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True Tales of Half Time: The Stevens interviewed

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The Stevens is the Victorian guitar-pop brainchild of Travis McDonald and Alex McFarlane. Combining their respective bedroom-based projects, they began writing music together in 2009 under a series of different guises. Their lyrics, while seemingly introspective and self-referential, are often based on the droll perceptions of two guys in their early twenties, their oddity fueled by the irreverence of the unthinking rock idols they once looked up to during puberty. Their general demeanour may be centered on a satire of their early influences, but their unique pop intuitions are infallible: The Stevens have produced some of the most refreshing pop music to come out of the Melbourne Flying Nun-inclined fold.

Their first self-titled EP was self-released initially in 2012 on cassette/CD but later re-released as a 7 inch this year by Chapter Music. It’s pop music that stands on its own hind legs – brilliantly crafted songs that resonate contextually across decades. In the lead up to the release of their debut LP A History of Hygiene, Travis McDonald discusses their approach to recording, teenage pipe dreams and forlorn rock gods.

It’s been over a year since you released the Stevens EP on cassette. The songs seem to be indicative of a particular time in both yours and Alex’s lives, in that the EP feels unified through points of self-realisation and ‘quarter-life crises’.  Do these comments align with your own perceptions?

In ways, yes, but most of the words or lyrics are more observational anecdotes about friends, not so much our lives. Alex’s songs are almost exclusively journalistic. They’re often about other people, but at same time are very personal. My songs probably don’t make a hell of a lot of sense to people a lot of the time, because I mostly just mash together conversations or things that I overhear… things like random science facts or oracle and news events seem to come up quite often. With the new record there are definitely aspects of that on there: the processes for writing lyrics are still the same. I guess the real difference on the LP is in the way it sounds.

How do you feel your songwriting has evolved over time? Have you had any significant new influences that weren’t there on the EP?

I don’t think my songwriting has really evolved much at all. I’ve been writing music and playing in bands since I was about 13. I think there was a period when I was about 18 when I felt the pressures of the avant-garde looming over me. I was trying to make music which, at the time, I thought was quite clever. I let all these electronic influences take over my songwriting. Now I feel as though I’ve almost reverted back to my 13-year-old self, [now that I] mostly write songs now on guitar and piano.

What was it like growing up in Elphinstone? What sort of a place is it and how did you source your influences and inspiration for writing music? 

Elphinstone is small. It has a population of only a couple hundred. As a kid I was able to make a lot of rowdy noises and stupid recordings without anyone complaining. There were no record stores or any access to Internet most of the time so writing songs was an easy way to hear new music. My dad had a few CDs including some Flying Nun comps. I made a band when I was 13 with Matt our current drummer, which was called The Kites. We tried to sound like the Velvet Underground and Jimi Hendrix and used to play a cover of ‘Billy Two’ by The Clean. That lasted till I was 15.

The new single ‘Hindsight’ has a seemingly thicker, more layered aesthetic than that of previous recordings. In what ways do you feel your sound has developed?

The previous recordings were done mainly with Alex (McFarlane, of The Stevens). I sort of pushed him around and told him what to do some of the time, but really it was pretty straightforward. Half of the new album was recorded with Mikey Young at the Town Hall and the other half is made up of home recordings of Alex’s or mine. It’s pretty much a collection of songs from the past couple of years. The first EP was once going to be a 20-song album, but we decided to cut anything we thought was half cooked.

We’ve basically done something similar for this release but with more than 50 recordings to choose from. So again, it’s a best-of/mixtape type deal. Where it really differs is that we have the additional help of Mikey Young, Tex Houston and Noel McKenna for superior results. It was also written over two different line-ups, and it isn’t written as 50/50 like the EP. I wrote a fair few of the songs this time round, so there is a lot more filler in between Al’s songs on this one. Plus Alex and I recorded just over half of it at Alex’s house. It also features a bit more keyboard too.

Did you ever consider re-recording those home recordings?

Nah, not really. We operate on this idea that each song should be treated differently, some of the songs sounded better just recorded acoustically, or with just one person playing. With Tam and Callum leaving the band about a year ago, the different configuration of members meant that there were different punctuations on each song. It was definitely a conscious decision to leave them as they were.

What effect did the departure of Tam and Callum have on the band at the time? Did you ever contemplate calling it quits?

Well the immediate effect was that it made us very sad. I remember at the time messaging Alex asking if he wanted to quit, and that if he wanted to he should let me know now. He replied with “nup”, so we’ve never really considered quitting or anything. Alex and I have both had our own recording projects dating back to when our testicles hadn’t dropped yet. We committed to merging the two before we ever had any other members. We seem to work pretty well together, so we decided to stick it out.

How did Gus and Matt fit in initially? I know you guys are all old friends, so I guess I mean musically more than anything.

It definitely brought different flavours in, for lack of a better word. Matt comes from quite a jazz-heavy background. He’s sort of a Gene Krupa kind of drummer, which is really interesting because he’s incredibly technical, so it’s given us a lot more opportunities to explore different rhythms. Gus as well is just a wizard, a really multitalented musician. It was a pretty seamless transition, but the band still definitely has a different feel about it now.

You’ve did the artwork for the first Stevens EP and seem to be quite a keen artist. Do music and visual art provide different outlets for you creatively?

Yeah, they do totally. I think music is one of those art forms that definitely has a more immediate, more enjoyable outcome, and it’s definitely the one that makes the least sense. You don’t have to really ever think about it or consider it in the way you do with an artwork. Painting is an art that’s really a bit of a mindfuck, in that it’s much more intentional and cerebral, but I think they still do feed into each other a lot of the time.

Is that why The Stevens often adopt the approach of only doing one take for each song and not dwelling on the recordings too much?

Yeah. A lot of the time it is just one take and if we ever redo a take – which come to think of we actually do a couple of times on this record – it’s mostly about just having fun and fiddling around with it. There’s still a very little amount of planning or thinking or intention behind any of the recordings. I suppose it’s like improvised recording in a way.

Your love of bands like Guided By Voices and Devo really shows in your live shows and stage presence. Alex’s dance moves are very reminiscent of Mark Mothersbaugh and at times there’s a sense of nerdish, self-aware comedy that shines through. You guys don’t seem take to yourselves too seriously, almost comically undermining the sentiment of each song. Is this something you’re aware of?

Yeah, for sure. No matter what we’re singing or writing about, it’s always undermined by the fact that we’re on a stage trying to live this teenage dream of ours in a really kind of contrived way. The biggest influences that we have are your classic kind of rock idols. So I guess we’re all fed by this mindless teenage rock obsession. All of us grew up separately listening and watching The Who, Hendrix, Kiss, The Beatles, and other classics. I think rock is some kind of fundamentalist religion you are forced into at an early age without really knowing it. You grow up paying tribute to rules, historical moments, prophets and dress codes etc. I used to design fake band logos and crafted a front man’s jacket. I would always plan ultimate band line-ups of friends for weird different sub genres.

You guys don’t play outside of Melbourne much – has there always been a solid Melbournian support base for The Stevens?

Yeah definitely more than any other band I’ve been in. I guess that’s the joy of playing in a band with Alex, he’s always known a lot of local people in the music scene. I only moved to Melbourne when I was 18 and didn’t really know many people. I’d played in bands before I made the move and we were always playing to two or three people at best. I guess any show we’ve played has had at least double that.

Playing overseas is the dream, it’s one of the boxes we want to be able to tick on the teenage dream list. You know, to be in a sick rock band that goes on tours. I’d definitely like to go to America and New Zealand, but of course we’ll be playing in Brisbane and Sydney in support of this record.

Your latest track ‘Hindsight’ was written up on AdHoc and Pitchfork the other day. A lot of the releases on Chapter, like Twerps and Dick Diver, seem to be getting a lot of praise in the States.

Yeah, that was surprising. I guess Chapter has stuck around with these kinds of bands for long enough, so it’s good that they’re getting some stuff on websites like Pitchfork. It’s a very fashionable sound at the moment, and it was inevitably going to be fashionable at some point. The fact that they’ve [Chapter Music] been around for 21 years now has meant that they’ve become a very influential force in Melbourne independent music. Both Guy and Ben keep a very close eye on whatever goes on in the Melbourne scene. They saw us play at a couple of smaller gigs a year or two ago. They definitely are invested in putting out records, rather than focusing on the business side of things and are very well trusted and respected for that reason.

There really is a daunting proliferation of bands in Melbourne. Where do you guys place yourself in Melbourne Music?

There are probably more bands and scenes than people, but the music scene here is smaller than it looks. A lot of the guitar bands share members and that determines where they play, who they play with and what they sound like. It’s a good group; the only thing is that it can become a bit hard to tell who is writing for who sometimes. Because it can be so blurred, there have been a few Melbourne music writers coining these scenes. There’s the garage, the jangle, the anxiety pop, the slacker pop, the dole wave, the chill mate etc. I still can’t tell what the difference is. Its hard to know where we are placed, we like too many things that aren’t those names. We’re also still a fairly new band too.

***

The Stevens’ A History of Hygiene is out now through Chapter Music. The band play Sound Summit next weekend. Full details here. The group will also launch their record in Melbourne on Friday December 20 at the Tote, with Lower Plenty and Nth Wheel. $10 on the door.

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