Track By Track: Collarbones
River Phoenix, romantic pining and mainstream R&B: it's all there in Collarbones' ‘Die Young’. TRAVIS COOK and MARCUS WHALE take us thoughtfully through growing pains both musical and personal.
Travis: This track probably displays my influences more obviously than the rest of Die Young. I was pretty immersed in the history of dance music and rave culture during the course of this album, almost to the point of not listening to anything with a slow tempo. I also felt Marcus's lyrics work well as a counterpoint to my own stoic nature and so in that sense it feels like the most "Travis" song to me.
Marcus: This one was written about halfway through last year, by which time I realise every time I was trying to express how it felt to be helplessly infatuated, I could only adequately relate it to the body. I wanted to try and create this space where it didn't matter whether what I was singing about was literal or not, because of how much power desire can physically wield in you. You shudder, shiver, cry, whatever. This was maybe in response to how involuntary it felt for me to fall in love with my best friends in high school, like there was no way to change, nothing I could do but beam out the feeling as if it could magically change how they felt. I cut and pasted the track into structure out of a little zipped-up package of beats Travis sent me that he'd been working on, and that was the modus operandi for a number of tracks for us.
Travis: The method behind this was similar to ‘Don Juan’ from our first record [Iconography]: me trying to find a chord progression that sounded interesting. I wanted something melancholy after reading about speedballs and celebrities who died from drug overdoses. I think it was really late at night, probably the most productive time of the day for me.
Marcus: This was made out of an instrumental track Travis originally released as Cyst Impaled in this prolific period, for him, after we finished making that covers and remixes mixtape, Tiger Beats. There's a whole bunch of really sadly overlooked tracks in there: ‘Tilda Swinton’, ‘Spectral Bus’, etc. Anyway, ‘Die Young’ was this one that I found particularly captivating, not least because on Soundcloud it was attached to a picture of River Phoenix and, well, called ‘Die Young’. There was also a video for it he made out of a ’90s Greater Union ad. I wrote the song on a plane partly about River Phoenix and the array of celebrities that have become complete icons in death, like the fabric of their lives in photographs, on film, recordings, whatever, create this very rich narrative space primarily audience-generated, which is something I find incredibly fascinating.
After I got home from that particular trip, I went and watched Explorers, this 1985 movie a young River Phoenix starred in and despite (or maybe because of) the ridiculous premise, naff plot and whatever, it was completely magical to me. I think people say of River Phoenix that his performances were particularly powerful because of how emotionally involved he was. As in, his relationship with those co-stars, Ethan Hawke and Bobby Fite, seemed as real and intimate to him as anything else at that time and it's palpable in the way the movie works. It feels haunted by it.
Travis: This is similar to the track ‘Die Young’ in that I used a slightly wistful chord progression. Although, contrary to that song's density, I wanted to something a bit stripped-back and more "primal" to give room to Marcus's voice.
Marcus: This was made at the point at which I still thought this was going to be a straight -up pop album. This is therefore likely the most transparent example of my level of delusion. I had it in my head this was going to be the single – Hype Williams video clip, stylists, slick choreography. It's sometimes difficult to tell how much of that was genuinely a fantasy, rather than a plan.
This was written during a point at which I had started to feel very strongly towards my current boyfriend in a way I hadn't observed in me, really, since I was a teenager. It then became connected with this kind of exaggerated language, in an effort to quantify the immensity of the feelings of love I have had. However, the chorus and a few lines in the song sparked out of something said to me. I often feel really un-expressive until someone can draw it out of me. This is my attempt to convey how electric and overwhelming that feels for me.
The background hook at the end ("Do you feel me breathing deeper? You know I'm gonna need too much") refers to a song that hasn't been released by my dirty R&B alter ego Sean Lockhart, which provides the opposite perspective.
Marcus: ‘Missing’ was the last song written for Die Young. In fact, it was only even conceived of after the album was mixed and waiting to be mastered. In its place was a quite dense, atmospheric ambient track that probably more readily resembled Scissor Lock, one of my solo projects.
To be honest, the motivation for attempting this track we took on with great hesitation, as it came, simply, from forces around us. The album, in its form at the time wasn't getting that great a response from some and this was quite emotional for me. This came to a head one night, when, plugging away fruitlessly at some vapid pop beats in an empty room of my parents' house to try and find the right replacement for the ambient track, I was overcome by the pointlessness of the task, feeling isolated from everyone involved with the album. I was also struck with the ache of missing my boyfriend, who had been in Europe for two months.
I started singing the falsetto chorus while slumped in a pathetic heap and immediately began pumping out an instrumental for it, making the opening chords from a little microsecond clip of my voice (from the a cappella for ‘Red’) because I had nothing else on my computer and no microphone. The track was finished the next day.
Travis: If I say we constructed part of this track on my bed that probably feeds into rumours of us being the Australian t.A.T.u. I'm the one that isn't really homosexual. We're also the next Savage Garden. Marcus is Darren Hayes, I'm Daniel Jones. I make most of my music on my bed. "This is where the magic happens" – Travis Cook, on an episode of MTV Cribs.
Marcus: This was the first track we ever wrote while physically together. I was in Adelaide for Format Festival's closing night party, and, having arrived a day early, I set up my microphone and loop pedal into Travis' laptop and we began recording material. We'd set up that main loop and bass line that night and made the remainder of the song the next afternoon.
I remember walking through Rundle Mall, typing the lyrics on my phone, desperately trying to memorise them so we could perform it that night, which we did. I fucked up some words but it's not like anyone would have noticed.
The song is about getting together with my ex-boyfriend, but that's expressed through everything I was and was doing beforehand. You don't get the delivery of that until the end of the chorus. I wanted to make it feel like the song wasn't just my reminiscing, but also an illustration of the blank emotional place I had built in myself after continually falling in quick-burning, unrequited teen love. I think my ex-boyfriend was always disappointed that every time I wrote something about him, it was really only through reflection in me. Little wonder he thinks I'm a narcissist.
Marcus: I would be lying if I said this wasn't written with Katy Perry in mind. Originally we put this together wanting to get How to Dress Well to feature on it, after he'd heard our cover of The-Dream['s ‘Yamaha’] and sounded interested in collaborating. But, as expected, it fell through. In any case, this was one of the songs that had a premeditated R&B premise as a result. I'd been listening to, I think, a whole lot of Beyonce at the time and also going through an old diary of mine and saw all these commonalities in the excessiveness of the language. I love some mainstream pop music that doesn't give into the illusion of authenticity. I want to be confronted with extremity and impossibility, just like how, when I was a teenager, I felt like I would be stuck in an eternal, all-encompassing loop of desire, stung and struck by the beauty of these boys.
Travis: We're going to get embroiled in a class-action lawsuit from both Katy Perry and Beach House thanks to this goddamn song. They've got a duopoly on the dreams of teenagers. We want a slice of that pie. The teenage dream belongs to all of us.
Travis: ‘Soul Hologram’ feels to me almost like a homage to a few of our earlier, more ambient and glitch-y tracks. The density of the songs on this album meant that an interlude seemed like a good idea to give the listener some breathing space. If you hate Marcus, you could just put this one on repeat.
Travis: The bass line isn't similar enough to Skrillex on this track. Time to go back to the drawing board.
Marcus: Again, a lot of this was done in a rather adverse situation – working from a dinner table at the Workers Club in Melbourne, listening through free Virgin flight earphones, splicing bits of audio together and hoping they would turn out how I thought.
The song was about how bittersweet the smooth intervals of time can be when you're in a sick relationship. At the time, though, I was hoping it would represent a healthy awareness of the difficulties in any long-term relationship. As it turned out, these thing I was alluding to in the lyrics may have been the flaws that eroded our feelings for each other.
I actually have never liked this song very much, apart from maybe the hours spent making it initially. I'm only coming back around to it now.
Travis: Marcus begins this song as a woman and transitions into a man at the 3:38 mark.
Marcus: I borrowed Tom Smith (Thomas William)'s OP-1 synthesiser sometime in 2011, and Travis and I had a bit of a play around with it. We made a couple of little bits of songs and loops out of it, and the main loop in ‘Losing’ was one of those, chords that I played with a sound which I have reason to believe is sampled from some extremely obscure op-shop Bollywood [record], but I don't think any of us has any idea.
I wrote the lyrics for this on the Friday after I broke up with my ex-boyfriend. At the time it felt incredibly liberating to be able to live life as a free man, so to speak. But that afternoon I was (as seems to be the theme for songs of this album) overwhelmed by a loneliness I could barely understand in the context. This was one of the rare occasions at which I could say my mood was out of control. By the time I'd finished writing the lyrics, it was time to go to a show we were playing that night at Goodgod, and I had a wonderful, cathartic night. In the chorus hook I was trying to channel Aaliyah to some extent – and indeed in a lot of the harmonised parts of this album, I've been quite inspired by female R&B singers that still completely melt me for reasons I don't understand. I know that it's difficult for me to truly pull that off, but I gave it my best.
Travis: Snare reverb.
Marcus: I've always felt strongly towards album closers. This one was meant as a kind of conceptual decoder for the album or, alternatively, yet another tragedy-tinged expression of teen fragility to hammer it home. This song forms the centrepiece and primary conceptual starting point for the film accompanying Die Young by Michael Salerno. Michael and I have worked together a lot in the past and his style was, for me, a big reference for the songs we were working on. He responded most strongly to this song. The big verse at the end of the song isn't included in the film, perhaps as it may have been too illustrative. Similarly, I want people to respond to this perhaps without any coaching from me. It's safe to say I'm laying it all pretty bare. I honestly feel quite vulnerable writing so densely and leaving that in the air as the last moment in the album. Maybe that's appropriate.
‘Die Young’ comes out today (Sept. 28) on Two Bright Lakes/Remote Control. Launch dates below.
Fri Sept 28 – Liberty Social, Melbourne, VIC
Sat Sept 29 – Out The Back, Brisbane Festival, Brisbane, QLD
Fri Oct 5 – Rocket Bar, Adelaide, SA
Fri Oct 12 – The Standard, Sydney, NSW