“What came first: music or the misery?” It’s certainly a tough question and one that seems perfect for the characters of a John Hughes film to agonise over. However, with Brisbane’s self-confessed ‘sad bastards’ We Set Sail announcing their first album in three years, we decided to get vocalist/guitarist Paul Voge on the phone to give us his take on the answer (and a healthy dose of fatherly wisdom). Over the course of a long Thursday evening discussion, we talk about the band’s shiny new record ‘Feel Nothing’, the pros & cons of song writing, how to become grunge royalty, and why nerding out over film samples is a perfectly normal thing to do.
Let’s talk about the new record. ‘Feel Nothing’ is coming out three years after your debut record ‘Rivals’, and it was recorded over a two-year period from April 2014 to earlier this year. So easy question for you Paul, why did you take so long?
I don’t think it’s ever supposed to. I don’t think in our heads, we ever thought ‘Let’s take a long time, like we’re fucking Radiohead or Brand New or something’ [laughs]. It takes a long time, totally by accident. We’re in no rush to go do things anyway. I guess it’s just how we work, but at the end of each process, we’re like ‘Fuck, I’m not doing that again’ [laughs]. But we probably will end up doing it the exact same way, even if we plan not to do it that way.
Do you think that having that amount of liberty in the process makes a difference? Where it’s vastly different to most bands that are on a label, who have a certain budget and portion of time, so that they need to have everything prepped, ready to go, get it done, and then they’re straight back out on the road again. Whereas with We Set Sail, you can take your time, you can finesse it a little bit more, and go back over what you’re doing. Do you think that adds to the process, or just complicates it?
I think it’s the same deal: like, it’s great, but it’s fucked at the same time [laughs]. Our thing is, we’ll listen to the record and Jimmy [Jackson] will do mixes on our Dropbox, and then we’ll make notes and go back and make changes. Then there’s another session of notes and so forth. So I guess if it was any other person in the entire world, other than Jimmy mixing, I don’t think the process would take this long. Somebody would have killed somebody, at some point, and said ‘If you tell me any more notes on this record, I’m going to explode and burn my computer.’
So we definitely have that luxury, but at the same time, it does also make it frustrating. Because you might try things, due to that luxury, and you end up being like Guns N’ Roses with millions of dollar and just going in to try shit all the time [laughs]. Sometimes you just wish that you could capture what you had at that exact time. But this time, we’re definitely happy with how the record turned out, despite the completely fucked way we got it done, if that makes sense?
Yeah, it definitely does, and that actually leads to the next question I had around track composition. So if We Set Sail are recording over that two-year period, how are you bringing together the album as a whole? Are you guys bringing in particular songs individually? Working on a song randomly until the song is done? Or are you getting down a whole album’s worth of material to about 80% finished, and then go in to record those tracks as a complete record?
It’s weird, but by the time we actually started recording — and not that we even knew that we were recording for a full-length, but we just started recording anyway — we probably had three songs that were done. So when Hayden [Robins] joined, we just started writing for the record, and writing for the record, and by the time we got around ten songs, we went ‘Let’s start recording it.’
We’d read interviews with bands, where someone went into the studio with 100 songs, and we’re like ‘Really? 100 songs? That’s insane!’ But is it like they went into a studio with 100 ‘riffs’, and then went ‘Let’s try and make a song out of this.’ I don’t know how anyone could write 100, full songs in a band environment and expect that to be the be all and end all.
It’s funny you mention that because I interviewed A Day To Remember a few weeks ago for their new record ‘Bad Vibrations’, which they recorded with Bill Stevenson from Descendents. They described living out in the mountains of Colorado for a month, driving into the studio each day and jamming for ten to 12 hours a day in a studio B-room together as a band, and by the end of that process they had 40 complete songs written and finished, which they needed to whittle down to 11 for their record.
See, that’s so crazy. You know, people might say A Day To Remember is a ‘band’, Nirvana is a ‘band’ and then ‘We Set Sail’ is a ‘band’… [Laughs]. That’s such a completely different process, though. At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to write ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ anyway. Every band’s process is completely different. Sometimes it’s one person who has complete creative control, and ‘This is this, that is that.’ I think because we’re all just so cool with each other, we all kind of do everything and we’re patient with each other.
Sometimes, we go into record, and we say to each other ‘Ok, let’s pretend we have a record label. Let’s pretend we have someone telling us what to do.’ Because that’s cool you know? It’s good to have a deadline and be like ‘Right, let’s get this done by this date.’ If no one has a gun to your head, then it might take you three years to do a record [laughs].
Personally, I was a big fan of ‘Rivals’ and your earlier EP’s and demos. But listening to ‘Feel Nothing’, I objectively feel like these are some of the best We Set Sail songs to date. I feel like there’s a deep sense of maturation, progression, and learning that comes through on the new record, in terms of songwriting and your collective performance as musicians. So if the recording process this time around was completely different to the one on ‘Rivals’, I wanted to ask what changed within the band between records, to bring about that difference?
Well, I can’t speak for every single person, but I know for me, the biggest change was having my second daughter. Because the older you get, the more material you have to write with. When she was born, I would play a lot of acoustic guitar to her, and I’m not very good at playing guitar — at all— but I found myself playing a lot, and dare I say, writing songs but not ‘really’ writing songs. I would come up with the most simple, mundanely simple thing you could come up with (because I’m playing to a kid); something easy that she can listen to. From that, I’d come up with a melody, even if it was just songs with me singing about Lego or something irrelevant to what the song ended up being about.
But I think as Lloyd had left between the first and second record, we kind of shared a lot of the vocal stuff and then Hayden joined and he’s a better singer and guitar player than any of us in the band, so that’s why we have him playing bass [laughs]. So it was kind of all on me a little bit vocally. I found that — and I hate saying this because it sounds wrong — but I found that I was writing songs where usually we never used to do that. We’d normally get in a room and just jam, which is why the songs on the EP’s and last album go for seven minutes. They probably went for 20 minutes, and we had to cut them down and stop playing because it’d be too weird to play one song for 20 minutes. But there was a sense where we wanted to keep things simple, and also be in a place where we could put more songs on a record.
I think I kind of figured out that I’m not completely fucked at this [laughs], or at least that up until this record, I was fucked at doing it. A lot did change where we’d play and have to really focus in on things because there are three guitars playing, there are drums happening and especially on ‘Rivals’, the singing is always loud in parts because it had to be. We’d have to go, ‘Let’s sing really loud, so we can hear ourselves over the top of everything else.’ We never really cared about the singing, and honestly, I never really want people to hear me sing anyway. So having the acoustic guitar, and a daughter, gave me the opportunity to test stuff out and go ‘Ok, well this works, so maybe I can take this into the band environment.’ Again I don’t really want to say this, but I guess I found myself becoming a ‘sort-of-ok-but-kinda-not’ songwriter.
That’s great dude. Honestly, We Set Sail have always had that ‘jam band’ aesthetic to me, in terms of your live shows and the feeling on record too. There are lots of people in the band, you always play on small stages, with gear and shit everywhere, people standing on top of each other etc. It’s almost a, I want to say ‘cluttered’ vibe, but that sounds really derogatory.
Yeah, that’s accurate.
[Laughs]. Ok cool. On ‘Rivals’ that was all present, with the samples thrown in and lots of instrumentation. And on ‘Feel Nothing’, it seems to me like all those elements are still there, but you’ve just tightened and tidied them up. It’s a more streamlined and refined sound coming from the band. Which I think goes back to what you were saying before, in starting with the smaller pieces and then building and adding layers on top of them. As opposed to just jamming them all together until they fit.
Yeah man, and we never really talk about it much, but I really think an album that had a huge influence on us writing for this new record, was Violent Soho’s ‘Hungry Ghost’. That was such a big record, in terms of just saying to each other ‘These songs are great.’ And if you actually stop and listen to that record like a nerd, there’s so many little vocals bits going on, that totally don’t stand out but there’s so much else going on. They’re a completely different band to us, but I just love how those songs were so cleverly arranged and I said ‘We should be cleverer about our songs, because this is really, really good.’ It was that record, and the last Pianos Become The Teeth record [‘Keep You’] throughout that whole process.
Man, both of those records are so good. Especially the stuff Soho are doing now. I can remember working in venues here in Brisbane close to a decade ago when Soho were playing to 50 people a night. You know, they’re still doing the same style of music now and they’re still the same band, but with ‘Hungry Ghost’ especially, the leap in their songwriting was just fucking phenomenal. Whatever the ‘secret’ is, they figured it out and it just clicks.
Yeah, I remember playing shows with those guys when I was in The Paper & The Plane years ago, and we would see them and go ‘What’s so different about them?’ Because even back then, there weren’t many bands where everyone played an instrument. I mean we had Dan as our singer, and any hardcore band always had a singer, where they didn’t and it was cool and a real throwback to those early sounds. But it’s honestly day and night between their early shit and these last two records. It’s like Tenacious D came along and handed them The Pick of Destiny [laughs]. Some fucking thing that said ‘This is how you write the greatest songs, and great albums.’ Sometimes I think about and it, and go ‘I wish it was 90’s right now.’ Those guys would be millionaires. They’d have the best-looking houses in Mansfield [laughs]. Even if they were in that same kind of 90’s grunge era, they’d be better than half of those bands, and be fantastic and make so much money. So I love the music industry, but in many ways, I hate the music industry too. People who are doing that great should be absolutely set for life.
For sure. Now, getting back to the record. In terms of tone, ‘Feel Nothing’ strikes me as a darker record thematically than ‘Rivals’. Is that an assessment you’d agree with, and if that’s the case (or not), why?
Yeah, definitely a darker record. Like I mentioned before, the older you get, the more intense things become in your life. You get older and the next thing you know, your parents are getting older, and then they’re sick and dying. And then you have a kid, and there’s stuff that happens there that’s pretty scary. It gets to the point where you sit and think ‘Fuck, what was intense for me when I was 21? Probably nothing really’ [laughs]. Whether I had to pay rent or something. So the record is definitely darker to a point, but not on purpose. You find things that you focus on, and it’s always so easy to focus on negative things in your life because they can be so overwhelming.
I guess with the title of the record as well, we were kind of umming and ahhing over it. It’s always that: song names and album names and artwork that you’re constantly crunching over. But thankfully, we were all on the same page with it this time. It was all of these things; a million different things on the record. Really gnarly shit that can either consume you or you can just go about your day. So definitely darker, but not in a forceful ‘bullshit’ kind of way, if that makes sense?
Absolutely dude. With the title of the record as well, I was ruminating on that, thinking ‘Why did they go with that? Where did that come from exactly?’ But one of the big elements of your band is obviously the use of samples and I know when I was younger, and getting into all sorts of music, whenever a band had samples, I always tried to seek out information and find where those samples came from. A lot harder when the internet and things like Google weren’t as easily accessible as they are now. So to me, when you’re using samples from films like High Fidelity and referencing ‘sad bastard music’ directly in the press for this record, the title of ‘Feel Nothing’ kind of speaks to that I think. You know, like ‘listen to this and feel nothing, but at the same time, feel everything’.
Oh man, I’m always stoked when people completely nerd-out on samples, because that’s what I did. I think there’d be samples on every single song, but they managed to stop me for about two on that record [laughs]. I don’t think we’ve ever really sat down and conversation about it, maybe once I think about not doing samples if labels wanted to put the record but saying ‘Hey, you’ll probably have to get rid of the samples because we don’t want a lawsuit.’ But I mean, no one’s going to sue us. And if they did, that’s probably good because it least it means they heard it. It’s kind of a big thing that I could never get rid of. It’s as important as the vocals, or the guitars or the drumming. It’s such a big part of the band, and sometimes the samples come first and lyrics come second to be completely honest. I’ll find a sample that I really dig, and then that becomes a really easy way to find what you’re going to write about, in terms of how light or dark a song’s going to be.
The other reason we wanted to call the record ‘Feel Nothing, is because we wanted to wait for someone to review the record who really hates it, and set them up to say ‘I feel nothing and this record is shit.’ I think we were even going to call the album ‘Disappointed’ at one point [laughs].
That’s some serious, premeditated self-loathing there, Paul.
[Laughs] Yeah but it’s usually the worst reviewers on the planet, that would try and play off something like that. With the ‘sad bastards’ thing, I don’t now… I guess everyone’s trying to find their ‘thing’, but it worked in the press for the record and people used it. In a way, we are kind of sad bastards. Although, I can listen to that record and not think about the subject matter and just go, ‘This is cool.’ And that’s what music is all about: you can listen to it if you’re bummed out, and get super stoked. Or you can put it on, and clean up your kitchen and all the mess that your kids made around the house all day. So ‘Feel Nothing’ can definitely be taken as both a positive and a negative, but I’d take it more as a positive. Especially in the way that you explained it before, I definitely like that.
Awesome. I’m glad I’m on the same wavelength there. Let’s dive into the lyrics on the record a bit more. With you taking over more of the vocal duties in the band, are you now functioning as the main lyricist too? Or is it more of a collaborative effort?
Yeah, it kind of has fallen all on me. Which I guess again, is kind of daunting. It’s been a little bit different. It makes me sound like some amazing, arty person, which I’m definitely not. But I would have lyrics ready to go, whether we’d have songs for them or not. Whereas before I’d listen to a song 200 times before I’d figure out what works. But this time, I found myself in the spare seconds that I had writing lyrics and stuff. The other day, I was stuck in Byron Bay traffic because of some tragic accident on the road, and I had a pen and paper there because I work the weddings and I’m always signing paperwork. I weirdly started writing stuff down, just while it’s in my head because it’s not like I’m someone who lives at home alone and has all this time to put pen to paper.
If anyone ever finds my phone, it will be quite interesting, because my Voice Memo thing is just full of vocal melodies and stuff that I come up with when I’m out driving. So it definitely fell on me, and all the subject matter has come from me, and at one point I joked about calling the album ‘Oversharing’ [laughs]. I mean people can read into it and think this song is about ‘this thing’ or whatever, but I know what they’re about and at the same time, they can have different meanings for different people. I guess that’s the thing about taking three years to an album. Being in a band for me is like playing golf or something for old people. You know, it’s something they do, they go out and play golf, hit a ball and walk around and then go home. Doing the band is my hobby thing, so it’s definitely super scary now, where it’s like ‘Ok, this is my hobby, but now it’s out.’ I might be bad at golf and now everyone in the world knows about it.
You know we put this record out, and the 200 or whatever people who might listen to it, it’s now being judged. Which is exciting — super exciting actually — but if someone was to literally say, ‘This is completely fucked, and Paul is the worst at everything.’ If you legit hated our record, then you’d legit hate every idea I ever had musically. Which is fine, and not everyone’s supposed to like it. But it’s daunting, especially now that you’ve just mentioned it to me [laughs]. This record is really us as a band, on a blueprint. Also some for the shit that’s in my head and now everyone knows about it. This time, we’re putting in a lyric sheet with the record, for the first time ever.
Oh wow, that’s mad. I’m keen to pore over the vinyl copy then.
Yeah, that’s Ben’s fault [Britenstein]. He’s always trying to make stuff better than it should be [laughs].
Well in the interest of full disclosure Paul, I actually have two tracks in particular that I wanted to dive into. Two that really spoke to me when listening to the record, and they’re definitely my favourite tracks. So I wanted to have you give us a brief summary of the themes and ideas behind the songs and their lyrics?
All right. This is weird, but let’s do it!
Sweet! First one is ‘Reminders Written on Maps’.
Yeah, so with this one, it’s probably been in the last six months or so, where it’s been kind of heavy because my Dad has been diagnosed with lung cancer. We’ve always had this really weird, bizarre relationship, and I heard this crazy story from someone about him that he’d told about me, which was pretty intense. I remember telling the guys in the band, and they were like ‘That’s fucked up!’ So my Dad has basically been so weird my entire life, and this story was so insane that I had to honestly start questioning whether this man was really my father or not. Like legitimately. So that’s where that came from.
I mean he’d always do things that were fucked, but I’d always — well not always — but kind of come back to ‘You’re my Dad.’ But I really shouldn’t have to deal with this dude. He’d push me away, and then push me right back in again… or whatever it is I’m talking about on that song. Again, when you have a kid or children, I totally overthink my relationship with my parents. You know some of the first words you learn are ‘Mumma’ or ‘Dadda’ which is where that line ‘I’d love to hear your name for the first time again’ comes from. Does that kind of make sense?
For sure, dude. It’s pretty deep.
Did you think it was about something else? Bodyboarding perhaps?
[Laughs] No, not it all. It definitely struck me as one of the more emotional songs on the record. I think it’s also a case of the samples really working with the instrumentals, and kind of building off the lyrics like you mentioned before. It adds an extra level of complexity to the tracks and brings a kind of emotional nuance to it. So I definitely picked up that there was a ‘story’ behind that one.
Yeah, and I guess it also has kind of a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ aspect to it too. It’s mostly bleak, but then the last bit, with three vocals going on… You know, it was a tough bit, with my relationship to him as a parent, but then me being a parent myself, the end bit is kind of like ‘I don’t know how you could be such a shitty parent.’ The end line is really just me talking to my daughter, where I’m saying ‘You’re the only hope that I’ve got.’ My Dad is the complete opposite to that, and every time I ring him it’s a fucking complete bullshit nightmare. I’ve never really had a proper conversation with my father my entire life but know that he’s doing chemotherapy and all this crazy shit, it’s even weirder. You never really think about your parents dying, but then you get old and your parents are… dying and there’s this depressing circle of life. But it makes you question a lot of things.
Ok cool. Now secondly, let’s talk about the track ‘Pet Cemetery’.
Well, with ‘Pet Cemetery’, the sample really came first. Have you watched that movie, Revolution Road?
No, I haven’t. I had to Google the sample to figure out what it was from. I do want to see it.
Yeah, it’s super depressing. I think at the end of it, she ends up giving herself an abortion in a bathtub, or something fucked like that? It was great acting, but it’s one of those films where you set down to watch it and by the end, you get up and go ‘Well, I feel worse now than I did when I started watching it’ [laughs]. But that sample came first and then the songs was really just built around the ideas of shitty relationships. I wanted to use that sample so badly, and in a way, we used it to kind of write the lyrics. Not that we wrote lyrics on that movie exactly, but to have lyrics to use with that sample and mainly just because relationships can be fucked up, and weird.
I’d say that that is a very universal thing too. Everyone has a shitty break-up/relationship story, so it’s very transcendent theme to talk about and easily relatable.
Yeah, and the sample is absolutely brutal too. Kate Winslet says some shit, in that little break in the song where it’s just Andy playing guitar. It’s acted really well, where she’s just totally chilled, kind of loses it and then the end where she’s not even really yelling anymore, she’s kind of just whispering to herself. It’s very heavy. Do you really like that song? For me personally, it was my ‘if’ song. Like if we had to cut a song off the record, it may have been that one for me.
Yeah, and for me, it was mainly because it seems super different to the rest of the record. There’s a lot of lyrics in it, and there’s a lot of overlayed lyrics in it too, where I had to sing both high and low. At the end, it kind of just comes out of nowhere for me.
I would say that’s probably my favourite track on ‘Feel Nothing’. If not one of the best songs We Set Sail have ever done.
Yeah, see that’s the thing. Everyone else was into it. Andy and I maybe saw eye to eye on some bits, but I listen to it now and I’m certainly more into it than I was say six months ago. To me that was the most full-on, and I regret the day when we’re to have to play that live because it will scare me [laughs]. But that’s good to know. We’re certainly not the type of guys to get on Facebook and be all ‘Hey guys, let us know what your favourite tracks are!’ But I guess would be interested to ask because clearly, I have no fucking idea what people like anymore [laughs].
Now to wrap up, you’re obviously a busy man. You’ve got your work as a full-time wedding celebrant, the family, your wife, and your kids. But you were also the owner of Kill The Music [an independent record store] here in Brisbane at one point in time, and you’re clearly still doing music as your hobby now with We Set Sail. So I wanted to ask you Paul, what your favourite records are from this year, and what you’ve been listening to and enjoying?
It’s going to sound super self-indulgent, but up until a few months ago, all I was listening to was our new record [laughs]. But also that new Camp Cope [self-titled] I listened to a lot, and the new Violent Soho record [‘WACO’] too. So if you were to ask me what I’ve been listening to, that’s pretty much it. Which is bad, because I’m sure there has been more records that have come out. There was the Boys Night Out EP which came out, that I listened to maybe three times…
That’s the thing I miss the most about the shop: just hearing new music. And most of the time that would come from customers. I would be unaware of stuff, and have to order it in. People would come in and be like, ‘Hey man there’s a new Such & Such coming out. You should check it out.’ Then I’d order it in and be like ‘Yeah, this is cool.’ So for someone who was in such a loop of things coming out, and be so far out of it, there are only two records that I think I’ve ordered online this year. I don’t know… I found myself getting mad at myself for not discovering new music because I’m writing new music [laughs].
But I mean with those Camp Cope and Violent Soho records, you know even if I was living under a rock those records would still be part of my life because they’ve been everywhere. Not that Camp Cope are going to get on The Footy Show anytime soon though [laughs]. Those records have got such critical acclaim, but I feel so normal liking stuff that everyone else likes. It’s kind of cool. That new Nothing record [‘Tired Of Tomorrow‘] I liked, and the new PUP record [‘The Dream Is Over‘] was great too. That new Foxing record [‘Dealer‘] has been my jam too. Foxing to go to sleep, PUP to drive me around and then Nothing to kind of depress on my way home. I’m also weirdly looking forward to this new NOFX record, and I haven’t said that for a very, very long time.
Very good! Now, we’ve been on the phone now for almost an hour, so we might end it there and I’ll let you get back to your children Paul. Thanks for your time this evening, and best of luck with the new record!
[Laughs] Awesome, thanks for letting me talk your ear off!
‘Feel Nothing’ is available September 16th through We Set Sail’s Bandcamp page.