Dead Letter Chorus: From Sync To Swim

Big pay cheques from Toyota, a swag of sprawling tunes and an album that took an eternity to make – Dead Letter Chorus? Cameron Potts (not the guy from Baseball) gives NICK ARGYRIOU the lowdown.

Dead Letter Chorus? current tour is the first time the Sydney folk-rock collective are performing their latest record in full. Having recorded their second album Yearlings between May 2010 and January of this year with Canadian producer Les Cooper in Toronto and Sydney, Dead Letter Chorus have refrained from feverish touring slots to focus on a tour specifically concentrating on tracks from their sophomore release.

Confessing that the recording of Yearlings ?took ages? to complete in between touring dates in Canada and beyond, the band persevered throughout the back half of 2010 until a self-imposed rest from live shows in January allowed them to finally finish it off. ?We were playing too many shows and we still had a half-finished record,? frontman Cameron Potts told M+N down the phone from Sydney.

Yearlings is a ?moments? record insofar as each song has a spark or thread that shifts the song from following an expected path. There’s something more at play here than simple straight verse-chorus fixations.
Yeah, definitely. We’ve always been of the opinion that with the kind of music we write, there’s a little repetition in it, but we always want to feel like we bring something new to the repetition or chorus. We always think about the ?build? in songs and always stepping it up levels and if we feel like we’re hearing the same song coming through we’re like, ?What’s the point of it?? Every part for us has to be meaningful like those records you listen to for the 10th time and keep finding something different in them.

One moment Gabrielle [Huber] sounds like Natasha Khan, then a young Emmylou Harris. Her variance in the vocal continuously hits sweet spots, and she’s singing better than ever.
I think she is too. Her delivery is really great, like in the track ?Underdog?? I love that track. She’s finding herself a lot more confident now, from when we first started and this was one of the first songs she’d ever written. Up until this current album she’d only written four songs so she’s found a comfortable place for herself and confidence in playing with her vocals a little more.

Where exactly was Yearlings recorded? Was it a Sydney and Toronto split?
We didn’t really record anything in Toronto. We were over there for a couple of weeks and did pre-production and a bunch of demo days and stuff like that, and then we bought Les [Cooper] out to Sydney and recorded for three weeks before having some string players in Toronto record parts of it over there.

Talk us through the sonic desires Les Cooper had for the record. His smooth arranging and orchestration skills are what define him.
It was a weird relationship. [Laughs*] The thing that we all liked about Les was that he was a great arranger, and a good songwriter in his own right – Our first album [*The August Magnificent*] was 12 tracks that went for 65 minutes, with eight- and nine-minute songs, so we needed to sort out how to do what we do in a shorter amount of time. It was really good to have someone like Les say to us, ?Do you really need to repeat that 40 times? Building it really, really slowly? Probably not.? [*Laughs] We really needed someone to say that and for us to take it on board.

Cooper has composed commissions for Symphony Nova Scotia and worked with countless other Canadian artists to get them to a stage where their songs have featured on high-rating TV shows for ultimate exposure. He’s a great man to be involved with, so how exactly did you hook up with him?
We got into contact with Les through a girl called Jill Barber [Canadian singer] who is a kind of jazz/pop singer. He produced her albums and toured with her as a guitar player when they came to Australia for the Woodford Folk Festival a few years back. We got drunk backstage with Les after one of their sideshows – and ended up talking about production and learned that we had similar ideas, so it went from there.

You were recording and writing Yearlings throughout heavy touring. How much of a hindrance was this, or was it seen as peculiarly advantageous?
Actually, touring for us and writing on the road was the best thing that happened for the record. Before we headed over to Canada in 2010 we probably had a few songs – like four of five that we were really into – but by the time we got there we’d thrown them out, basically. We had quite a bit of time off when we first got over there just to level out and in that time we probably wrote another four songs that ended up on Yearlings. I can see how it can be an issue writing on the road for bands – what with running out of time in a hectic schedule – but for us, being an independent band, we had no choice.

The Besnard Lakes and Arcade Fire seem like two notable Canadian outfits that have informed part of the Yearlings* sound. Fair call? We find Canadian music to be really similar to what we aspire to. A lot of this kind of music is well respected as well and we try and do what we do and also be respected for it you know? [*Laughs] When we were over there we didn’t meet a bad band and I think My Morning Jacket, although they’re not from Canada, do what they do so well too and experiment with a whole bunch of different sounds with up-tempo and down-tempo stuff, but don’t tie themselves down – We look to these styles [for inspiration].

The cover art is even quite Besnard-y in form and visual. Who was behind the image?
The guy who did our last record art, Jefferton James, did the art for this one again. We told him we needed cover art that incorporated horses and woods. These were the two words we gave him and this was the first thing he sent back so we were like, ?Holy shit!? We love it because it’s simple and dark and light all at the same time.

I read that the songs on Yearlings sort of followed the path of a relationship starting, blossoming then falling apart? Rise and fall- type business.
Yeah, yeah. That was totally by chance and we hadn’t thought about it at all until it came time to think about tracklisting. Funnily enough we had an extra song that we had recorded for the album and when we decided we didn’t want to put it on the record it kind of opened up that whole narrative for the album. We thought tracking the songs like this might be lame and were unsure whether it was in fact a concept album, but in the end we had one of those weird hippie moments where maybe the album was speaking to us.

Gabrielle’s vocal is more blatant and animated in the first half of the record, where yours takes on that coming down and falling apart role.
It’s the way we write our songs. I’d also written another song that didn’t make the album that was probably more suited to an alt-country type of thing. I’m a fan of that kind of music – from Wilco to Low –
and like writing ballads and depressing songs. She was enjoying writing some up-tempo stuff, so it was all about our headspaces at the time. It’s not stuff we think about while writing.

Are the ?Run, Wild? royalties still flooding in from Toyota?
Usually with these things it just goes to the songwriters, but it’s a band thing. To tell you the truth when that came through it paid for the record. When you’re something like $25,000 in debt or something and this happens, and then you’re even, it’s good. [Laughs] Without doing something like this we really weren’t sure if the album was even going to come out because we just didn’t have the money to do it. It’s a good thing and an interesting thing at the end of the day, and luckily Gabby or I don’t have a TV so we don’t hear it [the track] all the time.

2008’s The August Magnificent* was a forceful debut record; looser and more country-focused, where *Yearlings is vast yet wilier in the mix. Now album number three is in the works, what can we expect?
We want to record it pretty soon, like even before the new year. We want to keep pushing ourselves to create something different and more expansive, but to the point, if that makes sense? Bigger sounding and more intricate and it’s one of those weird things were you want to make it accessible where people will listen to it but not so much that it gives everything away. We also don’t want any bullshit hanging around our head this time because with Yearlings I think we had a lot of people, maybe too many people involved.

?With ‘Yearlings’ I think we had a lot of people, maybe too many people involved.?

Dead Letter Chorus has a firm reputation in Canada – ever thought of the relocation bit of the equation? Howling Bells to England, Devastations to Europe. Can it work?
I think it could. It’s a matter of us putting out this record over there and seeing how it goes. It’s something we’ve talked about but I don’t know how everyone in the band will go with it. Everyone wants to travel and play music but we have jobs and lives and stuff so how do we accommodate it [the notion]? But if the records goes well in Canada and things become a practical reality then I could definitely see myself sitting in a bar in Toronto for a while.


##?Yearlings? is out now through ABC Music/Universal.


Fri, Sep 30 – Northcote Social Club, Melbourne, VIC
Sat, Oct 1 – FBi Social, Sydney, NSW
Thurs, Oct 6 – Old Museum, Brisbane, QLD