Ever since they hit the indie scene running in 2004 with their phenomenal first album, Thunder, Lightning, Strike, The Go! Team have only ratcheted up the acclaim and affection they’ve earned with their follow-up albums, celebratory live shows, and colourful and cheeky cut-up sleeve art and videos. Their new LP, Rolling Blackouts, charges ahead with the familiar bright, cheerful chants, choruses, rhymes, and tough-girl vocals – but songwriter and mastermind Ian Parton has expanded and evolved his sound, incorporating a delicate, pastoral-pop sheen reminiscent of Belle & Sebastian or Saint Etienne. It’s a winning combination, keeping The Go! Team fresh in the minds of fans and critics alike. Meanwhile the band keeps blowing up live shows.
In anticipation of an upcoming series of dates in Australia (their first in four years) with Groovin’ the Moo, along with a number of side shows, Parton took some time out of a hectic touring schedule to talk to Music Feeds about his recording process, his love of playing live and – say it isn’t so! – his thoughts of retirement.
Music Feeds: You’re coming to Australia in May for some festival dates. Have you played here before?
Ian Parton: Oh, yeah – we’ve played Big Day Out, and a couple of other festivals; we’ve been there at least three times I think.
MF: And how did it go? How were you received by Australian crowds?
IP: The Aussies got into us really early, actually. Even when Ladyflash, one of our early songs, was at the demo stage, one of the stations there – Triple J I think – was playing it. This was way back, probably 2004, 2005. They just really seemed to get it.
MF: Festivals are really key to the scene in Oz. Do you plan your festival sets differently than your club gigs?
IP: I guess so – we’ve always been thought of as a good festival band. You’re trying to keep people there – instead of making them want to go get a hot dog somewhere else. You want them to stay all the time. So it’s kind of like a battle – you’re trying to blow away the people that were on stage before you, and blow away someone after you. So we’re a band that moves around a lot, we really go for it. We kind of treat each gig as our last. And we have that kind of commitment that you need at a festival.
MF: Are you touring at the moment?
IP: We’re kind of in between. We’re off to Germany, France and Spain the day after tomorrow. Then we’re off to America after that, and Australia in May.
MF: That’s a lot of touring. Is fatigue a factor – or do you eat it up?
IP: We’re not too bad. We’ve played about 35 shows already this year, and at the last few gigs we’ve had more energy than at the first show. You’ve got to go for it instead of not go for it, you know what I mean? I don’t know if I could bring myself just to stand there. It’s not a job – for us, or for me anyway; it’s a way of delaying having a job. So I don’t use the words ‘career’ or ‘work’ or anything like that. In fact, sometimes I call it a holiday.
MF: Do you worry it will seem like a job down the track? And what will you do at that stage?
IP: There’s talk of 2011 being our last year – as far as touring anyway. We’re not planning on still playing Ladyflash when we’re 40, you know? [Ouch. Your writer being 40, I wonder – why not?] We’re seeing the world, crashing around throughout the world – and it doesn’t get much better than that, really.
MF: You have one of the most unique sounds in the music business – and it’s highly successful; each new album has won acclaim. Not to call it a ‘formula’ as such – but it’s a signature sound. Do you ever feel like contradicting that sound – doing something more dark and minimal, let’s say?
IP: I possibly could do. You know my background isn’t particularly upbeat – I love the Dirty Three, I love a lot of quite melancholy stuff. I don’t know what it is really. Even when I think, ‘Right, this song is never going to be Go! Teamy.’ And I play it for people, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, obviously this is The Go! Team.’ I don’t know if there’s something in it, that I’m kind of oblivious to that makes it what it is. But I’m definitely a fan of relentlessness, and excess, and ‘triumphantness.’ I want to make a song earn its place. I think that’s what gets me about minimal stuff. There’s obviously an art to it. But I’m constantly trying to justify its existence, because there are too many tunes in the world. And I think you should try and make each one special – like an ad for something. [Laughs] I could probably do something pretty menacing if I wanted to. I love Glenn Branca – 50-guitar orchestras with B-tuned guitars and stuff like that. I love Shellac, and all the stuff like that that’s considered pretty scary. So I’ve got it in me. But we’ll see.
MF: The songs on the new album are a bit more refined – there’s a lot more influence from 60s pop and so on. Was it a challenge to make that fit in with The Go! Team’s sound?
IP: I don’t really think, ‘this isn’t The Go! Team,’ or ‘that’s too Go! Teamy.’ And when I’m doing a song I’ve never done before… Buy Nothing Day, Running Range, loads of songs off the new album I would say are new territory, we haven’t done a sound like this before – but still people say, Hey, that sounds like The Go! Team. It’s a funny thing. There’s obviously some kind of stamp – it could be a melody, it could be the drum sound, it could be the fact that there’s trumpets on it. But there is such a thing, and people can hear it and say, ‘Hey, that sounds like The Go! Team.’
MF: The first album was basically you and a sampler. How has your process in the studio evolved since then?
IP: Well, I think people have often overstated the importance of samples with The Go! Team. People often assume that the whole of the first album is samples, when it’s not. There’s loads of live instruments. I always like to think I apply songwriting to samples – if I do use them, always trying to change them, fuck them up, basically trying to wrap the song around an idea, and not just kind of kick back on an idea. And in that way, the process isn’t much different than songwriting – I’m recording ideas all the time. In the past, I might have those ideas on a million cassettes, which I’d have to spool through. Now I have them on a timeline on a Pro Tools Session, and I’m constantly listening back, constantly racking my brain – does that fit with that, is that the chorus? What shall I put with that? With those kinds of decisions, there’s always been a cut-and-paste process. And I guess there always will be, because I’m a hoarder of ideas, instead of sitting down with an acoustic in one sitting and saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got to write a song now.’ It’s much more to do with trying things out.
MF: But is the process in the studio more collaborative with the other band members these days?
IP: Well, I’ll write a song, and it could be at quite a rough stage – it could be chords and a voice, and it will build from there. I’ll get Jamie to play bass on it, and Kaori to play a bit of whatever, and I’ll be thinking about what kind of voice I need on this. So it’s a layering process – it’s building up layers. But without a doubt, I’m involved with the band.
MF: Are you happy being the mastermind, or do you give up a lot of the creativity?
IP: No, I do pursue it to the end. The details are all up for grabs. You’ve got picking guitars, and you can expand it. But I’m a great believer that half the work is the melody and the chords. That’s the tricky part, for me, in making a song, and everything else comes after that.
MF: Are your older influences changing? Your first album was influenced by Motown, old-school hip hop and so on. What older sounds have influenced your newer tunes?
IP: I still like all of that, but it’s definitely more ambitious on this record. There are more hints of things like spaghetti westerns, 60s girl groups, melodic stuff, psych, African funk, choirs – it’s a bit more ambitious. I think my love of the feel of marching bands and parades and stuff like that is coming out a bit more… Without a doubt there are songs on this record I could never have written at the early stages. It’s more ambitious – there’s more depth to it I think.
MF: When you’re listening to music, do you hit rewind or fast-forward a lot looking for new sounds? Or are you patient enough to let it play?
IP: If I’m looking for samples I do hit rewind a lot, because my ears perk up when I hear something good, and I know pretty early on if it will work or not, but not if I’m listening for pleasure. I think I’ve got a heightened sense of catchiness – an awareness of catchiness. If I hear something, I’ll stop what I’m doing; if I’m working on an idea – I could be watching telly or something – and I’ll run upstairs to my dictaphone. I’m constantly kind of switched on to the possibilities of getting an idea.
MF: What’s the process of translating your recorded music to a live sound?
IP: It’s quite a long process, because there are lots of us in the band and we can play lots of instruments – which is really key, and it was the key from day one. I knew I had to get lots of people who could play lots of instruments, and who were good musicians. But people often, especially lately, have been asking themselves, how is this going to translate? And lately I’ve heard comments like, once you’ve seen the new songs played live, that question becomes redundant – it’s more like, how do you translate the live thing to record? But in general I think Ninja, our singer, really comes to the fore, and just grabs the audience by the bollocks, and she just takes over – but in a good way. She’s truly a ballsy performer, she really is.
MF: You’ve stated before that there’s an unwritten rule: no male vocals for The Go! Team. Do you ever feel like changing that up? Do you ever feel like singing yourself?
IP: I do actually – when we play live I sing backing vocals. I never saw that one coming. [Laughs] But I don’t think I’d ever sing on a record. Guy vocals, I don’t know – I could almost picture an alternate, parallel-dimension version of all of our records with me singing and it would just be crap. The female vocal thing has always been about personal taste, really, and just really loving slinky, delicious, cheeky lady vocal sounds. And it was really a reaction against the male-dominated world of indie. Particularly in Britain, every fucking hot-jean, floppy-haired new band makes me want to go further and further the other way.
MF: You were a documentary filmmaker at one point. Are you closely involved with the production of your videos?
IP: Yeah, whenever I’m on tour I take my super-8 camera with me – I’m kind of obsessed with it. And often I just hand over the footage to whoever’s making our video and sometimes it kind of pops up [in the finished product]. We have a bloke called James Slater who’s done lots of our videos – he’s based in Berlin – and he just sees eye to eye with me, and has got the same sort of taste, so I really trust him. But I definitely put my all in, and we agree on ideas. There’s definitely kind of an aesthetic thing, which hopefully flows through everything to do with The Go! Team, from the website to the artwork, whatever. I’m attracted to things that are sort of homemade looking.
MF: Yes, and the bright colours – and it seems the idea of sampling comes through in the visuals too.
IP: The artwork as well – I love the idea of randomness – random images kind of coming at you, and kind of a grainy, VHS, fucked-up kind of light. It’s the music turned into the pictures I suppose.