Pop may have been a dirty word when they formed at the height of grunge in the early ’90s , but the Lucksmiths have eked out a 16-year career by following their own beat. Ahead of a series of farewell shows, they talk to DOUG WALLEN about their approach to songwriting, the Candle Records years and their decision to call it quits.
In 1993, as grunge swallowed Australia and other music markets around the world, three high-school mates from Melbourne started a band that couldn’t be further removed from the prevailing tastes or Australia’s own tradition of swaggering pub rock. Built modestly from stripped-down folk instrumentation, a plucky pop drive, and a love of alliteration and punning wordplay, the Lucksmiths went on to become their country’s most prized contribution to the international indie-pop scene of the late ’90s and beyond.
Aligning eventually with now-defunct Melbourne label Candle, the trio released scads of albums, singles and EPs both domestically and internationally, finding a place on record labels in Japan, the UK and North America. Early on, guitarist Marty Donald penned the bulk of the Lucksmiths’ stiletto-sharp lyrics, but as the years passed, singer/drummer Tali White and bassist Mark Monnone contributed more and more in the songwriting department. At the same time, their sound grew richer and more assured, and with the arrival of second guitarist Louis Richter (Mid-State Orange) on 2005’s Warmer Corners, the band swelled to four members and four lyricists.
When Candle closed up shop in 2007, the Lucksmiths simply jumped to Monnone and friends’ Lost & Lonesome imprint for the two-disc Spring A Leak collection and last year’s First Frost, the band’s ninth studio album. Last May, however, the Lucksmiths announced its plans to make this year its last. A European tour followed, and this month the indie-pop battlers are doing a round of farewell gigs on their home turf, culminating in four Melbourne appearances. It may not be the last we hear from the band’s members, but it’s certainly the final Lucksmiths chapter.
The band shared memories of their unique career over beers at Melbourne’s Empress Hotel, where they played many of their earliest gigs.
Let’s start at the end: Why are the Lucksmiths retiring?
Tali White: It just became harder and harder, really, to organise being in a band. Just speaking personally, I was feeling like I was not able to give enough to the band for it to be easy and fun. And when it’s not easy and fun, it starts to become more like work, and that really sucks.
Marty Donald: When you’re young, you just have fewer things on. It’s easier to devote a lot of time to the band. It just gets harder to balance all the other stuff in life.
Mark Monnone: Wow, you guys decided to go deep. I was just going to say it’s the easiest way to reduce our carbon footprint. [Laughter]
What do each of you have planned after this?
Donald: I don’t know. Since we made the decision earlier this year, it’s been a lot more work and thought involved just in winding the band up than I’d thought.
Monnone: It’s been like the busiest year we’ve had.
Donald: Yeah, so I don’t really feel as though I’ve had a chance to sit down and think about it properly. I can’t foresee myself suddenly stopping writing songs. It’s second nature to me now.
Monnone: Definitely the label [Lost & Lonesome] is going to kick on and go from strength to strength and become a powerhouse in the music industry. That’s my plan. Massive ambition. Not really [laughter]. We’re waiting for the Mid-State Orange album anyway. That’ll be the next big one.
Louis Richter: Damn straight. Yeah, I’ve got a couple of other bands [including Mid-State Orange]. I’ve also been studying for the last year and a half or so, so I’ll finish my degree. That’s about it. I guess one day after that, presumably as a result of it, I’ll get a job. [Laughter]
White: And I’m going to continue primary teaching, which I’ve been really enjoying. And the Guild League will play their requisite two shows a year. I’m sure I’ll keep writing songs and stuff like that. But primarily the teaching.
When the Lucksmiths first started, were there many likeminded bands in Australia?
Donald: I think there were likeminded bands in terms of our attitude to being in a band, but not musically speaking. For me that was the big, eye-opening thing about traveling overseas, especially to the States, and discovering that there were a lot of other bands doing the same thing we were musically.
Monnone: We came back to Australia with a broader knowledge of Australian indie-pop bands. We never actually played with any of those bands when we started out. We were playing with our friends that we knew from around the pub.
Donald: Like punk bands. It was a very diverse scene in Melbourne at that stage.
Monnone: It was actually not until about five or six years into the band that we actually discovered this whole other world in Australia.
I know there were bands like the Go-Betweens and the Triffids before you, but they always seemed like the minority.
Donald: Yeah, I feel like pop’s always been a faintly dirty word to some extent, especially in the live scene. Probably less so now, but certainly when we started. Grunge was pretty huge.
White: When we went over to America, we realised that there was a scene as such. It was actually quite unified.
How did the Lucksmiths get their name?
White: We had a gig and we needed a name, basically. Back in the day, we were all about puns.
Donald: And that was the least bad thing we could think of before the deadline.
The pun thing has carried on throughout the life of the band, hasn’t it?
Donald: I think it’s still there a little.
White: It’s a lot less pronounced.
Donald: Yeah. A lot of those early songs were basically strings of puns. There’s still an element of wordplay, but it’s not the point of the exercise like it used to be.
The word “pun” these days is sort of dismissive. The lyrics are often quite intricate, with lots of layers and things playing off each other.
Donald: Yeah. I mean, I love a good pun. I’m not going to deride it.
How has the songwriting process worked, with different people writing songs?
Donald: The writing credit basically denotes the lyric writer, and those are basically not collaborative. Maybe to a certain extent.
Monnone: Yeah, when Marty tells us to “fix up” a lyric. That’s the extent of the collaboration. [Laughter]
On the latest record, First Frost, everyone has at least one songwriting credit.
Donald: Generally the lyric writer will bring a song to the band. Then we work on the arrangement collaboratively. Because he can play all the instruments, Mark’s songs are maybe a little more fleshed out when we brings them to the band. It varies from song to song.
Richter: What struck me when I joined the band, and obviously that excludes the first two-thirds of any songwriting evolution they went through, is the amount of hard work. Not that it’s laboured, but the level of attention to detail and the way the arrangements are gone over and over. A lot of the songs are at first glance simple, but the arrangements themselves are incredibly thoroughly thought through, and that’s definitely a collaborative process that takes quite a while. It enables us to use a lot of songs which don’t sound great at first. There might be a great kernel of an idea, but you have to really work at it and come up with something really fantastic that you wouldn’t if you were lazier.
Is that partly because you have such a large body of work and you want each song to be distinct?
Richter: There’s a level of quality control implicit in it.
Donald: And we just try to avoid repeating ourselves. That probably sounds ridiculous to a lot of people who don’t like us and think that all our songs sound the same anyway, but we have made a conscious effort to not write the same song twice.
Is it always you singing lead, Tali?
White: Almost always.
Donald: There’s a couple of examples early on when I sang. We’ve been rehearsing one [‘Frisbee’] for the farewell tour and I was like, “Why did we do this?”
White: You know why it started? At the time, I was such a bad drummer and it was such a fast song that I honestly couldn’t sing and play at the same time.
Donald: If it was a battle between your bad drumming and my bad singing, it’s a shame it worked out the way it did.
White: But it’s great. Now it’s the song you sing.
Donald: Like that Keith Richards song, ‘Happy’.
Richter: Or ‘You Got The Silver’. That’s one of my favourite Stones songs.
Was it ever strange singing someone else’s lyrics? Did you exert veto power at that stage?
White: No, and I think that’s a credit to all the other guys in the band. There was never, at any point, a song that I was like, “I can’t sing this.” To have nearly 200 songs and to feel like there’s something in all of them I can transmit … I guess my job is just to do the best job of presenting the song, and trying to do that honestly. If there wasn’t something I liked about each and every song, then I wouldn’t be able to do that.
Donald: From my point of view, writing for Tali’s voice quickly became second nature. We knew that was the way it was going to be. It’s always been one of my favourite aspects of the whole recording process: the moment when the track’s recorded and Tali sings it for the first time. You can hear how it’s going to wind up sounding.
Richter: That’s the other thing I was amazed with when I first recorded with them, just because Tali can sing so naturally. It instantly sounds good and you can get down to the detail of phrasing and flow. You’re straightaway to the interesting stuff.
Donald: Or, alternatively, you’re straightaway to the pub. [Laughter]
Monnone: I don’t know why we didn’t just record at the pub. [Laughter]
White: It’s been a real learning experience for me, because early on I was much more confident a singer than I was a songwriter or certainly a drummer. It was really nice to have people I worked with that could [tell me] how to phrase it, and as much as that is sometimes difficult, it’s a really interesting experience.
Donald: It’s a point I’ve made before, but on the issue of singing other people’s songs, it’s a very recent idea, the notion of the singer-songwriter. A large part of pop music history is people singing songs they didn’t write. It’s not quite as weird a thing as it maybe sometimes seems.
Monnone: I think maybe the thing we all opened up to for the last couple of records was working with a producer. Because this band is basically a band of people who want to be the producer, and that carries over into how the vocals are phrased. The producer’s job is obviously to see the big picture and make it work as a whole, and not be too caught up in that sort of thing.
Donald: It was nice to have someone to defer some of that stuff to, not just in terms of the singing but everything.
Why do you stand and play drums while singing, Tali?
White: Again, sheer necessity. We didn’t have a drummer to begin with, and we were a little bit more, for want of a better description, Billy Bragg-y in the early days. There was that pop-folk-punk feel to some of the songs, and we didn’t feel like we needed a drummer. But [then] we looked for one for a long time and couldn’t really find one.
Donald: It’s a hard thing to [join a preexisting band], and it’s kind of amazing that Louis managed to do it a lot further into our career, not just musically but in terms of personality. And for all your self-derision, Tali, the drumming on those early records doesn’t stand out as the bad musical element. [Laughter] We were all pretty bad. It kind of suited what we were doing at the time.
Richter: It also developed. It was just a snare drum at first. It’s grown over the years.
That has become such a distinctive part of the band’s sound, those stripped-down drums.
Donald: I think there’s really good things about having some sort of limitations, whether they’re consciously imposed or not. If we were still just playing a snare drum, it’d be overly limiting. But you can’t insert a thunderous tom roll before every chorus. You’ve got to think of something else to do.
Tali also sings with a noticeable Australian accent. Did that set you apart at all?
Monnone: As we were saying earlier, we were playing with a wide variety of bands. Some bands had really thick accents, but the group of bands we played with a lot had really thick American accents, and quite happily so.
Richter: Did you guys ever discuss it?
White: Well, my family background is folk singing, and so other than the odd person from Warrigal that puts on a Cornish accent when they’re singing about “the boats coming ’ome from the sea”, you pretty much just sang the way you spoke. [Laughter]
Donald: I think we were all conscious of, as much as possible, a complete lack of artifice in any sense. We didn’t dress any differently to play shows than we did when we were walking around on the street, and I think that was just an extension of that. It was out of a desire to sound like ourselves.
The Lucksmiths were very much associated with Candle Records, which had so many bands akin to you guys. What was it like finding Candle and having Candle find you?
Donald: It was great. It wasn’t that far into our career, looking back on it now, but we’d been going a few years before we were invited to be part of Candle. And it was still quite a fledgling label. As it grew and acquired its own identity, it was really nice to feel like we were part of it.
Monnone: It was really like a family.
Donald: And most of those people are still some of our best friends. It was nice, because being in a band can get quite insular.
Do you think it helped to have a label people identified with you, and vice versa?
White: I think it helped a little in something that you could refer people to. One really good thing [Candle founder] Chris [Crouch] did was [make sure] the sound of Candle and the ethos of the bands on Candle was high-quality, like “a Candle band”. I actually read some reviews like, “This up-and-coming band sounds like someone from the Candle stable.” To actually know that the label you were on was representing you and the other bands … you knew that if you referred someone to Candle, they would get a reply.
The band wound up working with labels in America, Japan and the UK. When did that happen?
Donald: The first record that got an overseas release was A Good Kind Of Nervous, which was 1998. That was also the first time we toured overseas.
Monnone: It was actually through [the US label] Drive-In Records that we discovered all these bands we’d never heard of, especially Australian bands. The connection was that Tali’s cousin was in the Sugargliders, and Mike [Babb from] Drive-In turned out to be a big fan of theirs.
White: Certainly for me they [the Sugargliders] were an inspiration, in terms of a band that was able to just do what they do and find a way to get their music out to people who enjoyed it, without having to pretend to be somebody else.
Donald: Our first ever show was supporting those guys. When they found out Tali was doing something musical, they invited us to open up.
How did you come to add Louis and expand upon the template of a three-piece?
Donald: It was almost out of necessity at that point. As we’ve gone on, especially with the recording, more of the songs had additional musical parts. People like Darren Hanlon played on some of those records, and as we wanted to play those songs live, there were more and more we felt we couldn’t do live without that extra part.
Richter: It started after I started playing with Anthony Atkinson, after [his Candle band] the Mabels [folded]. We all knew each other, and these guys asked me to play on a few songs.
Was there a feeling while recording First Frost that the band was nearing its end? It’s a more melancholy record overall.
Donald: I suppose we’ve all known that the band’s not going to go on forever, but we certainly didn’t go into it knowing it was going to be the last album.
Richter: Getting more miserable is no way of precluding a band from continuing on, god knows. [Laughter]
You recorded the album in Tasmania in the winter. Does it stand out from the rest for you, as a departure in tone?
Donald: Yeah, a little. Certainly that environment brought something to the record. We’d worked on the last couple of records before that with [producer] Craig Pilkington. It was a chance to do something different. It has a character it wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Monnone: It was definitely a great and unique experience for us. It wasn’t necessarily the most comfortable way to record, but in a way it was a return to how we used to work. It was a bit more slapdash. But thankfully we’d had a long period working on the songs before we went in to rehearse them.
Donald: It enabled us to really focus on the recording, which was the point of the exercise.
Monnone: And Chris Towend, the producer, was a real character. He really got amongst the whole thing. He was a great spirit to be around, because he was so excited.
White: It’s very hard for me to listen to that album without picturing the place [where it was recorded]. Whenever I look at the artwork too, it works because [the photos are] all from that place, and it feeds into the whole CD as a package.
Monnone: In a way, it’s a bit self-indulgent for us. [Laughter] It’s a little memento of getting to hang out in a cool place and mess around with some nice guitars.
Are you planning anything special for the farewell tour, like cover songs or guests?
Monnone: We’re revisiting some songs we haven’t looked at in about 10 years or so.
Donald: It seemed like the logical thing to do, to give an overview of the career. We did it to a lesser extent for our 10th birthday show, which is itself a long time ago now. It hasn’t seemed so difficult this time, for some reason. But we’re going to play long shows and play things from way back.
I mentioned cover songs a minute ago, but I wonder if the Lucksmiths did many covers.
Donald: All the covers we’ve done are on Spring A Leak. We did the Tom Waits song ‘Telephone Call From Istanbul’. That was one of the only ones that was a staple of the live set. Most of the others have been for recording.
Monnone: Except for those three Madonna covers.
Donald: For the Madonna tribute night at the Empress Hotel circa 1995: ‘Borderline’, ‘Like A Virgin’ and ‘Material Girl’.
Did you record those?
Donald: No. Well, there’s a live recording from a show around that time where we played ‘Like A Virgin’. I listened to it when we were delving through our stuff for Spring A Leak. We didn’t really rehearse them very well, and we decided that fast and furious was the best approach. We sounded like Green Day covering Madonna, basically. [Laughter]
I’d like to close by asking each of you if you have a favourite Lucksmiths song.
Monnone: The new one. [Laughter] I’m serious. We just recorded a song called ‘Get To Bed, Birds’ for a compilation that’s coming out in the States.
Why is it your favourite?
Monnone: I don’t know. It just sounds great. We spent a day with Craig Pilkington in the studio, right before we went over to Europe. Have you guys listened to it?
Richter: I love it.
You can’t all have the same favourite. [Laughter]
White: Maybe it’s the primary teacher in me, but I have to pick a favourite from each writer. I reckon the one that resonates with me most of Mark’s is ‘Song Of The Undersea’. And maybe ‘Fiction’ as a favourite of Marty’s. The other one of Marty’s, which we don’t play very often, is ‘The Winter Proper’. And ‘The Town & The Hills’ [by Louis].
It must be hard for you, Louis, after joining the band later.
Richter: It’s actually really difficult. For instance, ‘The Great Dividing Range’ is one of my favourites, but not one of my favourites to play. It’s mildly stressful for me. It’s in a stupid key.
Donald: And attempting to emulate an entire string section. [Laughter]
How about you, Marty?
Donald: I don’t know. There’s certainly not a standout favourite. There’s a quote from Woody Allen talking about all of his films, where he says there’s always a gap between his initial vision of how the thing’s going to be, and the whole filmmaking process is just an exercise in trying to achieve that. And how much he likes his films depends on how small that gap is. That’s kind of how I view it too. So I guess the songs of my own, off the top of my head, where the gap’s the smallest are maybe ‘The Chapter In Your Life Entitled San Francisco’ and ‘Fiction’. [Pause] And I’m not going to start picking other people’s.
Lucksmiths farewell tour dates here.