Bells, Whistles, Dark Energy, Stingrays
Sydney’s Richard In Your Mind write popular science you can sing to. SHAUN PRESCOTT reports from their hometown of Sydney. Photos by JOCELYN BOX.
Richard In Your Mind is a Sydney four-piece psychedelic pop band. On stage they like to shower their audience with confetti bombs; a plastic skeleton is often tied to the mic stand. Frontman Richard Cartwright has been known to colour their songs with brass and megaphone during performances, and delay is used liberally on most songs. Richard’s stage banter is quaint, edging towards awkward, and sometimes drenched in delay, too. On the few occasions I’ve seen them crowds of folk speak gushingly during post-gig footpath cigarettes. There is nothing quite like Richard In Your Mind in Sydney.
They’re an imaginative band – and as far as I can tell, they don’t write love songs. There’s none of that humble, beige humanity about them, no diary foibles. Richard Cartwright and Conrad Richters share a sprawling, stimulus stacked home in Annandale, while the other half of the band, Andrew Elston and Nick Long, live elsewhere in Sydney’s inner-west. They’re waiting in the lounge room when I arrive, Donovan spinning in the record player, a wooden pole holding the ceiling up in one corner of the room, and Andrew Elston (otherwise known at DJ Spruce LEE), is spread across the couch – in a pose that suggests that’s how he collapsed – sleeping deeply after a marathon weekend of performances.
The first notion of Richard In Your Mind as functioning band was a while in the making. Previously, you may have seen Richard busking with a sitar, household dog Ravi at his side, or maybe you’ve seen him on one of his occasional appearances at a hat shop in Watson’s Bay, providing a woozy sitar soundtrack for those in the market for extortionately priced hats. You may have seen Conrad play bass in the now defunct art-rock four-piece Terrapin. “When Conrad and I started we were a psychedelic folk duo called the Sex-Doodles.” Richard says about the band’s slow and convoluted formation. Richard also played in a duo with Nick, at restaurants, while Conrad admits playing in a metal band with Nick for a while, as well. “We’ve been playing music together in various weird amalgamations for a while.”
“As a band,” Conrad chimes in, “We did our first few gigs as a three-piece, but then decided we needed another member.” Richard elaborates: “I went as a spoken word artist to the Peats Ridge festival, and I spent the day with Elston, getting trashed. By the end I decided that Elston could join our band!” (A few weeks after this interview, Andrew Elston was replaced by Joel Werner of Sydney band Hand Me My Jetpack. According to an email from Richard, Elston wants to concentrate on his DJing.)
The name Richard In Your Mind was birthed when Richard was creating an email account: “richardsmind was taken, so I tried richardinyourmind instead,” he recalls. Later, when Richard played a solo show on a bill with Jack Ladder and Ned Collette at the Mandarin Club, he told the organiser, off the cuff, that he’d perform as Richard In Your Mind. And thus one of the more fussed over band monikers was born. Richard insists it has nothing to do with “being a dickhead”, though laughingly suggests he should change his own name now, to fight the impression that this is his band. “It’s really hard to think of a band name that’s not taken,” Conrad says, “and with that we just knew it wasn’t taken.”
The band do maintain an aura of relaxedness, despite their debut album The Future Prehistoric being a painstakingly constructed pop opus, replete with subtle bells, whistles, obscure samples, but most prominently, immediately affecting songs. These songs sound like they were built like a work of architecture, though it still feels organically grown, in the sense that the songs just bleed life. For a band that has won the Triple J Unearthed competition and enjoyed the ensuing high-rotation air play, it’s surprising that they have yet to make it as far as Melbourne for a show, even though they’ve graced the Sydney Big Day Out’s main stage (albeit at eleven in the morning). They seem to function outside the sphere of indie band workmanship – which lends them a certain unhurried charm.
“It has been amazing,” Richard says of the Unearthed win and the BDO performance, “We spent a lot of the BDO sitting in our big yellow Volvo behind the stage, drinking beers and smoking joints. Occasionally you’d see a guy stumble up to a fence and vomit.” He laughs loudly, abruptly and contagiously.
“It really put us on the map,” Richard continues, “We were really new, and I think if you have a release you have a stamp to say you’re a real band. This was us trying to find ourselves [with nothing released] and suddenly someone had given us the stamp saying, ‘you’re okay, you’re a real band’. We were like, ‘really? Great!’”
Nothing makes direct sense about Richard in Your Mind’s debut album, the second full-length release for young Sydney label Broken Stone Records, apart from the potency of the pop song writing. These are songs borne from trawling popular science manuals, chance encounters with strange sea creatures, inverted existences, comic book bizarre, heartfelt ruminations on wholly foreign and incomprehensible worlds and theories. If all that sounds slightly daunting, don’t worry. It’s framed more like a stoner comic book serial than a stuffy journal of scientific esotericism.
“I did read up on a bunch of popular science.” Richard explains, “Like The Australian Encyclopaedia of Science, to see what the hell dark energy is. They used to think there was this element called quintessence, which was a crystal, and all the stars were held by this solid, physical force.
“I don’t claim to know too much about physics” Richard admits, “but the song ‘Dark Energy’ is inspired by a book about the origins of the universe. The chorus is almost a direct quote from the book, “Dark energy will defeat gravity and succeed in stretching the universe into oblivion”. It’s just the concept that everything was getting further apart.
“Not that it has to be sad,” Richard hastily adds, always weary of over-explaining what is best left interpretive, “but there seems something sad about that. It’s just nature, and nature is destructive as well as creative.”
“That song also has 15 synth tracks.” Conrad pipes in, with boyish pride. If Richard is the ruffian wizard knee-deep in wide-eyed speculative science, Conrad is the sage, practical counterpart.
“All the songs come from a focus,” Richard continues, on his approach to song writing, “I remember reading a manifesto of the Beatniks, that said something about holding an image in your head, and then just writing, and whenever you stop, just refocus on the image. For me, that’s how I write a song, I’ll have a feeling or an idea or an image, and then I’ll start writing, and then the image will change and the story will unfold.
“‘Dark Energy’ is more like a story, you can read it and it makes sense, while some others don’t make as clear sense.”
The Future Prehistoric is a somewhat disjointed concept album. When asked about the essence of the concept, Richard helpfully offers, “it’s like a prehistoric future.” More elaborately, ‘The Green Sun’ – one of the album’s most direct cuts – vaguely holds the essence. “There’s a bit of a sun worshipping theme throughout the whole album,” Richard says, his arms gesticulating enthusiastically, “‘The Green Sun’ has got this weird Atlantis, different reality angle. It’s also about the past being a fluid thing. It’s a well worn concept, but in my head that’s where the song goes.”
Richard In Your Mind admirably handle the often separate visions of live performance and studio experimentation. Many songs are reworked for the stage, whether for practicality or variety. They recorded their album at home in a small blue bedroom, seemingly in a state of perpetual disarray, with their emblematic skeleton set piece hanging in a compromising position above the computer. There’s a great sense of pride in the debut – it’s clearly been a labour of love, and the band have wisely resisted the temptation to haphazardly slap a full-length album together to coincide with the heightened national interest earlier this year.
“It’s the kind of album that, whether or not it just hits, and [inspires] people to say ‘wow you gotta get the album’ – it’s at least solid enough to stand as our first album, so even if our fifth album is great, people can say the first one is also great.” Richard opines, rather modestly. “Lot’s of people have said we’re a cult band, you know, that we won’t get a number one single and sell heaps, etcetera.” It clearly isn’t an issue for the band though.
A week after our talk, Richard In Your Mind played the Hopetoun to launch their debut 7-inch ‘The New Sun’. As I approached the venue from Foveaux Street, a woman in sticky latex and pole-vaulting high heels launched herself from a stationary taxi, climbed onto the bonnet, poured the remainder of her Vodka soft drink down the windscreen, and sexually gesticulated at the driver. Hordes of football fans applauded her smashed audacity. It was a big night.
Inside, Richard In Your Mind is glowing. The audience – mostly preppy, well-dressed students – was swelling into the poolroom. Richard greeted in his customarily unusual stage persona, before embarking on a guitar-driven rendition of ‘The New Sun’. This is just pop music, but it’s the type that can send a strange resonating buzz from your forehead to your knees. People actually dance in substantial numbers to this pop music – nothing is restrained, though there is definitely the aura of ‘cult’ about them. One of the most rewarding aspects of a Richard In Your Mind show is the immediate sense of dynamics on display. While songs like ‘The Boat Is Rocking’ meander playfully through funk and psychadelica, others, like ‘Tromboon’, are gorgeous: full of great peaks and murky troughs, mysterious and strangely affecting.
“I think something we’ve really tried to do is be interesting and also write songs.” Richard explains, “You know, like the Beatles. They’re a band that had so much fun experimenting; they just hung it on all these wonderful songs.” It’s certainly not the type of approach that could see a young band write a successful debut in a few frantic days of pay-by-hour studio time. Richard In Your Mind had the opportunity to capitalise instantly after their Unearthed win, but patience has aided an impressive debut album.