The Sleepy Jackson: Black Steele in the Hour of Chaos
The Sleepy Jackson: fewer members, more tracks
Dressed all in black – pants, shirt, cravat, jacket and scarf – with a plume of equally dark hair, Luke Steele cuts a figure that matches his reputation. Joined by drummer Malcolm Clark, the other surviving member of The Sleepy Jackson, Steele is a genial, if not altogether focused, presence during this interview, which occurred two days after the Melbourne leg of the brief national tour to launch Personality: One Was a Spider, One Was A Bird, the group’s long in the making second album. If the show was a muscular riposte to the Perth band’s previously questionable live reputation, the record is obviously intended to suggest intimations of greatness. Per his obvious interest in duality, Steele is ambitious yet unconcerned about how his work is received. Most of his answers meet their query at an oblique angle.
Luke: The plan for this tour was to play somewhere that wasn’t the norm for bands. With the record being majestic we wanted to get Australia going some more, have shows with a compere and comedians. Australia has the musicians, but we don’t take it seriously.
Did you know you were making a majestic record?
Luke: From our last record we went into the ‘30s and films and everything. I had to write a bit more and I had more control. Last time was harder in a way, but [producer] Jonathan Burnside taught us discipline. But this time we’d paid our dues and we wanted to throw ourselves into the deep end musically and produce it.
How many tracks did you use on various songs?
Luke: 80 or 90 on some.
Malcolm: All to tape to keep that nice analog feel.
Is that addictive?
Luke: Yes. We were doing pre-production and I was engineering as well, so when these guys went to dinner I’d put down 20 or 30 vocals and that was the starting point. You get used to hearing that, so when we tracked it we had to re-do the vocals, but we doubled the amount and really pushed the boat out. It became a bit of a monster.
What does hearing 40 versions of yourself singing together do for your self-perception?
Luke: It’s not me. It’s not Luke Steele.
Malcolm: His voice is just another instrument.
The departure of Justin Burford and Rod Aravena for End of Fashion is well documented, but Malcolm why are you the one person still working alongside Luke?
Malcolm: Most of the people who’ve been in the band haven’t had to do it really hard like Luke and I have over the last 10 years. I’ve been in other bands where you’d tour and three people would rock up to a show gig after gig. We’re used to doing it really hard, so that all the things we get now are really cool. They hadn’t been through the hardships so when we’d be on tour they’d be saying how hard it was and that there wasn’t enough money, but we’d travel around the world, hotels paid for, and just have to play music for an hour. That’s the best job ever, but there was always something to complain about. I just don’t understand that.
“God Lead Your Soul” was the first track written for Personality. Did that set the tone?
Luke: Pretty much. After the Cortez Brothers left it was pretty bizarre. It was like a dream come true for everybody. Lovers sold just enough to establish the band, but we weren’t chasing our tails. Then that happened and it was a shock, but it transmitted this record into being a record about truth and the lies and how it got to that point. That’s where all the references to The Devil come from. I’m not saying those people belong to that school, but the attributes of that world have corrupted their minds, through drug, through women, through temptation.
How did you deal with temptation?
Luke: Yeah. We all did.
Malcolm: We went to a really dark place. It happened to me as well. We had to be strong to get through it because there were other people stirring the pot.
Luke: Confusion …
Malcolm: We had a problem with previous management and things that weren’t true were being said. We’d read stuff like Luke’s sacked everyone – Luke’s never sacked anyone in his life. Justin and Rod wanted to do their own thing and we let them.
When you use terms like The Devil is that a reflection of your blues heritage, or a more literal usage?
Luke: It’s from the blues. It’s from everything. Relationships is the main thing and what’s always cut me is that you’re playing music, something spiritual, something from your heart – it’s not hairdryer music that blows around when you turn on the switch – so how someone can demolish that in a second by lying to you makes it pretty evil.
You lyrical metaphors are quite direct, there’s no irony or prevarication or references to contemporary culture in your work.
Luke: I’m at the point where it just needs to be finished once and for all. I got given a lot of mis-interpretated comments at the time. When we play music we’re trying to inspire people and show fire and bring new melody. There was so much confusion in the band. We didn’t have a companionship with the members. It wasn’t a band, just a rolling project. Having been through that we’ve got stamina. Just went to London and New York on a promo thing, did these shows, and it’s the time for us as a band to show what we’re made of. It’s my time, our time, to be direct and stop the confusion. The whole digital world is going mad, bidding on E-bay and weird people getting rich. People get a song, or they get 20 songs for eight bucks, we got to keep the music strong. Music has to be important – we’re playing at halls to give people entertainment. It’s going to happen now because the band’s ready.
Is the language of Personality – the massed tracks, the opulent design – a way of telling people that it’s an important record?
Malcolm: Sort of. We put a lot of stuff in there, but at the same time you can sing along to it.
My favourite Sleepy Jackson song is “Sunkids”, which appears to represent an entire compositional path that you’ve abandoned.
Luke: There are so many paths. A lot of American reviews [of Lovers] tore strips off everything so I was like, “Cool, I’m going to make a record with a sound that will smack you in the face.” We’ve got hundreds of songs, so we did this record and we’ll cut another one in March next year. It’s the time for us now.
What interests you in regards to the band’s design? Even your press shots are elaborate constructs.
Luke: I see it as art. If your mug’s going to be in a mag better make it look good. It’s the influence of Hendrix and Bowie. You can use it as a vehicle. We had a lot of time off and people thought the band was deceased, so we wanted to come back with this massive fire of a fresh start and pump everything and make it crazier, more art.
Malcolm: There were rumours we’d broken up.
Luke: Stories we’d spent too much money selling the records.
Does that stuff bother you?
Luke: No. [EMI’s] been really good, they’ve shown a lot of faith in the band. We went to America and mixed with Dave Fridmann [The Flaming Lips] and that didn’t work out, so we remixed it. A lot of artists were like, “Woah, they didn’t just tell you to put it out?” But the company understands the passion and integrity Mal and I have for making music.
Do you have to protect that?
Malcolm: There will always be these discussions, but Luke will come up with an idea and someone will say “No way!” but it always ends up working.
Is there an example of that?
Malcolm: The “God Lead Your Soul” video clip.
Luke: We’re going to have a coffee table book, just a crazy bunch of photos from backstage at the Mercury Lounge in New York and Europe and shoots we’ve done. It’s going to be a 500 page bound book. Stuff like that, they’re like, “That’s a great idea, let’s do it!”