This interview was conducted with Simon McLaren via email in late 2003; on the eve of the launch of his terrific ‘Giant Spheres’ album, released under the then-new moniker of Sleepers Union.
First of all, we know you’re well inclined to try out different styles with your different bands, from the loud and brash approach of Loves Ugly Children, to the driving, charismatic approach of The Subliminals. How do you describe your current album to fans of your previous work?
I guess an uncomplicated answer to that is that this has turned out to be a psychedelic pop / psychedelic soft rock record. If you’re a fan of that genre in any way then you should like the Giant Spheres record. In terms of my history, it kinda carries along from The Subliminals vibe, which had a definite psychedelic quality, or perhaps some form of psychedelic anxiety about itself anyway.
A major difference is that Sleepers Union is about the vocals as well as the music, as I enjoyed the writing process, using language haphazardly by blending bunches of lines together until I could see symmetries or juxtapositions arise.
What was the song-writing process for the album?
Basically I had a mini-disc and an acoustic guitar – some tuning variations and some spare time. It’s a process of capturing ides or snippets of song possibilities and then deciding later which ones fit the current project. I love the simplicity and smallness of the mini-disc, it’s so easy just to capture ideas off the cuff- unlike having a four-track or computer set up which is less portable. A good example is ‘Waking From The Dream’ which was written and demoed very quickly at 2 in the morning one night when I couldn’t sleep. I managed to capture a moment, with just a snapshot of the sleepy melody, lyrics and chords before I returned to bed. Later on that song got recorded onto my pc and then transferred and worked on again on Dales mac.
But it’s really a very normal songwriting process in that I just write songs and then keep the ones I like. If I happen to write and record a good one it seems to inspire more.. Which is what happened with this record starting with the song silver cloud, the first finished tune. It was a song I had written while in The Subliminals, and the subs played it a few times. Anyway it kinda set the agenda for the rest of the record.
Sounds like the old Keith Richard’s legend of him writing the riff for ‘Satisfaction’ in his sleep! With this kind of immediate idea-capturing, was the production studio based, or did you flesh out full songs first before committing it to pc?
Well there was no band, so there was no flesh, so to speak of, that we could record. The songs had only been demoed with me playing acoustic, accompanied by Mark Anderson playing bass. When we recorded the drums with Matthew Heine and with Brendan Moran, neither of them had heard the songs before that day.
I guess that was the point of not starting a band, so that nobody else could really have early control of the textures or structures: I could build my tunes completely from the basement up for a change. It’s definitely a better record for escaping the trap that many NZ bands fall into; that is, the territorial possessiveness that members unconsciously yield in terms of their instruments frequency range. Like a guitarist in a band who thinks that he should play on every track on a record, because that’s how the tunes were conceived (with him playing along).
It’s harder in that instance to avoid a big cloggy mid range guitar (for instance) filling up the frequencies of a bunch of tunes on a record, when those frequencies may not even be needed. All of a sudden your not making a record anymore, your actually in the process of allowing a bunch of your friends to trample over some songs.. And I guess if you are at a point when these kind of doubts crop up, then its definitely time to make a solo record!
Did you go looking for lyrical inspiration, or did it come to you?, I always find the hardest thing about writing lyrics is not making it seem forced.
Well, lyrically speaking, there was some kinda blueprint that I was consciously writing towards, which meant that I could begin tunes with either chords that fitted in to the concept or with lyrics that fitted. Either could trigger a new song, so different songs appeared lyrically via different processes. The most labored song lyrically doesn’t actually have that many lyrics. Which is ‘Collect My Particles’. Originally it was called ‘Silhouette Notebook’ but when we recorded the music we extended it quite a bit naturally, as we were enjoying playing it- so it seemed like another song by the time I got around to doing the vocals.
I had doubt whether a song called ‘Silhouette Notebook’ would actually be on the kind of record I wanted to produce, and so a new title ‘Catch My Particles’ got attached to the tune. Then of course, I had to rewrite the melody and lyrics to match the new title. While it had no lyrics I heard the opportunity for a kinda Beatles style ‘Ooo-Wah-La-La-La-La’ to garnish the descending riff, so I recorded that first; and then I tried to write the main vocals comfortably around it. Anyway by the end of it the song was ‘Collect My Particles’ instead of ‘Catch My Particles’.
‘Giant Spheres’ was another song that I had the title of first, and then I tried to write a song around the title. ‘She Seems Fluorescent’ is the same.
With Shayne Carter’s Dimmer project we heard about him going in to seclusion and learning to play music again, outside the band environment. Did you find yourself in a foreign predicament when creating this album?
Yeah it seemed kinda foreign to have total control of the project, total freedom to do anything I was capable of, and also to have enough time and support on my hands to develop the project. Because of this, it is less rushed and more thought out then any of the records I have made for Flying Nun Records. Turbine told me I could record an album of processed static if I wanted too and that they would still release it. Which is funny at hindsight, as I was actually messing around with a more computer generated, less organic sound – not song orientated at all. The fact that I had no ideological record company pressure on me just lightened the whole situation, which in turn meant that it was way more plausible for me to actually feel comfortable enough to write some pop music.
It seems kind of fitting then that you’ve finished with perhaps a more ‘pop’ result than your efforts under Flying Nun. Do you think this freedom had an impact on the overall direction of the album?
Yeah the freedom to do what the hell I wanted was exhilarating. Even if it was a bluff, it was a great bluff, as it got me writing without any boundaries. I felt relaxed.. I worked on a bunch of weirdo tunes on my pc (‘My Dream Of Cygnus The Swan’ being the one that made it onto ‘Giant Spheres’) until I had a bunch of these anti-songs together, enough to expand into an album. After that I kinda just relaxed into writing some pop tunes, which in turn became the actual basis for the record.
The Subliminals were such a fresh and invigorating band – possibly yet to reach their peak, what made the band decide to call it quits?
Uhhh, to be honest the band just imploded, it just happened that way.. The goodwill left the building and it just wasn’t going to come back. The band would have had to have developed musically to continue, but that would have meant rewriting some of the rules that we had set ourselves to start off with. Basically it got complicated just at the time when we had all run out of goodwill, and that just stopped it all dead in its tracks.
And do you regret the conclusion of any of your previous projects?
Yeah, i’m still pissed about the Subliminals. It was a cool band. But y’know, as they say: as one door shuts, a window opens in the back.
Any plans to put together a touring support band?
The Sleepers Union band is just materializing as we speak. It looks at this stage as if its gonna be me, Francis Hunt(Fang / Stereobus) on extra gat, Dave Yetton (Stereobus) on bass, and Simon Reid (Stayfree-Carefree) on drums.
Sounds like one-hell of a great band you’re putting together, is Dave looking forward to taking the support role?
Yeah, the bands just started, its sounding great already, its quite exciting.
With a psychedelic sound on the album, can we expect any electric jugs (ala The 13th Floor Elevators), heavy tremolo, or crazy mid-song freak-outs?
Well its early days in the band room yet. Tremelo will definitely feature. Weirdness of some description will be sought and hopefully attained. The few practices so far have sounded to me like really messed up, but at the same time really melodic, rock music. It’s very raw compared to the record, but it seems good like that. Uh yeah, and i’m still considering keyboards, to throw some extra loopiness into the mix.
New Zealand music seems to be in a transitional phase at the moment, with the memories of older bands starting to fade, and an emphasis on new, audience-focused bands coming to play. What direction do you see the (perhaps more underground) rock scene taking in the next few years?
I don’t really understand this question. Do you mean to say that bands, back in the day, used to focus on their music, but that now instead they are focusing on the audience (which is in turn, focusing on them)? Like narcissus frozen staring at his own reflection, the band members, overcome by spectacle, forget to actually listen to the sound that they make?
Uhhh- anyways-. As for seeing a direction for NZ underground bands-. Isn’t it meant to be going post-punk, hard edged new-wave? That crossover period, like Gang Of Four (except that that influence has still been felt all along via shellac, hasn’t it?). I’m not sure.
In terms of guitar bands, there may be apparent to some a pathway clear between two certain extremes: the dominant culture of new-old-rock, and its quiet nemesis, those of the purposefully-twee-brigade. In between somewhere there’s kind of a huge gap for alternative rock bands to arrive that aren’t entirely retrospective in focus.
Maybe the New Zealand nameless-lost-guitar-band-fraternity could all ‘accidentally’ embrace psychedelic at the same, as they discover that its y’know, like one of our really cool heritages – these bands could support and help each other, to play on spitefully and determinedly in total indifference to world trends.