Pop Songs You'll Never Forget: An Interview With the Lucksmiths' Marty Donald
by dave heaton
The Australian trio the Lucksmiths write some of the catchiest songs you'll hear in your life, no kidding. They're a pop band, but not in the sense of the word used by MTV or your local top 40 radio station. They're not the new N'Sync or New Kids on the Block or whatever. This is pop music meaning it uses melody, harmony, etc.--the tools of conventional songwriting from Cole Porter to the Beatles and onward--to get to people's hearts and lives. The Lucksmiths' songs are superbly crafted and also have that certain something that makes you think they could be singing about you, even though you live halfway around the world and you've never met them. They sing about love, its spark and its dissolution. They also sing about traveling, about hanging out with your friends…essentially, about life as they know it. Recording since 1993, they have a fairly long discography, including plenty of CDs and 7"s that are mighty hard to get a hold of, especially when you live in the US. Their most recent releases include 2002's Where Were We?, a collection of hard-to-find and unreleased tracks, and 2001's Why That Doesn't Surprise Me, one of those albums that you can play 100 times and like better with each listen. They also have a new 3-song EP out soon, Midweek Morning, a fact that they don't really mention in the interview below but I learned from the website of their Australian label, Candle (it'll also be released through their US label, Matinee). In any case, it's likely to be as friendly and as enjoyable as everything they've done so far, as I've yet to hear a Lucksmiths songs that didn't win me over. The group consists of three members--Tali White (vocals, drums), Marty Donald (guitars) and Mark Monnone (bass). All three write songs, with Donald and Monnone writing the most. Marty Donald was kind enough to answer my questions about the Lucksmiths in a recent e-mail interview. He informed me about their history, about their songwriting methods and much more, as you'll see if you keep reading.
First I have some general questions to catch me up on the history of the band. When did you form, and under what circumstances? How did you all meet?
Though the official formation of the Lucksmiths was still a couple of years away, we all met at high school - Sandringham Secondary College in bayside Melbourne, to be precise. (We were all drama students; our first performance together was in the school musical, written by the drama teacher - a stirring environmental protest song called "Green Kids Anthem". Really.) I was already writing pretty horrible songs of my own, and had mucked around musically a little with, separately, Mark and Tali. After Tali and I had played some songs on open stages and busked at the Port Fairy Folk Festival one year, his cousins, who just happened to be the Meadows brothers of the Sugargliders, very kindly offered us a show at the Evelyn Hotel in Fitzroy - if memory serves me correctly, on April 2, 1993. Excitement turned quickly to fear, and we thought we'd better recruit Marky to fill out the sound a little.
It seems unusual to have a band set up like yours, where the person who writes the songs isn't necessarily the person who sings them. What led to that arrangement, where Tali sings lead most of the time, even though most of the songs are written by the other members? Is there ever a question about who is going to sing a particular song?
The somewhat unorthodox band set-up, with Tali drumming and singing songs written by other members, just sort of evolved that way. Tali has a far better voice than either Mark or me, and regardless of who wrote them, the songs naturally sounded better with him singing them. It's not something I've ever felt too precious about. And it's not really as unusual as all that: the history of pop music is largely made up of people singing songs they didn't write.
Wordplay and witty wordings seem to be a common presence in Lucksmiths lyrics - you all have a knack at lyric-writing, I think. Do any of you have a background in other types of creative writing (literature, poetry, etc.)?
Um, thanks. I'd like to think that the wordplay element is a little less self-conscious now than it used to be; a lot of my old songs read disturbingly to me like lists of puns. But certainly my interest in language and words remains. For me, this was definitely the original attraction of being in a band. I studied literature and edited the newspaper at university, and still harbour vague aspirations of fiction-writing that are only too easily pushed aside by songwriting demands. My one real attempt at poetry was as a nine-year-old: a two-page epic about the ghost ship The Mary Celeste.
Do your songs generally come out of your own experiences (as opposed to being based in imagined stories and circumstances)? How would you describe your songwriting methods?
Both, really, and to varying degrees, although they probably tend to the latter. A lot of ideas spring from personal experience - often something a friend says, for example, or a phrase read in the newspaper - but in extrapolating from there the song usually becomes more fictional. (My own experiences have an annoying habit of not rhyming.) The point is, I guess, that this extrapolation and imagining is itself based on my own experiences. In "Synchronised Sinking", to take the first example that springs to mind, the library at which the two characters meet is real, as is the pub they go to, though it's a couple of suburbs away rather than across the road as implied in the song and it's not called the Anchor and Hope. The events in the song are entirely made up, but the sentiments it draws on are feelings I've experienced. The key thing is that it all must ring true. If you can't tell the difference between the fiction and non-, then it's working.
My writing methods, now that you've made me think about it, are ridiculously simple: I shut myself in a room at the back of my house (usually with either a coffee or a beer) and play guitar until I come up with something I like, be it a chord progression, in which case I then try to fit lyric ideas from my battered notebook, or a lyric idea, in which case I try to fit any chord progressions I've got lying around. I don't do any four-track recording; I just play whatever I've got of a song over and over until I get the next bit, whether it takes an hour or a year. I once read a Neil Finn quote that summed up my feelings about the songwriting process nicely (and given that I usually become hopelessly inarticulate when trying to talk about my own writing, I will paraphrase it here), to the effect that writing a song was a matter of coming up with a good verse or a couple of lines - which come easily - and then trying to get the rest of it to fit and do justice to that initial idea. The other point I would make is that I pore over my songs and rework them fairly exhaustively; while I'm quoting other writers, Raymond Carver (far more of an influence on me than the aforementioned Mr Finn, incidentally) has a beautiful line about knowing that a story was finished when he found himself going through it and taking out commas, then going through it again and putting them back in. Given the different medium, I don't use commas so much, but I love that approach.
You seem like a band that does a lot of touring. I say that because you've played in parts of the U.S. where even bands from the U.S. don't play that often (like where I am, Kansas City), yet you're from Australia. Have you always toured a lot? What do you like best about touring?
We've always played live quite a lot. Australia being as big and sparsely populated as it is, it's not really possible to tour like it is in the US, playing almost every night; a tour is likely to consist of twelve hours in the car to Sydney for the Friday and Saturday night and twelve hours home again on Sunday. Fortunately Melbourne has a really great live music scene, and in our early years we were able to play two or three nights a week fairly constantly.
Though I have occasionally found myself guilty of the jaded rock star thing of complaining about how hard life on the road is, the positives almost always outweigh the negatives: stumbling across new bands, making new friends or catching up with existing ones, eating dinner, and seeing some new sports, for example. I have been keeping a close eye on the progress of the Kansas City Royals in the fine print of the sporting pages this season after seeing a game when we were there last July.
Are there places you've never played that you'd really like to play? Where and why?
I would love to play in Barcelona. I spent a week there with my girlfriend last year (much of it in record stores) and it was an amazing city, with a great music scene. So that's definitely on the agenda for the next European tour, whenever that might be.
Your latest CD, Where Were We?, collects tracks from compilations, 7"s, etc., and I know you've done another CD like that in the past, Happy Secret. Are there any songs that you've decided to leave unreleased, that you don't like as much looking back? Or do you like the idea of having every rare song available on CD at some point?
The only songs that were left off Where Were We? were a few covers we had done at various times. I argued for a couple of them to be included, but in the end it was easier to just put the originals on there. There are some very old songs which definitely fall into the "don't like as much looking back" category, and which will hopefully remain unreleased until our mid-century reformation world tour and accompanying television special.
I have a few more specific questions about some of the songs on "Where Were We?". First, "Even Stevens" was recorded with the Ladybug Transistor. How did you end up doing a song with them? Are you interested in doing more with them in the future? I love how their sound melds with yours on that track.
"Even Stevens" was recorded when we had some time on our hands in New York, and a deadline looming for the East Timor benefit compilation. We were staying at Marlborough Farms (the Ladybug home/studio in Brooklyn), so we seized the moment. While everyone else went sightseeing in Manhattan, I stayed home and wrote more or less the whole song (in a new personal-best time of a couple of hours). The Lucksmith bits were recorded that night: my guitar and Marky playing drums, then bass, and Tali's vocals and bit more guitar. The handclaps were the only truly collaborative part between the two bands. We left the next morning with precise instructions for the Ladybug folk to do whatever the hell they wanted to it. As for future collaborations, one of the cover versions left off Where Were We? (see previous response) was a Ladybug song, "Rushes of Pure Spring", intended for a split 7" where we each covered a song by the other. Nothing came of it.
"T-shirt Weather" seemed to be a crowd favourite when I saw you play live, and I love it too. I was wondering if you could give me some background on that song and the writing of it?
Transcript of telephone conversation between Marty Donald and Mark Monnone:
The last track on the CD, "Mars", was recorded in Australia, but with Tali's vocals phoned in from London. What's the story behind that? It gives the song a fittingly spacey vocal sound - was it recorded that way on purpose?
It was on purpose in the sense that we had no choice: Tali was in London and, again, we had a deadline looming. But, yes, the effect was intentional, and we hoped it would be in keeping with the feel of the song. I'm sure there are more sophisticated ways of doing these things, but we just sent Tali a tape of the track which he sang along to onto an answering machine. The first time we tried it the machine cut out during the pauses in the vocals, so he had to mumble away over the musical interludes, and we edited those bits out.
What are the Lucksmiths up to now? Do you have upcoming recordings or tours planned?
We are currently better than midway through the recording of our next album, having recently spent three weeks in Audrey Studios with Craig Pilkington (where and with whom we did Why That Doesn't Surprise Me). We have a new single and b-sides finished, and seven other tracks in varying stages of readiness, and we'll go back in December with a few more songs and finish it off. We're all suitably excited at this stage. Touring this year has been confined to our own country, enabling us to enjoy an entire, uninterrupted season of Australian Rules football (concluding tomorrow!). Our Canadian friends the Salteens are returning to these shores in November, and we're planning a tour with them. I dare say we'll make it back to the northern hemisphere next year, although nothing is definite yet.
Here's the last question, one I always ask: If there's an album, movie or live performance that blew you away recently, please tell us about it.
The last album I got excited about was Lifted... by Bright Eyes, which I think is pretty unbelievable. I love his writing. Movie of the year for me is a dead heat between Amelie and The Royal Tenenbaums. And in lieu of an applicable recent live performance, I will offer Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections as the best book I have read in a long time.