The past decade has seen a massive resurgence of post-rock, and for half of that time, Sydney gentlemen sleepmakeswaves have been proudly flying the Australian flag for the genre. So far, 2017 is already shaping up to be a huge year for the band, having completed a national run of dates with Underoath last month, socred a support slot for Devin Townsend’s May tour and a headliner with Caligula’s Horse in tow, all with their third album dropping this month no less.
With debut single ‘Tundra’ having just been added to rotation on Triple J, we sat down with guitarist Otto Wicks-Green to discuss the torturous album recording process, how literature has influenced their new record “Made Of Breath Only’, and who are some “bucket list tours” for the band.
So Otto, where am I catching you today?
I’m in my little home, office studio where I did a lot of the pre-production for the album work trying to record a little blurb for Triple J unearthed so that when they play our new single Tundra on the radio I can give a little bit of context to the song.
Nice. ‘Tundra’ has been doing really well for you guys with being premiered on Triple J Good Nights and being on full rotation. How has reception been from people who wouldn’t normally listen to instrumental post-rock/ metal?
I’m sheltered from the insanity and chaos of the text-line so I can’t answer that with any degree of certainty, but from everything that the hosts have read out it’s been super positive, and we’ve been super grateful for the support that such a bad-ass media organisation has given us. When we wrote this record I’d written off getting any support from the J’s because the songs are so long and there is such a darker inward-looking affair than our last record ‘Love Of Cartography’, so getting such good reception has been such a surprise and we’re super grateful.
Heading right back to ‘…Cartography’ for a minute, that album has opened a whole new world for the band. Where did that album land in the expectation ballpark?
Being an instrumental band, we don’t have any expectations. Recording is actually quite a traumatic process because we have to sign off on stuff- we worked with Nick DiDia on both records and he made that process as easy and as fun as it could possibly be, but there is always this kind of pain that we feel because we obsess so hard over every song. I’ve only met a few other bands that obsess the way that we do over perfectionism and the pressure that we put on ourselves and the sleepless nights and anxiety. Recording is always this sort of traumatic experience of bringing these songs into the world and deciding that we aren’t going to do any more edits. So that was the process with ‘…Cartography’, but I felt that it was the best thing that we had done, especially with the way that we pushed it to that next level with trying new things. The experiences that it unlocked for us, I’ll be forever grateful for. I got to travel around the world and play with some of my favourite bands and it allowed us to play rooms I never thought we would play with our kind of music. It allowed us to approach this band as a full-time thing, and with some massive adjustments to my lifestyle, I’ve been able to do that thanks to that record. It definitely put the wind in our sales as we turned towards writing our third full-length.
On that perfectionist thing, what song with the new record did the band obsess over?
This middle track and the last track especially took a long time to get right. The middle track, ‘The Edge Of Everything’ is the most ambitious and technical song that we’ve ever written. The original working title was Lawson, named after the explorer Douglas Mawson who had a really incredible and ill-fated expedition to Antarctica. That song took a really long time to come together. The final track ‘Hailstones’ was a song that we had written parts of way back in 2010 or 2011 that we didn’t have time to flesh out in time for ‘…Cartography’. There’s a vocal sample on that song that I recorded singing into my mates old guitar six years ago that we ended up keeping and putting on this record. So putting all of the music around that took a long time with all of the textures and melodies.
With ‘Hailstones’ as an example, was that a feeling of relief for you guys when you can commit a piece 6 years in the making onto a record?
I think it constantly goes between relief and anxiety. In the studio it was like this rollercoaster ride of highs and lows in this microcosm of a 10 day period where we each went through tremendous anxiety and darkness and then found these pockets of optimism and excitement that would often come listening back to a song, and all of a sudden it would sound way better than you remember. I know that with Hailstones, when we got that ending right, because it meanders at the end in a reflective and subtle thing that goes for a long time, and we hit on this chord progression and this vibe that really captured something about memory and nostalgia, which is what I really saw that song as. I do a bit of singing at the end there and try to evoke some lyrics that were about looking back on something that’s meant a lot, but you didn’t realise at the time. When I heard that coming out of the speakers in the studio I felt this great sense of pride and relief and I felt that it was the mark I wanted to hit.
So…is making a record something that sleepmakeswaves actually enjoys doing?
That’s a really tough question!
It feels like something that we don’t have any control over. If we didn’t do it, the consequences would be so much worse. This record, in particular, has been such an important cathartic channel for a lot of loss that we went through in 2015. We’ve been able to healthily channel that into this form, but we are a very obsessive bunch of individuals, and that manifests itself across a broad spectrum of behaviour. Between all of us, we cover all of the bases.The whole thing is really finicky. I suppose it’s like you’re building something complicated. At the time, you’re in that flow and you don’t really notice, but we are at peace and we are happy as much as we can be.
The band has been doing so much touring of late and the band is working as a full-time job. How has your perspective towards the band changed now that it has consumed everyday life?
It’s simultaneously made me more protective and more grateful for it. I personally have an inferiority complex towards this band from feeling quite proud of what it is that we have achieved. After years and years of work, we are finally at a point that we can sit back and look back with some gratitude. It makes me want to keep busy and keep the pedal to the floor. The more time we are busy, especially with touring, the happier I’ll be and this year is rapidly filling up. It really validates my decision to move out of Newtown, because the hassle of finding cover for rent just became too much, and there was so much air B and Bing and all of that really administered reality to being on tour, so I’ve moved back in with my parents on the North Shore but I find I’m not spending a lot of time here because I’m out on the road most of the year, and that’s where I want to be at this point in my life. Realising that and making those decisions to pursue that have been some of the best pursuits that I’ve ever made. The success of this band is in a big way tied to us taking risks all the way back to 2011 when the first record came out and we started getting those offers for those first basic, really DIY punk rock tours to Europe and America. We’ve all lost jobs, relationships and other opportunities, and we value those things, but we made those sacrifices for this band and the level that we are now has made us glad that we did.
You’ve got a huge bunch of Australian tours coming up with Devin Townsend and Caligula’s Horse. Does the change of stage from Rad Bar to The Metro Theatre change the way you approach the live show?
It’s an interesting question because people have asked me how we keep our live show good when we are moving from small rooms to bigger rooms, but for me because we cut our teeth in DIY venues like RAD bar and stuff, because that was our bread and butter growing up and the band we always wanted to be, being a post-hardcore energetic punk band that goes crazy onstage. Having that education and training in those spaces prepares us for the bigger rooms, so I treat those big rooms as if they are the smaller rooms because those smaller rooms are the ones that you really have to do well at. Real hardcore fans that go to shows all the time and are regulars in the local music scene, they are a lot harder to impress I think because those guys and girls have seen all kinds of amazing bands who are doing this for love and passion. Every time I walk onstage to a big crowd, I remind myself that I’m lucky to be here, and if I get to a point where I’m not giving the same energy as I am at RAD bar then I shouldn’t be there.
The joy you guys have on stage is evident of that. You said onstage that the recent Underoath tour was a “Bucket List Tour” for the band. What are some other tours in that category?
The Underoath one was big for me because they were a big influence when I was a teenager. The first stuff I ever listened to was Metallica and Slipknot and Nirvana, which was my introduction to heavy music. However, my introduction to emotional music came through acts like Underoath so sharing a stage with them felt like this massive validation of the new direction my own taste in music has taken personally. I feel that what we aim for is that same intensity without that incredible vocal delivery that they have. We do it through dynamics and textures. In that way, it was a bucket list tour. In terms of other bands, Alexisonfire would be sick, Deftones would be sick…but who knows. Playing some shows with Karnivool was a massive tick on the resume and we’ve just been really lucky to play with some awesome artists.
Moving back toward the band, the departure of Kid recently and the addition of Dan from Meniscus was a big change for you guys. How did that process of getting Dan happen and how has the new lineup changed the sound?
Getting Dan in the band was a dream come true for us, because Kid, who was a founding member of the band and did so much for us in terms of songwriting and day-to-day management of everything, it left a big hole. We went through a fairly rigorous audition process with a number of amazing guitar players, but fundamentally Dan was the one that gelled with us because of the energy that he brings on stage. At heart, we are a live band and Dan being a very accomplished guitar player also brings an energy onstage unlike many other people I’ve played with or seen. Meniscus were one of those childhood hero bands for me… and maybe Dan would feel old if he knew that I said that!
When I was 17 they were one of the first shows I ever saw was with Meniscus, and Dan’s playing with them was just mind-blowing and it took me emotionally to a place that no other band can. I truly believe that Meniscus is one of Australia’s most under-rated and special musical acts. We got Dan in and he has added so much to this record, especially through his performances. Recording with him was a real joy, and we all entered this amazing, creative space where all of our ideas were on the table and bouncing off one another. One guy would be playing guitar whilst another guy was on his knees with some FX pedals twiddling the knobs and it was just sick. It’s definitely had a positive effect on this album with his expressive guitar playing through his fingers and feet.
Obviously, he’s a super competent musician, but do you feel you have taken on a senior role in the band?
I guess. More than any other record I stepped up with this one in terms of song-writing. Myself and Alex spent a lot of time in a room together piecing together this music, and with this one, I poured a lot of myself into and I’m quite proud of it.
Heading back towards the new record, where did the names for these pieces come from given they are instrumental? Does the name already pre-exist?
The song titles always come afterwards, and they are quite difficult. At the end of ‘…Cartography’ we really felt caught out because all of a sudden we had deadlines when the mastering was done, but nothing was named or a few things were named. We scrambled to piece together an email thread and stressed for about 36 hours trying to figure out who had the best idea. With this one I really wanted to give it some more space, and also the start of this record we had a more coherent, thematic idea. We knew what kind of record we wanted to make going in. We knew we wanted the record to feel cohesive and unified. When it came to titles, because I enjoy reading and get lots of inspiration from poetry and stuff, I just compiled this massive document which we still only use a fraction of names from, of cool titles that for me were evocative in some way, and that struck me as evoking an emotion in someone else. To me, I wanted to have the title have enough space for people to pour their own emotion into it whilst having enough to specify that it’s a song in itself. We intentionally went out with this Arctic exploration theme, and there was a whole lot of thematic information that went into that concept, which all led to the album title which was the final thing and most difficult thing.
We really agonised for a while and ended up with ‘Made Of Breath Only’.
How does that album title relate to the theme, and what does that evoke for you personally?
We went into this songwriting process reeling from a bunch of personal blows, and we wanted to channel that into something that was going to be darker and tonally and melodically and even textually a darker affair. Because the band has always dealt with landscapes as a metaphor for what you feel, Cartography had this high-angled thing that suggested movement and optimism, the record before that was a look at the bush and the Australian landscapes. This one had the idea of the Antarctic which to us was this visual metaphor of when beauty and loss converge. When it came to a title, this particular string of words felt appropriate. It was drawn from a book by Cormack McCarthy called The Crossing, which is one of my favourite novels, if not my favourite novel. That deals beautifully with some of these themes, which are the same themes which we tackle on this record, which is difficult because it’s an instrumental band. The way he puts it is diverging equity with beauty and loss. This idea that as one moves, the other does as well, and that’s part of this truth of existing as a human being on this planet. There is an imbalance between things. The title for me evokes a couple of things; the fragility of our relationships with one another. We feel sometimes that we can hold things in our hands and own them, but in truth, these things are just images and designs. We don’t have any ownership over this stuff, and we’re lucky we get to spend the time that we do with people around us. It’s also a commentary on the fragility of the things that we have that we love. The line from the book is “You cannot hold it in your hands, for it is made of breath only.” There is also this more literally comment on an environmental level that we are getting across. I think that it’s impossible to talk about the Arctic without referencing the fact that we are in absolute crisis. We are facing one of the worst global catastrophes in human history. These places are going to disappear. There is something beautiful about a landscape that is quite bleak and desolate, but also very beautiful and stunning and fragile.
Picking up on the theme of landscapes, when you’re on tour, does that ever serve as inspiration for the music that you are working on?
I guess in some ways it does. America is a good example because there is so much diversity in the landscape when you drive around that country. I suppose it never comes from landscapes. I’ve personally never looked at a landscape and been inspired. It’s more that they serve for me as a visual metaphor for the kind of emotion that I’m trying to pour into a song. My emotional catalyst for sleepmakeswaves has always been my personal experience, my relationships, my memories; more so than the beauty of nature. I think the beauty of nature helps clear me mentally and emotionally into a state where I feel creative, and in that way, it’s indispensable and super important. I’m an environmentalist, but I don’t recall being directly musically inspired by a landscape unless it’s to provoke a memory that I already had there. I think with landscapes, it’s more how I felt when I was there, and the landscapes bring me back to that feeling rather than the other way around.
‘Made Of Breath Only’ is out March 24th. Pre-order it here.
Check out the album’s lead single ‘Tundra’ below and suss the band’s upcoming live dates here. Seriously, this band is amazing live. They blew us away when we saw them with Underoath last month!