Cailan Burns has never been one for grand gestures, for fanfare. That his long-awaited solo music and art project Mystery Twin is finally on shelves seems more a cause for anxiety than celebration.
“I’ve never really felt like a real musician,” he offers, almost meekly. “I just like the idea of someone looking at one of my pictures and listening to my music and for those two things to marry together in their head.” A pause, an uneasy giggle. “That would be the ultimate.”
Burns’ reticence seems a world away from his quiet renown. In a career that’s spanned more than a decade, he has proven one of the more influential figures on the Melbourne electronic and pop underground. Indeed, along with his long-term Pretty Boy Crossover collaborator Jason Sweeney, Burns has been responsible for some of the scene’s decisive releases (celebrated 2007 record Unless, made with Underground Lovers frontman Vincent Giarrusso as Mist & Sea, included). His colour-saturated illustrations and paintings – his much adored psychedelic dreamscapes and idiosyncratic “love monsters” – meanwhile, have adorned album covers for artists as diverse as Qua, Mountains in the Sky and Love Connection, graced numerous publications and seen him exhibit at Lamington Drive.
In person, though, he is a ball of shy affability and diffident signifiers. Sitting in a park near his Thornbury home, he falls quiet only to launch into streams of lightning-fast explanations and smiling digressions, and credits his friends Cornel Wilczek (Qua), John Lee (Mountains in the Sky) and Dylan Martorell as his biggest influences.
But there are moments of reflection, though, and of clarity. “I think what I like about music and art is that they’re things that will be left behind,” he says. “They’re little slices of somebody, whereas if you don’t leave those slices of yourself, people just have their memories. If you are printed in a book or you have a CD, there’s an element of your creation or your sound still out there.”
It says a lot about Burns’ practice, which, despite its dreamy, fantastic sensibilities, is peppered with a complex tangle of personal minutiae, artefacts, contributions and references. The Mystery Twin record (which was produced with the aid of Wilczek and Lee), for example, features vocal tracks from Burns’ wife Yoshie, “hidden” contributions from their young son Naoki, and the ambient noise of their former street in Osaka.
“I kind of see it as a diary,” he says. “I’ll do things like record the sound of a radiator heater dripping and just put that under the music. It’s a personal thing. Like when Yosh is singing on the record you can just hear people outside on the street in Osaka. I didn’t have a proper microphone and the window was wide open, so you could hear all these extra details.
The intense colouration, psychedelic layers and mutant figures that comprise Burns’ artworks also harbour surprisingly personal details. “There’s a lot of stuff to do with death in there,” he offers. “This idea of rebirth and a kind of flow. I think it’s because my mum died when I was younger and my partner’s parents are both dead as well. I’ve seen two people in my life die in front of me and it’s an incredibly moving thing and I think it’s really influenced my thoughts.”
Burns has always drawn, but his introduction to music wasn’t so conventional. He remembers his parents giving him a Casio keyboard for Christmas as a kid in Adelaide. He laughingly recalls their dismay at his disinterest in learning how to play conventionally. “All I used to do was push this same note down and listen to the drone,” he chuckles. “I just loved the way it sounded, like a wave, and I would just sit there for ages playing these drones.”
It wasn’t until years later – having completed a fine art degree in South Australia and spent a considerable amount of time making music in Melbourne as part of Pretty Boy Crossover – that Burns’ creative interests began to crystallise.
“It was actually while I was living in Japan that all this stuff started to come together,” he recalls. “I’d do some music and then draw, paint something and then do some more music and I started to see these connections between my music and my drawings.”
It was in this context that Mystery Twin – which features an array of original artwork – finally found a voice. “It just made sense to put them together. I really want it to be like a dream state, where you listen to the music and look at the artwork and feel like you’re inside the picture in some way.”
That said, the ever-humble Burns isn’t about to take too much credit for his own work. “I had all these songs for ages, but they were just on my hard drive. If it wasn’t for people like Cornel and John pushing me, these songs would probably still be sitting on my hard drive. I listen to a track on my CD and I’m like ‘Where the hell did that come from? Can I even do that again? Maybe that’s the best I’m ever going to do?’” he laughs.
“So it’s really nice to hear that people actually like my CD.”
Mystery Twin is out via Sensory Projects/Inertia.
Dan Rule is co-curating a book on Cailan Burns to be released via Erm Books/And Collective.