The Retreat are a band of the old order. Focussed on songwriting and lyricism over fancy effects and trends, they wield their folk and country-infused pop with the experienced hand of a band who’ve been in the game for years, rather than months. Still very much in their infancy, going from strength to strength musically, the band have learned a lot recently, playing with artists such as Justin Townes Earle as well as releasing their self-titled debut EP.
With these lessons under their belt, they’re about to embark on a hectic November, touring with The Boat People, as well as playing some of their own headline shows up the East Coast. In recognition of this activity, we caught up with singer/guitarist Ross James, discussing the tour and the music as well as the music industry, staying independent and staying true to inspiration amidst a trend-driven culture.
Music Feeds: So you guys have a tour coming up? Where are you heading?
Ross James: Yeah! Well it’s a little East Coast run. We’ll be supporting The Boat People in Sydney and in Brisbane as part of their ‘Dance to My Pain’ tour, which will be awesome as they’re a super band. Then we have some other shows surrounding those two, both in Sydney and on the Gold Coast.
MF: How long has this been in the making? Is it your first time playing out of Sydney?
RJ: It’s actually been in the pipes for a while. It can be really hard to pull together a solid run of dates sometimes, so it’ll be nice to finally get out there and show our music to people who haven’t seen us before. We went to Melbourne and Canberra earlier in the year just after we released our EP, which was great. We hope to get back there before the year is out.
MF: Do you have anything special planned for the tour? Any new material we haven’t heard before etc?
RJ: Well, for the most part, we play as a 4-piece live. But on this outing we’ll be playing as a 5-piece, adding in some banjo, a 2nd electric guitar and lots of extra percussion throughout our set, so it’s going to be really fun to play the older songs with the extra stuff added in. We’ll also be playing a load of new stuff that we plan to record early next year, so it’ll be great to road test those songs too.
MF: You guys play pop music, a genre that is already quite crowded with bands, and there seems to be a never-ending supply of others still round the corner. Do you worry about being lost in the crowd? How do you try and avoid that?
RJ: I think the big thing now (at least as far as I can tell) is for pop bands to have that spacious, dreamy, reverb-laden acid trip kinda vibe to their songs, which we don’t really do. We’re more focussed on song writing, and I think we have an older, more traditional alt-country tinge to our songs. I don’t think we’ve ever even been PART of the crowd, let alone getting lost in it. We just do what we do and try not to take much notice of what the ‘in’ sound is at any point in time.
MF: How does the writing process work for you guys? Is it collaborative; is there one songwriter in the band who brings ideas to the others?
RJ: I write the songs and bring them to the band. I’m pretty much constantly writing and demoing songs at home, so I’ll bring a song that I think will work with The Retreat and everyone brings their own magic to it. Unless they don’t like the song, in which case it goes in the bin.
MF: Has this changed over time?
RJ: Not really. Since the band started as a solo project, and then a duo, it’s been the same kinda formula since day one. Leigh (lead guitar) writes some amazing songs and has enough for his own album, but we don’t often play them as The Retreat. Maybe one day.
MF: Most bands tend to mature in terms of what they play over time; how have you guys changed in the year or so you’ve been playing together?
RJ: I think we’ve developed a lot since we started. There’s been some line-up changes, some ups and downs, and we’re at a place now where we’ve been through a lot of crap, and we’re starting to understand that the most important thing is to just keep writing good music, and to enjoy what we’re playing, and try not to get too caught up in the other stuff. I think our music is maturing a lot too. It’s still pop, but we’re starting to have a lot more going on within the songs, stuff we wouldn’t have even thought of when we first started.
MF: How big a role does inspiration play with what you do? Is there a conscious effort to sound like certain other bands or is the music just what comes out when you play? Are there any occasions where you might reject an idea because it doesn’t fit with the sound?
RJ: I wouldn’t say there’s a conscious effort to sound like other bands, but we obviously pay close attention to what makes our favourite bands sound the way they sound. I think it’s a sub-conscious thing. If you listen closely to your favourite artists for a long time, the sounds you’ve heard and loved for so long become deeply ingrained in you. Then, when you pick up a guitar or sit at a piano, hopefully you can release that back out, but with your own musical voice attached.
We reject things all the time. Like with any style of music, there are boundaries as to what makes sense to people listening (and that includes us) and what doesn’t. It’s gotta make sense.
MF: Would you say there are any continuing themes in the music, lyrical or otherwise?
RJ: A lot of the songs are definitely love songs. Whether it’s traditional boy-girl love, best friend love, finding love, losing love… that’s the one theme that runs continuously throughout. Original, huh? But it’s not just ‘LOVE, LOVE, BLAH BLAH BLAH’, it’s underneath, after you’ve listened to the story of the song.
MF: Do you play around with what you do a lot? Is the sound often changing and, if so, could you let us know where it’s heading?
RJ: It’s always pretty lyrics-based. I don’t think we’ll ever write a song that has one word which we repeat for 4 minutes over a giant, pulsing wall of sound..
At the moment we’re doing a lot more country stuff. We played with Justin Townes Earle earlier in the year, and I think talking to him and seeing what he does and how he tells his stories really got to me. So there’s a lot of traditional country sounds creeping into what we do, but it’s still within our alt/pop kinda vibe.
MF: You’ve got the EP out now; how have you been finding the response from the fans?
RJ: Awesome! It took us a while to actually get the thing out, so everyone was real excited when they could finally get their hands on a copy, which was really nice.
MF: With the way the music industry is heading, are you at all worried about achieving longevity in an industry that seems to chew bands up and spit them out as fast as they can make a quick buck off them? If so, does that impact on how you approach the band career-wise?
RJ: Over the last couple of years I think I’ve changed my opinion on the music industry about a million times. As everyone knows, the role of major labels in contributing to bands’ success is really changing. At the very start of this band we had some major label interest, and man we got excited! But having seen so many bands over the last couple of years get picked up, and then put on a shelf, I’m glad it didn’t work out, as we really weren’t ready to handle that.
It definitely impacts on how we look at the band as a career, and I think we’re more and more getting used to the idea that momentary success is a dangerous thing. I’d much rather fly under the radar for awhile, whilst slowly gathering fans, then essentially having a longer career overall; as opposed to smashing out a Top 10 single or two, then having nothing to offer the fickle masses in a year’s time.
MF: What are your goals as a band? Are you aiming to get signed to a label, work as independents? Why?
RJ: Initially the idea of getting signed to a label was amazing, but I think now we’ve changed our view of things a little bit. It’s no longer essential to get signed (although it really helps money-wise) to be a success. There are a few artists who have managed to gain recognition in the industry without the help of labels at all, and that is an encouraging thought. The whole major label machine is just so crazy anyway. If you choose to be completely independent, then that’s exactly what you are. You go to work everyday in order to pay for your recordings; your promo and marketing come out of your own pocket, and at the end of the day, if you can develop something on your own, then you have an amazing bargaining power with labels later on down the track.
I think if we can do our thing, pay our way, earn our fans, then after a while we’ll be in a position where we can decide things for ourselves, as opposed to getting told what to do, because nobody likes that.
MF: Other than the tour and the EP, is there anything we should be keeping an eye out for over the next few months?
RJ: Well after this tour we’re gonna take a little bit of time out to start working on our next recording. We’re doing Peats Ridge Festival over New Years, which is going to be amazing fun! Then it’s straight into recording mode and hopefully we’ll have another release out by mid-2011. Then we’ll see what happens; I guess, we’ll just keep going!