Melbourne group Foreign/National’s new album The Garden is out tomorrow, following up their 2017 debut Dépaysement. A lush, vibrant record that expands on and improves their brand of textural psych-pop, The Garden sees Foreign/National draw on an eclectic range of influences, from CAN to King Gizzard, Stereolab to Fela Kuti.
Today, the band gives Music Feeds an exclusive insight into the new record, taking us through all eight tracks and how they came together.
SAM: ‘Balmy Evening’ acted as the lodestar for this record. It was our most fully fleshed out demo in the early stages of the album, and one where we could instantly hear all the richness and character that was possible for The Garden. Rhythmically, it’s an absolute avalanche, giving Rhys plenty of leash on the kit while leaving enough room for the congas, bongos and shekere to do their thing. It was agreed early in the process that we wanted thick hand percussion all over this album, and ‘Balmy’ works as a bit of a statement of intent as the first track. Lyrically, Mark achieves some wonderful things in this song, perhaps none more impressive than dropping references to Erik Satie and Lil Wayne in the same line.
RHYS: Broken into two distinct halves, this is definitely one of the more rhythmically dense tracks on the album. After channelling the late, great Tony Allen into some rough drum samples, I passed them onto the band, and Mark created the first draft demo. Almost all of the demo parts written by Mark made it into the final cut in some form, which is a huge testament to the vision he has in terms of songwriting and lyricism. Tracking percussion for this track (and the rest of the album, for that matter) was pretty loose because most of the time I was behind the kit when recording. The percussion was overdubbed and was largely a ‘feel’-based process as opposed to a pre-constructed one. Having Lucy and Juliet on strings for the second half adds a certain level of depth and progression, and really makes the track for me.
TOM: This was one of the last tracks written for the album, from memory. Rhys had recorded a bunch of drum patterns for us to use as songwriting prompts, and so I remember looping the beat and messing around with a bass guitar, just trying to figure out a line that fit. Once the groove was locked in, it all came together quickly within a day. There’s not many moments of guitar histrionics on the record, so I’m glad my indulgent solo made it past rehearsals. There’s a weird satisfaction in writing songs with banal or quotidian subject matter, and this is definitely an example of that: sometimes prosaic lyrics can be as evocative as deeply introspective ones. I’ve always obsessed over Paul McCartney’s hidden melisma during the fadeout of ‘I Want To Tell You’, so I did one of my own as a way of paying tribute to the great man – thanks, Paul.
SEAN: When Mark and I were living in Berlin, we had this sweet little rooftop apartment by Gürlitzer Park. I took out a loan and set up a small studio to start work on some demos for the album. ‘Honest Man’ was the first one I wrote. We went to this open-air party on a boat by the canal one day, and they were playing a bunch of Fela Kuti. In the morning I sat down with my electric piano and saxophone, learnt some chords Fela used in ‘Water No Get Enemy’, and wrote the groove that eventually became the song. I showed Mark, and we workshopped some vocal ideas – it kinda ended up having this Damon Albarn vibe. During some writing sessions back in Melbourne, we replaced the horns with my Roland Juno Alpha 2, Tom came up with the idea of the outro, and the song felt complete.
TOM: The songwriting process for this one was the same as ‘Heat’: looping drums, fiddling around with bass lines, and then layering chords and melodies over the top. I was having trouble finishing the song, so the first and second halves were written independently. I wanted to do a track with a sort of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ aesthetic, so the lyrics are completely over-the-top and ridiculous: dungeons, crypts, heroes, demons – that kind of shit. It was heaps of fun. We had our friends Lucy and Juliet record cello and violin for the outro section, which is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time, and I love how tense and dramatic they sound.
Valley of Time
TOM: This song started life as an odd little trip-hop demo but morphed into a jazzy ballad when I brought it into rehearsals. It uses the same chords as ‘Circle Back’ and is meant to be a kind of spiritual sequel. The lyrics are about growing old; about ageing with dignity and grace. When we tracked it we ran all the mics extra hot and played softly, which gave the recording a warm, intimate and muffled feel. In the outro we did a ‘manual fadeout’, playing more and more quietly until it basically became ASMR. Our friend and recording engineer, Casey Hartnett, let me borrow his beautiful old Yamaha hollow-body. I still dream about that guitar from time to time. Another dear friend Dave Williams, who plays in a great band called Tough Uncle, deftly improvised the guitar solo in under half an hour, and it’s my favourite guitar part on the record.
TOM: This is the oldest track on the record, with Mark writing the demo in mid-2016. We were jamming a lot of Mulatu Astatke at the time, particularly Ethiopiques, Vol. 4, and you can clearly hear his influence on this song’s instrumentation and harmonic minor flavour. It’s structurally simple but melodically dense: the verse has three melodies playing simultaneously, and so it took us a while to balance all those elements. Jarvis Taveniere, who mixed the record, did a wonderful job of arranging the pieces and finding space in the mix. For me, the outro is a real highwater mark of The Garden, and probably the prettiest piece of music we’ve made so far.
Let It Be What It Is
SEAN: This was another one that I had demoed in Berlin. I was listening to so much Air it was ridiculous, and that made me want to capture something simple – one chord progression, no vocals. Air has this way of creating beautiful songs that you never want to end. It could just be one idea, but the tone and mood of the instruments put you in a trance. I had this new Mellotron VST by UVI, which I am still obsessed with three years later, and I just kept adding layers and layers of strings and flutes over electric piano. They were all essentially just playing different voicings of the same chords. The demo was eight minutes long and just a single chord progression, but I never got tired of it. I didn’t dream it would make it onto the album, but Mark pushed for it. During a worshipping session one weekend, in rural Victoria, we recorded a live take and I overdubbed some sax – I went for a ‘The National Anthem’ by Radiohead vibe, and just went full-tilt ballistic at the end. It was a stupid idea, and maybe it was just because everyone was really high that we thought it was cool.
Anyway, it really made the song come alive, and so it stuck. When we were recording the album, we did one take, and then a huge thunderstorm rolled in over the ocean, threatening to blow all of Casey’s gear with power surges from the lightning strikes. We decided to keep the take, pack it in for the night, smoke a joint and watch the lightning. The beds on this track are all pretty much untouched from that first take. We kept the imperfections in because they have great energy. I later overdubbed some melodies on a Korg MS50 and replaced the Mellotron with Juliet and Lucy’s strings. I feel like it’s the perfect ending to The Garden.