Ball Park Music’s Sam Cromack Talks Songwriting, Growing Up & The Band’s Future Sound

Brisbane’s Ball Park Music have a pretty packed touring schedule for the next few months. The 5-piece will be playing Darwin’s BASSINTHEGRASS, before embarking on a month-long regional tour of Aus, then tying it all off by joining the likes of Childish Gambino and Catfish And The Bottlemen at Spin Off Festival in July.

The band – who met whilst studying at Queensland University of Technology back in 2008 – have five albums and two EPs to their name, with their most recent album GOOD MOOD being voted the number 1 album of 2018 by triple j listeners. Their four latest albums have each peaked in the top 10 of the ARIA charts, and the band were nominated for Producer of The Year, Engineer of the Year, and Best Cover Artist for GOOD MOOD at the ARIA Music Awards in 2018.

We caught up with frontman Sam Cromack ahead of the band’s upcoming string of shows to chat about how the writing for the next Ball Park album is going, his reflections on how he’s developed musically since the early days of the band, and who he’s keen to see at BASSINTHEGRASS.

Music Feeds: Ball Park seem to have gradually gotten more experimental over time, with more recent albums featuring longer instrumental jams and more effects, what inspired that change?

Sam Cromack: I guess the longer you’re doing it the more you kind of want to explore new territory and feel like you’re making music that you haven’t made before, or whatever. I think too, we’ve really like, gained confidence in the studio compared to our first album. I think on the first couple of records we really – well, particularly the first one – went into the studio really feeling like “just musicians” if that makes any sense? Whereas I think from the second album onwards we kind of wanted to see ourselves as producers as well, or at least, I certainly did.

I’ve always had a strong interest in recording, and doing lots of recording now, and I’ve recorded a few of the band’s albums. I think with that interest in recording that really, really encourages you to want to be more adventurous with sound. Then I guess as we all experiment with that and enjoy it, you just kind of want to do more. I think, yeah, we’re trying to push ourselves every time to see if we can get out of our comfort zone and hopefully create something good and new.

MF: What’s the process for writing a Ball Park song and has it changed since the band started?

SC: Well, there’s no like, rigid process, it’s not the same every time, necessarily. I guess we still have common ways of doing it and they’ve certainly changed over time.

A long time ago I used to write in a really traditional sense. Again, kind of relates to the first question, like, with not as much recording experience back then I would just write on my guitar usually, and then when we’d rehearse together, I’d just share the song with the band. I didn’t even have an iPhone when we first started the band, so I didn’t even have means of like, recording little memos or anything like that, had to actually be in a room with other human beings and be like ‘hey, here’s a song I wrote’ [laughs], which already seems really old school.

But, yeah, as I could record more, I would sort of do a bit more on my own. Sometimes I would record really rough demos that were maybe just me and guitar, and then that would range through to doing like, full-scale demos where I maybe played like, all the instruments and would sort of share that with the band. Then from there, always having another final step of working on it with the band, you know, to make it a collaborative effort to finish the song. I really do enjoy that. There’s always a bit of argy-bargy, naturally in like, trying to get the best result for the song, but I really have built up a good working relationship and a high-degree of trust with the band so that nowadays [we] can share stuff. Just be more relaxed and really believe in them to collaborate really effectively with me. Not a lot of arguing or speaking really has to even happen these days.

I was just doing some demoing last week with Dean and Paul, and we were working on some stuff, and I was coming home and saying to my wife that even still at this point I was just really blown away at how easy it can feel. I felt like that’s good [laughs].

MF: So, writing has begun for the next Ball Park album then?

SC: Yeah, absolutely! Done a bit of writing I guess, since GOOD MOOD came out. I guess I try and always write where I can, always just play a lot of music in my spare time so that ideas are always kind of just bubbling away. And it’s really funny actually, to maybe put all the songs you’ve been working on in a list and realise ‘oh shit, there’s like nearly an album’s worth coming together’.

So, I guess we’re at the point now where… doing some more fleshed-out demos of songs and starting to get together and maybe I’m sharing the demos that I’ve done with the others to start collaborating and making it more of a band effort, which is proving to be really fun so far. I have no idea about like, when we’ll formally start the record or when we’ll put anything new out, but it feels amazing to be getting back into it. I love the creative side of writing and recording.

MF: On songs like ‘Frank’ there have been new vocal effects, do you reckon you’ll follow that path more with future releases or move away from that kind of thing?

SC: Yeah, well, let me firstly say thank you for such a good question. It feels like you actually care which is really nice [laughs]. Yeah, that is genuinely a question I have on my mind. I almost want to throw back to you and be like ‘what do you think?’ because I still am writing with an almost even split between your traditional kind of, rock-sounding songs and then other stuff that’s like, much more modern. I really do love using autotune and heavily-processed vocals for some stuff ’cause it’s just like, so much fun and I listen to a lot of music that’s got that in it.

It’s weird because I actually – with my solo project My Own Pet Radio – did an album like, so long ago, I literally recorded it in 2009 when I was at uni, so ten years ago now. And at the time I had discovered Bon Iver and stuff like that, who was using a lot of autotune in some songs, and I just saw it as this really great, creative effect. I put it in a bunch of songs and even back then my bandmates in Ball Park were like ‘dude, that’s cool, I really like that’, and I remember my dad would hear it and he’d be like ‘oh, I bloody hate that kind of thing’ you know, he saw it as like equivalent to cheap, trashy sort of commercial pop music. It’s funny now that it’s become such a huge, huge part of modern pop music, like it’s really transitioned from being like, this kind of divisive effect that is sort of seen as cheating or whatever, now it’s just really ingrained in the modern sound. Everyone’s doing it and I don’t think it’s really restricting creativity. A lot of the people still are a bit kind of, allergic to it but I love it! I’d love to do it more but I really don’t want to… I want to push the boundaries but I don’t want to alienate fans or have them think… argh, do you know what I’m saying? I don’t know if it’s a good idea or not.

MF: Yeah, I get that. I personally really liked it but that’s just my little two cents. Most people I’ve talked to thought it was sick, I don’t know if that’s any indicator, but I thought it was a great song.

SC: Okay, that’s good. Thank you, I appreciate that. ‘Cause like, I felt with a song like ‘Frank’… yeah again, some people would be like “dude, I thought that was the best thing you did on the album, felt like the most innovative” and then other people are just like “ah, I hate the autotune”. Again, I guess it is still pretty divisive. But in answer to your question, I have been writing quite a lot of songs that use it [laughs].

MF: Oh, cool, I’m keen for that! You were talking about ten years ago… if you could go back in time and talk to yourself ten years ago, what would you say?

SC: Ah, far out [laughs]. Well, as I’m getting older I realise that all the adults and family and stuff that are telling you when you’re in your early-20s to just like, enjoy yourself and really live it up and savour that time of your life, and at the time you’re just kind of like ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever’, and now I realise they were right.

I dunno, I just felt like I was going to be 23 forever. I feel like I made the most of it in many ways, like I worked really hard with the band and did lots of traveling and there’s not really a lot I would change, but I guess I would maybe try to enjoy it even more. And music-wise, I wish I magically could have been at the place I’m at now, musically back then. I sort of had like, way more confidence back then, but I don’t think the skills or the like, sort of… finesse to go with it. It was sort of just all confidence, guns-blazing, felt unstoppable and made some music that probably, you know really harnessed that energy, and now I sort of cringe at some of it. And I know that it’s just a moment in time and you can’t change it, but I dunno. There are just so many little things I listen to when I listen to our old music, where I feel like fundamentally, we’re on the right track, there’s just all these tiny details that I’d adjust to make it just that bit better, in my opinion. Like, especially with my singing. I feel like my singing style was so bratty and annoying and I just feel like it’s really smoothed out into something that I like more. I feel like I can still be aggressive or energetic but I just feel like I’ve got a better grasp on my own voice now.

MF: I think that self-reflection’s really healthy, that’s how people grow.

SC: Yeah, exactly. It’s one of those questions where you can’t technically answer it, can you? ‘Cause the growth is your story [laughs]. That sounds like something that would be in your high school yearbook.

MF: How do you get past writer’s block?

SC: Patience. Lots of patience. At this point, after this many songs and albums, I get by with a bit of trust in what’s happened historically for myself. You’ve just got to look back and go “well, the tap hasn’t dried up so far, just keep going and it’ll happen”. But yeah, it does happen and you feel… fearful.

I think it’s been weird for me ’cause I’ve never been a writer that’s really like “okay, cool, the album’s done, I’m finished touring, I’m going to have a holiday and then I’m going to go to bloody Stradbroke Island and do two weeks of writing”. I’ve never done it in blocks like that, I just have an expectation on myself to be writing all the time and sort of slowly filtering that down until I’ve got finished songs.

Like I was saying earlier, it’s been awesome just recently. I made a playlist of all the stuff that was kicking ’round and I had a moment of looking at it and thinking “wow, I didn’t really realise I was doing all that writing but suddenly there’s ten songs or whatever, and I kind of like them”. Yeah, so just gotta keep at it, just be patient, play music every day.

MF: You’re playing BASSINTHEGRASS this month, what artists are you most exciting to see while you’re there?

SC: There are a lot of big Australian acts playing it, I feel like I’ve seen nearly every single person that’s playing there, before. I used to love Karnivool when I was a teenager and into much heavier music so I will probably sneak off and watch them play, oh and Nick Murphy FKA Chet Faker’s playing, I’d be interested to see what he’s up to these days.

But yeah, I feel like I’ve seen everyone there so I’ll probably be rude and just catch up with my bandmates and have some beers in our tent [laughs].

MF: That’s nice though! Is that often how a festival works for you guys, you chill and have some beers?

SC: Yeah, pretty much. It’s so nice to, you know, get away with them. Especially… Jen lives in Sydney, so we don’t get to see her as much as we’d like to, and life is just so busy for everyone these days that for all five of us to be together feels almost novel and it’s just really nice to enjoy each other’s company and just catch up, we love it. And also our crew that we tour with, same sort of thing. We typically see them only when we tour, makes sense, and they’re all good friends too. We’ve been touring with a lot of the same crew members for years and years and years. So, yeah, it’s kind of like a little getaway with all our friends that becomes my main priority. But we will sneak out, watch a bit of music here and there.

Ball Park Music kick off their huge regional Good Mood tour on Friday 24th May, after a set at Darwin’s Bassinthegrass festival. Head here for tour dates.

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