Lawrence Arabia: ‘I’ve Never Considered Myself Particularly Hip’
Lawrence Arabia (aka Christchurch pop songsmith James Milne) talks to DOUG WALLEN about channelling Gainsbourg, Scott Walker and Harry Nilsson, finding the perfect rhythm section and why Auckland is a classically shallow city. Live photo by ELLENI TOUMPAS.
On his third album as Lawrence Arabia, Christchurch native James Milne perfects the project’s defining balance of dry, writerly wit and classic pop blitheness. The Sparrow’s opener and lead single ‘Travelling Shoes’ is the perfect example: a dire need to escape “a town of perfect isolation”, dressed up in a string quartet and other blissful trappings. It’s a bitter pill submerged in its own hum-ability.
Milne has indulged in plenty of travelling himself, doing time in New Zealand acts The Brunettes and The Ruby Suns as well as leading The Reduction Agents. He’s spent years in London and will soon move to New York City. In addition to 2009’s Chant Darling and a 2006 self-titled debut from Lawrence Arabia, he’s played in BARB with Liam Finn and Connan Mockasin. Mockasin and another Finn – Elroy – show up on The Sparrow as an intuitive rhythm section, but they’re not touring with Milne. As ever, Lawrence Arabia begins and ends with one man’s incisive, quietly hilarious songwriting.
You self-produced this record, right?
I’ve always self-produced. If anything, in the past I’ve been a little bit more overbearing with my involvement in the process, because I’ve normally played most of the instruments myself. With this one I got other people in to play stuff.
Was that because of time, or just a general loosening up?
It wasn’t time. I was trying to insure myself against the syndrome of infinite possibilities resulting in going a little mad. Which had kind of happened for the last record [Chant Darling]. I just wanted to make a record defined by its performances rather than someone slaving away on ProTools trying to make something perfect.
I read about the influence of Scott Walker and Serge Gainsbourg on this record. Have they been influences for a while and just surfaced now?
Yeah, probably. I mean, they’re kind of totems of hip and I’ve never considered myself a particularly hip artist. I guess it was just that I found a way to take some of those influences, particularly just the way some of those records were produced. All the rhythm sections on those records are really cool, and you’ve got really creative orchestrations. So in terms of just the palette. It’s not like my singing is like Scott Walker or Serge Gainsbourg.
Yeah, the songs have this really natural, rolling quality.
Some of that is by virtue of the rhythm section, which is Connan Mockasin [on bass] and Elroy Finn [on drums]. They had a real freedom to the playing.
Had you played with Elroy before? I know you’ve worked with Liam Finn.
I haven’t played much with him, but I’ve spent a lot of time with him, especially in England. I’d started playing in Connan’s band and Elroy was playing drums with him. He’s a really creative drummer, and he thinks about drumming as a songwriter would.
How do you mean?
Because he’s got a songwriter’s brain or a guitarist’s brain, he constructs parts in a very thoughtful manner. It’s hard to describe, and I find drumming very magical in general. But when someone’s got an X factor and is the right drummer, it’s got something you really enjoy.
Did you take anything from being in BARB between albums that put you in a different space for making this record?
There were a couple of things, actually. We wrote that whole album by jamming, essentially, so I learnt it was always the first take, when we were first starting to find the feel, that was the most interesting. I think that was a lesson I took out of it. Trying to capture takes as early as possible, while they still have an innocence. The other thing, I guess, was I was playing the piano. Normally I’d play guitar on records. On the BARB record I basically only played piano and bass. [That] went straight onto this record, because I’m playing mostly piano.
Have you played piano from a young age?
Yeah, I mean, it was the first instrument I learnt, but I never persisted with it. I wasn’t forced into it. I guess it was something I wanted to do, but I never felt particularly natural at it. It’s just something I’ve picked up later in life.
What’s the status of your older band The Reduction Agents?
It’s pretty dormant. It’s very hard to imagine playing with that band again. The album that we released [2006’s The Dance Reduction Agents] was the first bunch of songs that I wrote, essentially. There were other songs that were discarded along the way as being far too immature, but they’re essentially the first bloom of my songwriting. So it’s a whole, totally different era. It’d be hard to imagine writing songs for that project again.
Is there a story behind the album title of The Sparrow?*
Not in particular. It was catchy and short and sort of a guideline to the album that became some kind of aesthetic influence. But I always thought a lyric would crop up and become the album title. But nothing ever stuck.
I wasn’t sure if it was an allusion to some persona you were writing through…
Well, it kind of was. Someone said it reminded them of Edgar Allen Poe [and The Raven]. I wasn’t specifically thinking about that at all, but I guess I was thinking about a malevolent character or something that makes you do the wrong thing. It somehow informs the dark, negative side of this album. But it’s all a bit vague and all talked about in hindsight, basically.
Are you a fan of Harry Nilsson? Some of your stuff has reminded me of him.
I am, yeah. It’s hard to say how he would have influenced me over just, say, The Beatles. Because the thing that appealed to me about his music was that some of it just sounded like The Beatles. So it was just like finding more Beatles music. But some of the songs, especially on that Nilsson Schmilsson album, really appealed and were coming from a slightly different place. Somewhere between the dreamy side of The Beach Boys and the psychedelic side of The Beatles.
He had an irreverent quality in his wit, like you.
It’s definitely one of the things in there. Some of that [for me] came from Ray Davies as well. [Kiwis] like to subvert their sentiments with jokes, so some of that is by virtue of that. Maybe that’s why slightly funnier songwriters appeal to me.
So you’re based in Auckland now?
I was in England for about three years on and off. I’ve been living in Auckland for the last year-and-a-half, and I’m gonna go base myself in New York for the second half of the year, just to be closer to the touring action and not be trying to travel back and forth between New Zealand and Europe and North America.
You have that song, ‘Auckland CBD Part Two’, that seems fond of the city while poking fun at it. Do you think that’s your relationship with Auckland?
I think that’s fair to say. I mean, Auckland is kind of a classically shallow town. I’ve never found much inspiration, apart from its particularly shallow side. It’s a profoundly shallow and celebrity-obsessed culture in our own New Zealand way. That side of it is probably the most obvious thing to observe as a resident. It’s not a place that I feel totally at home in or comfortable in.
Did you grow up around there?
No, I grew up in Christchurch.
Is there a bigger Australian tour planned?
There were will be something later. Exactly what form it will take, I don’t know. I imagine it will be over summer. We’re gonna go over there and gauge the response.
What’s the live setup?
It’ll be a four-piece band. Connan’s in England and Elroy’s in New York, so it won’t be with them. It’ll be with Alistair [Deverick] and Hayden [Eastmond-Mein], who are my normal bass and drummer, and Andrew Keoghan, who’s a multi-instrumentalist.
Have you been writing many songs since this record?
Kind of. But not intensely for myself. I don’t tend to work unless I have a project. I used to do songwriting for pleasure, but [not anymore]. But I’ve been writing songs for a radio comedy thing, and I’ve written songs for an album called Fabulous Arabia, which is myself and Mike Fabulous from The Black Seeds. It’s kind of a vintage funk/soul record. There’s definitely a few [other] things going on, like a TV sitcom soundtrack and a short-film soundtrack. But I haven’t been writing a lot of Lawrence Arabia stuff.