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Art of FightingI'm somewhere over the Atlantic listening, through a migraine fog, to the Captain talk of "two major catastrophes" that have meant the closure of American air space. I'm trying to make sense of this, wondering how late I'll be for my rendezvous at JFK, whilst the jittery singer-songwriter to my right wonders aloud if he'll make his Rhode Island gig that night. In Melbourne, Australia, the four members of Art of Fighting have switched on the TV after a day spent packing, preparing for their US debut as part of the annual CMJ Music Festival in New York. It's September 11th 2001 and things aren't going to plan.
by Matt Dornan / pictures by Paul Heartfield
"We were supposed to fly very early the following morning," singer and guitarist Ollie Browne tells me in the wintry but less traumatic surrounds of East London's Toynbee Hall.
"Finished packing, turned on the telly about 11pm, Australian time, and saw it all happen. Pretty much spent all night on the phone asking everyone if we're still going. And obviously we didn't go."
As tragedies go, cancelled dates and the unavailability, in the UK and most of Europe, of their first full-length, 'Wires', aren't likely to inspire column inches or coffee-table picture books. But that doesn't detract from the fact that one of last year's finest albums remains unheard by all but the most fortunate. And live performances, such as tonight's, offer a rare chance to hear the heartbreakingly beautiful songs of Browne, guitarist and brother Miles, drummer Marty Brown and bassist Peggy Frew, the only member of the band to have previously set foot on British soil.
"Peggy was born here," Ollie explains.
"Her parents are Australian but they were vacationing here when she was born which allows her dual citizenship. You hear lots of stories in Australia about musicians trying to come and play in England and getting knocked-back at the airport because they've got guitars and they don't look like business people. I'm sure those stories are exaggerated but they make you pretty nervous."
"Yeah, but we're pretty nervous people anyway," adds Miles.
"If there's something to worry about, we'll worry about it."
Which can't have made the intensive period in which 'Wires' was recorded a lot of fun. To maximise their productivity the whole album was demo'd with every proposed overdub mapped out in advance. Ollie explains:
"We had seven days. We've never really recorded under so much pressure. The previous records were recorded at a friend's home studio so it was more laid back. We'd save up a couple hundred bucks and then go in for eight hours, then go back a couple of weeks later, but ['Wires'] was like, every day, fourteen, fifteen hour days which was pretty crazy. We pretty much had a big list of all the things that needed to be done, and every instrument, but it definitely changed a bit because [co-producer] Tim Whitten - as far as we're concerned - has a really good ear and he made a lot of changes. He'd say things like 'leave me alone for five hours and I'll mix this song and then come back and tell me what you think.' And he pretty much nailed it except for Skeletons where I had to fly back up to Sydney to remix it, but it turned out okay."
What Whitten and the band managed to achieve was fulfil a desire to create an album that was
"like Red House Painters records and stuff that stays similar, sonically, all the way through. All the songs are, I think, quite different but people have told me that the record is quite consistent which I find strange because, personally, I've always considered it as quite disparate. I was quite worried about that. One of the reasons we chose Tim Whitten is because he has a talent for doing that, of making disparate songs sound more cohesive as a whole."
With an array of influences that encompasses the dark alt.country of Richard Buckner and Jason Molina (the band's early repertoire included a song called Smogwai that "turned out like Songs:Ohia") alongside US indie cornerstones Fugazi, Nirvana and Sonic Youth, the band's hard to pin down sound is anything but derivative.
"I think we've been lucky because the band's been together for six years which is before the post-rock, slo-core movement started," offers Miles.
"So it's not like we ever went out to play post-rock, whereas a lot of bands you see in Melbourne today seem to sound very consciously like overseas bands, and I suppose it's a struggle to create your own sound."
"But that must be like that with any music scene because if something's popular then obviously musicians are going to emulate it, that's been happening for all time in art."
The Art of Fighting pre-'Wires' musical legacy consists of two lengthy mini-albums, their 1998 debut 'The Very Strange Year' and the following year's 'Empty Nights.' What surprises about 'Wires' is the non-reliance on the quiet/loud dynamic which played a significant part in shaping those first records and the prominence in the mix of Ollie's previously subdued angelic voice.
"That's being young and scared," admits Ollie.
"But one of the things I've definitely learned from making records is, if the music is vocal orientated then you have to have the vocal up in the mix, otherwise it's just... In a sense I think it works with the earlier records because if it was up any higher it would be even harder to listen to! There's not a lot of 'interesting' singing going on!"
This combination of naturally evolved songwriting and increased has allowed the power of the music to come from a more emotive performance and less from volume.
"That's definitely fair to say," Ollie acknowledges.
"I think that's probably come about because I've grown to really dislike my distortion pedal. It's a good tool but it's easy to be lazy with it in terms of it creating volume. So it can make the songwriting process a little lazy. But also the kind of songs we're writing now..."
"Ollie has a problem playing that earlier material because he doesn't want to step on the pedal and go 'Woarghhh!'" jokes Miles.
"It's something that causes some arguments about playing live. It can be more fun to play live when there a louder bits than to just play a set that's all quiet."
Unlike all-too-many bands eager to put out a full-length before realising their potential, the decision to take their time means the more streamlined and assured Art of Fighting have delivered, in 'Wires', a debut to savour.
"We didn't take our time on purpose but we didn't want to rush anything," explains Ollie.
"When I look back I'm quite happy about that because if we'd have recorded the album any earlier, the songs I like best wouldn't have been on there. The last four songs I wrote are my favourites on the album. I don't know if that's because I was less sick of them. It's taken us a long time and it's changed a hell of a lot and I'm glad that it has. The last ones we wrote were Akula, Skeletons, Something New and, possibly, Reasons Are All I Have Left which was written in a transitional period between drummers. There's a really big gap between 'Empty Nights' and 'Wires' primarily because our last drummer, Cam, left the band - it's all totally cool, there's no bad feelings - and then we had to work up all the old songs with Marty [Brown] and a couple of new ones that we'd written in the meantime. And then start rehearsing for the album and get to a level where we could all play together well enough, or cohesively enough, to make the record."
At the time of this interview only one new Art of Fighting song had been written since 'Wires' was recorded at the end of 2000. Whilst Ollie is quick to deny a case of writer's block (
"It's more to do with the fact we've been our most busy. When the album came out in Australia it had a higher profile than previously so we did a lot more touring, a couple of big national tours with a big Australian band and Stephen Malkmus"), he admits that, having raised the stakes, we shouldn't expect to see a new album any time soon.
"We've only written one new song since we recorded 'Wires'," he says.
"I think, with 'Wires', I was really, really precious about it. Not in a painful way, I just didn't want to put anything on there that I was unhappy with. I suppose with the next record that'll be the same so everything I write I will totally analyse. The quality control is high. I don't know if it's working but it's high."
Whilst having the record be heard may be their toughest challenge (
"We're not here to score a deal," Miles insists.
"We're here because all the bands from Australia that we admire did this, they came overseas...") the effortless majesty of 'Wires' would indicate that any uncertainty about Art of Fighting continuing to make the grade is unfounded.
CWAS #10 - Spring 2002