In Transit With Darren Hanlon
Darren Hanlon discusses cane toads, being a citizen of the world, confessional songs and lending a drummer from The Shins.
Darren Hanlon’s new album Fingertips and Mountaintops opens uncharacteristically with the atmospheric beauty of ‘Hold On.’ More Sufjan Stevens than Jonathan Richman: a ukulele strums, an organ swells… “Sometimes my biggest fear is a dressing room between two mirrors/Watching myself disappear forever and ever and ever and ever/Hold on my love…”
It’s what fans have come to expect from Darren. Earnest, pretty, understated. But what’s not expected is just how… sad it is.
Obviously it was very personal. I don’t try and write that many personal ones but… it was written very quickly in Melbourne actually, and it was recorded quickly. We were listening back and I hadn’t even really thought about it. It’s always sort of an emotional time at the end of recording, when you’ve just been waiting for so long and you’ve been thinking about the mathematics of songs rather than the emotional content. You’re thinking about how many verses it needs and how many times it has to hit the chorus and all that kind of boring stuff. And then when we were putting the song down to take back to Sydney… I just couldn’t even listen to it. I had to leave. It was sort of the first time that I went, ‘Oh my God, now I know what all this is about’.
Wordplay and narratives are a lot of fun but it can also be a bit of a wall between you and the audience, behind which you get to play out these actors that have your emotions but you don’t have to put your face to it.
Exactly. Yeah you don’t even really think about it. It’s another part of your brain.
It seems like with that song that your usual clever wordplay and character element isn’t as strong. It’s actually quite vulnerable.
It flowed out really quickly. I didn’t want it to be too… like the chorus is a really simple thing and just wanted it to ‘be’. I’d just bought that ukulele [used on the track] from Acoustic Instruments on Johnston St in Melbourne. I’d bought that cause it’s really light to travel with, but I didn’t intend on really using it too much. Now I gotta take the damn thing on tour [laughs]. And I also used this giant orchestral pipe organ which was built especially for silent films. I don’t know how the hell we’re going to recreate it.
In March 2006 Darren and his band – Bree Van Reyk on drums and percussion, American Corey Gray on piano, Mark Monone on bass and Anthony The on mixing desk – decamped to the ‘Majestic Theatre’, an ancient silent movie theatre in Darren’s hometown of Gympie, Queensland. Presented with the keys to the place, the band was given free reign to come and go as they pleased, having to put up with only the unrelenting heat. And the inconvenience of local folk settling in for the odd movie.
So how did you find that theatre anyway?
It’s right near Gympie where I was born, and it’s even closer to the farm where my father grew up and my grandparents live. So I’d been going there to see films with my sister for years and knew of its existence. About a year ago I rediscovered it and realised it hadn’t been changed in all that time. It had all these amazing instruments and things in it so I just had to make it happen before it got renovated. Which is happening as we speak.
Was it a bit of a nostalgic thing as well? You’ve been recording and traveling overseas so much. Was a bit reassuring to come back home to do it?
I definitely wanted to do this one in Australia. It had just been in my mind for so long. It was also mixed at Velvet in Sydney and it was so nice to do it at home. I do like going away for a block of time and taking everyone, cause it definitely makes a good experience. But the thing about this one was just economics. We were just allowed to use it [for free]. We didn’t have to worry about the clock, we were allowed to use it 24 hours a day if we wanted to. We only had to stop when the movies were on [laughs]. For Bree’s drums we set them up behind the screen so we didn’t have to keep packing them down every time the film came on. But next time Bree won’t go anywhere unless she knows the whole area has been cleared of cane toads [laughs]. I think she got a bit of a fright one night, walking home. They grow ‘em big up there.
One thing I’ve noticed about your records that I don’t think you get much credit for is your experiments with sound.
Ha. Well that’s good. I’m glad you brought that up. Even back to Hello Stranger, even when they were just ‘pop’ songs I was doing that I guess. See for me it’s always the collaborators that make the project listenable. Like if I ever want to listen to these things again… ‘cause some of them I just can’t… it’s the bits that other people do that make it. I don’t think I could sit in front of a laptop and create a whole album like some people do. And expect to like it [laughs]. On Hello Stranger we used some great musicians like Oren Ambarchi and Chris who runs Big Jesus Burger you know, they’re from more of an avant-garde and improvisational background. Doug McCombs [Tortoise] played on the last one as well. Musicians that don’t often play ‘pop music’. And actually Doug found it a real challenge, but the bass lines he played were just… for me it makes the record. Just incredible. Bree’s amazing, melodically as well as with percussion. Pretty much everything she comes up with is good. She doesn’t really disappoint. And a lot of things she just does and I trust her. She probably had more of a role on Little Chills because it was just the two of us. But on this one she sat there and thought about it, and maybe I’m away getting a tofu burger for lunch, and she’d just do something and I’d come back and it’s finished. And it sounds great. She came up with this thing where she’s hitting piano strings with a mallet. And that’s the bassline. You know the chord shapes she’s making are like nothing I would’ve come up with.
She’s one of the most musical drummers I’ve ever seen.
Yeah, and she just has no problem with you know, being a musician. She’s not a frustrated songwriter. And yet she’s also a great lyric brains trust. I can run things by her and she can come up with alternatives, she’s great like that.
Does it seem like she’s sort of a silent partner now?
Definitely. Back then I just had a feeling about it. I’d seen [her then band] the Rebel Astronauts play and I knew her style didn’t really suit what I was trying to do. And I’ll always remember our first rehearsal. We tried a few things and there was one song, ‘Hiccups’, and we nailed it first try. And now that’s our song [laughs]. You know she really makes that song. And there’s other songs that it took a while, but now she’s become this pop drummer. Before she wasn’t really a pop drummer but now she plays with Holly Throsby and all these people, she’s a lot more versatile. It took me the longest time to get her to sing. I really had to push her to sing, and now she’s you know, the singing drummer as well. We almost don’t need to communicate now. We’ve played SO many shows together that it’s almost ESP. I think something and she does it, it’s amazing. I do count my blessings that you can find someone that you can share that kind of musical thing. We’re happy we’ve found Corey now that plays the piano and he’s definitely from that school as well, a complete feel player.
Is he Australian?
No, he’s from Portland [USA].
So will he tour with you?
He arrives tomorrow [for the tour] and he was out here of course for the album as well. It’s nice being a tour guide, with new people on these tours you can show ‘em around.
Nick [Luca, based in Tucson Arizona, and Calexico’s producer] did the last one, didn’t he?
Yeah, unfortunately he couldn’t make it out for this one. You know he’s in other bands and juggling them all the time. We also wanted Doug to come out and play, he kind of expressed interest if he had time he’d like to do some more. And Jesse from The Shins played drums on one track. Even though he plays drums in a pop band he found it difficult to record that song because the way The Shins record is that they never do a song live. He just plays all his drum tracks and they cut them up. And then he has to relearn the whole song again. So it was a challenge for him there as well. All these musicians, yeah. There’s a good little community in the world.
So will you go overseas again soon?
I want to. I’m hoping to get there next year. I’ve still got this American work visa and I want to utilise that while I can. It cost a lot of money but I just had to get it, so I had to get a lawyer to get it. When it arrived I just thought it was going to be for 6 months. And it turned out to be for three years! And I just haven’t been back. I went back for a few shows but I haven’t really been back [properly] to use it. It expires next year so I’ve gotta go over early next year.