Marcus Whale has just ordered lunch, a simple meal of avocado and fetta on toast. He’s sitting in the courtyard of a small cafe in Sydney’s inner west, wrapped in a hoodie and apologising that he doesn’t have an extra to share.
Fresh off a tour with Bon Chat Bon Rat, the young musician (and one half of digital duo Collarbones) is taking a moment to reflect. In just a month’s time, his second album with Collarbones bandmate Travis Cook will be released. Die Young is the result of a year’s work between the long distance music makers (Whale resides in Sydney, Cook in Adelaide) and an offering that recalls the vulnerability of heady, adolescent obsessions and the all-consuming heartbreak of a teen crush.
Collarbones’ sound, while distinctive, is difficult to define. Part of this comes from the circumstances via which their songs are made. The two sit in bedroom studios in different states, carefully interweaving digital threads over the hot buzz of their computer screens. Both share a love of late R&B prodigy Aaliyah, and right now Whale is listening to Miguel a lot, a Californian artist who fuses funk, hip-hop and electronic music.
“We usually start out with one central music idea, a loop between 10 and 20 seconds long,” Whale says of the duo’s process. “In a lot of R&B it works like this: the beat doesn’t really change, you have a central hook that goes on the whole time. What differentiates verses and choruses are different levels of density and details in the drumming.”
If the pair’s debut release Iconography was, as Whale puts it, “a continuous stream of schizophrenic thoughts”, then Die Young is the opposite. Gone is the unbridled thematic experimentation that first tantalised listeners. Instead, there is a singular focus, a time-capsule grab of the most intense youthful yearnings. “The world, when you’re in high school, seems both insurmountable and really limited,” Whale says, pausing as a waitress arrives and we both wolf down our sandwiches.
Inspired by love letters written to people Whale “really liked in high school”, Die Young is a jilted, distorted ode to outlandish displays of desire. Still in the throes of youth himself (he studies a Bachelor of Music Composition at the Conservatorium of Music), Whale has just the right amount of distance from his school days. Time has not yet coated them in a rosy sheen. “Before you get disillusioned and get over it, the first time [you’re in love] is perfection,” Whale explains. “You don’t have the experience of being let down or learning that there isn’t an ideal… You impose a naïve but beautiful idea on that first spark, that initial ravishment.”
Whale first met Cook over the Internet. He describes the period as “the MySpace days”, a time when teenagers with niche tastes were beginning to forge quiet trysts online, swapping information with those who felt the same pop cultural stirrings. “When you’re a teenager, it’s difficult to find people that you have a lot in common with,” Whale says. “I spent a lot of time on the Internet, searching out music…and then Travis came along and began introducing me to stuff, like I would normally do with my friends.”
Since then, Collarbones have spent a lot of time together in the flesh, touring with Neon Indian and Daedalus, as well as label mates Ghoul, Oscar + Martin and Donny Benet and collaborating with the like of Guerre and HTML Flowers.
Before he leaves to meet another artist, I ask Whale what the perfect conditions are to listen to the new album. He pauses to consider. “Definitely alone, probably at night.” Come September, we’ll be trying it out.
You can catch Marcus Whale live at the Sydney Fringe Festival in group performance work Now You Are Safe From Them on September 14 and 15.
Die Young will be released September 28.