INTERVIEW: SEAWORTHY: CYCLIC DEFROST (2007)
Cameron Webb / Seaworthy Selects:
Cameron Webb spends a lot of time in isolated wetland environments; he’s an ecological researcher. Cameron’s also a musician, and, as you can probably imagine, these locations have inspired much of his music. Field recordings form the basis for textural drones and rhythms from which guitar loops and percussion can be blended; the experiences also form much of the inspiration for Seaworthy (augmented live by Sam Shinazzi and Greg Bird), musically, and into the aesthetic representation of the music in terms of live visual projections and packaging of limited edition CD-Rs and lathe-cut seven inch singles.
Minimal and melodic soundscapes constructed from looped guitar, warm drones, piano, electronics and field recordings have been Seaworthy’s hallmark since appearing in 2000. The band recorded for a number of Australian and international labels, and, last year, signed to US label 12k for the release of Map In Hand, an album that melds ‘indie’ and ‘post rock’ elements with processed musical and field recordings.
Cameron chose the following releases because they made a significant and/or ongoing influence on his music listening, music making and music packaging.
Songs of the Humpback Whale (Flexi disc with National Geographic, 1979)
Our family had a subscription to National Geographic and, as well as the piles of yellow spined magazines spread throughout most rooms of our small house, I can still distinctly remember the fantastic fold out cross section illustrations and photos of volcanoes, planets and oceans. However, nothing quite matched my fascination with the pull out flexidisc that accompanied an article on humpback whales. The flexidisc as a physical object itself was intriguing enough, but the recordings of the humpback whale songs were what really caught my attention.
I was completely mesmerised by these sounds that were unlike any piece of music or any actual sound I’d ever heard. It was years before I understood what echo and melody were, all I knew then was that these sounds could well have been some kind of alien communication and hours on end were spent laying on the floor next to our giant record player, headphones on and trying to somehow translate these sounds. I’ve recently realised how significant this novelty plastic thing may have had on my love for field recordings and if perhaps I’d continued with my marine sciences degree I may have ended up chasing whales across the Pacific rather than insects and frogs through wetlands.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - The First Born is Dead (Mute, 1985)
Throughout high school, my music listening (and pretty much everyone I knew) was shackled to commercial FM radio and augmented with a few rock/punk bands (that funnily enough never appeared in the local Kmart music department) appearing on soundtracks to the latest surf video. These were days before email and music blogs. This wasn’t a far flung country town, just the western suburbs of Sydney where The Cure, Pink Floyd and Talking Heads were all seen as alternative acts and INXS ruled the school.
As I started late night work at the local multinational burger chain, I was introduced to the wonders of Rage. Arriving home well after midnight on a Friday night, I’d often sit up until near dawn watching clip after clip of bands I’d never heard of and certainly had never surfaced on any radio station I regularly listened to. Then one night I saw the last half of a video I would later learn was ‘Tupelo’ by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. I don’t think a video since has had such an impact on me. Sure, the Gondrys of the world can make some clever clips but nothing was quite as magnetic as Nick wailing away in front of a storm filled projection in the background. I think I was equally terrified as I was transfixed. What was this? It actually took about six to eight months before I found out who this guy was and tracked down the record (cassette actually).
I think The Boatman’s Call, Tender Prey and The Good Son are all much better albums and while The First Born Is Dead may be far from my favourite album as a whole, the tension, drama, devastation, desperation, misery and sonic intensity of the seven or so minutes of ‘Tupelo’ still hold as much impact now as they did more than 15 years ago when I first heard them.
Dirty Three - Dirty Three (Torn & Frayed) 1994
If push came to shove, I’d probably say Ocean Songs
is my favourite album by Dirty Three, but this self titled release was where it all started for me and it still remains an incredibly exciting (and almost sexy) album. It is the unexpected that I love on this album. To describe it as an album of instrumental music made by violin, guitar and drums may given a misleading indication of gentle meditative pieces rather than the moments of boisterous feedback drenched rock within. Most importantly, I’ve never really thought of this an instrumental album, the term seems to imply something more than just the human voice is missing and the absence of vocals never crossed my mind when I heard this album for the first time. I wasn’t waiting for the vocals to start, I wasn’t wishing for a lyrical companion to the music. The album was what it was, a collection of amazing music and I consider ‘Indian Love Song’, ‘Better Go Home Now’, ‘Kim’s Dirt’ and ‘Everything’s Fucked’ some of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard.
There is an obvious link between Mick Turner’s guitar playing in Dirty Three, and his looped guitar pieces present on his three solo albums, and Seaworthy’s soundscapes. There is no denying Turner’s influence and I’ve made no secret of this fact. There was, and still is, something fascinating about watching and listening to Turner play guitar that I find addictive. I’ve never had the opportunity to meet him but he always appears shy and often shuffles around towards the side of stage, just out of range of a flailing Ellis but while that shyness could often be interpreted as mild disinterest, I always read it as focused contemplation with the loosely woven melodies he produces as much a counterpoint to Ellis’s violin as simply backing.
Dirty Three are a good example of how the music I make in Seaworthy pulls together the tiniest of details or elements from my favourite artists to create, hopefully, a distinctive Seaworthy sound. Turner’s guitar playing is probably the most obvious reference point of any other artist but within Dirty Three his contribution could be considered more subtle than Ellis or White’s and the subtle elements of artists of albums are often the elements I try to dissect and magnify for inclusion in Seaworthy.
Low - Secret Name (Kranky, 1999)
I’d been introduced to Low via friends overseas who shared a love of the atmospheric (and not so atmospheric) sounds of 4AD. I’d started becoming a little obsessed with Red House Painters and His Name Is Alive and word started leaking through about this slowcore band. I think the 1996 album When The Curtain Hits The Cast was one of the first albums I actually bought via an overseas mailorder as I couldn’t even track it down locally at the time. Funnily enough, I rarely got past the first few tracks on that album, probably because I was swamping myself with new music while my addition to music consumption was really hitting a peak. I loved the sound of Low but it wasn’t until I heard Secret Name that the band was indelibly stencilled on my soul.
This album is pretty much perfect as far as I’m concerned. I guess like all my favourite albums, it is difficult to distil the exact reasons why I keep returning to them and why they never seem to overstay their welcome. Together with Things We Lost in the Fire, Secret Name is part of the great double shot from the Low canon that, in my opinion, will never be matched by subsequent output from the band.
Mimi Parker’s vocals on ‘Weight of Water’ make me want to cry. They have a subtle quivering quality to them that relays to me more emotion than the more obvious tear inducing triggers of melody or lyrics. The uncluttered arrangement that combines the distant harmonies of Sparkhawk with a swell of strings adds to the emotional reach of Parkers’ vocals.
It is fair to say that the sounds used to construct many of Seaworthy’s pieces can be tracked back to the introductions and underlaying drones of many tracks here. The dark rumbling echos of ‘Home’, the rough texture of erratic buzzes and hums of guitars spinning in backwards loops and undulating swells in ‘Don’t Understand’ and the vinyl crackles in ‘I Remember’ that disguise organ drones as drowned mechanical pulses from a stranded submarine have all inspired Seaworthy at one time or another. While Sparkhawk’s and Parker’s vocals are at the forefront of this album, for me it is the guitar sounds (or at least the ‘types’ of sounds made by the guitars) on this album that make it one of the most influential albums shaping Seaworthy’s sound.
Empress - Empress 7” EP (555 Recordings, 1998) / Hood - The Year of Occasional Lull 7” (Rocket Racer, 1998)
Through the record label, Steady Cam, that I set up with a friend at the beginning of 1998, I’d started establishing a number of connections with other small labels specialising in seven inch vinyl releases - mostly indie pop stuff. One of my favourite releases (coincidently from one of my favourite bands) was The Year of Occasional Lull by Hood. Released on San Francisco label Rocket Racer, the seven inch single comes packaged in a folded piece of old pianola roll with minimal information stamped onto the sleeve. The release really sparked my interest in packaging ideas and led to many years of searching out interesting papers and materials (not to mention paper cuts and RSI) constructing sleeves for various Steady Cam and Seaworthy releases.
There was always a strong international trade in singles between a wide range of labels but one day a fairly nondescript single arrived in the mail. No picture sleeve and no details, just a seven inch single slipped into a grey cardboard jacket held together with green tape. What was on this single was about six tracks from UK band Empress featuring Nicola Hodgkinson (a one time Hood member) and Christopher Coyle. The music was heartbreaking. Hesitant, sparse instrumentation with Hodgkinson’s fragile vocals filled with shy sweet melancholy. The music sounded like it had been recorded on a dusty old reel-to-reel player and combined with the crackle of my ancient record player added even more romance to the collection of short mysterious pieces.
At the time, there was a lot of fuss made about the whole lo-fi/isolationist movement but much of it just sounded like badly recorded indie rock to me. But recordings by bands like Hood and particularly Empress showed how working within the confines of limited resources could make something from what may otherwise be considered flawed recording techniques.
I’m increasingly aware of my attraction to intrinsically flawed pieces of art. Qualities that may be considered inferior, errors, glitches or simply symptomatic of under resourced artists hold great fascination for me. There is no doubt that there is a time and place for super shiny big budget production. In fact, I’m sure that some of the records I’d considered relatively low budget recordings have in fact had bucketloads of cash invested in mastering and other post production black magic to achieve the final sound.
For Seaworthy recordings I generally work with what I’ve got and what I’ve got is generally cheap equipment. The first Seaworthy album, It’s Humbling When Two Saints Meet, was recorded for about $20, the cost of four audio cassettes and a one-day hire of a real time CD burner. A friend did some mastering on the final product but everything was recorded to 4-track. Same situation for Map in Hand that was recorded almost entirely to 4-track and an old reel-to-reel machine with some cheap microphones. Tape hiss, mic overload and background noise all became quite essential elements of the pieces on that album to the point where I’m actually reluctant to enter a ‘proper’ studio anytime soon.
Animal Collective - Campfire Songs (Catsup Plate, 2003)
This album has been a pretty big musical and packaging influence on Seaworthy. I was introduced to Animal Collective via the electronic squeal and squelch of their 2000 release of Spirit They’re Gone Spirit They’ve Vanished but, regardless of any previous exposure, I would have jumped at the chance to pick up Campfire Songs after reading the press release. Mostly recorded on a “screened-in porch in rural Maryland”, Campfire Songs is dominated by acoustic guitar and voice with the five tracks bleeding together and infiltrate with background noise and add field recordings. I find the album incredibly meditative with strong elements of repetitiveness within the instrumentation and melodies together with an ebb and flow of rhythm and intensity. Animal Collective seem to be able to distil abstract soundscapes from traditional song structures, taking melody hooks that may otherwise find a welcome home in contemporary pop and smudging and smearing them, stretching them out and slowing them down.
The packaging is beautiful. The digipack is constructed from super thick cardboard with a paste on label and lengthy insert. There is certainly some shared aesthetic between this and Seaworthy’s packaging of limited CD-R releases but it is the recording process I find most interesting. I really like the idea of allowing ‘place’ to infiltrate the recordings and while I’m sure studio trickery could create a similar effect, I find the idea of these guys sitting around outdoors at night playing along to the sounds of rural Maryland with the sound of birds and the wind in trees creeping into their improvisations addictive. I’ve tried to pursue similar ideas with Seaworthy recordings and live shows where field recordings are incorporated into pieces that, rather than simply being background fill, create trigger points for directions and loops within the piece themselves.
Seaworthy, Solo Andata and Taylor Deupree’s Live In Melbourne
, recorded at the Northcote Social Club (Melbourne), is now available as a limited edition release packaged with 100% recycled material and biodegradable inks, through 12k.