Duality has become an artistic signature for Something For Kate over the last 20-odd years. It’s represented in a number of the Melbourne trio’s album and song titles, the clearest examples being 2003’s The Official Fiction and 2012’s Leave Your Soul to Science. But it’s also there in their customary fusing of alt-rock aggression with harmonic and melodic sophistication and the way the three members go about their duties.
The vocals of main songwriter and guitarist Paul Dempsey are rugged and masculine, but seem to be always under control. You’ve never seen anyone work harder to bash holes in their drum skins than Clint Hyndman, but Stephanie Ashworth’s bass playing balances the sound, with her lines being deftly selected rather than chugged.
Something For Kate’s trademark dualities are again on display across their new album, The Modern Medieval. Despite arriving 25 years into the band’s career, The Modern Medieval is the sound of a band that’s fiercely opposed to doing things by halves. The album – the band’s seventh overall – features ten songs that defy conventional pop-rock formula while doing nothing to dampen their anthemic potential.
Dempsey’s lyrics speak of dubious pipe dreams, obstinate conspiracy theorists and cryogenically frozen billionaires. But he also delivers great warmth and insight, acknowledging our ultimate powerlessness in the face of existential uncertainty and testifying to the therapeutic benefits of a night spent in good company.
Music Feeds spoke to Dempsey about the eight-year gap between SFK releases, recording The Modern Medieval with producer Nick DiDia and his increased confidence as a vocalist and lyricist.
Music Feeds: ‘Situation Room’ came out in April. Three more singles have followed, but I’m sure your plans for 2020 were largely scrapped. Have you just been biding your time or has it been a creative period for you?
Paul Dempsey: I thought I was going to be able to spend more time being creative, but we have a son in primary school so I kind of ended up in grade three again. The other thing, too, is it’s hard for me to mentally move on to the next thing until the record is out. So I’m really excited to finally have this record coming out. It feels actually more relevant now than it did a year ago – a lot of the themes on the record have even more come into their own in the past 12 months.
MF: Your latest solo album, Strange Loop, came out in 2016 and SFK’s most recent album, Leave Your Soul to Science, came out in 2012. Being the main creative force in the band, how guaranteed was a seventh album from Something For Kate and when did you realise, okay, now is the time?
PD: It’s always certain. We just kind of fell into a pattern where we did a Something For Kate record and then I did a solo record. I’m not saying it’ll necessarily proceed like that, but there will definitely be more of both and maybe something else in there as well. It just seemed to work well with the other things that were going on in our lives like starting families and things like that. It keeps it interesting and keeps it exciting because we’re not on some schedule that we don’t want to be on.
MF: You don’t make Something For Kate albums all that often – The Modern Medieval is just the third of the past 15 years. Do you have a commitment that if you are going to make an album with the band, then you’re going to make sure it’s worthwhile?
PD: Yeah, absolutely. That’s the most important thing. We don’t need to make records as an excuse to be around and we also certainly don’t feel like we need to make records to keep our audience interested. We’re so lucky that we have such a loyal audience and that they will wait so long between records without losing interest.
There’s a level of trust [from our audience] that we’re not going to put out an average album because we’re desperately trying to maintain something. When you feel like you have the trust of your audience, you don’t feel so rushed to put things out and in fact you feel a deep sense of being entrusted to only put out things that are worthy.
MF: Tell me about the decision to record with Nick DiDia at La Cueva in Byron Bay.
PD: We very nearly made our first album with Nick way back in 1997. He was on our shortlist and in fact I think we tried to book Nick to make that album but the schedules didn’t align. So he’s always been someone we were aware of and he has just made so many great sounding records. The fact that he’s here now and up in Byron and he has this amazing studio with Bernard [Fanning], we just knew it was going to be a beautiful environment to record in and that we’d be amongst friends.
The studio is amazing, Nick was amazing and then we came home for a month and lived with it and I added some stuff at home and we just got a little distance from it and then we took off to Canada to mix it with another friend, Howie Beck. That was a deliberate decision as well because he mixes a lot of electronic stuff and a lot of avant-garde pop stuff and so his mix took it in a different direction again.
MF: Were there some specific sonic and production ambitions you had for the album?
PD: We knew at the outset that we wanted it to sound really big and beautiful and clear. Our last record that we did with John Congleton, we all really love that record and we loved the experience with John, but for us it’s very experimental sounding. There was a lot of processing, a lot of strange effects, a lot of really deliberately screwed up sounds. We loved that, but we just didn’t want to do it again.
With this batch of songs, we wanted them to sound not so processed or not so screwed up. We wanted to try and just get the best tones and textures and there’s a lot more keyboard on this album than any of our records and a lot of big harmony vocals. We wanted the vocals to be right up front in a way that I don’t think they have been before. Clint and Steph have been complaining forever that my voice on record doesn’t sound like it does live and they were really determined that whoever mixed it was going to make sure that the vocals were right up front and super clear.
MF: You’re unmistakable as a vocalist – both in the sound of your voice and the idiosyncrasies of the melodies you sing. Keeping your voice back in the mix on past albums, has that been due to insecurities?
PD: Definitely early on I would always be voting for my voice to be turned down and you can probably hear that across the first few records. Clint and Steph over time would be encouraging me to have the vocals more up, but I always wanted to guitars to be really loud, I always wanted the drums to be really loud and different producers have different approaches to making something sound big and exciting.
Having made a couple of solo records now and having also played a lot of shows where it’s just me and a guitar and nothing else, all of that really builds your confidence with your voice and it makes you less afraid to have your voice being the central feature. It’s only taken 25 years, but I’m comfortable enough now for the voice to be front and centre and I’m also happier than I’ve ever been with my actual lyrics and what I’m writing.
‘The Modern Medieval’ is out today. Listen here.