It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon on Sydney Rd with Jordan White, Patrick Lee Holcombe and Caity Fowler of Melbourne’s hotly-tipped indie collective, Playwrite. Thanks to their formidable live shows, the band have stirred a burgeoning word-of-mouth buzz, commanding comparisons to the likes of Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens and TV On The Radio.
Though an especially busy February awaits the group – a bumper residency and a trip interstate on the cards – there’s time enough for an intriguing chat. Note: we somehow managed to cover everything from touring, to tequila, to Men In Tights. Enjoy!
Nick Mason: What’s the meaning behind the symbol – the circle and the spears?
Caity: I refer to it as ‘tree-tree-hole’ because I know it ticks Jordan off. It’s not a hole, apparently. It’s been referred to on a document as ‘tree-tree-lake’, which it’s not.
Patrick: It was Jordan’s tattoo before it was the band’s symbol.
Jordan: Basically the trees represent both Patrick and I. In tattoo talk, the circle is basically another example of an infinity sign. So it was basically a little homage to our friendship and our life as creative partners.
P: It’s Jordan and Patrick forever.
C: It was either that or those words across his chest!
That’s actually very sweet. I suppose that flows nicely into my next question: you’re all very close and this band is actually quite easy to see as a family. That’s the impression I get. Is that the feeling?
P: I feel like this band has become a family for each of us. I think that all of us get that family thing from it for each our own personal reasons.
Is that something that’s been cultivated over time or was it an instant chemistry?
C: Being someone who came into the band not knowing anyone – I knew Jordan, but really vaguely – no, it wasn’t (instant). While we were experimenting before, as Cacophony Society, it was very much just about getting to know people. It’s definitely taken our entire journey and our entire relationship to get to this place. It’s not been difficult at all. It feels like, now, I’ve had these ‘husbands’ forever. It’s really strange.
I want to know what you each bring to the group – and I don’t mean instruments, parts, pieces, sounds or compositions.
C: I bring tequila.
J: I think Caity and I both come from that theatre world, so I feel like the two of us definitely want to bring the ‘show’ side of Playwrite, in terms of really delivering a performance in a live setting. That’s something that we really strive for in the band.
P: I think Jordan also brings a fair chunk of overall vision, somehow. We’re getting to the point where, more and more, all of us are on the same page. Jordan and I have been working together a bit longer. We’re pretty close in how we see things, how we design and stuff, but Jordan ultimately seems to hold the most comprehensive overall vision of what’s going on.
C: Definitely. Jay brings this meticulous, holistic idea of what our band is. Not at all in a way that’s just comprised of elements of marketing and artwork. It’s actually more of a feel and at atmosphere. It’s like J knows intrinsically what this band is and we get to draw from that all the time.
P: What about the other guys?
Are they interesting?
J: Dave brings the humor, I feel…
C: He does!
J: …whether we’re laughing with him or at him. Scott brings a realistic sense to the band in the sense that he’s always level-headed. We’ve played in bands for years together, so I know him very well. He’s always been very realistic. Nick’s very musical, extremely musical and he has a lot of brilliant ideas that don’t necessarily come from the same place that we all think. Yet I think he is such an intrinsic part of our sound and in terms of the way that he approaches music.
C: His criticism and his classical knowledge and all that, his classical world and his jazz world… it’s just so valuable.
It sounds like you’re all extremely diverse characters in terms of what you bring to the table.
J: In a huge way, we’re all ying and yang and we’re all each others parts and we all work so well together. There’s not really any problems between the six of us.
So Caity, you’re the only girl. How is it being in a boys club? My apologies, I presume it would be a boys club.
C: It’s so not a boys club! I’ve never had this many boyfriends, I’ve never had this many close male friends. I don’t think I knew guys like this before. It’s really funny, I’ve never felt the least bit different or excluded. Maybe that’s because we’re just all the same at the end of the day. We have lots in common.
J: I don’t think we’re boys, as well. We’re not men, men.
You don’t come across as blokes.
J: We’re kind of Men–in–Tights-esque.
P: We’re new age men.
J: I’m okay with that.
C: I think if we’re going to rank as boys and girls, I think Dave and Nick and Pat are definitely overtaking me as bigger girls, which is nice. (laughs)
I want to talk about the architecture of a song. So Pat, you write a lot of the stuff?
P: Most, not all. Most of what we’re playing right now is mine.
I write my own songs and I’m interested in what it takes to classify a song as a success, in terms of its architecture. For example, in my experience, I can’t be blatant and soppy. I have to be cryptic, otherwise I can’t stand it. I can’t stand singing something that’s like that.
P: I feel like in terms of at least the lyrical content, for me, I walk a line between having enough in a song that, if you concentrate, you can tell what it’s about… but also enough imagery for it to be open to people’s own interpretations, so that people can relate to it on whatever level they need to. I guess there is a line there. I’m definitely not an incredibly literal songwriter, but at the same time, it wouldn’t be that difficult to figure out what I’m writing about.
In terms of actual song structure, that success is just whether it works for us. I’ll often bounce stuff off Jordan and the other guys. I’ll have to go back and rewrite a chorus or bits and pieces and that’s pretty collaborative. It’s usually just me doing the writing, but it will be the result of input.
Is that process of collaboration a vulnerable position to be in?
P: I pretty much just have to suck it up. If a song is really good then I generally know and I know that it will be okay. Occasionally there will be a song which ends up working really well, but it was one I was never really sure of. Then I have stuff that I think is pretty good, but it might not be finished… so I’ll take it to Jordan and he’ll be like, ‘Yeah, this bits fine but the chorus is a bit shit.’ It doesn’t hurt me. I just know that’s how I figure out what I need to do next. I think it’s really important to have that there. Often, when you’re writing a song, you play it a million times and you go, ‘Yeah, that’s great!’ Often you need someone else to go, ‘Well… maybe it’s not.’
J: It’s usually not. (all laugh)
In terms of your compositions, you’re not a fan of 4/4. You seem to do anything in your power to shy away from it.
J: I read a really good interview with Radiohead, actually, about the fact that private-school-boy rock was all about odd time signatures… and I think that’s where it comes from. (all laugh) No, I do! I think that it’s got a lot to say. Both Pat and I went through private schooling. Pat studied classical. It was never about a dirty, grunge, 4/4, Nirvana-esque, down-the-line…
Not like those damn public schools and their Seattle movement...
J: All those public schools!
P: I also think I grew up listening to a lot of jazz and a lot of classical music and classical music is never in 4/4. You never have a phrase that repeats sixteen times like you do in a rock song. It changes key, but it’s not jarring. I’ve always been curious about why we’ve reached this point in modern popular music, where the form is almost identical and it’s stayed that way for quite some time. Throughout the genres – if you’re looking at funk or rock or anything that can be considered modern popular music – it’s pretty much all the same… in the very fundamental nature of the time signature staying the same, staying basically in the same key and shifting up for the chorus. Everything does that.
So you’re breaking the mould.
P: Well it’s not like, ‘I’m just fucking smashing it, man!’… I’m just really interested. I’m interested in the science behind it. Fundamentally, I’m a massive science nerd…
C: You’re just a nerd.
P: I’m just a nerd: I like to build things and I like to make things differently. I see something and think, “Can this be built a different way and can it still be good?” There was a song I remember hearing when I was younger that I thought was amazing and I thought it was amazing because it had a different time signature. Something… Brown? (sings the melody)
I’ll research it, don’t worry. (Note: The song was “Golden Brown”, by The Stranglers)
P: There’s all the information you need. (all laugh) It’s got a really, really interesting time signature that doesn’t repeat the normal 4/4 thing. I had to go back and figure out why and take it apart. I do that now, but it’s almost a matter of habit. That’s just the way I write.
How old were you when was this discovery made?
P: Probably when I was in high school, when I was writing with Jordan I guess. I don’t really know.
Alright. Now: guilty pleasures. I’ve rediscovered the Real McCoy. I’m seeing Aqua.
J: It’s funny you mention it: I had to go pick up something from the Corner after our show with Alpine last week. I saw the manager at the door and she said it’s still backstage in the bandroom. She took me backstage and I walked through a sea of about 25 people, with Vengaboys blasting. I went in the bandroom and there were the Vengaboys sitting on the couch, all hagged.
You said hello, of course?
J: I did say hi. It was a beautiful, beautiful moment. That’s a guilty pleasure. I loved the Vengaboys. I invented a drinking game after Boom Boom Boom Boom.
C: You have to drink every time they say ‘Boom’.
P: Especially with that fizzy alcohol, it just goes right through you.
Alright, well let’s follow Jordan’s lead and traipse through your musical past.
C: You know what’s really scary? I realised this the other day: I didn’t really buy many CDs, I didn’t listen to the radio. I don’t know how I found music. I bought a couple of singles – maybe I owned three in my whole childhood – and I honestly think that the first one was I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That). I think that just proves how slightly traumatised I was as a child!
J: At least it wasn’t the recording from the AFL Grand Final.
C: I remember the film clip vividly and I think because it was like a tiny musical, I think in my brain that all made sense.
P: Right from an early age, before I was listening to the radio, I was listening to Nirvana and Pearl Jam and stuff. The first time I heard a pop song on the radio and found it for myself, it was… (sings Break My Stride by Unique II… all join in) That was my song.
I recall that one well. I listened to N-Trance the other day, doing Stayin’ Alive. Fundamentally the same song as the Bee Gees’. Anyway: the wilderness and geography of the band are two huge things. Your press photo, the nature of your sound being very tribal…where does this all come from? It all seems quite removed from Melbourne, to be honest. That’s the impression.
P: It’s something that I feel really strongly. I grew up way out in the bush. There was no concrete around our house. I didn’t have a TV or other fads – I couldn’t go rollerskating or watch The Simpsons. We’d just run down into the bush. We lived right on the national park. We could go kilometres and kilometres down into the bush and I’d just do that with my brother. We spent whole days or more there. For me, that’s been a really, really important part of my life. I’ve gone travelling a lot and spent a lot of time getting as far away from man-made stuff as I could, within reason… just hiking and walking further and further into forests and stuff like that. That’s really elemental for me and it comes across in what I write.
C: Pat’s said to us that if he’s going to sit down and write something he’d love to do it in the bush, in that quiet space. Whereas if I need to feel inspired, I need to go to sit in Degraves St. If I went to the forest, I’d just pass out because I don’t feel stimulated!
Is it a case of reverse log cabin fever? Do you feel the tug to go back?
P: I literally have to go back as often as I can. Jordan and I try to go out and spend a good few days or as much time as we can out in the bush. At the moment we’re only managing to do it about once a year. Last year I managed to get out hiking a bunch of times. Each time I come back renewed and I write more stuff. It’s just so important for me.
A few of yours songs that spring to mind are Canada, New Zealand and Black Cloud. Black Cloud is about Japan, correct?
So does that in particular tie into the sense of geography I referred to, in any way?
P: It was more as a direct result of when the natural disaster in Japan was going on. There was also a lot of other stuff going on in the world at that time. I think there was an earthquake…
J: Volcano eruption…
P: All of this stuff tied into the nature stuff in a way. It was all out of people’s control and was about this helplessness and wishing that there was some way we could reach out in a way that would matter. (Black Cloud) was a reaction to natural forces.
So you’ve been reborn as a different band, moving on from Cacophony Society. How do you chart your own progress?
J: I don’t think it’s up to us, ultimately. We definitely have an idea of the response from people. I feel like we’ve developed and worked really hard for the appreciation of the show, the experience that we put on now. I feel like all the writing is so much stronger and we’re all not only connected with ourselves but with the material. I think that ultimately has been an organic experience that has cultivated that reception from other people.
I went along to the Face the Music conference and it bothered me how hard it seemed for a fledgling act to get anywhere. How have you guys found it? You’ve made significant waves since you’ve been Playwrite, but from an outsiders perspective it seems like the industry can be a bit oppressive and stressful, depending on your ambition.
P: There’s an awful lot of shit that we have to do. Fundamentally, we are running a business that is our own creative output, so we have to continue that output in a way that people can relate to. At the same time, we’re managing ourselves, we’re organising our own tours. We’ve only just started getting someone else to book our gigs. So physically, there’s a lot of stuff to do. But I honestly think the hardest thing for a band is actually being good enough and having a good enough show that people care about.
There’s so many bands in Melbourne who I think are pretty good… I’m not saying I think we’re amazing, but I don’t think their live show is necessarily strong enough. Maybe this isn’t something you should print everywhere because I sound like an arrogant bastard, but I think it’s really, really hard for bands to be in the position where they’re going to go much further than where they’re at. That’s not because they don’t have the support from the industry, it’s just because they’re not good enough.
C: You have to start somewhere and you have to start from scratch, at the bottom… and the level of investment of work kind of equals a level of investment of money as well. The great thing is, we’re not expecting anything in return right now. We’re not trying to pay ourselves to rehearse or pay all our band members for every show, because it’s impossible right now – which is so fine with us. If you’re not ready like a small business to invest quite a huge amount initially, you can’t expect to get paid off.
J: I know for me, personally, I have given myself these two years. The band is my life and it is completely my job. I treat it like that and I know there’s others in the band who do the same. It is what I put everything into. The hardest part is, right now, we’re at the stage with all this internet coverage and the music industry lives on the internet at the moment. With that, people don’t appreciate the work that goes behind even just recording something. I think we’re in a sad state of affairs at the moment and I think it’s a lot harder at the moment because the sheer volume of… I’m going to say ‘unearthed’ artists… is just overwhelming. Whether they’re ready to do anything or whether they’re half-baked, they’re still doing it. So it becomes really hard to get people to appreciate the worth behind your stuff.
P: We’re assessed on a global stage against everyone else, Lana Del Rey who has money coming out her…eyeballs….
P: …making these kinds of videos which look really homemade. I mean, I don’t have anything against her, but we’re assessed against everything.
I don’t necessarily think it’s arrogant, Patrick. I think it’s true. At the end of the day, a lot of bands are just pretty good.
P: Some of them will get better.
If I could extract the point, are you trying to say that the music should speak for itself and stand alone?
P: Yeah. I think what has been kind of heartening in a way is that we’re not getting press. We’re not a cool band, we don’t have people or fancy magazines wanting to talk about us all the time.
C: If at all.
P: There’s almost no press about us. But our show is growing, our fan-base is growing and we’re getting more and more support every time we play shows. We get people coming up to us telling us how great they thought it was. That’s just the music and the effort that we put into the show. That’s not because we have X or Y magazine writing about us every week or whatever. We’re not necessarily in a really high profile position but the music we’re playing is speaking to people and I feel like that’s really heartening, in a way. It’s not our connections, it’s the songs that we’re writing and this group of people.
I’ll probably change the headline to, Playwrite: We’re Not That Cool. I guess, to that end, would you say you put a lot of pressure on yourselves? Does it manifest in some places more than others?
C: I think the pressure comes definitely from within ourselves, because we are our own managers and our own everything at the moment. In a really awesome way, it comes from an ambitious place. If we don’t want to be better, what’s the point?
J: We’re doing our job in terms of pushing ourselves. That is our job, you know? We can always do better. For Caity and I, who have always worked in a theatre forum where we have a director, we have assistant directors, we have people taking notes every night of our shows and reporting back with what needs to be better, we now do that for ourselves. There is no one else to do that. That’s ultimately what makes great theatre and great music. We work really hard to create moments on stage that don’t happen with artists who come and play their garage music like they’re still in their garage. That’s really important for us.
C: It’s not just about pressure in delivering that show and a better show all the time. For me – and I think it’s something we all feel – it’s about gratitude for an audience, showing up. Even if it’s a free show, they’ve left their house and they’ve come to engage with us. No matter how we grow as a band or how that journey goes, when it’s even just five people showing up to the Worker’s, it’s their time. If we don’t honour that, we’re really not being grateful for them. That’s what it’s about. They’re letting us play.
P: It’s our job to maintain that high standard. We’re in a position now where we need to keep playing at this standard or better all the time. That’s not necessarily a negative pressure, it’s a really positive one. It’s not okay for us to play shit shows and we work really hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.
J: I know for me, I’m so conscious of such amazing music… especially in Melbourne. We’re so spoiled for choice in terms of the artists we have coming through and the artistic nature of this town. I’m really conscious that we’ve got to do something really special or we won’t surface.
What plans do you have for future recordings? Is a follow-up to the EP on the cards this year?
J: Yup, we’re planning to release a single in May. (looks at Caity) It’s been pushed back.
P: Shit’s changed.
This is an exclusive for me and her. (all laugh)
C: I’d better phone the rest of the band!
J: We’re looking to have an album by early 2013, mid 2013. We’re definitely looking to do that and continue playing a lot and playing new towns and getting interstate, doing an east-coast tour.
May I ask which single?
J: At the moment we’re tossing it up, but I think it’s going to be a new one called Borderline. We’re still working that out but I think that’s on the cards at the moment.
How about the Toff residency this month, what’s in store?
J: A party.
P: We’re building some sets.
C: Changing our hair.
J: New costumes, a new set, new songs.
C: Maybe a kissing booth. (laughs)
J: Yeah, lots of love.
C: A massive love-in for three weeks.
J: It’s actually a really special three weeks for us, I think. We’re going to have a lot of fun.
P: It’s going to be busy!
The residency is titled Playwrite Loves Choosedays. Which one of you came up with that?
J: It was me. Originally, the idea was to incorporate something with Choo Choo’s – which is right next to the Toff – and work out a deal there. Basically, the 14th is obviously Valentine’s Day, so the whole love-in idea was based around the fact that we’re doing the shows around Valentine’s Day. That forced me to think about the fact that we’re coming up to a year of working together as a band and I’d really like to take the opportunity to stop and pat each other on the back for a little bit, as well. We’ve done some remarkable things for each other over the past twelve months and I thought that was really important just to celebrate that and share some love. Also, I love The Simpsons. It just worked for me in my five minute spark that I had.
You’re flying to Sydney in the same month. You’re actually heading up there and then you’re coming back to finish off the Toff residency. Is this your first time interstate as a band?
C: Wagga was our first show. It was a long time ago.
P: It gave us a chance to sit in a car for ages and get to know each other a bit better. It was a weird show in a weird room with a weird audience.
What are your thoughts ahead of this trip?
C: We’re so excited. We have no expectations about the turn-out.
J: We don’t have any fan-base in Sydney. We’re excited to play to an empty room and just also be in Sydney.
C: This is hopefully something that we’re going to have to do now: tour, play back to back shows, play to empty rooms, strange pubs, pubs with no riders… it’s going to be valuable. I’m so excited.
What’s your ideal stage? Where do you want to play?
J: Scott actually said he wants to play at Rod Laver’s house.
And sell it out, obviously.
P: Him and his wife there. That’s what I’d want.
J: We want to play some festivals. We’re really excited about being on a festival bill and being in front of a crowd who are not necessarily there to see us, but there just to have a really great time and be really taken by something. It’s such a great atmosphere and that whole energy cultivates a really great live feeling. I think being on that stage would be really cool for us. I feel like our sound and our energy is a little to big for some places – not in an arrogant way.
P: We get told that a lot.
J: So yeah, what we’re really excited about this year is jumping onto some festivals.
So Dave’s a comedian and yet, he never gets on the mic between songs. What’s going on there?
J: He does in one song, I think. I think that’s his choice, as well.
C: We have an unspoken agreement. It kind of just happened as we developed our shows, especially as the other band… and it’s that we don’t really talk. Other band members used to do quite a bit of talking and that was the only bit of tension in the whole band. It’s about the atmosphere and about not breaking that bubble or focus and not coming out with quips and stories.
P: All of us are practised musicians…
You’re serious! (all laugh)
P: No, no – that’s not where I’m going with that! I’m not a practiced public speaker. I know that sounds silly, but if I say stuff, it comes out sounding weird… it’s the same as if I jumped up there and started playing the violin, which I don’t play! I can talk but I can’t necessarily talk to a whole crowd that’s not going to be jarring and weird. I’m just a weird guy! If Jordan wants to talk, that’s fine!
J: We put a lot into our transitions as well and keeping a continuous flow of music and a vibe. That’s something we really enjoy about some artists’ live sets: the fact that the focus isn’t broken and whatever journey you’re going on through those songs continues throughout the show. That was something really important that we discussed and that we all believe in: not putting an idea in someone’s head and just delivering the music as a whole.
What is the best thing about being in this band?
P: Being in this band.
C: Pretty much.
P: Spending time with these people.
J: Bitches. (all laugh) I think being on and off the stage with these people is the best thing. We don’t necessarily change who we are. We’re all so excited to play. Seeing five other people in the band just as excited to play and get up on the stage as you are, I think that’s the best part. I get really excited by beating out the first song, having Little Ark there, having these people behind you and feeling the beating in your chest. It’s really cool.
Playwrite have shows throughout February on the following dates:
4/2/12 – Toff in Town (Melbourne)
w/ Gosteleradio & Neighbourhood Youth
15/2/12 – Star City (Sydney)
w/ Tin Sparrow
16/2/12 – Oxford Arts Factory (Sydney)
w/ March of the Real Fly
17/2/12 – Great Northern Hotel (NSW)
w/ Hello Vera and Pear & the Awkward Orchestr
18/2/12 – Katoomba (NSW)
w/ special guests
21/2/12 – Toff in Town (Melbourne)
w/ Tessa & the Typecast & Albert Salt
25/2/12 – Feskyval Festival
w/ Skipping Girl Vinegar & Georgia Fields