Blank Realm formed in Brisbane circa 2005-06. The group features three siblings (Daniel, Sarah and Luke Spencer) as well as Luke Walsh on guitar. During the course of their eight year existence the band has evolved from strange and colourful free rock into a more streamlined and song-oriented affair, culminating in their latest record Go Easy, which released on Siltbreeze and Bedroom Suck late in 2012.
Go Easy has attracted the group more attention than any other release, but for anyone interested in improvised psychedelic rock music, their early recordings such as Free Time (Music Your Mind Will Love You) and Heatless Ark (Not Not Fun) are well worth tracking down, among many other cassette and CD-R missives. The group’s pop tendencies crystallised on 2010’s Deja What? and were further sharpened via a 2011 Negative Guest List single.
We caught up with Daniel Spencer on the eve of an extensive Australian tour to promote Go Easy. For tour details, scroll to the bottom.
Do you guys see yourselves more as a ‘band’, or as a family? Do you primarily spend time together hanging out or making music?
Definitely more of a family. I mean, I guess at some point we’ll stop doing Blank Realm, but we’ll always be family. Luke Walsh included. The band arose out of just hanging out, out of wanting to do something more than just hang out and listen to records together. Not that doing that is waste of time – I spend a lot of time doing that still.
There’s always been a bit of a spirit of mucking around to the band that I think will remain no matter how successful or unsuccessful the band manages to get. It will always mostly be just goofing off. For the most part, I think that’s how it should be. Bands who are really trying to make it, or bands who write a press release or an exegesis prior to their first jam have never really set my world on fire. These days, it’s probably 50/50 hanging out and making music. There’s actually a lot of work put into our music, even though it still sounds terribly sloppy.
The first time I saw you guys play it was more experimental and minimal. Now it seems like an extreme yet undefinable rock and roll band. How would you describe yourselves, and the various progressions you’ve made?
That’s sort of hard for me to say. I mean, I can see there has been a pretty radical shift in the sound from free noise, to almost straight up rock and roll, but being in the band it feels a lot more gradual than it may seem to those patient enough to have been listening all along. Part of it is just learning how to play. In the beginning we couldn’t play at all, we just turned everything up and tried to somehow control the waves of feedback. It was really fun, but maybe not so much fun for the audience.
I like that you said ‘extreme’ rock band, because that’s how I see it in a kind of ideal sense. I feel like all the noise and chaos of those early records and shows is still in these songs we do now. We like to keep things on the edge of collapse. Some people have said to me that we change every time they see us, which is cool. I mean, I don’t think we do, but it’s cool that people think that.
I’m really interested in the lyrics. Do they come before and after the jams, and are they based on reality, or are they spontaneous?
Well, I’ve written all the lyrics so far. In a way the lyrics and the music exist independently of each other, until we find a way to bring them together. I go for a walk pretty much every night and will turn over phrases or words in my head. I’ll think of words, almost slogans really, and I’ll just hang onto them until we play something they seem to fit with. That usually doesn’t take long. Whenever I have a lyric I think is good, the band usually play something that goes with it within a week or so, without me even telling them the lyric. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but it continually mystifies me, the way that seems to work.
I definitely wouldn’t say the lyrics are based in reality, I think they are more symbolist. Sort of transmissions from some warped quasi-religious rock and roll fantasy. I’m not too interested in writing about everyday life. There’s lots of people doing that better than I ever could these days.
I’ve always been obsessed with siblings – in films, books, literature etc – and the complex nature of these relationships. With the group comprising three siblings, have your relationships with each other always been creative?
Now that you mention it, I guess it has. Even when we were little kids we would make up fake bands with our toys and even record whole albums in stupid funny voices. I feel like going any further into that would destroy any chance we’ve ever had of being seen as cool.
Regarding lyrics, I like what you say about everyday life versus fantastical themes/ imagery, because I can relate to that with my own lyric writing [Angie writes with Circle Pit and Ruined Fortune – Ed]. Do you feel, however, that somehow they filter down and directly relate to real life events, your personal history etc, at a later date?
I feel like I definitely get the same feeling from your stuff, especially with Circle Pit. I believe rock and roll is a foundational myth in contemporary culture, and we, as a band, are true believers in its redemptive power as one of the true freedom musics. I feel like my real life is terribly boring a lot of the time, and the lyrics are sort of this parallel fantasy life. Everyone must have that to some extent, but I just get to make records about it with Blank Realm.
I wanted to ask about your artwork, as you guys usually get an artist to provide imagery for you. Was this the case with the new album?
Yep, for sure. The album art was done by Spencer Clark and his friend eggyolkeo. Spencer does a project called Monopoly Child Star Searchers, which is incredible, and he was in the Skaters, which was his band with James Ferraro. We were big fans of that band. Anyway, we visited Spencer on tour in Portland, and we were surprised to learn that he is obsessed with Australian rock from the ’70s and ’80s, like Dragon, Icehouse, Matt Finish and all that kind of thing. He kind of saw our music in that tradition, which is really cool.
When it came time to do the art he was the logical person to ask. He initially wanted a photo of Luke [Walsh] standing alone outside a nightclub in a leather jacket to be the cover, but we could never quite get the shot. From what I understand the cover is stills from movies in Spencer’s enormous VHS collection. He explained that the cover is meant to capture the dichotomy in our sound between the nightclub and the beach. I’d never thought of it like that before, but that definitely makes a lotta sense.
Watching you play live, especially in the last year so, there is some kind of frenetic energy coming from all of you. There’s an equal excitement there, something that I interpret as coming from the fact you’re all so close. How do you feel about playing live?
I’m not sure where the excitement comes from, but we love playing live. We are really comfortable on stage now, which we absolutely were not in the beginning. I feel like we are a live band, meant to be seen live, that’s where we really exist. The records are just kind of representational.
Would you say it’s a kind of release for all of you?
It’s definitely a release. Being on stage is the only time my mind is empty of everyday bullshit. I don’t think about anything other than what we are playing and trying to get the audience into it. It’s the most liberating thing. I really love playing for people. I think we are pretty dependent on the crowd being into it. If there are five people in the room, and they are all hanging by the bar, we’re probably not going to play our best show. Some bands play really well with a nonexistent or indifferent audience, but we just don’t. I think there’s still part of us that’s really amazed and grateful that we are up on stage in front of people, and that keeps it this kind of joyous thing. I mean, when we started this band we never imagined we’d ever even play a show.
How can you relate the experience of singing and drumming at the same time? Are they the opposite to each other, or intertwined – something you have to balance?
Singing and drumming is definitely hard to balance. At the risk of drawing attention to it, the drumming becomes far simpler when I have to sing at the same time. I guess the way I sing is pretty influenced by my drumming, sometimes I think it’s not so much singing as much as it is rhythmic yelping.
What are your plans after this tour, will you return to America? What other projects are you all working on?
We’re going to America to play Chaos in Tejas and a bunch of other shows. Really need to try not to gobble so much intense junk food this time. We’ll have a new single really, really soon and we are finishing up a new record.