Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Youth Group interview


For a few months late last year, Youth Group found themselves holed up in a run-down, abandoned 1920’s mess hall in Waverton on Sydney’s lower North Shore. Why? Well, their desire to take their time in putting together their fourth long-player, The Night Is Ours, meant that they had to opt against traditional recording methods. “We took four months to make this record and if we’d spent that long in a conventional studio it would have left us completely and utterly broke. So we had to find somewhere that was basically cheap or free,” frontman Toby Martin explains.

The band went about transforming a dilapidated old building on the harbour into a studio by bringing in all of their own gear, turning the dining room into the band room and the bathroom into the control room. While it may have lacked some home comforts, it didn’t take them long to fall in love with the tranquillity of the location. “Sometimes I would just go and sit on the point and look across at the city, with all the boats going about their business as the sun went down,” drummer Danny Allen tells me. Martin goes on: “I can’t believe we found this place, especially in Sydney. Normally you have to rehearse in a tiny cube in Alexandria.”

Such unusual surroundings certainly had an impact on the sound of the record. “My first reaction when we found the space was that we should make a loose, ramshackle country record, or a record of sea shanties,” Martin laughs. “But what we were writing was a bit more intense and claustrophobic so I thought that it wouldn’t have anything to do with the location, but it does in a way that I didn’t expect, in a contemplative way.”

As well as recording in such a curious place, the quartet also went about the creative process in a different way, and the fact that they weren’t watching the clock meant the songs evolved slowly and organically. In fact, they didn’t even rehearse their new tracks before entering the makeshift studio. “One of the things I found very liberating was that we could write, arrange and record all at the same time,” Martin recalls. “We didn’t have to do our creative stuff at home on the demos, we could actually just do it all in one go.”

The main thing that stands The Night Is Ours apart from Youth Group’s previous offerings is that it is a little less guitar-based, and many of the songs were dreamt up by Martin at the piano. I ask whether this slight departure was a conscious decision or if it just happened that way. “It was pretty conscious I think. I’m always looking for a novelty in songwriting,” Martin says.

“Like Crazy Frog?” Allen chips in.

Martin chooses to ignore his bandmate’s helpful interjection. “On [second album] Skeleton Jar I was into guitars and particularly exploring alternate tunings. Then on [third album] Casino Twilight Dogs I was more into standard tunings. I’m not a very good guitarist and I find I get a bit limited just playing the same stuff over again. I was looking for a new toy and a way to open up certain parts of the brain, and the piano is a big part of that. The xylophone is next,” he jokes.

The result is an album that is less sonic and rocky, but rather filled with subtle nuances and intricate arrangements. “It was really interesting to hear the guys saying: ‘shall we put some guitar on this?’ because that never normally happens last,” Allen remembers.

Martin picks up this thread. “Often I didn’t play anything when we were jamming. I’d just sing. Sometimes the way I play guitar can guide the arrangement of a song in a way that is not necessarily interesting, so it was better to let everyone else find their parts.”

“That encourages things to change a lot,” Allen adds, before - fittingly considering they are discussing the band’s collaborative processes - Martin finishes his sentence for him. “And the song finds its own place. You don’t have to make a decision about it; it just finds its own way without too much forcing.”

While this is Youth Group’s fourth album, the more casual music enthusiast may have only discovered the band through their cover version of Alphaville’s Forever Young, which was absolutely massive when released in 2006. I ask whether they have found it hard to shift the tag of merely being ‘that band who sang Forever Young’. “It has been a bit frustrating recently,” Martin frowns. “A lot of people know us for that song but, while it is a good indication of our sound, I don’t think it’s a good indication of our background.”

The song was famously used on The O.C. and appeared in adverts for the show in Australia. “It shows the power of advertising,” Allen says about the single, which subsequently went double-platinum in sales. “It blindsided everyone. To see Youth Group on top of the charts was just the most bizarre thing ever. It was great, but afterwards we realised it was going to have repercussions, because that is a lot of people’s introduction to the band. We don’t play it at all anymore unless people really yell out for it.”

Again, Martin continues where Allen leaves off. “It has quite a polarising effect. Some people are like: ‘Youth Group have got other good songs too, you know.’ That’s really nice. I think some people like coming to our gigs and not hearing it.”

Thanks in some part to Forever Young, Youth Group’s last album, Casino Twilight Dogs, was a massive seller. This leads me to ask whether such commercial and critical success led to the quartet feeling the pressure of expectation weighing heavily on their shoulders as they put together The Night Is Ours. “We were just very wrapped up in the process of making this record, so I don’t think we thought too much about the outside world,” Martin shrugs, before adding: “It’s just really nice to know that people are going to be vaguely interested in listening to it.”

“It’s so hard to predict what people will think. You can’t tell what’s going to happen so you can’t worry about it,” Allen notes. “We’re just glad that Casino Twilight Dogs did do so well, because it got us to this point.”

While the four friendly chaps that make up Youth Group obviously hope that The Night Is Ours is well-received when it hits the shelves, they have greater aspirations than simply denting the top end of the charts for a couple of weeks. “Earlier this year we played as part of The Triffids reformation gig at the Sydney Festival. Their songs sound so good 30 years later. It was a very good lesson in what you should aim for with your art,” Martin states. “That is the ultimate goal: to make a record that still sounds good in 30 years time rather than being at number ten or number 15 in the charts this week.”

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