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The Model School & The Writing On The Wall

Written by Michael Carr on November 26, 2009

With the launch of their new album Memory Walls only a week past and the album itself racking up the praise of every critic on either side of the Nullabor, it would seem there is no end in sight to The Model School’s current run of success.

Battling through the pit falls of trying to ‘make it’ as an independent, self released and self managed band, Memory Walls, produced by Scott Horscroft, has seen songwriter Brendan Wixted and the rest of the band evolve into a bigger beast than before in terms of sound, as well as in terms of actual size.

Music Feeds: So first off what’s the deal, is The Model School just you? More? Less?

Brendan Wixted: Well, it started out that way – just me writing songs on a four track, wondering if anyone would ever hear them. The first album was really born out of that. In between, TMS became a live band and has had about fifteen members over the years … I’ve been lucky to play with lots of really talented people. For this album the lineup really fell into place just after it was recorded (apart from our drummer Chris who has been there since 2004 when we first played live). This lineup seems the most connected as a group – we’re looking forward to doing an album together next year.

MF: Now I see you’re a fan of gingham shirts, what’s the deal?

BW: The deal was five for $10 so we snagged ’em! Seriously it was just an attempt to add some pizazz to our stage presence – we don’t jump around or pull faces when we play so we thought lets at least create a sense of unity amongst the band. It’s also fun to dress up in non-traditional rock fare… and fun is pretty high on our agenda.

MF: You’re self funded and managed, which is not an easy task. How do you do it?

BW: Good question. I guess we accept that we may potentially operate at a loss – forever !!

MF: So then what advice would you give to other independent musos trying to manage themselves?

BW: We don’t make money, so I’m not going to offer advice on how to! Even bands who win big prizes and grants say “great, I can pay back brother Louie the money he loaned us to keep going.” It’s really hard to make money on every venture.

What we do is try to minimise the losses with touring by playing venues with a good guarantee – though that’s not easy to do either. Money from Sydney shows is used for band stuff elsewhere… but really, its like any business, you have to accept some lean years on the way to superstardom.

But I like managing the band and having my own label as it means I can be as creative as I want with what the band does… plus I like being in charge.

MF: Let’s talk about the new album, how would you describe it?

BW: I would describe it as a big pop album with heart – meaning that there is some pretty big production but hopefully it only serves the song and puts the ideas across better. I think the last album may have suffered a little in that there weren’t as many colours used… it was quite a small palette of sounds in a way. I realised for this album I had pop songs that were crying out for the big treatment; I didn’t want them to be wallflowers.

MF: How does it fit in with your first album? Progession, refinement?

BW: Lyrically I think some of the early themes are expanded on but the songs are more focussed… I think its a refinement definitely… I see a lineage between certain songs, and possibly they’ve been better executed this time. This Is Not My Town could be an example of that… it’s predecessor One Way Ticket may be a little meek in comparison, but perhaps has more charm for it? That’s the thing with recording – I agree with Tom Waits when he says recording is hell for a song – you do all these things that only seem to want to kill it! You just want some of these suckers to survive!

MF: So regardless of the more electronic direction you’ve taken there’s still a strong link to how you’ve done things before?

BW: Yeah. It’s more electronic, but I would hope people can hear that we’ve really tried to go at things in an unorthodox fashion to create our own world. We didn’t go for popular synths or normal ways of recording them. Scott Horscroft (producer) told me he thought my whole approach was like punk rock and that I’d broken just about every rule of recording. He helped smooth out some of those but we consciously kept others to maintain what is unique about our sound… my vocals would be an example.

The way I record them is nigh on ridiculous. I can’t tell you how, its secret, but Scott made me recreate it in the studio, so alongside hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gear there I was recording overdubs the way I’d do it at home – with a mic worth $300 and some other gadgets I have. Doing things this way makes the music special to me and I hope it’s that way for the listener. We haven’t done things the easy way.

MF: What was it like working with Scott?

BW: It was great working with Scott. I would call him a production genius… we had a few minor disagreements but when you’re putting every ounce of energy into an album, as I was, it’s easy to lose sight of the end product. Scott was really understanding though and would re-do mixes if I wasn’t satisfied… he appreciated that I have a specific way I wanted things to sound. Having said that he really put his stamp on the record too – I look at it as a happy balance of his abilities and my homespun incompetencies.

MF: BJB is a pretty rad studio. Are your dreams full of mixing desks and vintage mics at the moment?

BW: Funny you ask about the gear and mics, because I barely used most of it. I did use some cool guitar amps that were there as well as the piano and organ, all at Scott’s suggestion. He really got to the heart of each song and found what he thought were the parts to emphasise. His help on arrangements was great too – The Cowboy owes a lot to his vision. Most of the sounds for that were there already when I went in, but where he took it in mixing was another place. Plus he made me drink lots of red wine to get the falsetto backing vocals just right.

MF: When you go into the studio to make a record are you trying to make a reflection of your live sound, or are you working on something more confined to the endless possibilities of the studio? Do the songs from the new album sound different live?

BW: At this point the studio is a whole world of its own outside what happens live. There’s no way I can recreate all the vocals on the album so straight off that affects how we play the songs as a band. We came to a point where we decided “lets just play the songs how they work best live” and not try to recreate things exactly… it’s really liberated what we do. Also the fact that a few of the guys didn’t contribute to this album means things will always sound a bit different. Who knows where we’ll go next though. I’ve got ideas for two albums: a low key experimental folk album plus another upbeat pop album. However, I think we may look at doing material that’s easier to play live next time.

MF: Reading your Myspace page, it seems that Memory Walls seemed to be somewhat rooted in cleaning up your act, as well as exploring your past and the good/bad parts held therein. Would that be fair to say?

BW: Yeah, you’re not far off. I just felt like a few songs I wrote were about the past, either my past or the worlds past… or the universe’s past… I kinda got into reading about quantum theory, Einstein, time travel and the like so I had all this science bouncing around in my head alongside my usual songwriting subjects to do with growing up and my past, so it spiralled from there.

It occurred to me that we are all at the mercy of time and what it does to our perception of our lives. We set up barriers to remembering things that are bad and colour in the things that are good so you end up creating your own history in a way. So yeah, time, memory, the universe. All stuff for top forty pop hits surely! It was fun trying to marry the slightly heavy lyrics with the sometimes bouncy music… I guess I looked to people like Morrissey for inspiration there.

MF: With the album launch out of the way what do you have planned for the next few months, what should we be looking out for?

BW: Lots and lots! Look out for a video for Its Hard To Dance When Your Legs Are On Fire. It’s a cool concept involving 80’s arcade games. We had talked of a Christmas single and then early next year maybe an EP of all new material. Having our own label, Packaged Light, has really inspired me to make more music…

I look at it like Factory Records when they had Joy Division. Every thing they did had a catalogue number – whether it was a release or not – just a way to catalogue events in the life of the band and the label. It’s exciting and incredibly liberating to write your own history.

The Model School’s new album Memory Walls is out now through Packaged Light / Shock Records.

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