘Already Gone.’ Still by Powderfinger. (He sings) ‘Promises already gone’. And then ‘Passenger’, yep. And then The Whitlams. I listened to The Whitlams exclusively for a year. It got to the point where I’d go to second hand record stores to find the singles, so I could hear the other song on them. I was obsessed.

AO: Did you purposely seek out people who were pianists to listen to, to get inspired?

TP: Yeah, yeah, because originally I didn’t like rock music. I didn’t really get the guitar, for some reason, so I just listened for piano. So that’s why I liked The Whitlams, and then Ben Folds, and then Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. And then I was pretty over the piano thing by then.

Tom mid-performance. Photo by Julia Lay.

Tom mid-performance. Photo by Julia Lay.

Laughter.

AO: Do you remember how old you were when you first wrote a song?

TP: Old. I was old. I was about eighteen or twenty. I was certainly out of school. 

AO: Do you still remember the song?

TP: Yeah. It was a ripoff of a Nick Cave song. As with everyone, when you first start, I suppose, you just do other people’s stuff. I think I started that really late because ultimately you’ve just got to write a whole lot of shit songs when you start, everyone does. But unfortunately all my friends had got to the stage where they were writing pretty good songs.

Laughter.

AO: What was the first song that you wrote that you consider a good song?

TP: I had one which was called ‘Violet Sky’ or something awfully melodramatic and pretentious. But again, it was another Nick Cave ripoff. But at the time, and even today, I’m like ‘That’s pretty good. I’m happy with that one.’ But I’ve written some of the worst songs you’ve ever heard. Really, some of the most awful – oh, no, the first song I ever wrote was in the last year of high school. It was fucking godawful. Like, ‘Show me a smile / at least for a while / that I can keep as a picture in my mind/ for all of time.’ You know all of those ‘I die when I cry’ kind of rhymes? It had one of those in it. And then I think it takes a turn at the end, and you realise that the guy singing it is in the army and can’t see his girlfriend for some reason, or something like that. 

There’s this song by Tim Minchin – I don’t really like Tim Minchin that much, but he’s got this great song, and mentions in it – the line’s something like ‘I’ve got a girlfriend but the bitch is always fine.’ So he’s got nothing to write about. I really remember that, trying to make up these really sad things that just hadn’t happened to me, trying to get some edgy lyrics.

Laughter.

AO: I feel like you weren’t playing solo for terribly long before you started getting a band behind you in the form of The Harlots. Was that about feeling frustrated with the scope of solo playing, or just having more things in your head that you wanted to get out?

TP: I just wanted to be in a band, I think. I started getting into music that was more than just piano. It’s very hard to get out of that piano type of music. Especially if you haven’t done that much playing. It doesn’t have the same rhythm as guitar, it doesn’t have the percussive quality. I had a couple of friends who were into music, and one of them had already been in a band, and I think that was the push I needed. 

The Harlots.

The Harlots.

AO: I remember when you guys were first playing, you’d be playing these rock songs, and everyone would be having a great time, and then you’d go to play something like ‘Far Cry’, and everyone would just fuck off to get a drink. Which I imagine must be really frustrating. Because that song in particular I love. That’s one of my favourite things you’ve written. I wonder at what point – I don’t know if it’s just about being famous enough that people will just shut up and listen to the slow songs.

TP: It’s a hard one. I was having a chat to my friend, Tom about owning songs. A lot of it is the song, but if you introduce a song in a way that gets people to listen, it changes it. If you go ‘Hey, we’re going to slow things down now’, people are going to get a drink. I’ve got this song that we actually played for the first time at the Gasometer, and I feel like that song in the same way was the low point in the set, because it’s about the thoughts you have about wanting to quit the band, because it is a slog a lot of the time. Especially when you’re touring. And I sort of said ‘Hey, this is a slowy. This is a new one.’ I was a bit awkward about it. We played it, and it was fine, but you could see people kind of talking – and it fucking goes for seven minutes as well, so. Yeah, so it’s about giving people a reason to listen to it. My friend said ‘Why don’t you say ‘I nearly quit this band last week. This is why.’’ People are going to listen to that, you know? It was the same with ‘Far Cry.’ It was the same thing. 

Giuliano from ‘Twin Beasts’, they’ve got this song off their first album called ‘In My Defence.’ I was talking to him about it. It’s one of my most favourite songs I’ve ever heard those guys do. And I’ve seen it electric, everyone watching, and I’ve also seen it bomb. And I don’t know what it is. It could just be the vibe of the night. Like, if everyone’s drunk and you’re at the Espy, you don’t play that song. I don’t know what it is. But giving people a reason to want to invest the time into that song, that’s part of it.

AO: In terms of gigs going really well versus gigs not going well, how much of it is what you guys bring to it, and how much is the audience? I suppose it’s always give and take. But do you guys know before you go onstage if it’s going to be a good gig?

TP: We know if it’s going to be a bad gig. We played a lot of gigs for money in the past. Like, if we wanted to record or something, we’d go to regional Victoria, or slightly outside Melbourne and play in a pub for a guarantee of a certain amount of money. And we’ve played in those pubs – you know, you want the new fans as well, but by the same token, you’ve just got to play a lot of gigs if you want to fund the band. And we’ve been to places where it feels like no-one that’s there wants there to be live music. You don’t want to be there – I swear to god, there are some venues that are essentially just big poker machines. Who invest huge amounts of money – we’ve been paid hundreds of dollars to play in front of three people. Ostensibly, they want to seem like they’re this venue that has music and they have these nights and BBQs and stuff, but it’s not where they make their money, I think. I suspect. Anyway, we’ve done a lot of those gigs that we knew were going to be awful at the start. But when it’s good, you know, you can just feel the vibe in the room. And everyone’s really excited, and they watch the support bands.

AO: What’s the experience like of having fans? When I first started seeing you guys, it was all your friends, and I knew everybody in the room. I hadn’t seen you guys in a while, and I came to the Gas, and there were all these people there who I didn’t know, and all these women trying to catch your eye while you were playing, which I found hilarious. What is the experience of suddenly having people you don’t know start to get starry-eyed at you?

TP: The first time we noticed it, we went to Warrnambool, and people sang along to one of our songs, and we thought ‘This is the coolest thing ever.’ It’s just really nice. And it’s really amazing to think that somehow, music gets out there, through the internet, or whatever. It’s really flattering, I suppose, and validating a little bit. Because no matter how long you do it for, and no matter how many of your friends say ‘It’s really good’ – your friends will say that anyway. So it’s just nice to kind of go ‘We’ve done this, and people really enjoy it.’ Obviously we’ve done something right, or we’ve affected some people. 

AO: Who are the musicians that you’re listening to at the moment and being like ‘Fuck yeah!’ Or seeing live, and being like ‘That’s brilliant’?

TP: The international band that I really like at the moment – they’re not my favourite band, but I really appreciate them, is Alt-J. Because I remember, I heard those guys, and I was like ‘I’ve never heard anything like that before.’ Really. There’s a lot of new possibilities with music. And those guys are really unique, and they’re kind of breaking down that gulf between played music – guitars and stuff - and synth. Half the time, you can’t even tell what they’re doing. So those guys are really exciting in terms of their sound, because it’s just something that’s so new, and showing the direction that music can go in. Because synth is really exciting. Technology’s always been the thing that changes music. They’ve got this new instrument that’s come out which is like a piano and a guitar – some weird synthetic midi instrument. It’s amazing. Because if you can do guitar on midi – midi’s where the signal goes into a computer, and you can make it whatever sound you want, and change the tone and stuff. If you can do that on guitar – fuck! The amount of amazing guitarists who are out there. The problem with synth is that nobody knows how to fucking play the piano. So that sort of stuff I find really exciting. 

In terms of live music, what’s the best live gig I saw recently? I just love seeing bands really enjoy themselves and connecting with the audience. Twin Beasts always do it. When you just see how much fun they’re having. As opposed to when you go see bands and they play the music, and that’s their role and they do it, but it’s nothing more than that. And the Pretty Littles – we play with those guys all the time, and they just seem like they’re having such a good time. And it’s better for them if you enjoy it. It becomes this whole really cool vibe in the room. 

It’s amazing how much with the audience you really do feed off the singer. I saw The Bad Seeds recently play the Plenary. I saw them two weeks before in Sydney, and in Sydney, something was just not right. It was exactly the same show. Same songs, but something wasn’t right. And I think that it was that it was the end of this long tour – they’d been playing in Sydney for five nights in a row. And they just didn’t want to be there, is what it seemed like. And you can kind of tell. Even though they’re putting on this thing, something about it, you can tell. I heard five thousand people at the Plenary not talk. No-one talked while they were playing this ‘Push the Sky Away’ song. It was fucking incredible. It’s just the mentality of the band, I think, and Nick. 

AO: What is it like, having him as a relative? I am always loathe to bring him up, especially given that you play piano, you make music and you look a bit like him – there’s always that ‘Oh, he’s doing well because he’s Nick Cave’s nephew.’ I mean, he’s based in the UK. How prominent was he in your life when you were growing up?

TP: Not really that prominent. He was just Fun Uncle Nick who came over every year and took us to Luna Park or something like that. Not prominent at all. Obviously he was an idol, growing up and wanting to do that. In terms of doing what I want to do, I’ve been very lucky to have him in my family,  because for better or for worse, being a musician is a viable option. I’ve never been told ‘Come on, you need to get on with things.’ I’ve never been pressured like that, because as I said, it seemed like a reasonable career choice. His music I don’t really associate with him as a person at all.

AO: It must be strange having this kind of god figure onstage – I was watching ’20,000 Days on Earth’, and the footage of them performing in Germany, where there’s a girl in the front row who is quite literally having a religious experience. It must be strange being like ‘Oh, there’s Uncle Nick. Sometimes I babysit his kids.’ 

TP: Oh, totally. It is completely different. Incidentally, it was funny with that, he did that every time, the hand on the heart thing. It’s quite amazing that he was able to give this person that sort of experience when it was – not rehashed, but it was a part of the set. ‘And then I put the hand there.’

Laughter.

TP: Quite incredible. The only annoying thing about that is that anyone who’s ever done a review of us has done their research and has found out, and it’s very much a ‘So what’s it like?’ That’s the first thing that comes up. And it’s not their fault, it is an interesting thing. He’s like the most respected musician in Australia. Rock musician. 

AO: I remember he came to one of your gigs, on Sydney Road. I remember, I came in late, and I was hugging someone, and I looked over their shoulder, and was like ‘Oh, look, it’s Nick Cave.’ I was watching all these people who weren’t our friends doing these triple takes and being like ‘He’s just standing there. Just standing! In the room!’

TP: He just doesn’t go to places like that. It’d be awful. 

AO: Being famous just sounds so unprivate. You could never just – you know, go to a gig. 

TP: I think that’s why he lives in Brighton. 

AO: Did he give you guys feedback after that gig?

TP: No, not really. He’s always interested in what we’re doing, and he has heard all of my music, but I’ve never sent him music. I think it’s my mum, she chats to him about stuff like that. I’ve always been loathe – probably stupidly, really – to use that as a contact, because there’s something I don’t like about it. You know. But I’ve never asked him for feedback.

AO: Do you feel like you’ve learned things about songwriting over the last few years, and about performing as well? Have you had any major revelations of ‘Oh, I was doing that wrong’?

TP: Definitely. Of course, yeah. We went through a really interesting phase after probably two years in the band, where I feel like, if I’m going to be honest, I was trying to write songs in a certain way. Because we live in a country where we’ve only got one station which is national, which is Triple J. There was a really interesting series of articles about a year ago now, where people were like ‘Bands are trying to get on Triple J.’ Because it’s the easiest way to make any money, or get seen. And when I looked back on it, I was very much trying to do that. Hopefully we’ve found a middle ground between it. 

I suppose it’s the same with everything. When you start artistically, because of a mixture of it being new, a bit of luck and reckless abandon, it’s usually alright. And people are like ‘Fuck, you’re actually pretty good at that.’ And then either you try and remake that thing that you did, which is never going to be the same, or you try something more difficult, and you realise how actually difficult the thing is to do. and then you get this period where - it’s not that it’s not as good, it’s just between having absolutely no inhibitions and knowing a bit about it, but not having the expertise to be able to make something. And I think we really went through that phase, where we were writing songs that we were trying to get on radio, and then we were trying to do that thing that we were doing before, but we were finished that. And we ended up with these really awkward songs. A lot of them we don’t play any more. Even though, at the time, because they were new, we were really excited about them. 

I suppose the point of my long, rambling answer to this is that we weren’t playing music that our band plays. We were trying to write a version of our band’s music that was more poppy, that sort of thing. But none of those things were what’s good about our band. For example, we always used to play these live sets, and everyone really liked our live sets. And then we’d sit down with a click track and record instrument for instrument, which is as far away from doing that as you can possibly get. And then we wouldn’t understand why we weren’t getting these things across. 

AO: Does that mean that when you go in to record next time, you’re – can you record a whole band all at once?

TP: Yeah, we did. We’ve got a single coming out in two months or so called ‘On My Way’, and it sort of speeds up and slows down a little bit. We’ve recorded it twice before, actually. And we realised that because we were recording to a click track and it wasn’t working. It’s been really liberating, recording like that. Just getting everyone in there and doing it, and then recording the vocals on top, and that’s about it. 

Giuliano (Ferla, from Twin Beasts) actually puts it a really good way. He says that music has to be instinctive. You have to do it out of instinct, you can’t manufacture it. But you can train your instincts. So you can train your instincts so you know how to write a pop song. And by a pop song, I don’t mean a pop song on radio, but a more melodic song. And then it’s all instinct, but you’ve trained your instincts to behave in that sort of way. And I think one thing that we’ve learned is that you’ve just got to play music the band plays. Because then you’re going to write better songs, everyone’s going to enjoy them more, and you’re going to have a much more creative vibe. Because for a time there, we were really not enjoying it. And trying to slog out these songs that weren’t coming because we weren’t supposed to write them. 

AO: Of all the songs in the world, is there a song that you listen to and you’re like ‘That’s perfect’?

TP: Not really. I’ve got songs that I think are really great, and I think there’s something that’s in the recording. I like ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ by Leonard Cohen.  I wouldn’t say it’s a perfect song, though. But something in that particular recording is amazing. I’ve heard him play that shit as well.

Laughter.

TP: I don’t know if it’s his best song. I’ve heard songs that have captured something in that particular recording that has been just beautiful and amazing. 

AO: What do you reckon is the best love song that you know?

TP: I’m going to go away after this and think of a better love song. I’m going to say one now, but I’m going to be like, ‘Fuck!’ in the car.

Laughter.

TP: You know ‘The Darkest Side’ by The Middle East?

AO: Yeah.

TP: That’s like a really strange – it’s kind of a love song. But that guy, he’s one of those people who gets it across. I actually saw him live, weirdly, with eighteen people at the Old Bar. His solo project is called ‘Stolen Violin.’

AO: Is that post-Middle East?

TP: Yes.

AO: I saw what I think was possibly their last gig before they broke up, at the Corner. And I’ve never felt a band dislike an audience more. It was awful. They were just having a terrible time. And there was a guy in the front row constantly yelling out ‘Play ‘Blood!’ Play ‘Blood!’’ Which was their most popular song at the time.

TP: That’s an amazing song.

AO: They basically ignored him. And then, at the end, they went to leave, and one of the band members said ‘We were going to play ‘Blood’, but this c**t ruined it for you.’ And then they just walked offstage. And didn’t come back. It was horrible.

TP: There’s a really interesting article called ‘The Rise and Fall of The Middle East.’ It’s really sad. As I understand it, the guy we saw just never wanted to do it. He was an au pair when they got famous, because one of their friends put their stuff on Triple J Unearthed. Actually, ‘Blood’ – some of his songs are just incredible. And get across that – I don’t know, you just understand what he’s talking about, and you’ve felt that . 

The thing I’m really into at the moment is not the descriptive love story, it’s just people being really honest about it, and saying it in a way that’s – not the fucking dumb Australian thing. There’s a lot of bands that I won’t name that I don’t like, because there seems to be a link between being ocker and being stupid. And really liking that – ‘We’re fucking dumb. Listen to our music, it’s really fun.’ It’s not that, but it’s a really simple – like Courtney Barnett, they’re simple lyrics, and everybody can relate to them. And Alex Turner, from the Arctic Monkeys. Particularly in that first album, everybody was like ‘Oh, I’ve been to that party’, or ‘I’ve been drunk like that.’ And that’s something that I’m really into at the moment, those really honest lyrics, with images that everyone can instantly relate to.

The Harlots onstage at Ding Dong Lounge. Photo by Snapped Photography.

The Harlots onstage at Ding Dong Lounge. Photo by Snapped Photography.

AO: When you’re onstage, you know, you’re a fairly placid individual in life, and then you become this kind of dervish in front of the band, which I love watching. Is that a thing that you were conscious of doing, of trying to bring that much energy into the room? Or is it just something that happens when you’re surrounded by music?

TP: I think it’s just having a good time. I think it came from copying things – I used to watch The Toot Toot Toots play, and be really jealous that they were onstage, and be like ‘I’ll do that one day!’ I think it’s just really fun. It’s really fun to do that – watch people, and sing to people, and they’re giving it back just as much as you are. I wouldn’t say that’s planned. You do try, though, to give the audience something more than just the songs. A bit of a performance.

AO: I love the little things that each of your band members do. Nick’s just in the background doing a bit of head nodding, and Sam’s doing his monkey dance, and Kate’s doing the hair. It’s funny being at gigs, again, because all the women are staring at you, and all the guys are just taking photos of Kate.

TP: Or just stand there and try to out-cool each other.

Laughter.

AO: It’s so strange being an audience member, being in the front row, and being like ‘I will be the person they look at. I will be the person. Look at me. Look how cool I am being, singing along. Might chuck in a harmony, maybe you’ll notice.’

TP: ‘Who’s singing that third above? Stop everything! Was that you?’

Laughter.

The Harlots.

The Harlots.

AO: I remember you saying, years ago, it must have been at a Toots gig, that you had this dream that Giuls or Dan would get sick, and wouldn’t be able to play, and they’d be like ‘Does anyone know the song?’ and you’d be like ‘I do.’

TP: That was a Bad Seeds dream, I’d be at a Bad Seeds gig, and they’d be like ‘Oh no! The pianist’s hands have started shaking. Does anyone know how to play the piano?’ And then as the spotlight comes on – yeah.

Laughter.

TP: Oh, that’d be hilarious. 

AO: Now, do you have a challenge for people to do this month?

TP: Yes. Think of a song, one you’ve written. Or if it’s one you know, find the chords on the internet. Then try and play the song, keeping the melody the same, but change the chords. The song can sound completely different, and a lot of the time, a whole lot better.

AO: Excellent. Well, I’d better go to work. You’d better move house. 

TP: That’ll be a bitch to transcribe. 

AO: Thanks Tom!

TP: Thank you! 

The Harlots can be found via their website here.
Follow them on Facebook for gig updates and ridiculous tour photos. Their next gig is on April 2nd at the Gasometer, supporting The Pretty Littles. More info here.

PLAY IN MARCH.

All those years you spent as a child singing into your microphone and playing guitar on a broom? That was all training for this month. Yes, that's right, March's theme is PLAY, so it's time to unleash your inner rock/pop/hip hop/folk/grime/genre indefinable-star and make some sweet music. 

If you've never picked up an instrument before in your life, and karaoke is the closest you've come to calling yourself a singer, fear not. While guitars and pianos are great both for composing and being attractive to potential mates, if you need an introduction to an instrument of your own, all you need is a ukulele. Head down to your local music store and see what they have - you can usually pick one up for around $20. The awesome power to make music for the price of brunch? Not bad. 

Once you've got an instrument of choice, the best place to start is with other peoples' songs. The Ultimate Guitar website is a great place to start - it has nearly a million songs transcribed, and the Top 100 Songs will almost certainly have something you know that you can start tinkering around with. Once you're armed with the right chords, the internet is full of guides on how to play them on any instrument, and Youtube tutorials will sort you out if you get stuck.

Follow us on 
Twitter and Instagram for regular easy-to-play songs this month, and use the hashtag #artolympics to share your own musical prowess with the world!

This week's interview is with musician and lead singer for Twin Beasts, Giuliano Ferla. He talks about what the hell it means to be authentic, how songs bubble into being and why performing is flat out the best thing in the whole world. It'll make you want to run off and be a rockstar.

The Art Olympics clocks off for the week and heads over for a Friday drink and a chat with musician Giuliano Ferla.

5:56 pm, in a living room in Carlton North as birds natter outside. One beer, one sparkling mineral water.  

Art Olympics: So! Giuliano Ferla. Tell me about what you do.

Giuls at home. Photo by Sarah Walker.

Giuls at home. Photo by Sarah Walker.

Giuliano Ferla: Well, I am a musician. I started out playing the drums and singing – I was in the Australian Youth Choir back when I was five. So music has been this huge part of my life for a long time. I was doing lots of theatre – I did the theatre course at Monash Uni. Over the past year, I’ve decided to consolidate my energy a little bit more and focus on one thing as opposed to trying to be great at everything, you know? Because I feel like I got to a point where I wasn’t being very good, and I wasn’t having enough time to focus on everything the way that I wanted to. So I decided to consolidate it all, all my energy into music. For the past year in particular I’ve been learning how to record and self-produce music and learning how to play the bass really badly.

Laughter.

GF: Good enough to do the recordings I’ve been doing, and play guitar and learn how to use all that software and stuff like that. I’m performing in Twin Beasts, and I’m setting up a solo project as well. So that’s what I’m doing.

AO: Are you just going to be Giuliano Ferla, or do you have a name?

GF: I think ‘Ferla.’ I mean, the whole thing with it was kind of that I wanted to simplify things – like that Neil Young quote: ‘If you think, you stink.’ I didn’t want to put on characters, I wanted to get to the truth of something. I don’t know. That’s such a weird thing to say, but I wanted to unmask. So yeah, I wanted to call it Ferla.

AO: I suppose, because Twin Beasts is so theatrical, and so performative, and you guys are putting on these kind of manic preacher characters – though I feel like you’re kind of doing a bit less of that now. When you started, it was long-form storytelling, and very theatrical. Would I be right in saying that your last album is a bit less focussed on kind of making a play through music and more just about being like ‘Actually, we’re just going to write some kickass songs’?

GF: Yeah, totally. I think at some point we thought that the theatre would actually take away from the music. I guess it was consolidating, again. Kind of wanting to focus on becoming really good songwriters. And writing really catchy – I want to say ‘pop’, but I don’t mean pop as in top 40s, I mean pop as in popular. Something that reaches out and touches people. We wanted to do that without lots of makeup on, so to speak, you know? But at the same time, I don’t know. I was listening to this Jerry Seinfeld interview – you know Alec Baldwin, ‘Here’s the Thing?’ He’s got this podcast where he just interviews all his mates, and so he interviews Jerry Seinfeld, and Jerry Seinfeld was saying ‘When I get onstage, I’m myself, but I’m myself fifty times. I’m myself zoomed in for an hour. I’m a really big version of myself.’ And I think that’s okay, too. For like six months I was hung up on this idea of trying to be real, or trying to be true to myself. But performing, and having fun, and being a big person, that’s still being – what do those things even mean? What do things like real and true even mean?

AO: Absolutely. I think the word ‘authentic’ in particular is really difficult.

Twin Beasts. Photo by Lucy Spartalis.

Twin Beasts. Photo by Lucy Spartalis.

GF: It’s really hard.

AO: And I think especially with performing, it’s such a constructed space. You can’t walk onto a stage in front of a thousand people and just be yourself, I think. Because you need to rise to fill the room, fill the space, fill the stage. You see performers who just get up and mutter ‘Okay, I’m going to play this song.’ And they play the song and go ‘Okay, thanks,’ and it’s fine, but – 

GF: Yeah, there’s a relationship between you and the audience. 

AO: Yeah. And playing a song is not a normal thing to do in front of a thousand people.

GF: No, that’s right.

AO: Because a lot of the time, you’re like ‘Okay, here are some really deep personal feelings that I’ve had. Let me tell you about them with some chords.’ And that’s not an authentic thing to do. 

GF: It’s so funny. Like, two weeks ago I went to see Mac Demarco on a Wednesday night or something. And he was just so full of love and of enjoyment, and he wanted you to have a good time. And I knew that that was an act, and it didn’t matter what mood he was in that day, he would be like that. Because he respects the audience, and because he loves the relationship that he has with the audience. And he wants to continue that. And then I went to see Angel Olsen the following night, who’s another incredible musician who made this fucking awesome album last year, and it was almost like she was too hung up on being cool, she couldn’t just relax and talk to the crowd. It was all about being really distant and indifferent to the audience. Looking at her onstage, she looked lonely. In a room full of four hundred people, she looked alone. And I didn’t like that. 

Twin Beasts. Photo by Lucy Spartalis.

Twin Beasts. Photo by Lucy Spartalis.

AO: There’s this funny thing about cool, where so often we find it synonymous with appearing like you don’t give a shit. And I don’t know what that says about our society. I think the people that I find the most cool, and the people who I like being around, are the most passionate people. I love finding interest through other peoples’ passions. That I find cool. I think it’s really sad when people are like ‘I’m just going to stare into space, and drink a beer, and scoff when people tell me about things that they love.’

GF: I think it all comes down to values. If someone values the art, and it’s the art that they’re being really passionate about, and ‘Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether you like it, but I fucking love it!’, then that’s great. But if it’s someone going ‘I fucking love this! Tell me that you love it too’, that’s uncomfortable. And you can see that in performers, where their value system isn’t ‘I value the art most,’ it’s like other peoples’ perception of their art is creeping up as a value as well. I can kind of understand how a certain amount of detachment is needed.

AO: But I think it’s less about not caring and more about listening and being aware. If you are standing on a stage, you can be like ‘Okay, where’s the audience at? Where am I at? What space are we creating together?’ Rather than coming out being like ‘I’m amazing! You’re going to love it!’ or being like ‘I don’t care about you.’

GF: Yeah! Because they’re both as bad as each other. And they’re both attitudes, I think. Whereas if it’s not an attitude, if it’s not something that you’re trying to paint a brush over, and just go ‘This is what I feel, and this is what you should feel too’, if it’s something that you create together, that’s when it’s good. When it’s inviting. Totally.

Twin Beasts. Photo by Lucy Spartalis.

Twin Beasts. Photo by Lucy Spartalis.

AO: So if we go back to the very fundamentals of music-making, you play the piano?

GF: A little bit.

AO: Drums?

GF: Pretty good.

AO: The trombone?

GF: Okay.

AO: You sing.

GF: Pretty good.

AO: Bass?

GF: Badly. Bad. Bad.

AO: And guitar?

GF: Bad. Just dreadful. 

AO: Anything else?

GF: No, I think that’s it. I’m a good drummer. I know I’m a good drummer. And I know I’m a good singer. Everything else I know how it works – after playing instruments for twenty, you kind of get to a point where you know how instruments work, you know how music works. So if I needed to pick up something, I could get a sound out of it, but I’m totally unskilled when it comes to guitar. I know how to play majors, minors, I know the shapes of this and that. But you wouldn’t want me to record. You wouldn’t want to look under a microscope at it, because it’s just going to be very ugly. You know what I mean? You take a step back, it’s like looking at a wall from a distance. It looks really nice from a distance, but when you get up close, you can see the cracks, and it’s like ‘That’s really shoddy workmanship.’ That’s me! That’s me on guitar.

AO: Say with Twin Beasts, when you guys are writing, and especially at the start – your genesis story, the one that I’ve heard is ‘Oh, we’ve got a gig in a week, do you have a band?’ ‘Yeah, yeah we totally have a band! (We don’t have a band).’ And you guys just coming together. Is that true?

GF: That’s true. That’s before I even joined the band. The Toot Toot Toots and the Royal Jesus Tambonic Orchestra – 

Laughter.

GF: And they played two gigs, and then stopped playing. That was in 2008, when I was overseas for a year. I came back and Dan said ‘Hey, do you want to play percussion and sing in this band with me?’ And it started up again. But yeah, it was exactly that, it was very disorganised. It was actually really serendipitous because we’ve ended up being a band for five, almost six years. It’s not often that you get people who can collaborate like that for an extended amount of time. And we all know each others’ devils now. I know that I can be very domineering. I believe that I’m just a really good communicator. I just feel like I’m an excellent communicator. But everyone else seems to think that I’m just authoritarian.

Laughter. 

AO: So let’s look at the solo stuff you’re doing at the moment. When you’re writing, do you sit down and go ‘I’m feeling like an F minor sort of mood’? I find songwriting so fascinating, because I’ve written a couple of songs in my life, on guitar. And everything I play is like ‘G, D, E minor, C.’ Like ‘Got my four chords – ‘

GF: ‘And here we go.’ Yeah.

AO: And if I’m trying to play a song that’s in, like A, I’ll be like ‘Pop it in G! Stick a capo on and we’ll be fine!’ 

Laughter.

AO: So I’m so fascinated by musicians’ brains, and that ability to know what chord should happen next.

GF: Yeah, totally. I think, when it comes to writing a song in a particular key, I think if you write a song on guitar, and you can’t really play guitar, then it always ends up being in the open chords. So it’ll always be a C or a G or a D or an E. Or an A.

AO: So, not barre chords?

GF: Yeah, that’s what I mean. Open, so you’re not barreing them. Whereas on piano, I’ll just be tinkering around, and I’ll hit a chord, or I’ll hit a melody and it just resonates with you, I guess. I guess it’s similar to photography. You’re looking around, you’re looking around, and depending on where you are, and what you’ve done today, different things will strike you. And you’ll go ‘Hey, that looks fucking great, I’m going to take a photo of that.’ ‘That moved me, somehow.’ It’s a real kind of sporadic thing. There’s no logic to it. Just whatever you’re feeling on a particular day. And something that I’ve discovered recently is the sounds – and this is the beauty of having a program like Logic, I can plug Logic into that little box there, and plug an electric guitar into that box, and I’ve got all these different sounds. So I can do different amps and different pedals, stuff that would cost me tens of thousands of dollars to buy in analogue, I’ve now got the digital version for three hundred bucks. All this stuff. And different sounds will make you feel different things. Like, a bassline will sound really crap if you’re playing a ballad and it’s really blown out and distorted. But if you’re going ‘doonga doonga doonga doonga doonk’ then it sounds really plodding and energetic, and so the song that you write will end up being like that, you know?

AO: When you’re writing in the context of a band, is it the case that there are one or two people who are primarily writing the songs for Twin Beasts, and then everyone else is like ‘Oh, and I could do this on my instrument’?

GF: Yeah, that’s exactly how it happens. So there’s three principal songwriters in Twin Beasts – Dan, me and Steve. And then Bez is an incredible guitarist, and he’s like an instrumentalist. He’s just really good at getting sounds and hearing ideas and if you say to him ‘Oh, can you play something like this?’, nine times out of ten, he’s come back and do something even better than you imagined. And so everyone puts in what they can. But yeah, there’s three songwriters. And it usually happens that someone will bring an idea, either a finished song, or verse-chorus-prechorus-bridge, just those elements, and we’ll chuck it into the band, and everyone will learn, and it’ll sound really shit for a long time –

Laughter.

GF: That’s just the way it goes, because everyone has to learn their parts, and own them. And then it’ll start sounding really good, and then you can start to do fine tuning, and start arranging it the way that is going to get the message across the best.

AO: Of the songs that people bring in, those embryonic ideas, how many of those ideas end up being completed songs? What percentage are just thrown on the floor?

GF: I think a reasonably high amount of songs that get taken to the band get turned into songs. 

AO: That’s great.

GF: Yeah, it is great. But, for me personally, before we did ‘Badlove’, I wrote a song a day. And of that, two were songs. Two actually turned into songs.

AO: Wow. 

GF: But it’s just about creating. No idea is good or bad, it’s just whatever idea has the most legs. Some songs will be thirty seconds, and that’s all they’ll ever be. And you just have to go ‘Okay. That was good. And I’ll save that. Maybe in two years’ time I’ll listen back, and go ‘I had something there.’’ But if it doesn’t have legs at that time, then it doesn’t have legs. And sometimes a song will end up being a fifteen minute crazy jam, and it’ll just work out beautifully, because it’s a really great idea and it’s got legs. And you’ve got the feeling to push it. There was this great thing that Blixa (Bargeld) said in ‘20,000 Days’ (On Earth). The Nick Cave thing.

Poster image for '20,000 Days on Earth.' Photo by Amelia Troubridge. 

Poster image for '20,000 Days on Earth.' Photo by Amelia Troubridge. 

AO: Ah, I haven’t seen it yet! Is it good?

GF: It’s okay. There’s some really great bits in it, though. It’s worth watching. And Blixa and Nick are talking to each other – 

AO: Who’s Blixa?

GF: He was the guitarist for the Bad Seeds. German guy. And they’re sitting in a car, and they’re talking, and they’re talking about when they play songs live. And there’s all these songs that have been left by the wayside. It’s like Radiohead. Radiohead never play ‘Creep’ any more. The biggest song. Ostensibly. And Blixa was just saying ‘The ones that you still play today are the ones that you can still wring some life out of. There’s still something in there that you can just squeeze’ – and he did that, that movement (Giuls squeezes his hands like he’s wringing out a wet towel). I really liked that. And that’s what it’s about, you know? How much life can you wring out of this stuff? 

AO: It’s funny, you’ll see bands over a couple of years, and they’ll have songs that the crowd just loves doing, but they’re just like ‘I can’t. I can’t play it again. I can’t bring that love to it again.’

GF: Yeah, totally. Sometimes I think there’s an attitude thing there, and sometimes I think there’s an actual reason why. Because people change so quickly. And you’ve got this song that you wrote five years ago, and people love it, but you’re not the same person any more. You’re a completely different person.

AO: Especially if it’s an emotional song, you’d just be like ‘I can’t authentically bring those feelings back, because I got over it.’

GF: Yeah! Totally!

AO: ‘I got over the break up!’ 

Laughter.

GF: Yeah! That’s right! That’s the good thing about those narrative songs, I guess. Is that they’re just stories. A story doesn’t mean anything to you, necessarily. On any deep level.

Giuls onstage with Twin Beasts at the Old Bar. Photo by Sarah Walker.

Giuls onstage with Twin Beasts at the Old Bar. Photo by Sarah Walker.

AO: One thing I quite like about your music is that I think you guys are really aware that people really like singing along to things. There’s often some really nice vocal parts that people just know they’re meant to sing with. Especially when there’s something going on underneath the melody, and everyone’s like ‘I can help! I can help sing that song!’ Is that something that you guys were aware of doing, to involve the audience? Or was it something that arose naturally out of the way you write?

GF: I’ve got no idea. I think that singing along is one of the best things ever. Going to a gig and singing and dancing with a whole bunch of people, whether it’s a hundred people or ten thousand or whatever. That’s just so fun. You know, one of the best fucking experiences as a musician is having people down in the audience singing your lyrics back to you. That is just so great! I don’t think it’s out of any ego trip kind of thing. I’ve got this idea that art is just this big bonfire, and everyone brings their own log and just throws it on. And everyone just (he rubs his hands together). That’s what it is. ‘I’ve made something, and you are fucking enjoying it.’ That’s so great! 

Laughter.

GF: ‘I’m so glad you enjoy this gift!’ Like, ah! I love it! It’s the best.

AO: And I think there’s something so immediate about music. If you do a painting and people are like ‘Oh, I really like your painting,’ you’re there stewing about whether they really mean it. Whereas at a gig, when people are just shining back at you –

GF: Totally! God.

AO: And just having the best time, you’re like ‘You’re not faking that. You’re actually having the best time!’

Giuls and Dan onstage. Photo by Martin Philbey.

Giuls and Dan onstage. Photo by Martin Philbey.

GF: Music is just this – it’s fucked how big it is. The most popular thing on the planet. You know? It’s totally illogical how necessary it is for people. It’s amazing. Painting belongs in a gallery, or in a home, on a wall. But music, it’s when you’re starting the car in the morning, it’s when you’re going to work, it’s on every tv advertisement, it’s something that you go out and seek. It’s just the best. The best. I don’t know what it is. I don’t think I want to know what it is. I think that’d ruin it. Ruin the surprise. I don’t want someone to give away the ending. 

AO: There’s this thing that happens when you are performing live. Like, I’ve known you for a long time now.

GF: Ten years?

AO: Yeah, nearly. And I remember the first Toots gig I went to, and I was standing up the front, and you looked down, and you waved and me and whoever I was with, and gave us a wink. And I had this moment where I was like ‘The lead singer just winked at me!’ And then I was like ‘Oh wait, that’s just Giuls.’ 

GF: ‘That guy farts in my presence.’

Laughter.

AO: There’s just something that happens when you put people up on a stage and put lights on them, where you’re like ‘Whoa, I’m friends with this person!’ It’s this strange sort of transformation that happens to people you know when they’re on stage.

GF: Really? I’ve never experienced that. 

AO: Really?

GF: Nup.

AO: I wonder whether it’s an attraction thing. Because male friends of mine being rockstars is really – attractive, but also just exciting. And I guess you get to see a different side of people. You’ll see people really let rip. I think it’s coming back to passion again. Watching someone do something really well and enjoy themselves doing it is really great.

GF: Yeah, that’s true.

AO: Like, I love watching Tom Pitts (from Melbourne hand The Harlots) play because he just is the music.

'Badlove' album cover. Photo by Tajette O'Halloran.

'Badlove' album cover. Photo by Tajette O'Halloran.

GF: He was really good the other night, at the Gasometer. Fuck, he was great. I loved him without the microphone stand, holding the microphone. I was like (he gasps). It’s good. Because I made that discovery about six months ago, and I was like ‘This is so liberating!’ But I had no idea how it looks. And then I saw Tom doing it and I was like ‘It looks fucking cool,’ and I was right there with him. It’s funny. That’s why I stopped playing drums in bands. 

AO: You’re so far away.

GF: That’s right. And you’ve got this thing in front of you, stopping you from reaching the crowd. It’s the same with a microphone stand. There’s an immediacy when you’re right there with people. 

AO: That’s a thing that never would have occurred to me to think about. The difference in energy between this little stick of metal, and not having it.

GF: Totally. It’s weird. It’s really weird. But I think it’s just for you as a performer. The audience wouldn’t really be able to tell. But all of a sudden, there’s not this imaginary barrier. It’s like the elephant that gets manacled to the tree, you know? It doesn’t matter how big the tree is, this tiny little microphone stand. But all of a sudden, it makes an imaginary line that you just don’t cross. 

AO: So as part of this project, I’m getting everyone I interview to provide a challenge for the participants of the Art Olympics – 

GF: Got one. Just thought of one. Write a song a day for two weeks, on whatever you can – if it’s four chords on a guitar, or if it’s a couple of notes on a piano. That’s the first two weeks. Record it on your phone. After that two weeks, listen back to everything that you’ve done. Whatever strikes you at that moment as being something interesting, start developing it into a three minute song that has structure. That goes like this: Verse, verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus. And all those three different parts have to have different melodies. They can have the same chord progression or different chord progressions, but the melodies have to be different. Yeah?

AO: Yeah. Great.

GF: And you have to do lyrics as well. 

AO: When you’re writing lyrics, how much of it is just sitting there staring into space being like ‘What does rhyme with that word?’

GF: Oh, so much.

Laughter.

Giuls at home. Photo by Sarah Walker.

Giuls at home. Photo by Sarah Walker.

GF: Like, fuck, lyrics are still the hardest thing. I still love it. I still really get a kick out of coming up with entertaining and deep lyrics. I really like language, and I still really love using words in great ways to communicate something. My favourite lyric that I’ve ever written was for ‘Together Lonely.’ That song, on Badlove, me and Dan collaborated on them. I think they’re the lyrics that I’m the proudest of. Because I think they communicate an entire relationship in those lyrics. In a hundred words, maybe? When you do it right, fuck, it feels good. But not everything’s going to be right. That’s the other thing, this whole EP thing has been about. Just put a full stop on things. Nothing is ever going to be perfect.  You’re not ever going to come up with the most genius thing ever. You are not a vessel for divine inspiration. It’s just a game, and some games are going to be really great wins, and some games you’re going to lose, because the song never gets finished, and some games you’re just going to inch by, by the skin of your teeth. But it’s just a game. That was something a Russian guy said to me. 

Laughter.

GF: He was a Russian lecturer. He was like ‘I fucking hate these students who come to me –’ this is a very bad Russian accent.

Laughter.

GF: That was like Arnold Schwartzenegger or something like that. ‘De stoodents! Dey cahm to me! Vanting me to –’

Laughter.

GF: But yeah, ‘They think that they are waiting for some beautiful thing inside’ – he was just this totally unsentimental Russian guy – ‘This beautiful thing inside them that’s going to burst forth, or God’s hand that’s going to come and grab the pen with them, scrawl this masterpiece. Bullshit! It’s a game of chess! It’s just a game. And you’ve got to look at the board, and go ‘What is the best move that I can do?’ How can I win? How can I get to the end?’’

AO: That’s great.

GF: Yeah! It is great. Because I definitely believed that I was channelling something when I was eighteen and writing music. Probably for a good five years after that. I thought that that’s what creative inspiration was, it was something you had to wait for. But it’s not. It’s just something you do. Cut the bullshit out. It’s just a game. 

AO: It’s amazing how just sitting down and putting yourself in the headspace makes something happen. Just being there, something happens. 

GF: It’s funny how quickly something bubbles up from the unconscious. 

Ferla draft tracks. Photo by Sarah Walker.

Ferla draft tracks. Photo by Sarah Walker.

AO: When you’re just composing, do you just put your phone on and just play stuff, or do you record it in a slightly more structured way? 

GF: Depends. Sometimes – I’ll show you a song. I’ll show you something. So, this entire song started with me doing three notes on an organ. And now I’ve built the song around it. A drum beat, and these three notes. It’s not finished, so…be careful. 

(A song through the speakers, driven by three ascending notes, repeated over and over).

GF: And that’s it, you know? Ba-da-ba, ba-da-ba. And it goes through the whole song. You hear that? And it just started with those three notes, and I built the whole song around it. Whereas that other song that I played you before you started recording, the one about the breakups, that started on guitar about two years ago, and I kept it on my phone, as a little guitar thing that I wanted to turn into an outro for something, and I listened to it six months ago, and was like ‘That’s a great chord progression.’ It turns out that it’s almost ‘Pachabel’s Canon’. 

Laughter.

GF: I only realised that the other day. Oftentimes a song will just start out as a little nugget like that, and I’ll just extrapolate out from there. But when I’m doing that song-a-day thing, it’s always on guitar or piano. Because they’re the most immediate.

AO: Great. I’m going to stop recording now so I don’t have to transcribe any more. (Checks timer). Fifty-seven minutes.

GF: Oh my god!

Twin Beasts' music can be found on their website and on Facebook.
Keep an eye out for Ferla's debut album 'Guilt Pop.'
Header photo by Sarah Walker.