Big Day Out: Mercy Arms

“We just had so many bad treatments come in,” Mercy Arms guitarist Kirin J. Callinan offers in defence of the late release of their video for the single ‘Half Right’. “There was one treatment that came in that had Thom walking around backstage wearing sunglasses, as all these flash bulbs go off among the arms of eager fans reaching to touch him. We had some that just didn’t make any sense at all, like one of us would have a lawn mower and then we’d pick up a sponge cake and throw it at each other as someone else rides past on a tricycle, just bizarre.”

We’re sitting in the vine covered courtyard of an inner city nursing home, discreetly nestled amongst the suburban streets of Surry Hills. The place has a certain serenity and timelessness, despite the fact it is still being built.

Callinan, dressed in grey pants, suspenders and a baggy white t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, reminds me of a strange mix between David Byrne and Nick Cave. He looks at you with an impossible mix of attentiveness and disinterest, lending him an engaging air well beyond his years, as he almost lounges in the secluded tranquillity of the hidden courtyard.

Such tranquillity, however, was not always the norm for the Sydney four piece, having been picked up on a whirlwind of hype and whisked off into the fast-paced world of major labels, before getting back to earth and releasing their self-titled debut LP independently.

“When all the hypes was going on we were 18 years old, and some of it might have gone to our heads a little bit and you believe it’s all happening, that this is what a being in a band is like, you play some shows and then all these people come on board and they fly you around the world to wine and dine you and that’s it.”

A kindly lady in a beige smock brings us each a cup of tea, exchanging a few polite remarks with Callinan about the weather and some of the patients, before quietly continuing on.

“I’m not going to say it was a bad thing” He adds “It was exciting and we got taken around the world to meet all these different labels, but I think it’s more in hindsight that you realise hey, we’ve got a lot more growth left in us.

“We’ve signed a deal with a major label, lost it again, released an album independently, and been through pretty much all the peaks and troughs that a band may go through in say 10 years, and we’re only 22. We all have so much we want to do outside of Mercy Arms, there’ll be other projects and other artistic endeavours, and it’s a really encouraging and inspiring thought that we’ve actually got the time to do it.”

Time is something they haven’t had a lot of lately, having only just returned from touring Europe and playing shows in the US alongside Cut Copy.

“It was manic,” he explains as the lady in the smock returns and hands Callinan two small beige pills, which he quickly takes without comment or protest. “Aside from all the usual tour madness, this tour was packed full of milestones for us. It was the first time we’d played shows outside of Australia and the first time we played to a non-English speaking audience. There were a few more really obscure ones like…” he pauses a searching look creeping across his face. “Ah fuck I can’t think of one now, we were just too drunk when we were throwing these things around.”

I ask him if memory was a common problem on tour. “I can’t remember to be honest,” he replies with a quiet giggle, “but I think that’s the case.”

The woman returns again this time to take our tea, casting her eye over Callinan again, being sure to make her appraisal of him as subtle as possible, however not subtle enough to hide the her surprise at his seemingly unaltered condition.

“We drunk a lot though and I’m finding that being back, especially with the heat, I’m having uncontrollable urges like I’ve never had before to drink. And I don’t mean to just have a beer; I mean to drink to get drunk. You’d be in London, nothing to do all day so we’d just get drunk. It seemed that everyday we’d just get drunk and walk around and play shows. I think I need to detox.”

Although it doesn’t look like he’s going to have the chance with the band starting their Australian tour straight away.

“We’ve got a tour starting tomorrow, Canberra, Melbourne, Homebake in the next three days, then that goes on like that till Christmas, and we take a bit of a break before Big Day Out.

“Not really a break actually,” he continues without leaving more than a moment between words, “we want to make some time to start work on the next record. With the last record it was kind of a batch of songs that we’d written and rehearsed and workshopped and played live and toured so the songs had developed like that, but I think we want to maybe try and work a bit differently this time.”

At this thought, his pace slows and for the first time a looser, even vague mood seems to grip him as his brain clicks over into musical speculation, and reclines back on a chaise lounge.

“We have to write and get new songs together for the this record rather than just pick and choose,” he says in a tired yawn like tone. “So I think we’re going to have to go into the studio with… kind of looser ideas and just build songs in the studio and… cut them up move them round and experiment with the arrangements and the sound and instruments … then figure out how to play them live.”

As he finishes, a gentle wheeze comes from his lungs as his chin drops to his chest. I leave quietly.

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