Mist & Sea: Sprawling Sounds
Most indie musicians are congenital polygamists – or, at best, serial monogamists. The three core members of Mist & Sea – Vince Giarrusso, Jason Sweeney and Cailan Burns – each have committed relationships with at least one other musical project. Then there’s the art, drama, literary, academic and film flings on the side. It’s a necessary part of their approach, if not their personalities, say both Vince and Jason.
“Vince and I connected so strongly because of that shared energy for doing multiple things,” Jason softly says over the phone from his family home outside Adelaide, one thick, grey June day. “That’s true especially of wanting to approach a band project in a much more open way. We wanted to find ways to incorporate all the things we’re interested in – live performance and film.”
These various projects feed each other too, inspiring and rebounding off one another. “I do see them all as inseparable,” Jason says. “I have to, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to cope with doing so many things at once. It helps in the end because it means that there’s not a conventional way of approaching a project like Mist & Sea – we’ve got a very open attitude.”
Already this unconventional Mist & Sea project has morphed and changed: their debut album, Unless (just released on Popfrenzy), was recorded with three other contributing musicians, and those three now, with Vince, form the rock group Raining Ropes; the live show may or may not include live or triggered visuals; the live show may feature anywhere from two to six people on stage. They don’t know – they haven’t played live as yet; the practicing begins when Jason moves back to Melbourne from Adelaide. This open-ended ideal is a product of regularly being involved in collaborations, of seeing the benefit of remaining flexible and contingent. The questing tendrils of their approach, the quest to drag in relatively unconventional elements and continually evolve, has given the group a critical, self-aware edge from its conception.
Part of this comes from experience in the music industry: Mist & Sea is a band that knows its way around venues, contracts and ProTools. Jason and Cailan, in their work together as Pretty Boy Crossover, have been involved in over 20 releases. Vince, over the course of the Underground Lovers’ career, saw the major-label glamour – Rolling Stone coverage, awards ceremonies – diffuse to indie-label slog – calling record stores around Australia himself, making sure community radio had the album. His time in Underground Lovers (a.k.a Undies) also started him thinking about the push-pull relationship of art and commerce.
“Just look at Australian film,” Vince says by way of analogy as we sit in a Windsor café around the corner from his day job as a lecturer in filmmaking. “I think it [the industry] works in the negative a lot of the time. Art has to be constricted for it to become a product. You just get the same shots, the same set-ups all the time, the same look all the time – it’s consistent. But if you’re a creative person, you’re aiming for going the other way, I think. So this is how my brain works: why, when we’re watching films, are the films structured the way they are, why do we get the set-ups like that, etc? Is it laziness or is it the business side? Sometimes it’s satisfying that it works in a generic way. But there’s always something else going on that gives that satisfaction.”
Intuitively, Mist & Sea’s Unless, takes up this idea. They cherry-pick from electronic and rock-band influences, bleeding the two together for an album in which ambient synth washes alternatively yield to and then overwhelm shoegaze guitar. The pay-offs and set-ups of the genres they engage – electronica, shoegaze, indie-rock and beats – are trigged in turn. It’s a graceful, multi-faceted and, above all, cinematic album – an overused descriptor, no doubt, but one that is apt in this instance given Vince’s concerns: the period since Underground Lovers disbanded has been filled with film projects – soundtracks, directing, researching and teaching.
“I had melodies for some characters,” he says of his debut feature film Mallboy, “and you think about them and they go through your head beforehand – so sometimes they motivate your writing and the way you approach things visually. For me it’s all mixed in,” he says.
Vince teaches at the Swinburne film school and convenes a number of subjects there. He’s bringing talented students on to his forthcoming projects. He enthuses about Antonioni, parses some Theodor Adorno and always, throughout our discussion, shifts between discussing music and film. Perhaps given the conversational turn, the view from the cafe window seems expressionistically filmic – a clutch of black coats drawn together against a cold Melbourne wind, heritage green-and-gold trams rattling north and south, furrow-browed discussions and atmospheric smoke drifting upwards from footpath tables – but it’s comfortable and familiar inner-city territory, perhaps the kind of thing Vince criticises far too readily coming to the middlebrow world of Australian film. Vince’s movies are concerned with those mired in the limited choices of sidelined, underclass existence – like those of his mentor Rohan Woods, whose The Boys featured an absolutely integral score from Sydney’s The Necks.
Vince, eyes darting to take in the scene as he speaks, says the teaming of the cinematic and the musical in Mist & Sea is one that continues his ideas from the latter period of Underground Lovers.
“It’s what I worked towards in Undies, getting film and music together,” he says. The last thing released under the Underground Lovers name, in fact, was the soundtrack to Mallboy. Some of his upcoming film productions – even before the cameras have been powered-on and the crew assembled – already have music attached. He intends Raining Ropes and Mist & Sea to be working on the soundtracks to his next two films, both of which are finally finding their way to production this year.
The initial sessions for Unless took place in 2005 at Sing Sing, Melbourne’s famed, big-deal recording studios. There was a long gestation to this point, although Vince and Jason tell slightly different tales of their original meeting. The truth can probably be distilled from the overlapping facts: there was a pre-meeting email exchange when Jason had moved to Melbourne circa 2000; film critic and documentary-maker Megan Spencer was involved in connecting the two; sound designer and now Raining Ropes member Emma Bortignon was also a connection; Mist & Sea took flight around 2003, writing together in loungerooms after guitarist Jed Palmer and Cailan Burns moved to Melbourne from Adelaide. After getting a government grant to record, the band finally blocked out three days at Sing Sing to record their songwriting efforts. Then things stalled as life intervened, mixes became intractably mired and attentions, inevitably, shifted.
“We didn’t know what to do with it for a long time,” Jason says. “Cailan and I left Melbourne – two core members – and that’s when the talk happened about what the band is, what it’s going to be called and who it was going to be. I ended up taking the recordings and creating what is actually the album now.
“That was the most exciting part of the project for me, because it became much more about the initial discussions we had. Originally it was very much about Cailan and I getting together and recording as we had always done – at home in the loungeroom and doing it in a very lo-fi way. But then when got a grant to record it, we had money to spend on a studio. So it was a much bigger recording project than we first imagined it to be,” he says.
Vince had done the big studio thing multiple times before with Underground Lovers (“Paradise, Hothouse, Birdland,” he laconically lists), but Jason was both chuffed and uneasy about the sound of the Sing Sing recordings.
“Vince talks of it as four EPs together: starts rocky, then goes electronic, then has a harsh attack and then finishes on a sombre, washed-out ending. It’s a short record, only about 35 minutes long, but it goes through a lot of different stages.” – Jason
“It’s funny, when I was doing it, I thought ‘wow, these are some really great recordings from the studio and it all sounds really slick.’ So for me, the raw material was great. I had thought, when I was working it, that it was going to still sound really slick. But when I was remixing it, I noticed that I just seem to have an intuitive response to sound – that made it more degraded and dirty than the studio recordings. I found that it made the songs return to how they were originally being played. Still, it was such a pleasure to work on this stuff – all of it was really well played too. It could’ve gone one way or another: I think some tracks reflect that shininess, but I have such crappy equipment that it was inevitably going to reduce in quality.”
Throughout all this, Jason never assumed an overly controlling position. “It was still that collaboration,” he says, “I kept sending stuff to the others. I was very aware that they had a big part in the whole album – it’s a group-written album.”
Time away from the recording also gave them a chance to fix some of the problems encountered in their first attempt to mix. “Not having done anything for a while,” Jason says, “we went back to the songs and heard them anew.”
Vince gives the example of the track ‘Like a Vampire’, a song which the multi-tracking potential of Sing Sing rendered a run-away baroque rocker. “It steps down now in the end section. But in the original [Sing Sing] mix, it steps up – another two guitars come in, playing the riff up an octave. Which is kind of good too – it’s almost unbearable. [Jason] stepped it down, which is great as well. We wrote a lot of the album on guitar. They’re all guitar songs in a sense. But Jason pushed against that in the final mix.”
Jason, speaking of the same song, notes that it was all ProTools alchemy. “When we wrote it, it was much more about the sparse ending. In avoiding the rock ending, I took the guitar stuff from the end and put it in other places in the song.”
This chopping, shifting and sifting is the trench work Jason did at his South Australia studio. “We’d run out of energy and time,” Vince recalls. “Then Jason just took the bull by the horns; took the mixes and remixed them again, restructured it all. He reworked the whole album, which was fantastic.”
“The way I work, and the way I used to work in Underground Lovers, was that you’d plan all that before – you’d have a strong sense of the album and what it was; how an album would shift and move. Then we would record to that plan. So I worked in that way for Unless, but then it all got fucked over by Jason, which was fantastic because he just dismantled it in a way – the structure’s really different. I never would have thought of structuring an album in that way. It’s like every 10 minutes it does something else. Whereas with Undies, we always tended to start at a certain point, build it up, and plateau and then build it up; just thinking about structure and the way you build sound. I was really happy with Unless.”
As Vince suggests, the disc is structured in a holistic, album-focussed way – this, the desire to craft a start-to-finish album, was one of the group’s central aims from its conception. “It’s a shared ideal,” Jason says, “making albums rather than tracks. We were thinking about it as writing an album, not just writing a bunch of tracks.”
So in approaching the mixes anew, Jason re-imagined the album. “I tried to make it one seamless flow,” he says. “Vince talks of it as four EPs together: starts rocky, then goes electronic, then has a harsh attack and then finishes on a sombre, washed-out ending. It’s a short record, only about 35 minutes long, but it goes through a lot of different stages. That came from the way I was mixing it: thinking about relationships between tracks, matching sound. Making it cinematic – that’s what I like about good albums and always liked about the Underground Lovers too. Those Undies albums are epic, in a way, and had a fullness to them that you don’t get with many records.”
Aside from this shared concern with wholly conceived albums, Vince’s melodies and voice are the elements which most clearly link Mist & Sea with his past in Underground Lovers. “I’m really conscious of melodies and how they work,” Vince says. “There are songwriters where it’s about the lack of melody and the words that make them great. I’m Italian, though, so it’s an idea of Italian melodic structure for me. I’m conscious of that. I have to pare that back. On some Mist & Sea tracks, there were other vocal melodies coming in and out, but we took them out. Some ended up as part of bass riffs and stuff, but there was too much, it was overkill.”
So part of that familiar Undies sound derives from Vince’s way of writing. “Vince comes in with vocal melodies and lyrics before anything else,” Jason says. “So we’d listen to him singing and then write around his voice. That’s how a certain sound starts to emerge – a certain way of phrasing things. Although Undies were more than just Vince – five others were contributing significantly to that band. Of course his voice became a big part of that. I don’t hear it linking the two so much, although parts of it – the voice – sound a little like an Undies thing.”
Nevertheless, Vince hears in Jason’s mixes of Unless a different understanding of where vocals fit in the new group’s sound. “It’s weird to talk about your own vocal sound, but Jason mixed this differently to Undies,” he says. “He separated the instruments out and there’s a consistent reverb over the whole record. I liked it in that it was different: in Undies, the vocals were layered and multi-tracked and embedded within the sound. I’m always thinking about it being different to Underground Lovers as well, because I really wanted to move away from that.”
While they were each aware of this, Jason suggests that by the time they reached the studio, both his love of Undies and Vince’s earlier approach had been put at a distance. “I think because I got to know him more before we were recording, I left a lot of that Undies fandom behind. It was about a mutual like for each other. It became about what can we make now that we’ve met.”
More than any attempt to recreate the past successes of Undies, Mist & Sea is a product of shared formative interests, or what Jason calls the “filtering process of influences”: the noisier end of late ’80s and early ’90s UK guitar bands, electro-pop and darker electronic music.
It’s a connection that can be heard across Vince’s two present musical projects. Raining Ropes, he says, is “still guitar noodling and reverb. I can’t get away from that. I love it. The defining moment for me, musically, was My Bloody Valentine. That whole use of guitars. Bang bang bang. I love it. Some people can’t find a way into the density, but I like that about it. You have to get into the moment, the textures and then pick out the bits you want to hear. It gives the audience a choice. Whereas if you pare back stuff too much… I listen to stuff like White Stripes and then I can’t [anymore], can’t find anything new in it. It’s the juxtaposition that gives it its energy, but once you’ve got that, you’ve got that. I like things a bit more organic and ambiguous.”
“My Bloody Valentine were a huge influence for Cailan and I,” Jason agrees. “Even I suppose in things like layering sound. Seefeel, and stuff like that, which was around at the same time, is probably showing itself more on later stuff that we’ve done. But it’s all kind of unspoken, we never really talk about.”
Cailan and Jason’s more electronic concern, Pretty Boy Crossover, will see its sixth album (A Different Handwriting) released in July, inadvertently coinciding with Unless. Elsewhere in 2007 for the three individuals in Mist & Sea there will be a couple of film productions; work on Vince’s PhD, illustrations and artwork; Mist & Sea tours; soundtrack work; Raining Ropes recording; Jason’s continuing work on the other musical outlets to which he tends (School of Two, Par Avion, Other People’s Children, sound design for productions, films and exhibitions); and a new set of Mist & Sea recordings before the close of 2007.
“This was recorded such a long time ago, we are thinking of quite a different sound for the next Mist & Sea release,” Vince proffers. “A lot more electronic, I think, not necessarily going into the band side: pop structures, melodic, a bit more dancey, maybe?”
“Vince is after disco and up-tempo,” Jason echoes.
“I’m in to that too,” he says with the keep-’em-guessing grin of a shapeshifter.