What a glorious time to be a music fan in Australia. The Big Day Out was only four years old, but had changed the playing field of Australian music completely, placing bands previously considered too noisy, weird or unruly in front of huge audiences on big stages the country over. Triple J had gone national and was falling over itself to promote local music of various styles, to prove they were a viable alternative to the Austereo diet of greatest hits and memories, and super safe stadium acts.
Thirdly Saturday morning television was being ruled by the mighty Recovery who not only supported Australian and overseas artists but somehow managed to convince them to get up at six am to go and play live in the ABC studios in front an audience of often frightened looking teenagers desperate for a sound and culture that they could call their own.
So many fantastic bands. You Am I, Spiderbait, Custard, Regurgitator, TISM, The Mavis’s, Frenzal Rhomb, Gerling, Living End, Jebediah, Magic Dirt, Cruel Sea, Silverchair, Snout, The Fauves. Not to mention the thriving dance music scene, emerging hip hop culture and the success of acts like Dave Graney.
It was diverse.
It was marvellous.
It was exciting.
And smack in the middle of all this was one of the greatest three piece power pop bands ever to walk the face of Planet Earth, EVEN. Formed in 1994 when drummer Matthew Cotter and singer/guitar player Ash Naylor enlisted Wally Kempton (aka Wally Meanie) to join them. Naylor and Cotter had been playing in bands together since high school and Naylor had made two albums with the excellent Rail. Even started gigging in Melbourne and quickly found an audience for their classic guitar, bass and drums indie rock. By 1996 they were live favourites and had released a fistful of EPs and in June 96 they released their debut full length album Less Is More. Is was brimming with Beatle-esque songs like Stop & Go Man, Don’t Wait…..
In the ensuing two decades they have had long absences, released six studio albums and turned up on an always welcome, semi-regular basis, to tour and record new material. With their seventh album due out later this year, Even have been doing a run of shows marking the 20th Anniversary of the release of Less is More. Ash Naylor took some time out from rehearsals to talk to us about these shows, looking back and moving forward.
So Ash, how is it possible that Less is More came out two decades ago?
I don’t know! Twenty years seems like two years. A lot of things have happened in that time. We played it last week at The Corner in Melbourne and it still resonates musically. So I am pretty happy about that.
I’ve been having a little revisit to it and it is still a great record. It still stands up after all this time. We made it with basic intentions. It was a different time in some ways, but we wanted to make a traditional sounding record that would fly in the face of fashion.
How has it been revisiting it as a piece of work?
It’s been good. We haven’t changed our formula that much. We are a bit like AC/DC in that regard, I keep trying to make the same record every three or four years. So it’s not like we’ve had to learn to play guitar bass and drums again, it’s all very natural. So it’s just a matter of visiting the material and trying to make it fall into place. I guess lyrically it’s a bit of a challenge because you are putting your head back into the anxious uptight headspace I was probably in a lot at the time. So that is the biggest challenge, to inhabit the songs with the same naivety you had in your twenties.
Where there songs on the album that you never played live back then?
No. We probably gave all the songs an airing at the time, probably not all in one night. There were probably some songs that got a bit neglected back then, only because it was hard to get our head around given we were touring so much and not rehearsing that much. So we have played all of it over the years but it is nice to visit it as a collective work.
I often wonder when band are doing the ‘playing the classic album’ show if there are songs that make the members go ‘Oh God I never wanted to play that song ever again.
Well we never hit critical mass with the band. There are some songs we play at every show, but others not so much. The challenge is to play the material and maybe pick up on nuances that we haven’t focused on in the songs. There have been guitar parts I’d forgotten about and lyrics I’d forgotten about. So the challenge for me was to revisit the songs with fresh ears and try and represent it in a fresh way.
I know it is a bit passé for bands to do the classic album shows, but we’ve actually done it four or five times over the years. We did it in 1999, we did three nights at the Punters Club doing our first three albums. We did it in the early 2000s and again two years ago for our Christmas show. So we have a few goes at it. It’s not such a strange concept for us to play the twelve songs in a row, so long as we didn’t use the terms entirety or anniversary. It was my only stipulation for myself.
You guys all do other things, Wally does has The Meanies and gets about as a tour manager and so forth. When you get back together as Even to do shows or record does it all just fit back together like a nice jigsaw puzzle?
Yeah. If we pick a song we all know, we can blast out a few songs from muscle memory. But it’s like any muscle, you have to work it and exercise it. We played one night in The Annandale at Tim Rogers said one of his mates “When did Matt Cotter become the best drummer in the world?”. That was in the late 90’s and we were touring our arses off. Matt, like Wally and myself need to be using those muscles to get good, get better. Lately we have had some rehearsals and some shows and we are back in the mode. So the short answer is, somethings come back comfortably. When we play gigs we might hit a point in a gig where we are all in the same…I’m not going to use the word page or wavelength…
Yeah – groove! We are in the same groove. It is a very simple thing guitar, bass and drums. It is a very simple process. But we have had a long time to find our groove, whatever that is. You’ll know if you see us live you will know when we have found it because I’ll be near the drum riser with my eyes closed. When that happens it is a wonderful thing.
Well, I’m pretty sure I have seen that happen with you guys on more than one occasion. Less is More came out at a golden age for ‘alternative’ or ‘indie’ music.
I guess so. The mid nineties, looking back with the benefit of hindsight you can look at it as a golden era. Especially when you look at The Recovery DVD that just came out. You look back at that scene in the mid to late nineties and it was a wonderful time. Before the internet spoiled everything.
Back when people still bought CD’s and records.
It was a simpler time. It’s a bit like reminiscing about the seventies or something. It was based on film clips, playing live and word of mouth. It was just a good time. I probably didn’t appreciate it as much at the time, because I was a bit anxious and uptight when I was a twenty something, trying to find my way in the world. But it has afforded me some of the greatest times I have ever had.
When the Recovery DVD came out I wrote a piece about how that in it’s own way recovery was every bit as important as Countdown had been. It put so many band in front of so many people, so regularly on a such a big scale, that it changed everything. You also had Triple J going national and the rise of the Big Day Out and it meant that people were open and hungry for music that wasn’t just chart fodder commercial music.
Absolutely, that is right. The fact that everybody played live on Recovery too. It was fantastic and exciting. I recall getting up at six in the morning after doing a gig the night before, get over to Elsternwick, play a few songs then go back to bed and crash out. It was a wonderful time.
So many good bands came out in that period, You Am I, Spiderbait, The Gurge. Really good strong bands that have strong followings all these years later.
Bands in the operative word. Because they were bands. They rehearsed together, gigged together, played live together in an old fashioned sense. With the advent of ProTools and social media, records are easy to make now and easier to promote through a social media platform. It seems like there could be less reliance on being a shit hot live band. I don’t really have my finger on the pulse, but a lot of music can be created on a laptop, like Flume or stuff like that, and become a national phenomena.
Then Flume will go and play at the Horden Pavillion with a laptop. I mean the Chemical Brothers were doing that in the nineties but I feel lucky to have grown up in a time where if you were in a band you played your instruments and you grew as a band and as people. All the people you mentioned, regardless of style, were real people playing real music.
You have always struck me as being a very traditional songwriter. The way you play has really good pop sensibilities.
I hope so. I am hurtling toward fifty and I am still trying to write pop songs. Every year I keep promising myself ‘no more pop songs that sound like Beatles b-sides’, but they keep coming out so I keep on writing them. To me music is like food, you find what you like and it is what nourishes you. I am trying to nourish myself with good songs and hope that some people get some nourishment out of them as well.
I remember having a conversation with Simon Holmes from The Hummingbirds once, who wrote some of the most glorious power pop songs of all time, and he was just bored with writing pop songs. It came to easy for him and he wanted to make music with more meat on the bones. But I remember inside my head screaming ‘NO I LOVE THE BUBBLEGUM!’.
(Laughing) Well there you go. It is down to your own taste and what you like to make. I have an idea to make instrumental music down the line, but as long as the songs keep floating around I’ll keep putting those out. I make music so infrequently it’s not like I am sick of the genre. Still trying to find better ways of doing it. But writing songs is not easy, so I’ll have to disagree with Simon on that one. The process can be easy. It’s easy to write okay songs, but to write great songs is something that is an intangible art form. Sometimes they only become great over time, with the passage of time.
When you are not doing Even it’s not like you are sitting round twiddling your thumbs. You are out there as a kind of guitar slinger for hire…
I don’t like that term
For Hire. It implies I will do things I don’t like. That is a job. Being a sideman is a job and being a front man is my heart and soul. There you go quote me on that! That’s how it works, you are a team player for other peoples bands and you make their music sound as good as it can be to the best of your ability. And then when you are making your own music you are free to paint any picture you like.
That’s where your real passion comes out. Not that I don’t put passion into other projects because I do, you have to have passion. But when you are promoting somebody else’s music you are serving the music, not your own ego. I’m grounded enough to know where to draw the line. Even with our own songs now, I’m kind of detached from the material in a positive way, so I am not so swept up in the process or emotion of it, so I can be a bit more objective about my own material which is a good thing.
This show at The Grace Emily will be a pretty special night I think.
We have played there many times and it’s a great place. I love it. We played there with Bob Evans, did a show with Ken Stringfellow (The Posies) and done our own shows there. I’m really looking forward to it.
Interview by Ian Bell
Even play The Grace Emily Hotel on Friday January 20th. There is a remastered version of Less is More on vinyl only available at the show and every pre-sold ticket include an exclusive 7″ picture disc! Tickets from Moshtix