Mike Noga: ‘Forget The Drones’
From a beer garden in his adopted hometown of Melbourne, Tassie-born Mike Noga tells DARREN LEVIN why we should forget The Drones – for now, at least.
“Is it hard to buy ukulele strings in Europe?” ponders Mike Noga from a courtyard out the back of Melbourne’s Worker’s Club just hours before a hometown farewell show. Noga, who was about to embark on a month-long tour of Europe with Band of Horses when M+N caught up with him in late January, clearly isn’t used to such dilemmas. As the longtime drummer for The Drones, Noga is now in charge of managing all the mundane intricacies of his own tour. And not just any tour: a month on the road as special guests of Band of Horses, playing some of Europe’s most prestigious venues including the Paradiso in Amsterdam and La Cigale in Paris. (Read about it here).
“I’ve been tour manager, booking agent, travel agent, fucking stage tech – I’m doing everything myself from home,” he says while sipping down water and sucking down a Marlboro light. “I’ve been on the computer every day for the past two months.”
Just when everything looked to be in order, Noga fielded a call from Something For Kate’s Paul Dempsey, who needed a drummer for a handful of Big Day Out shows. It’s why he’s sitting across from me sunburt, handsomely disheveled and showing off backstage photos of Iggy Pop on his iPhone.
Over the course of an hour, we discuss the dissolution of his backing band The Gentlemen of Fortune (only bassist Pat Bourke and drummer Gus Agars remain), why he feels disillusioned with the radio and his new album, The Balladeer Hunter. The follow-up to 2005’s Folk Songs, the album was recorded over two sessions: at a warehouse in the Melbourne suburb of Fairfield with Agars and Bourke; and at Bakehouse Studios, also in Melbourne, with engineer Callum John Barter (Gun Street Girls).
So I guess The Drones are on hiatus now, what with Gaz’s record out as well.
Yeah, Gaz is really busy. We’re all really busy. I’ve been playing drums for Glenn Richards, so it’s a good time to do it now while everything’s quiet. I think mid-year we’ll get back in the studio and start recording again. It’d be nice to get something out this year … It’s just a shame, if we don’t get it out by November this year, it’ll come out in March. It’s been a couple years, coming up to three, since we’ve done a record, so we should probably do another soon before everyone forgets.
But I guess the two of you making solo records has got to be good for the band?
Definitely. I think it’s really good for the band, and it’s good for us to have a break. We were really living in each other’s pockets for five years non-stop, so it’s been our first proper break, which has been really good. It’s also good that Gaz is doing the solo record and I’m doing the solo record, because it keeps people interested in what the members of the band are doing until we get back together and do another [Drones record].
Are you worried about people inevitably comparing the two?
Yeah, I am, but they’re totally different … I mean there are elements that are the same, but you obviously can’t compete with those [Liddiard’s] lyrics. I’ve always been lucky enough to play drums behind these amazing frontmen. I used to play in a band called Sandro with Gareth Edwards, who’s an amazing singer, an amazing lyricist. Then there’s Glenn [Richards, Augie March], Gaz, all these guys that write amazing words, it can be quite daunting, but at the same time inspiring. You want to make something as good as what they’re doing.
I think there’s a misconception that this is a new thing for you, that you weren’t writing songs to begin with.
I’ve always been doing it, but this feels like the first proper [attempt], like I’ve really concentrated on it and found my voice as a songwriter.
You can really hear it though, especially when compared to Folk Songs. It’s so much fuller.
It sounds more confident to me, and I feel more confident. I feel like it’s a good time to step out away from The Drones and go, “Forget The Drones. This is this guy, doing this thing” … Inevitably people are going to play The Drones card, and refer to that all the time, and that’s fine. But hopefully I can distance myself from that a bit. But it’s like anything, you know. You don’t listen to one form of music, so why should I only play one form? When I’m at home I only listen to quiet stuff like ABC Classic FM. I have a big crush on Julia Lester drivetime. Her beautiful manish voice makes me feel cosy.
The album was a reaction to what you weren’t hearing on the radio?
I’m slightly disappointed in what I hear these days. Maybe I’m a little out of the loop. I wanted to make this record really – this is a horrible word – earthy. And rustic, that’s a really terrible word too. There’s not much production going on, and some of my favourite records like Desire by Bob Dylan…
I was going to ask you about Desire, because ‘Long Week’ sounds like it was heavily influenced by that record.
Totally, yeah. I’ll unashamedly admit that’s the sound we were going for. I don’t think human beings respond to the sound of acoustic guitars and squeaky drums and things that haven’t been completely overproduced; there’s mistakes on the record, and I like that. That’s what I wanted to do. We made a point of not rehearsing too much, going in [to the studio] and bashing it out over a couple of nights. They sound like they have the energy of first and second takes. They’re the records that I miss, and I don’t feel like there’s many people doing that these days. Just setting up a few mics and doing it like the old days.
It’s interesting that when Eddy Current made their last record [Rush To Relax] like that, with all that Australian Music Prize money in the bank, people were shocked.
That’s a classic example. If you wanted to get scientific about it, maybe there’s an in-built human reaction to stuff that doesn’t sound so digitally enhanced going back to when cavemen would bang on drums. I like hearing a squeaky kick drum or someone coughing in the background, I like all that stuff. That was the idea anyway, I don’t know if I pulled it off.
You mention Suicide in the bio. It’s not the most obvious reference point, but I guess in attitude?
There’s songs on there that remind me of Suicide, where there’s a pretty strong bass through it, but more in the attitude and approach I guess. I wanted to make a record that wouldn’t date, I guess. Most of the stuff I hear on the radio sounds so now. In two years, it won’t sound like anything. Most of the records I keep going back to are classics, they’re full albums, not just a bunch of singles. Like Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece and stuff like that. I always go back to those records, because they’re beautiful and natural sounding.
‘Piss on a Butterfly’ is my favourite song on the record. It’s really quite acerbic and pointed though.
That’s probably a song about the world in general and too much of everything, and not enough soul.
I was going to ask if it was your mission statement.
There’s a bit of that on the record. There’s a song called ‘A Long Week’ that has a big rant about too much of everything. It was the same as Folk Songs. Simplicity was the name of the game for everything, but maybe that’s because I’m not a very good guitarist. Just wanting to strip everything back: “Everyone shut up and calm down. Let’s all be quiet for a second.”
Where did you record the album? At the same Fairfield warehouse Glenn [Richards] did the album [Glimjack]?
Yeah, we did a night there. We did the drums and bass there, and went to Bakehouse in Fitzroy and did vocal overdubs and violin. It’s really stripped back. There’s bugger-all overdubs and no electric guitar on the record, not one, which Gaz will hate. I’m going to rub it in his face when I see him. [Laughs] It was all done very simply with minimal overdubs.
Who plays the fiddle?
Jen Anderson, who plays with…
Weddings Parties Anything. And she did the Tim Rogers record What Rhymes With Cars and Girls.
I think she’s done stuff with Nick Cave too. That was really fortunate. I felt like it needed that kind of lead instrument, because there was no electric guitar. And Callum Barter – the Bakehouse engineer – said he had Jen Anderson’s number. He called her and said, “I’ve got Mike from The Drones here, he needs a violin player.” And she went: “Do you want me to come in now?” She came in and just blasted it. There’s a part on ‘Eileen’, the really Irish-sounding song, when she kicks in in the middle. That to me is the moment of the whole record. It’s just beautiful and heartbreaking. It was just a pleasure to have her … I wish I could have her in the touring band.
Just ask her.
[Laughs] Maybe I will.
Did you record the album after you did Glimjack with Glenn?
Yeah. It was quite a trial.
Did Glenn’s approach influence you down a similar path?
No, it influenced me to do the exact opposite. [Laughs]
When I spoke to him about the record he made out that he was doing a similar thing: just bashing out the songs in a very natural way.
Put it this way, my record took two nights; his took a month. [Laughs] And that’s how he writes songs. He likes to layer them and figure out all the parts. I’m a bit more slapdash than that. They were pretty different ways of recording. It was great to record it [Glimjack], a great experience, but fuck it took a long time. It was lots of work and lots of things went wrong in that recording, whereas this one went really really smoothly.
How long haven these songs been around for?
Some have been around for a couple of years, and I just haven’t had the time to record them with other commitments. Others are pretty fresh, like ‘Piss on a Butterfly’ is brand new. It’s a bit of a mixture of both. I’ve had quite a few kicking around for a while, so it was just a matter of fixing them all up and repairing them all and making sure they’re all OK. I struggle with lyrics too. I find that side of it really hard. So I went through it with a fine tooth comb, tried to make the lyrics into something I’d be happy to sing every night. I did a bit of work on them, but they’ve been around for a while.
And nine songs, I guess, paves the way for a vinyl release?
It does – there will be a vinyl release – but also I don’t really like long albums. Keep it short and sweet.
Is that your approach to gigs as well?
Only because I’ve only go nine songs! [Laughs] I think even with The Drones, we never really wanted to do really long gigs. I think people’s ears get tired. An hour’s enough.
Well, you never really listen to two-and-a-half hours of one band at home.
Exactly. I think the album comes in at 33 minutes. It’s really short, but that’s fine, I like it like that.
Do you dig back a bit further for your shows?
Yeah, I’ve got to do a few Gentlemen of Fortune songs on the road, just to fill out the set a bit, and maybe a cover here and there. Generally we play the whole album from start to finish. We’re doing this Band of Horses thing and then we’re back in March, the record’s out early April then a national tour at the end of April. I’m nervous getting out the front. Suddenly I have a manager, a publicist and all these things I’ve never had before. It feels good. It feels like taking a big step forward.
Your manager Nat Bell works with Oh Mercy too, and they’ve got an album coming out called Great Barrier Grief.
[Laughs] Yeah, The Balladeer Hunter and Great Barrier Grief. I like Oh Mercy, and that was one of the reasons Nat and I got together. I like what those boys do and watched what she’d been doing with them over the past couple years, just building things really slowly and doing everything right. It’s been a giant leap forward. It’s nerve-wracking and exciting.
I do love the pun in the title. When did it come to you?
I was watching The Deer Hunter while I was recording, which is probably why some of the songs sound so angry. It’s a take on that, but it’s also a comment on … Here’s a guy with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, who doesn’t particularly like balladeers or singer-songwriters or soft kinda stuff. I’m the balladeer hunter, I guess! It’s a slightly funny and slightly nasty title – even though I don’t mean to be a nasty person.
Was ‘Ballad of an Ordinary Man’ about anyone in particular?
That’s a really old song. It’s about a whole bunch of stuff. Again, it’s a comment on society – there are little elements of a guy I used to know worked into it. It’s not a particularly nice sounding song, is it?
Well, lyrically anyway.
Lyrically it’s not, anyway. It’s a slightly personal thing, yeah.
‘Rothko’ sounds to me like Big Star’s ‘Take Care’ with that violin part and waltz-y feel.
Oh, I don’t know that song.
“The last thing you want to do when you’re touring, or when you get home is pick up a guitar and write a song. I stay away from music as much as I can.”
The Blackeyed Susans covered it too.
Oh, right. I wanted to write a love song about a painting, bugger writing a love song about a girl. [Laughs] I remember going to the Pompidou Centre in Paris for the first time. I’m a huge Mark Rothko fan, as a lot of people are, and I thought to myself, “If I see a particular Rothko in here, and I’m pretty sure it’s in here, I will lose my shit.” I rounded the corner and there it was. I stood there and stared at it for so long that I actually started crying a bit. I found it so moving, so beautiful, I thought I’d write about it.
What’s going on with The Gents [The Gentlemen of Fortune]? Is it all done?
I think it’s all done. It was always pretty slapdash arrangement. Whenever we could get together we would. I had these songs that weren’t suited to my solo stuff; they were more suited to electric guitars and a bit more rock, I guess, so we’d get together and do that whenever we could. But everyone’s positions have changed, everyone’s busy with different projects and I wanted to do this quiet solo record without The Gentlemen of Fortune attachment. It naturally fizzled out.
And I guess trimming things down allows you to play more often.
We wouldn’t have been able to do this tour with Band of Horses if we had to take amps, a keyboard player and a guitarist. Maybe I’m just lazy, but I like just turning up to a gig with an acoustic guitar. It had run its course. There’s no ill feelings, I mean, two of the guys [bassist Pat Bourke and drummer Gus Agars] are still playing with me.
It also allows you to make more records. Are there plans for others?
I’d really like to put out a record a year now and make a real go of this. It feels like the right thing to do now. Hopefully, after this one, I’ll have enough of a profile that people will be interested from now on. I’ve started writing one for the next one already. Hopefully, I can try and record it by the end of the year, and have it out at the same time next year.
That’s the thing with making these kinds of records. You can make another one in a year.
Yeah, and because I don’t really enjoy recording that much, I’m always really fast in the studio. It’s just a case of having a few free nights and going and doing it.
So it was just you and Callum in the studio?
Just me and Cal. Pat and Gus came and played on a couple songs. I can’t play bass and I didn’t want to play drums – I wanted someone else’s feel. So those guys played on a couple tracks, but basically it was just me and Cal in the studio. We worked really fast. He knew I wanted to do it really quick and that I’d get bored, so it was great. It’ll be nice to do another one and have another one out in a year or so. I’ve never been that prolific, but I’m making it my goal to try and write more. It’s hard being in The Drones, because it does take up a lot of your time. The last thing you want to do when you’re touring, or when you get home is pick up a guitar and write a song. I stay away from music as much as I can.
Just the classics.
The classics and Classic FM. [Laughs] Julia Lester. I hope she reads this.
‘The Balladeer Hunter’ is out now through Other Tongues.
Saturday, May 7 – The Toff, Melbourne, VIC
Thursday, May 12 – Jive Bar, Adelaide, SA
Friday, May 13 – The Republic Bar, Hobart, TAS
Saturday, May 14 - Norfolk Basement, Fremantle, WA
Sunday, May 15 - The Bird, Northbridge, WA
Wednesday, May 18 - Notes, Sydney, NSW
Thursday, May 19 – Clarendon Guesthouse, Katoomba, NSW
Friday, May 20 – Step Inn, Brisbane, QLD