Perfect Sound Forever


Indie lo-fi noir
interview by Jorge Luis Fernández

Let's call it happenstance. Many moons ago, taking a cursory look at Facebook and possibly having been drinking a lot, I mistook Chris Smith for another guitarist (Chas Smith) and asked him to be a 'friend' there. Something pretty common these days, you know. Chris, for his part, mistook me for a Brazilian friend's friend, and accepted my request. A few months later, since I like to take pictures around my neighborhood, I posted a pic and Chris gave me a "like." I was a bit puzzled at that, because I thought it unusual that somebody not around my area, in Buenos Aires, would "like" the detritus and eroded buildings I sometimes find attractive but I paid attention to the name. And again, I thought it was Chas Smith (blame my long-sightedness this time). But I focused on the name a bit more, and discovered how mistaken I was.

It turned out that Chris Smith was a professional photographer -hence, I assume, his interest in my post- and a great musician as well. Moving around the Melbourne area where he nearly always lived, the Australian guitarist started out his career in the mid Nineties as part of the alt/post-rock outfit The Golden Lifestyle Band. At the end of that decade, with the album Cabin Fever (Avalanche Express, 1998), Chris embarked on a solo career which reached its apex with the brilliantly atmospheric Bad Orchestra (Death Valley Records, 2007, reissued on vinyl in 2014 by the Ben Chasny-owned Hermit Hut label). By then, Smith had matured into a unique style that bridges the gap between guitarists as diverse as J. Mascis and Loren Connors, and his gifts bent an ear on collaborations with notable artists like Peter Jefferies and Glenn Donaldson aka The Ivytree. Almost three years ago, Chris released a new record called Second Hand Smoke (It Records), with folk rock songs, Ennio Morricone-inspired passages, feedback coated instrumentals and even a heartfelft, low-fi rendition of Lou Reed's "Oh! Sweet Nuthin.'" This kaleidoscopic album, almost completely made alone by Smith, is a real triumph and the long overdue credential that posits the Australian among the most creative guitarists of his generation.

PSF: I remember that our chance meeting developed through a photo shared on social media. And then, after reading some interviews, I gathered that the art of photography was actually very important for you. Did it have some role in shaping your approach to music?

CS: My early years were more about visual stuff than sound or music. It came together more easily for me. Sketching, photography, or VHS experiments. By contrast, music and sound seemed out of reach. You had to rely on other people to make a record, like gathering a group of people to render a painting together. None of it made much sense to me. Just another foreign language, until I discovered cassette 4 track machines. I was looking for an approach where I could focus on the smaller details of timbre and contrast ahead of any structure or technique. And capture a little sound picture, yes.

PSF: Can you describe your early visual work? As it happens, your approach to music was somehow shaped by the visual arts. I'm interested in knowing how a 4-track machine was, for you, the missing link between both disciplines.

CS: I dabbled in pen and pencil sketching everything, from attempts at realism to more basic, primitive works. I was never terribly proficient with a brush, but did work with oil pastels for a time. I also got into 35 mm photography via my grandfather's camera from the 1950's, which had a beautiful Zeiss lens... I later learned that it was Kubrick's brand preference.

PSF: Are you currently still working with images?

CS: My only visual work in recent years tends to be album covers or gig flyers, unfortunately. Time is an increasingly rare commodity. I'd rather work on music when I have the chance. I've always viewed the arts as 'one thing,' regardless of style or medium. They're all a means to an end in terms of expression.

PSF: Do you think that the 4-track was something of a missing link between the visual arts and the field of music?

CS: Well, 4 track recording became an option via my housemate's machine in the '90's. I'd fooled around with mono cassette machines in the '80's, making it a simple extension. Except now, I could get a conversation happening between different instruments and voice, which was a lot of fun.

PSF: Which other artists do you think also have an "image frame" approach to music?

CS: There's no shortage of musicians who also practice visual art, but I'd cite Mick Turner and Loren Connors as two examples of sound and visuals that strike me as being part of the 'same thing.' They're both influential in a big way.

PSF: How was the Melbourne scene when you started out in the Nineties?

CS: Golden Lifestyle Band was actually conceived in Geelong. I'd tried living in Melbourne but found myself relating to the smaller town, having grown up on a farm. GLB was a learning experience with friends. The band became more focused and active after I left, although the whole thing only lasted a few years. Our influences were too contemporary, aping indie rock of the time. There was a lot going on in Geelong and Melbourne. The world I found myself in was largely focused on punk and garage rock. If I'm proud of anything it was us being feisty teen dropouts not knowing anything and egging each other on regardless.

PSF: Was music something a bit insular when you were growing up in Geelong? Was it the case, as very often is, where you need to cross to the bigger cities in order to get involved in something?

CS: Actually, I grew up on a farm in country Victoria, a couple of hours east of Melbourne. It's a pretty conservative area, and quite isolated. My family is quite right-leaning, politically, and strictly Catholic. It was all a tad alienating. I'd buy records and cassettes via mail order, while dreaming of being somewhere else. I lived in Melbourne for a year or two, but most of my friends were in Geelong, a satellite city with an industrial background. Geelong was the underdog compared to Melbourne, and bands were much more supportive of each other. It wasn't a competition. Dave Thomas of Bored! (who has now sadly departed) was incredibly encouraging and supportive of younger bands, which eventually put Geelong on the map by the mid 1990's. It was a real eye opener. I later spent time in New Zealand and eventually settled back in Melbourne where I live today.

PSF: I know that, eventually, you ended up working with Peter Jefferies. I think that that makes sense, because I've heard NZ overtones in your music.

CS: To be honest, I came to the New Zealand underground music of the '80's and '90's quite late, as I didn't know anyone here who was listening to that stuff, initially. I soon learned that a lot of the US underground that we were following at the time was hugely influenced by what was coming out of Christchurch and Dunedin. There was also an appeal in the fact that it was happening just across the Tasman Sea, and yet entirely removed from what was happening in Australia. It so happened that my starting point was reading Bruce Russell's liner notes for Peter Jefferies' first solo album, which, in combination, had me hooked. Especially the (Bruce Russell owned) Xpressway output. It was some of the most eccentric, personal and out there stuff that I had come across. And defiantly outside of any industry, which was hugely appealing and inspirational. That music wasn't asking for anyone's permission or approval.

PSF: How was working with Jefferies?

CS: I was introduced to Peter by Jon Dale in Adelaide, who was also on the Xpressway tip but ahead of me with his research. A year or two later came a Two Foot Flame tour of Australia, with some Jefferies solo dates in Melbourne the following year. We recorded during the second visit. There was very little planning that went into it, as I recall. Peter had "Ghost Writer" and "Westgate Exit" already written, perhaps without the titles [ED NOTE: the 7-inch single was released in 1999 by Death Valley Records]. Lewis Boyes and myself added guitar to piano and drum parts, with Peter's vocal being put down separately. The recording was live to 8-track quarter inch tape, with Greg Wadley as engineer. It was a quick turnaround in one night.

PSF: You know, while some people find connections of your work with the Kranky label's roster, I find your approach rather close to another New Zealander. I'm thinking of guitarist Peter Wright, whose layered, fractured music, often coloured with outdoors sounds, made for a more sensory experience.

CS: I can see how you would make a comparison with Peter Wright. I discovered his output much more recently. He's intimidatingly prolific! The ambient drone material that I began working up in the late '90's would have been equal parts Eno, Surface Of The Earth and Alan Lamb. Lamb's modus operandi was to place contact microphones on disused telegraph poles in the West Australian desert. I was hooked after Mark Harwood introduced me to Night Passage via his Synesthesia shop in Melbourne, which I still miss. The sound of wind cutting through the lines, wires whipping against each other, and the creaking posts as they deteriorate... that's completely gripping, and often quite scary. His are environmental recordings that works well as composition. To join the dots, the track "Crossing" from my Replacement LP is aping Alan Lamb's soundworld, but via an electric guitar.

PSF: Almost all of your ideas are guitar-based?

CS: Well, I continue to work with guitar simply as a follow up from my punk obsession, and because they're so commonplace and versatile. There are endless configurations to play with.

PSF: In "Jimmy's Theme", from Bad Orchestra, there's a sample from Ennio Morricone's Once Upon a Time in the West. The results are pretty dark, and it's a fitted introduction for the wall of noise in "Step Into The Light", the album's penultimate track. I was thinking that, just like you, some Australian artists already toyed with Americana in twisted ways: Kim Salmon, the Celibate Rifles, and even well-known people like Nick Cave. Can you trace some lineage about this "American romance" in Australian rock music?

CS: Let me state also that the title Bad Orchestra was lifted after Once Upon a Time in the West. There was a lowbrow Post Modernist thing going on in places on that record. I also sampled Roy Orbison and the Germs, with a commonality in the colour blue. "Blue Angel", speaking to the blue mood, and the blue circle logo of the Germs. But yes, in many ways I see Australia as a wannabe America. Both countries share a history of British invasion, genocide and a sprawling landscape of mostly arid territory. But I wouldn't put the Australian Americana aesthetic down to much more than "too much TV." Your guess is as good as mine. Just about anyone twanging on a guitar is likely to trace much of its history back to early folk and blues music. Africa and Europe meeting in America.

PSF: The back porch blues and countrified songs of Second-Hand Smoke, your last album, can be listened to as a counterpoint to the noir atmospheres of Bad Orchestra. So much that, In a way, it seems like something you thought of beforehand. But this is your first album of songs, actually. So, what triggered your interest in the format? Have you had some misgivings about your voice, previously?

CS: You could make some comparisons between those two albums, sure. The album was largely the result of becoming a full time single parent. It definitely fed into what Second Hand Smoke eventually became. Watching a lot of family/children's movies, and running with melody a lot more. It was a way to write something for my daughter, as well as healing from a traumatic experience. Songs weren't altogether a new thing for me (Cabin Fever (1998) has a similar feel), but I wanted to take a stab at something resembling 'real songs.' I'd also been listening to a lot of mid century songwriters, taking a wee break from punk, sound art, etc.

PSF: I've noticed that the sleeve layout is also rich in contrasts. There's an uncannily charm balance between the collage of the Ronnettes, on the back cover, with the disturbing photographs laid out on the inner and front sleeve. What was your concept behind these images, if there was one?

CS: The photos were culled from an ongoing collection. I'm glad you find them disturbing! I generally end up using something that triggers personal response or feeling at the time. The Ronettes skateboard Polaroid was taken by my daughter. A double exposure, with a peachy sunset. There's also a Bored! sticker on that skateboard, which is a nod to Dave Thomas, who died ahead of the album coming out. He took my early cassettes to Europe in the 1990's, which blew my tiny mind at the time. The cover is an odd looking house nearby to where I live. I'd been taking a lot of photos of palm trees for no particular reason. Those palm trees have since been cut down.

PSF: You mentioned Once Upon a Time in the West and there are overtones of spaghetti western soundtracks, though tweaked and slowed-down, in the instrumentals "Sunny" and "Two Abstractions." Have you some strong interest in the genre and its music?

CS: Those films are ingrained in most of us, to some extent. Despite the 'two dollar drama' of a lot of that stuff, I find the music irresistible. It has genuine pathos. Something like Neil Young's Dead Man harks directly back to something like Once Upon a Time in the West. I hear both those things in the same way I listen to Roy Orbison or Etta James ballads. It's all dripping with a sweet existential heartbreak.

PSF: The song "New Blossom" reminds me of a twisted take on psychedelia which people like Deerhunter and Amen Dunes have made at their best. I like the foggy sounds of the instruments and voice taken as a whole, which creates a sort of hallucinatory mist. How did you record the track?

CS: "New Blossom" was recorded to 4 track cassette. I transferred it to digital 8-track and added some keyboards, bass, backing vocals. I was attempting to sing like Thalia Zedek. 'Psychedelia' is an over worn term, but the origins are from the subculture: an outsider aesthetic. There's a bit of a hip psychedelic revival going on, though not a lot of it tickles me when it has a slick production aesthetic. There's more going on when it's recorded in a garden shed.

PSF: In my opinion, the standout track is "Animal", a ballad which rearranges some typical Neil Young elements like the hushed voice, crispy guitar work and harmonica, into something different. It reminds me of Young's "Will To Love", but instead of going on and on, the song fleshes out two bleak acoustic instrumentals "Sam Again" and "Beeswax", which set the mood of the album. Even having its "feedback moments", this mood seems to point out your next move in another direction.

CS: Despite its radio unfriendliness, "Animal" was a bit of a 'win' for me. It has an On The Beach feel for me, although I can hear what you're saying with the E Minor, F thing in "Will to Love." Those tracks might point to a sparseness that I'd been looking for: not hiding behind sustained feedback so much.

PSF: Are you currently working on a new album?

CS: I'm finishing up a new record that started out as Dobro recordings on my phone. There's some live electric stuff, and home recordings that found their way in there. I'm working with Adam Casey here in Melbourne, which has been a treat. A lot of his studio outboard gear is like working in a time warp, and he's on the Loren Connors tip. Which makes sense to me.

Also see Chris Smith's Bandcamp page

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