Historically speaking, ‘hype bands’ drink from a poisoned chalice. On the one hand, the talk buys them time to fulfil their potential. It gives them inches in the magazines and minutes on television screens and it makes record label chiefs go giddy like schoolboys. But more often than not, a hype band waits too long for the big release and all of that buzz – all of that potential – is for nothing.
As one half of Sydney duo Jagwar Ma, Gabriel Winterfield knows more than most about the hype machine. Since forming in late 2011, bloggers the world over have gone into overdrive in anticipation of the Sydney duo’s debut album, and for good reason. Winterfield was formerly the front man of Ghostwood, who signed to Modular records in late 2006. His counterpart Jono Ma is a dynamic producer in his own right, most recently working with Foals in Sydney and writing the score for television show The Slap on the ABC. Along with his production credits, Ma was one part of Lost Valentinos, Sydney’s indie rock darlings.
We spoke with Winterfield in Perth ahead of the band’s national support tour with The xx. Among other things, he’s looking forward to living up to the talk.
Nick Acquroff: Where are you right now Gab? Gabriel Winterfield: We got back from London a few days ago. We finished the Foals tour and now we’re in Perth. It’s a beautiful day over here, there’s not a cloud in the sky. I just had some breakfast.
NA: And last night was your first show with The xx? How was it? GW: People were starting to know what to expect in Europe and the UK, because we’ve played so many shows there. Last night people didn’t know what to expect or whatever. It was quite a sobering show. But after every song people erupted into applause. People were enjoying and appreciating it, but they just didn’t really know what to expect.
NA: Is that because it’s hard to classify you guys and, having only heard a few of your songs, people might not know what you’re going to throw at them next? GW: I like to think of myself as being a little bit colour-blind to genre, and I think Jono considers himself the same way. You know, we’re not trying to be an electronic band or a rock and roll band – we have varied taste.
NA: It’s a bit boring when bands do the same thing for too long, isn’t it? GW: Well, yes and no. I saw a Kevin Shields (lead singer of My Bloody Valentine) interview and he said, ‘I just really love it when a guitarist does the one thing, really, really well.’ He talked about how Dee Dee Ramone just smashed on the guitar, using down strokes and punky things. Shields' plays similarly, with a trem-bar. He does it so often that if someone else plays in the same style, people think My Bloody Valentine has influenced it.
Same with The Strokes, really. The Strokes just laid claim to something really simple. They were like ‘it’s ours’. I suppose most of us don’t have the confidence to claim something that is so simple and raw. It’s a bit of a modern art thing. It’s the old ‘I could have done that’ and then you say, ‘Well you didn’t and someone else did 120 years ago’.
NA: It seems to me that more and more, the life of a musician is one that keeps them humble. Do you agree? GW: I think having an ego is really boring. You can be creative about how you’re perceived, sure, but you want to make sure you come across the right way. I just saw that we’re on the front cover of Drum Media today, and throughout the interview I kept talking about the realness and the honesty of our record. It’s been sincere the entire way – from when Jono and I started in his bedroom. He was playing beats and I was just singing vocal lines over the top and having a good time.
NA: Producing your own records and removing the third party must give you so much more creative control? GW: I think it can make you confused [having third parties]. Because you have this idea of who you are as an artist and then all of a sudden they come around thinking they know better. But the truth is that they don’t. When people say, ‘I think you should be like X, Y and Z’, I say, ‘No, actually, we’re not like them’.
Between the two of us, there isn’t really room for another person to come in and tell us what they think we should do anyway. I think if they did, we’d probably shoot them a sharp eye and be like, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about man, we’ve been writing this song for six months, and this is the first time you’ve heard it’.
NA: It seems that some bands, like yourselves, naturally tick boxes with record labels and industry people. You act like a guide for other aspiring bands. But it’s not something you’ve done on purpose – your entire image and sound is just…how it is. GW: It has been a sincere process from beginning to end – there hasn’t been a label saying ‘Come on, you could try this!’ No one has tried to change us yet, and that is valuable.
I suppose you’ve just got to believe in yourselves. You think, ‘No, I can get this right, I know it’ because there are so many creative decisions. Even the way you set up in the studio, these are all decisions that affect the process. For instance, I love being in a room with other people when I sing. I don’t want to be locked away in a little fucking lab. Like I love being in the room with Jono and him having headphones on so we can hear everything. We have this expression: if you’re recording, everything in the room affects the sound of the recording. If you’ve got some dude in the room, they’ll affect the sound of recording.
Kevin Parker from Tame Impala recorded some of the shit from his album on Garage Band. Then he would give it to a mixer and make it as high quality as possible. But that’s why Tame Impala stuff sounds so lo-fi at times, because it’s not so much about the equipment, it’s about the sounds they get out.
NA: Oh no, we’re out of time. And I didn’t even get to ask how you guys started? GW: (Laughs) That’s okay, I’ll tell you the quick version. Jono and I used to play in separate bands, but our bands were always touring together. We were always circling around each other. Then I had a track that I wanted Jono to help me record and Jono had something he wanted me to work on. It became a contra deal: Jono said, ‘I’ll produce your songs if you sing on mine’. Then after we completed the songs – with me singing on his stuff and him producing my stuff – it sounded like the same band. So we thought, why not put them together. It fell into place like that.
Jagwar Ma support The xx on April 6 and April 7 at the Hordern Pavilion in Sydney.