Unsung: Joe Talia
As part of a new series, DOUG WALLEN takes a closer look at some unheralded local musicians. First off is Joe Talia, who’s toiled away behind-the-scenes as drummer and producer for Ned Collette’s several different guises, but has also collaborated with the likes of Francis Plagne and Oren Ambarchi. Photos by DANA ENGFER.
More and more in recent years, Melbourne musician/engineer Joe Talia has distinguished himself as Ned Collette’s right-hand man. Talia drummed in Collette’s mostly instrumental former band City City City and mixed two tracks and recorded some drums for Collette’s 2006 solo debut Jokes and Trials. By 2007’s Future Suture, Talia was recording and mixing and playing drums for Collette while City City City’s Ben Bourke lent bass. After touring that record, Talia and Bourke became two-thirds of Collette’s collaborative trio Wirewalker.
Over the Stones, Under the Stars was credited to Ned Collette & Wirewalker in 2009, but Collette’s move to Berlin the following year put Wirewalker – now a four-piece including keyboardist James Rushford – slightly on hold. Bourke and Rushford are absent from the new album 2, though it still bears the Ned Collette & Wirewalker name. The album is as much the usual showcase of Collette’s songwriting as it is a chance for him and Talia to tease out their more experimental impulses. Adapting demos rather than redoing them, Collette and Talia lean on programmed drums and synths in place of a full band. Now the two of them are planning a duo album that combines their individual strengths.
Wirewalker isn’t Talia’s only collaborative outlet, however. He plays with Rushford under their own names as an electro-acoustic duo tending towards musique concrete. He’s also a member of Francis Plagne’s band and has worked repeatedly with Oren Ambarchi, including mixing Ambarchi’s latest output. Talia is a solo artist too, releasing his first album in/exterior in 2006 and recently doing improvised gigs on a solo drum kit. And that’s just scratching the surface.
What led to Wirewalker becoming its own entity?
It was just a progression from us being Ned’s backing band into becoming an actual band of three members. A democratic band. We toured a lot and did a lot of recording and after a while it started to feel like a real band rather than just this supportive thing. The band needed a name rather than Ned Collette Band, which it had been for quite a while. It’s really just about the three of us, and now the four of us, creating records together as opposed to Ned coming in with a completely formed record that we would help out on.
When did James come aboard?
Pretty much the last couple gigs we did before Ned left Melbourne [in 2010]. We tried to incorporate keyboards into the band. Again it’s the same thing, just adding it out of necessity and now that we’re looking towards making a new record, it will be the four of us going into the studio and creating it together.
You play as a duo with James too, so that must make it easier to bring him into the fold.
Definitely. We’ve made two records – actually almost three now – together as a duo. Also, both Ned and I have played in his band Johnny Saw Horses. So it’s just a really natural, obvious decision to have James join the band.
At one point, wasn’t 2 going to be a Ned Collette & Joe Talia record?
Yeah. It went through a lot of phases. At first it was gonna be a Wirewalker record and we were all gonna go record it together, maybe overseas. It would be a real continuation of the last record.
Do you mean overseas in Berlin?
At that point either Berlin or possibly in New York. But then Ned moved to Berlin and that changed everything because the band didn’t really exist anymore. So there were a few different versions of the record [after that]. At first it was gonna be a solo record of Ned’s that I was going to help him out on. Then we had this idea of doing a duo album where we’d mix our two things together. Ned would have the songwriting element and I would have the experimental element. But it ended up being what to us felt most like a Wirewalker record, so we decided to keep the name even though Ben’s not on it and James isn’t [either]. There’s a lot of outtakes from that record, which will probably end up being on the Ned Collette/Joe Talia duo album we’re working on now.
So there will be a Ned and Joe album after all?
Yeah. But it’ll be really different. It will probably be instrumental, or at least mostly instrumental, and a greater focus on the experimental aspects of the group. Or the duo, I should say. We’re working on that by correspondence at the moment.
Obviously with geography, you have to do that. And you made 2 in Berlin and Melbourne…
Yeah, we did a lot of back and forth. Most of it was recorded in Berlin, a lot of it just recorded by Ned. The record started as a bunch of demos Ned sent me. When I went over there, we had ideas of re-recording a whole bunch of stuff together. But it was that classic case of the demos having this really nice charm to them that we fell in love with. A lot of what’s on the record is actually what was on the original demos. We just whipped it into shape and added to that rather than starting from scratch and trying to make “the good version.”
I can see the connection to the demos. It’s more piecemeal than a band record.
Yeah, it is. A lot of that is just the fact that Ned was in Berlin, I was here and we didn’t have a studio like we usually do. So it’s just a bedroom album, essentially. I didn’t even play a lot of drums on it. Most of the drums are either drum machine or just programmed stuff that Ned had made that we just went with. We did a lot of things to make them sound better than just these stock, pre-set computer sounds, but the structure of it is all based on these programmed beats.
I was surprised how many keyboards and loops they are. All those repetitive textures.
Well, we were listening to a lot of ’60s and ’70s Italian stuff. A lot of Franco Battiato and people like that. Just really getting into the way those guys used very minimal arrangements to create quite epic songs. You listen to some of that stuff and it will just be like a floor tom, a vocal and a synth. That’s the entire arrangement and it sounds huge. Being able to make instruments really big rather than just crowding the sound field with massive arrangements is something we really wanted to get into.
I feel like there’s this funk element to the record.
[Laughs] Ah, the funk. I can’t really pinpoint any one thing that comes from, apart from just who we are. And just getting to a point in our lives where we’re not afraid to let anything into the music, y’know? We’ve made a lot of records together and I feel like now we’re getting to the point where we’re just not afraid of what we put down and what that might mean about us. Yeah, the funk thing … you should hear the stuff that didn’t make it onto the record. [Laughs]
What it’s like for you to double as drummer and engineer for Ned’s albums?
It just feels really normal. I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it at this point. It’s just such an easy way to work. We both hear things in the same way with production, so there’s never any real argument about that.
So you have that unspoken thing from working together so much?
Definitely. Ned and Ben and I learnt how to make records together. Back in the City City City days, we didn’t really know what we were doing. We made these grandiose records and they kind of came out by accident. There’s just a lot of history there.
A lot of your other work is instrumental and experimental. Is it an interesting contrast for you to have that and then work on something with Ned where the words are such a focus? Do you think about that contrast?
I do think about the contrast, but I think I’m the kind of person who needs that contrast. I need to work on all these different things. To me it all relates to each other and it all makes sense together and I treat it in the same way. It’s just the focus changes. With Ned the vocals are a huge part, but I still hear the importance of the sounds and the way the music is presented on a record. I still approach it in the same way, whether it’s an avant garde classical record or a pop record or folk or whatever. It’s still all sound to me.
I know you work with Oren Ambarchi as well as the duo with James Rushford. But it looks like you do a fair bit of other mixing and engineering too?
Yeah. More than recording, mixing seems to be the thing I do most. I mixed the Keiji Haino/Jim O’Rourke/Oren Ambarchi [album Imikuzushi], which was really great for me. Oren has been doing quite a few records with me recently, ever since we worked together on his latest solo album [Audience of One], where I played drums and also mixed a couple tracks. We get along great and he brings a lot of really great records to me, like that one and another one [he did] with Stephen O’Malley and Keiji Haino. It’s always fun. The one with Jim O’Rourke was interesting because I’ve been a big fan of his for a long time, especially in terms of mixing and production.
It must have been daunting in a way.
They were live records so it was a straight-up mix. It was just about getting the levels right and getting it sounding powerful. It wasn’t a huge creative input.
But I’m sure, having played with Oren, you know what they’re going for more than another mixer would.
Definitely. It’s generally pretty high-energy too. It’s a power trio, y’know?
I see you also did Francis Plagne’s Tenth Volume of Maps.
Yeah, I recorded, mixed and co-produced in a way. And I’ve been playing with Francis’s band for a long time. Again that was just a natural progression when we came to make a record with other people, whereas the first two were just him. It made sense for me to do it.
I love that record. I think it’s really well recorded and just really clean.
Yeah, it’s very clean. Compared to his other ones, it’s incredibly clean. That was made over quite a long period of time. We did that in quite a few stages, a lot of it just the two of us with drums and the guitar. Then we spent months adding all the other elements, like the strings and horns and electric guitars, et cetera. It was probably a good two years.
Besides this tour and the duo record with Ned, what else do you have coming up?
Hopefully I’ll be heading to Europe later in the year and Ned and I can do some shows as a duo, probably to support this record and just develop things over there and get it to a point where next time we can bring the full band over and do a tour. Which we haven’t done in a couple years. We both really miss doing that. That’s definitely the next thing on the agenda. And also just finishing off more collaborative records. I’ve got one with James Rushford that’s almost done.
Have you been working on another solo record?
Yeah, I did a solo record [in/exterior] back in 2006 and I’ve slowly been working on one ever since. One day I’ll finish. I made that first record in my spare time with no real intentions. I listen to it now and actually wonder how I did it. Because now when I try to do solo things, I don’t know where to start. I really don’t have any clear ideas about what kind of record I want to make. But I think the next one I do will probably be a solo drum kit record, because that’s something I’ve been doing more and more, just doing improvised shows on drums. So I’d really like to document that and get that recorded.