Kes: ?I?m Very Routine
Karl Scullin might eat the same food and wear the same clothes every day, but his approach to music is essentially transitory. He talks to DOUG WALLEN about stripping things back for the new Kes Trio album, the colourful ?Black Brown Green Grey White?.
There’s just no painting Karl Scullin into a corner. Under various incarnations of Kes, he’s done the solo acoustic thing, the full band thing, the instrumental thing, and now the harsh rock thing with Kes Trio’s new album. Punctuated by screams, Black Brown Green Grey White* also offers beautiful singing, playing and production. It’s not schizophrenic so much as restless, jumping from one bold tangent to the next with freakish precision. Backed by Julian Patterson – Scullin’s bandmate in the reportedly defunct Mum Smokes – and Lehmann Smith, Kes Trio proves worlds apart from the five-piece heard on last year’s marvellous *[Kes Band II](/releases/2000381). There’s preening art-rock and unhinged madness sitting hand-in-hand. Self-aware without being awkwardly meta and adventurous without being pretentious, it’s utterly Kes.
What happened in between the Kes Band and Kes Trio albums?
Just a natural evolution of doing shows, I guess. The three-piece thing was more economic, sound-wise and also just doing gigs. But it was more just that it had run its natural course, that five-piece thing. I felt we had done as much as we could, and everyone had other things they needed to do. It seemed like the natural thing to do. I don’t think it was too much of an intellectual process to strip it down. [Pauses] It was 50/50. I did wanna go for a more rock sound, like more aggressive, and try that. But at the same time, the five-piece thing had run its course anyway and I wasn’t going to try and force a round peg into a square hole.
The last album was almost like classical music, between the choice of instruments and being instrumental. Did you maybe just have the opposite reaction with this one?
I guess so. They were happening at the same time. When we were writing all the stuff for Kes Band II*, we were playing live as a trio. So I was working on that and finishing up *Kes Band II at the same time. I think most people work that way: you work on something new and yet you still have to finish putting out something that’s older.
Did they play off each other then?
I don’t think so. I guess they may have, but not really from my point of view. I was just trying to make them cohesive things in their own right. Especially the instrumental album: we did have a few rock songs that could have gone on that, but it was to keep the atmosphere of it consistent.
Did you ever consider keeping these newer songs instrumental?
Yeah. I’m somewhat disillusioned with vocals. I think the trio album pretty much just documents what the Kes project has been doing live for the last year and a half, which is kind of half really abrasive rock and [half] more traditional songwriting with vocals. One of the reasons I did that was to keep the live show quite dynamic, with a lot of light and shade. I don’t really like seeing too many bands who have just one sound and it’s like you have 45 minutes of this variation on one song or one sound. I wanted to really have space and just have one thing playing at a time. Those are the kinds of things that I’m attracted to: the inherent dynamics in music.
Some of the vocals on the new album aren’t lyrical devices but just screams and other mouth sounds.
Yeah. Well, Lehmann sings a song and Julian sings a song, songs they’ve brought and written as well. I wanted to make the trio thing more complete by doing that. Also, it just broke it up as a live thing. If you’ve got people that can sing, you should have different singers. But I’m pretty disillusioned with trad songwriting and I’m thinking more about experimental music these days. I’ve always been into screaming, and trying to have voice with no lyrics was something I thought I’d definitely like to try. There’s a lot more I’d like to try with that, like maybe just doing screaming, without a band.
You mean without any music at all?
Yeah. I’ve had this idea for a while to just build upon screaming. Just get people together screaming and collect them over time and build songs out of this voice that is screaming. I haven’t really explored it, but I think there’s something in it.
Well, there’s so much range in a person’s scream, and everyone’s scream is different.
Definitely. I’d be curious to see what you could get out of people as well. [Laughs] Especially groups of people, how it would work.
And it has this sort of release effect on you, obviously.
And it’s a pretty basic sound. Like, it’s not complicated. It’s not a love song and it’s not talking about a relationship.
You used to be in Bird Blobs [from 2001-2003]. Wasn’t that band closer to a volatile, almost evil sound?
Definitely. I guess they were coming from a more Pop Group/Birthday Party/Beefheart place.
Did it occur to you that you were maybe getting back to that with this record?
I guess so. Everyone listens to rock music when they’re a teenager or whatever, so that’s obviously my reference point, my starting point. So things that I’ve done have always been different to that, but that’s always been the staple I guess. Even though a lot of people think I’m twee and folky or something, this trio record is more of where I’ve always thought I was coming from.
Because it is collaborative and the other guys are bringing songs to the table, did you ever think about giving it a non-Kes band name?
No, definitely not. Because I’m definitely the leader of the band, and I’m definitely crafting it and directing what’s happening. I have other bands that I’m in where it’s more genuinely collaborative, where there is no leader. But I think, no, this is clearly a Kes record for sure.
?The five-piece thing had run its course anyway and I wasn’t going to try and force a round peg into a square hole.?
What other bands are you currently in?
I’m doing this band with this girl Ela [Stiles] from a band called Songs and this other girl Nisa [Venerosa] from Fabulous Diamonds. We’ve almost finished recording an album. This year we’ve been focusing on doing that. It’s called Zsa Zsa.
It’s funny, I’ve seen that name on bills and just thought it was some young band.
Well, we are a young band. It’s early days. Ela started it but she lives in Sydney, so our process is sort of bound to whenever she can come down. But I’m pretty happy with how the album sounds and the amount of work we’ve done for it.
I interviewed Jonathan Michell recently and he said Mum Smokes had run its course. Is that right?
Well, y’know, I never say never, but we’re not playing any live shows, that’s for sure. And there’s no recording [planned]. Yeah, I think it’s run its course for now.
Is that just because everyone’s involved in so many other things?
I guess so. Being in a band is never easy. I don’t know that we’ll never do anything again, but it’s definitely not on the cards at the moment.
On the new trio album, there’s this sustained feedback bridging the songs ?The Alarm Clock? and ?Won Seventeen?. It’s quite piercing.
It’s actually a clarinet, not feedback, but it is just like a frequency. It does sound like it could be feedback. I’m really into albums that blend together like that. Again, that’s more of an indication of what the live show was. I try not to have too many clapping breaks in between songs. I find it much better to have like four songs and craft them so they go into each other. Something about it is more interesting for me to play live. A block of songs together, as opposed to three minutes, clapping, three minutes, clapping.
It can be almost like a suite, to have these distinct parts lead naturally into each other.
Yeah, totally. And I love stripping stuff back to just one person and a sound. I think it’s crazy when bands are just like guitar intro, drums for three minutes, and everyone’s playing [the whole time]. I think that’s crazy talk. All that space around what’s not playing is what creates atmosphere, to me?
When you’re listening to rock stations or triple j or pop music, the sound is really unappealing or un-intriguing. And when I listened to the classical stations, like when I was doing that Kes Band II thing, you hear like a nylon string guitar or just one thing doing something. It’s just instantly inviting. It instantly makes me want to listen to it.
Are there many non-rock instruments besides clarinet on the album?
That’s pretty much it. We recorded at Head Gap in Preston, and my friend had just dropped off a Mellotron. So on songs like ?Wise Eyes?, there is this keyboard-y, flute-y kind of sound. Tarquin [Manek, Pikelet/Bum Creek] plays clarinet. He’s the only additional person. Otherwise it’s just the three of us.
It seems like there are more effects on this record.
Yeah, yeah. With the live show, I’ve really been becoming a bit of a pedal nerd. I’ve got a pedal board now. My effects are pretty standard: they’re just delay and reverb and distortions. But I’ve definitely been crafting my electric guitar sound and experimenting with drones and feedbacks a lot more.
You produced it with Nao Anzai. What was the impetus to work with him specifically?
Well, he’s our live mixer. And he’s a really prominent figure in the Melbourne music scene. He mixes a lot of live shows that you would go to. I can’t recommend him highly enough. He’s really easy to communicate with and is very organised. I think he’s made the record sound really good, like the actual fidelity of it. He’s done some stuff where the drums are quite live and distorted-sounding, which is great.
Yeah, it’s interesting. Like I said, it sounds sort of evil at times.
It’s interesting you say it sounds a bit evil. I think with my disillusionment with just songs, I’m going in a direction that’s – I wouldn’t say evil, but just darker I guess.
I’m curious about the album cover, because the second Kes Band cover was a variation on the first. And you could have very easily done another variation on that for this.
I see them as separate projects. Kes is me solo, Kes Band is with a band of any number of people, and Kes Trio is obviously a trio, so I just wanted to keep it separate. I think if I do another Kes Band record, I will continue with the handwriting [on the cover]. But I see this as something new, the trio thing. And I’m [into photography](/galleries/3985555). I just wanted to have something that was graphic, almost comic book-y graphic, that was like a symbol that could be quite recognisable. I was thinking about representing three and the different ways I could do that.
What about the title [Black Brown Green Grey White]? I know it’s the name of a song, but was it just to put all these colours and images together?
Yeah. I guess you could say they’re – a few of my favourite colours. [Laughs] I don’t know, it’s just something that’s evocative.
You get the alliteration and you also imagine the colours in your head.
Yeah. I had a film clip idea for that song, because it has this beat where it’s kind of changing, to have the colours change every time the chord changes. But I have yet to make that film clip.
Have you made film clips before?
Never. [Laughs] But I think visually a lot, and I really should do a film clip. But I’m not really into sitting in front of the computer to edit it. And I think because I’m a control freak, it would get to the point where I would have to do that.
What are you planning to work on after launching this record?
I just want to get back into finishing the projects I’ve got on the go, I guess. Record and maybe get back into playing solo live as well. Because I have heaps of new solo material. But I guess it’s much of the same in that I just want to try a few different angles.
How will the solo stuff sound, if you’re getting away from traditional singing and songs?
Well, there’s a bit of ranting going on. Since I finished my first acoustic album, The Jelly Is In The Pot, I’ve been just working on that style of guitar and voice. And really crafting these new songs a lot. It’s similar, but it’s just way darker. I guess you might say it is a little bit evil. It’s like that songwriting template, but very broken down. It’s definitely not someone on stage strumming up and down on the guitar and saying words. I’m breaking it down and working on the most interesting arrangements I can think of. I think lyrically I’m a lot more realised as well. Definitely the songs that I’m writing now have a very definite bottom line to them. So they’re more articulate in a way.
It seems like you thrive on these different phases. Do you think that’s fair to say?
Yes and no. I’m just trying to survive, really. I would love to just do one thing, but being in a band, there are so many elements that make it transitory. Like, people’s interest in doing it and also your living arrangements and what you can afford time-wise to do. But I guess ages ago, I just embraced that element of it. It’s always going to be changing. And whoever’s around that can do stuff to make it happen, you should embrace them but not try and hold on to what you had, because it’s just going to be a waste of time. In a lot of parts of my life, I’m very routine. I wear the same clothes every day, I eat the same food all the time. But the music thing, there’s something about it. When you make a record, it’s inherently transitory. You can’t do it again. It’s that document of what you could do at that time, and I think it’s inherent in the medium of making a recording.
And so many people in Melbourne are constantly playing with other people and travelling, which breaks things up.
Yeah, totally. And it’s fun to do different stuff, to try different things. Maybe on some level I have some kind of sound going on – like, I definitely have an aesthetic of things I like. Rustic is how I would describe it. Somewhat straightforward and naturalistic on some level. But there are so many different options to explore. Just like how that screaming option could be a thing. Just doing a minimal kind of atmospheric album would be a great thing to try. Just doing another rock band with like two basses and four drums would be a great thing to try. There’s heaps of options.
Black Brown Green Grey White is out now on Mistletone. The album will be launched at The East Brunswick Club in Melbourne this Saturday (September 25). Kes Trio will also be performing at The Forum in Melbourne on Saturday, October 9, as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival.