For Brisbane’s The John Steel Singers, the past couple of years are tinged in endless toil; listening to records, hoarding wild and wonderful new instruments, writing endlessly and playing music together tirelessly. Emerging victorious, the fruits of their labour are now yours to revel in, with second album Everything’s A Thread.
Although a work that’s clearly been laboured over, Everything’s A Thread holds thrilling sparks of creative spontaneity – a record that embraces both their growth and the giddying joy of becoming an entirely new band. The album flaunts a band with enviable confidence in the ability to let their songs take them where they need to go; to just play rather than meticulous contrast. The result is an accomplished piece of work that instantly grabs, yet rewards repeated listens through its robust grooves, eccentric melodies and those trademark harmonies.
If you need to relate The John Steel Singers of today to the band who released their debut Tangalooma back in 2010, skip to the end of that record to the lengthy ‘Sleep’. Droning verses, punctuated by chiming layers of piano and guitar melodies, seemingly solely held together by an unwavering drum beat and bass line. It’s a long way from Tangalooma’s well-known ‘Overpass’ and ‘Evolution’; there are hooks, but they’re not as calculated as singles past.
“We were more into the rhythmic elements of the songs from the last album,” guitarist and vocalist Luke McDonald explains. “We felt [‘Sleep’] could be like a pre-cursor to this album, it was more about the propulsion of the beat.”
This new approach has been aided by the band’s newly trimmed back line up. After a parade of bass players, the band’s five founding members are going it alone with Scott Bromiley holding down the low end.
“When you try and dictate to someone exactly what to play, it doesn’t sound as natural. But this time around it’s all just coming from me,” Bromiley says of his new role.
In order to let new songs find their place and flourish how they needed to, the band just, well… played.
“We’ve just been jamming a whole lot more,” Bromiley says. “A lot of the feeling of what’s on record has come out of the way we play together as a five piece. Before, we didn’t really have any delegated roles, people would just pick up an instrument and play that, but this time around we’ve definitely slotted into specific roles.”
After a couple of false starts, the band made the record themselves at McDonald’s parents’ house on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Producing a record without external assistance is daunting for most bands, but these guys leapt at the chance to have complete control.
“No, we were very much looking forward to it,” Bromiley says. “Recording ourselves has always been the most ideal thing to do.”
“Just following the sound of stuff instead of what an engineer has been taught is supposed to sound right,” Bernoth adds.
The band studied pictures of recording sessions from generations past, accumulated gear and experimented with wrangling the best sounds they could. An organ found on the side of the road, a fifty-dollar Kawai keyboard and troves of borrowed synths were hauled in as well.
“I’d just Google old Motown recording pictures and be like ‘What’s that mic?’ and then go and buy that mic,” guitarist and vocalist Tim Morrissey says. “Find whatever Sly Stone was doing with the bass and just copy that.”
“One of the songs [‘The AC’] is sung entirely on a ten dollar Japanese talkback mic,” McDonald admits.
Parts of the LP are densely layered with synth and guitar lines, much of which can be credited to sheer impulsiveness.
“A lot of that shit was just happy accidents,” Bernoth says.
“We’d be mixing and Scott would be fucking around on the Kawai and then all of a sudden this Kawai track has to go on,” Morrissey recalls. “We’ve already got 180 tracks, but then we add another 20 Kawai tracks and it’s all over everything.”
That’s the spirit Everything’s A Thread was bred on – it was through experimentation that the band discovered what they wanted to become musically.
“It took a long time for us to find out what voice we wanted on this album,” McDonald adds. “I think we needed to.”
This meant no room for preciousness. Songs were scrapped, exhumed, endlessly tinkered with and debated. First single ‘Everything’s A Thread’ – a maddening opener – enduring all of this to end up leader of the pack
“That song was the first one to be written, it was around probably a full year before any of the other songs,” McDonald says.
“It’s been cut a million times,” Morrissey reveals.
“It was so close to being off the album,” McDonald concedes.
The title came courtesy of indie legend and Tangalooma producer Robert Forster.
“He called me when we were in the middle of writing a song and I asked him for a song name and he said ‘Yeah, Everything’s A Thread. I was going to use that but you can have it,’” Morrissey recalls. “And it just fit the melody we had been writing as well.
But don’t read much into any apparent when you hear the title of another key track, Common Thread.
“It’s just one of those things that you do and don’t think about, and then your label tells you you’ve got two songs that mention ‘thread’ and they are both likely singles you’re like, ‘fuck!’.” Morrissey says.
The band finally relinquished control by offloading mixing duties to Nicolas Vernhes (Deerhunter, Wild Nothing, Dirty Projectors), giving him free reign to take the record in the direction he felt it needed to go.
“That’s what happens when you don’t have a producer and everyone’s on an equal footing; you’ve got three ideas and every person has as much right to have their idea as the other person… so you say, ‘Nicolas these are the options, you need to choose’,” Morrissey says
“You work with the songs for so long that you just don’t know anymore,” Bromiley adds. “Then you get them back and you have that fresh level of appreciation again.”
“We definitely wanted him to take a bit of a producer role in his mixing,” McDonald says.
“The first Skype conversation we had,” Bernoth recounts, “he said ‘I just want you to know, I’m gonna fuck with this…’”
Finally, it will be fucked with no more; through the chaos and disarray Everything’s A Thread has emerged a beautiful mess – proving method in the madness.