There’s nothing insubstantial about Go Forth, Find Mammoth, neither in sound nor scope. As its title and central metaphor intimates, the latest oeuvre from Melbourne kid Lawrence Greenwood – known to most as Whitley – finds its bearings not in the trivialities of the day-to-day, but in the bigger picture: the uncertainties of life and death and our reasons for being.
“I’m really fascinated by the machinations of human nature and how you can trace those same machinations back into history,” the songwriter posits, before the phone line falls quiet for a moment.
“Since we developed the prefrontal lobes, we’ve kept repeating these same mistakes time and time again, which is just a really interesting thing.”
It’s something of a shift for Whitley, who launches Go Forth, Find Mammoth this Thursday night at the Corner Hotel. Where his much lauded 2007 debut The Submarine – recorded at a Pt Lonsdale beach house with Nick Huggins – wove strands of intimate detail, first loves and personal minutiae into hushed folk tropes, his new album imposes little in the way of limitations.
From the buzzing textures of ambient instrumentals like opener 1945 and Warm Winter Sky to the wide-screen pop of single Poison in our Pockets (a song that covers Eva Braun’s last days in the bunker with Adolf Hitler), Head First Down and Killer, the record visits terrains previously unimagined in Whitley’s earlier material.
“I think I was in a very me-centred mind state when I was doing The Submarine,” he offers when questioned on the matter. “It was about my life and I guess it was a method for dealing with some pretty heavy shit that happened with family and stuff when I was younger.
“So I think that once the record was done, I was able to go on and try to learn about the world outside my brain,” he pauses. “It’s just nice to be able to spend your time thinking about the world rather than yourself.”
In many ways, Whitley’s philosophical musings hardly befit his lackadaisical exterior. Raised in the tiny coastal village of Balnarring on the shores of Western Port Bay, the 25-year-old is very much the country boy in the city man’s shoes. Indeed, today’s encounter is punctuated by disarming small-town phraseology and puckish self-deprecation.
“I’m not the common country kid anymore,” he announces at one point in mock defence. “I live in Fitzroy now, you know. I wear Ray-Bans.”
Gags aside, it has been a time of upheaval for the artist. Apart from his shift to the city, in the two years since releasing The Submarine, he has acquired himself a band (drummer Andy Reed and bassist Luke Bolton), helmed three US tours, circumnavigated Australia too many times to count and become something of an indie household name in the process.
Tellingly, it wasn’t only the kids who were tuning in. When a couple of rough demos found their way into the hands of Midnight Oil co-founder and acclaimed producer Jim Moginie, an invitation to record followed. Suffice to say, Go Forth, Find Mammoth soon began to take shape. “We’d been stuck in a pretty small recording facility and there were a lot of ideas that I couldn’t actively pursue there,” he recounts.
“One of the guys from the label had worked with Jim before on one of Sarah Blasko’s records and so I think he sent some of the things we were doing down to Jim, and Jim just wanted us to come down to the studio for a little hang out.
“I’d just done it all very much by myself up until that point and I wasn’t sure how to move forward and really capture these much bigger ideas. So it was just amazing to have Jim offer a really valid opinion and really good insight as to how to keep going.”
Whitley is particularly proud of the more experimental tracks on the record, namely Warm Winter Sky, the length of which comprises little more than a lone, shimmering guitar drone.
“It’s actually my favourite track on the album,” he says excitedly. “I really didn’t want the record to sound just like a bunch of pop songs put together. So I put a couple of tracks like that in there to really set a mood and just get away from the trigger-finger, iPod generation thing.”
Nonetheless, he isn’t about to claim profundity. He may have widened his gaze, but Whitley is still very much Whitley.
“I don’t feel as though I’ve achieved any great enlightenment or anything like that,” he laughs. “I’m still looking at the world from inside my strange old head.”
Whitley plays the Corner Hotel this Thursday, November 5.
Go Forth, Find Mammoth is out now through Dew Process/Universal