Crayon Fields: Pop Extroverts
Crayon Fields frontman Geoff O’Connor may write songs about virgins and dance halls, but he’s not the shy troubadour reviewers often paint him as. He speaks to DOUG WALLEN about the band’s new album, his love of ABBA and why he’s dropped the Sly Hats moniker in favour of his birth name.
Whether it’s due to the band name, frontman Geoff O’Connor’s heavy whisper and sprightly jangle, or the fact that three-quarters of the band wears glasses, the Crayon Fields have a reputation for featherweight pop songs sprinkled with toy instruments and bedroom psychedelia. And maybe that was warranted after 2006’s debut Animal Bells, which despite its homespun origins and ’60s-skewed production garnered a 7.8 on indie-cool barometer Pitchfork. As O’Connor points out, however, that batch of songs dated as far back as 2002, when the Crayon Fields began as a humble high-school trio.
A quartet since 2005, the band – also comprised of guitarist Chris Hung, bassist Brett Hudson and drummer Neil Erenstrom – proves infinitely more durable, diverse and even sexy on the new All The Pleasures Of The World. There’s vintage soul, silky R&B and even flamenco creeping in, all while O’Connor, now 25, grows more comfortable with his singing. The calypso and tropicalia influences of his 2007 solo outing under the name Sly Hats can also be detected. The atmospheric, bass-driven title track, which surveys a late-night hookup among other things, may still recall the Zombies, but it’s more ‘She’s Not There’ than anything on Odessey and Oracle.
As O’Connor explained over beer and chips on a Sunday afternoon in the band’s hometown of Melbourne, there’s more to the Crayon Fields than delicate psych-pop. In fact, Television is a big influence, and there could be an ABBA cover on the horizon.
Was the method of songwriting or recording for this album different from Animal Bells?
Yeah. It was definitely a more thorough approach to recording. We started demoing the songs two years again, after we wrote them, and we had a fairly clear plan of how we wanted to record them. We wanted it to be a more high-fidelity record, and we had a little bit of money to pay for that. We recorded the basic drum and bass tracks with Neil Thomason at [Melbourne studio] Head Gap. Then I recorded the rest in my bedroom. In the last two years, I’ve got some fairly decent equipment, and I borrowed a heap of stuff. Then we mixed it at Moose [Mastering in Richmond] with Lachlan Carrick.
Do you write the songs on your own and then bring them to the band?
Pretty much. They’re very much just chords, lyrics and melodies. Then we put them together. We work hours and hours on them.
When you first come up with something, how do you decide if it will become a Crayon Fields song or a Sly Hats song?
I guess the solo stuff is more when I have very, very clear ideas of how I want the arrangements to work. Especially the new stuff, it’s more orchestral and layered. Stuff that’s impossible for a four-piece band to do [but] I can get away with doing myself or with samples.
Have you been working on solo stuff alongside the Crayon Fields for the past two years?
Yeah. I finished [writing] the next album. I applied for a grant to try and get it recorded, hopefully next year.
The new album reminds me a bit of Sly Hats. The songs are more slinky and less jangly than Animal Bells. Is that the influence of making the first Sly Hats record in between?
I think it’s that and also the fact that a lot of those Crayon Fields songs on the first album were written so long ago. Like six, seven years ago.
The influences are more diversified this time as well. On the first one, you could really hear Pet Sounds and other ’60s pop albums.
For sure. I think also the difference in production makes quite an impact. The first record, we just had no money. It was bedroom recordings, basically. So it was going to have this ’60s vibe because [one of] the only effects I could control [was] reverb.
Who guests on the album?
I got my friend Jessica [Venables aka Jessica Says] to record some cello and her brother Nick [on violin]. It was my first or second attempt at string arrangements, so it took a while, but it came together. And we got our friend Esther [Edquist] to record some choir vocals, layer upon layer. And our friend Jono [Edmunds], who we had guest on the first record as well, did lots of percussion arrangements.
Did you write the string arrangements from scratch?
I’ll arrange them with a synthesizer first and then decide whether I want to keep it as a synthesizer or record a few overdubs as strings. I’ve always thought that orchestral feel is something you don’t get tired of very quickly, whereas a synth sound, you decide something sounds really nice on the day and then you gradually start to regret it. [Laughs]
What was your entry into music in the first place?
A friend of my aunt’s lent me an amp and a guitar when I was about 12. I just started learning from there. And I was always into records that my parents had but never listened to, like the Beatles and Beach Boys. I also liked embarrassing stuff and also stuff like Sonic Youth and Nirvana and Green Day. That was where I started. And I was just in lots of cover bands from the age of about 13 to 16. One of them was covers from the Clash’s London Calling.
Some of the new songs have a certain R&B vibe. Are you influenced by that stuff?
For sure. I love all that stuff. But I only hear it on taxis home and in buses. I couldn’t tell you the artists who wrote the songs I like. I don’t have many new records, which is a shame.
‘Where The Light Isn’t Cruel’ even has a flamenco element.
That was probably the first song we did together for the record. I was initially going to put that on the first Sly Hats record, but it seemed to come together a lot more easily with the band. There’s definitely a flamenco guitar vibe there. I love finger-picking. I’ve been spending the last two years practicing that style of finger-picking. But that’s what happens when you get four people in a room with lots of percussion instruments laid across the floor during an all-night recording session. It just turns into flamenco.
“I really feel like if three of us wore contact lenses instead of glasses, there’d be so many less reviews and articles where it’s like, ‘Softly spoken and shy.’”
How did the previous single and now album opener ‘Mirrorball’ come about?
That’s one of the first songs we did. It was one of the most basic pop songs we’d ever written. We were never quite happy with it, but we couldn’t drop it. One day it all came together. I think it’s fairly similar to some of the songs on Animals Bells. It has a classic sort of rock backbeat, and it has this wafting, dreamy feel. I like it. I think it’s catchy.
The title track and single really rides its bass line.
It’s funny, I keep saying this, but that’s actually the oldest song on the record. It used to be called ‘Silver Service’ and it was a fairly different song in 2005. It was one of the first songs we came up with as a four-piece. We shuffled around the arrangements and just made it a little more sparse.
The guitar on it reminds me of Television.
We actually used Television’s Adventure as a reference for our drum sound. I’ve always loved the drumming on that record. They’re all amazing. It’s actually really good driving music, I think. I don’t drive, but if I’m in a car, I like to hassle the driver to put one of those records on. The song ‘Marquee Moon’ will get you through a few suburbs.
‘Lucky Again’ is quite a bit longer than the other songs. How did that happen?
I think simply because it was slower. Essentially that song is just two verses, two choruses and an outro. It’s a fairly simple pop template, I guess. But there’s such a long, overblown guitar chord progression that didn’t seem to work when we tried to curtail it. Generally we do like to keep our songs concise. That’s probably the one I’m most happy with. It’s a bit more dynamic than the rest of the album.
The vocals are mixed higher this time and are much more clear.
Totally. I’ve always found it frustrating listening to records where you can’t quite hear the vocals. I was a fairly amateur producer with the last record. It was nice to have someone like Lachlan to bring the vocals to the front while making sure the other instruments could be clear and distinct.
Did you work on your singing more?
Yeah, I’ve been practicing singing quite a lot, actually, probably annoying my housemates. I had singing lessons when I was 14, so I kind of knew what to do in terms of trying to improve my voice, but I’d never really put in the hard work.
Was that also part of illuminating things that had been opaque on Animal Bells?
Yeah. I guess we wanted to make it more detailed and precise. Just have a bit more pride in what we do. [Laughs] The last record, there was so much work that went into it, but there was no real plan or an idea of the album as a whole. I think it’s a cohesive album, but this one had a lot more preparation.
Did it help that you’ve been playing these songs live for a while?
For some of them, maybe, but this record’s now been recorded for over a year.
So you recorded them and then started playing them live?
Yeah. We almost had to relearn how to play them along the way. But I like presenting songs in a different way live. Not in terms of getting out there with an ugly acoustic guitar and just belting them out, but replacing string parts with synths again and coming up with different sparse arrangements. I think we play them with a bit more gusto live. I was always a bit self-conscious [on record], making sure things weren’t too fast and that they were still buoyant pop songs and had some sort of grace. But live, you just scrap that and try to make it entertaining. It’s always more fun to play songs that are more up-tempo and certainly a lot easier to convince people you’re having a good time.
I see you’re doing a solo show soon. Will that be Sly Hats and Crayon Fields stuff?
No. I’ve kind of dropped the Sly Hats moniker. It’s now Geoffrey O’Connor. I never liked the name Sly Hats. I just came up with it because I needed a name for a gig I got offered. I went to that, thinking it was a nice name. Now it just seems stupid to me. It’s always frustrating to think about that, so once you change back to your birth name, that solves every problem. Because you can’t really change the name your parents gave you.
It also doesn’t pigeonhole you as much. Suddenly you have the range of a human being, instead of the limited range of a band.
And you can play by yourself as well. I sometimes prefer to do that. If you’ve got an alias and you play yourself, it’s like a half-assed attempt to put on a show.
I was curious about the two covers the Crayon Fields do. First, there’s ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ popularised by Harry Nilsson and used in Midnight Cowboy.
It was written by Fred Neil. We’ve been doing that for ages. I just think that scene in Midnight Cowboy, where you see him walking in his café job, is one of the most beautiful scenes ever. That song is so perfect.
The b-side of the ‘All The Pleasures Of The World’ single is a cover of Kath Bloom’s ‘Come Here’. The label you’re on, Chapter Music, recently released a Kath Bloom tribute album, but your version isn’t on there.
It wasn’t finished in time. It just took so long to get that sounding right. It’s such a tricky song to sing. She’s got this amazing voice. It’s really hard to get that song sounding anywhere near as good as the original without that voice. Also, that was initially recorded on a four-track and it wasn’t up to the same standard of the other recordings on the tribute. But we wanted to resurrect it.
Are there other songs you’d like to cover?
Yeah. The problem is, for singers especially, often the songs you want to cover are ones that you simply can’t sing. They sound so beautiful to you because the voice is so impossible to achieve. It’s like the cat that’s trying to pluck the goldfish out of the fishbowl. That said, I did an ABBA cover for this disco special on Triple R. I wouldn’t mind getting that together with the band. I love ABBA.
What song was it?
‘Take A Chance On Me’. It’s one of my favourite ABBA songs. I wanted to do ‘Fernando’, but I started singing it and it just wasn’t working out.
I was wondering if you get sick of critics playing up how shy and fragile the band is.
Oh, it shits me so much. I’m not really a shy person. I can’t stand when people talk about how shy I am. [Laughs] I love singing in front of people. I think for sure the new album is more extroverted than the last one. It’s just funny. I really feel like if three of us wore contact lenses instead of glasses, there’d be so many less reviews and articles where it’s like, “Softly spoken and shy.”
I don’t know. This is the land of AC/DC.
That’s true. Maybe we’re shy compared to them.
Do you ever think about writing some defiant rock song?
We have a few little riffs we jam out every now and then. I think the album’s fairly rocking. [Laughs] It’s a muscular pop album.
Have you been recording new songs, since the album was recorded a year ago?
Oh yeah. We’ve got a few. I really don’t know how the next album’s going to sound. I think it’ll be a little more futuristic.
Just the type of synths we’re using and the more modern rock feel to these new songs we’ve been working on. I’m hoping it’ll be a bit more of a science-fiction odyssey. [Laughs] Science-fiction pop.
All The Pleasures Of The World is out now on Chapter Music. Launch dates here.