The Cassette Kid
Armed with his silver Dictaphone, Clue to Kalo’s well-travelled frontman Mark Mitchell still harbours ambitions of being a hometown hero. DOM ALESSIO pins him down for a chat.
The first thing you need to know about Mark Mitchell is that he organises his record collection alphabetically and chronologically. Everything else about him makes sense after that. It’s because coherence and synchronicity inform practically everything Mitchell lends his hands to. Even, it seems, down to the way he dresses.
It’s lunch time and in Café Kawa, Mitchell is sitting by a window which frames the populated sidewalk of Crown Street in Sydney’s Surry Hills. The midday sun is streaming through the glass, threatening to be snuffed out anytime soon by the ominous storm clouds that are slowly engulfing the kind of blue sky postcard dreams are made of. Mitchell is also particularly blue: blue denim jeans offset a blue sweater of a slightly darker shade. A light blue collared shirt peers out from underneath.
Mitchell is in Sydney to play a handful of showcase gigs for his new label, Popfrenzy. Tonight, with his ragtag band, he’ll grace the stage at Surry Hills’ Hopetoun Hotel alongside local trio Songs and fellow Adelaide outfit Leader Cheetah. For Mitchell, whose musical output is released under the moniker Clue To Kalo, it’s a rare occurrence for him to travel from the city of churches to Sydney.
“We tend to not come here as much as we’d like,” sighs the 29-year-old from underneath his Jonny Greenwood-styled mop of dark hair. “Before we were a band and it was just me solo, I played at the Hopetoun a couple of times so I kind of know that area a little bit but I don’t really know Sydney that much. It’s so much easier to drive to Melbourne to play shows than Sydney.”
Distance, though, has seemingly never been a barrier for Mitchell and his cohorts. Clue to Kalo has recently returned to Australia after an April tour of the United States supporting lo-fi pop outfit Casiotone for the Painfully Alone. It was the band’s third trip to the US, and one that Mitchell enthuses “as far as a comprehensive tour goes, that was our favourite”. It comes off the back of years of interest from the States. See, the first Clue to Kalo record, Come Here When You Sleepwalk, a beguiling lo-fi exercise in computerised composition that was released in 2003 only through boutique US label Mush Records. It wasn’t even available in Australia, unless you were willing to fork over 33 bucks to buy it on import.
Consequently, Clue to Kalo’s hometown touring ambitions have been secondary to their Northern Hemispheric jaunts. Not only has Mitchell been granted greater opportunities overseas but the scope offered by an American tour far outweighs that of a run of dates in Australia. “You’re basically playing Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney. If you’re lucky you can get over to Perth and Brisbane, and then you’re kind of done, you know?” he says, nudging his leafy left-over lunch with a fork. “I think we did that once when the album first came out, and we haven’t really ever done it again unfortunately.”
Perhaps now is a good time to introduce the new Clue to Kalo record. It’s the reason why we’re all here, really.
It’s been three years since the release of the last Clue to Kalo LP, One Way, It’s Every Way, a gap that was due to all the boring aspects of making music, like record label issues and distribution debacles. “I actually finished it in March last year,” adds Mitchell, “and it’s just been sitting there for ages, and it’s only now just coming out.”
Titled Lily Perdida, the new album continues the Clue to Kalo tradition of creating thematic albums. On 2005’s One Way, It’s Every Way, the record was, as Mitchell describes, a “palindrome”, where the first half was the negative half of the album, and the corresponding second half was more positive. This time around, Clue to Kalo’s latest album centres around the fictional character of Lily Perdida, and each song is sung by a different figure in Lily’s life, like the opening track ‘Lull for Deaf Life’ which we’re told is sung “by the parents”. Or ‘Mine Disaster After Theirs’, which is performed in the guise of her brother.
“I kind of wanted to do this thing where I wanted the album to be listed as the album,” he explains, while a delicious-looking bacon sandwich is placed in front of me, “which is the character’s name and then you would have the by-line, which was Clue to Kalo, and then on the opposite side, I kind of wanted to have every person who was speaking to have their by-line. I thought if the band name was listed in the same kind of format as the characters who were actually speaking, then it would sort of equalise all the voices on the album, where the voices of these people that are speaking are no more or less valid than the voice of the band that’s kind of speaking as well.”
Arranged chronologically, we – the listeners – follow Lily from birth to death, while her life is narrated in song by those that know her best. Interestingly, we never hear from Lily herself, and that’s intentional, explains Mitchell. “It was kind of like the idea of a portrait which acknowledged that no portrait of someone is ever going to be accurate. So I thought that a good way to do that is to actually never even hear from the character, never really have any idea about this character, except through all these different perspectives of what this one character is, which essentially is as close as you can really ever get anyway.”
The concept album is somewhat of a faux pas in music these days, and while Mitchell admits that you’d probably find myriad holes and contradictions within the lyrical content, he still finds the process “really fun”. “I think it’s probably a leftover from study, I think,” he posits, referring to his aborted PhD in cultural studies and English.
You’re basically playing Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney. If you’re lucky you can get over to Perth and Brisbane, and then you’re kind of done, you know?
“The idea of having ideas and having that exciting presence of all these ideas coming out and all these things that you want to do, and then sitting down and thinking, ‘Well, what are all the connections between all these things, and what happens if I put this idea next to this idea?’ I find that process of organisation of ideas really satisfying and fun, and I think that’s a big part of it. For me, I just find it personally satisfying, and I know that – even if no one listens to it past a certain point –there’s some satisfaction in knowing that I put as much as I could into that record.”
What sets aside Lily Perdida from anything else in the Clue to Kalo back catalogue is the sumptuous and textured nature of the album. Mitchell explains his inspirations for the record were early Randy Newman records and the work of lesser-known artist David Ackles. “I really like that idea of it being quite … I guess have a certain sense of drama in it and I guess some of the arrangements kind of go along with that, you know?” he says. “They can be sort of slightly overblown arrangements because it’s fictional content and you’re trying to create a sense of drama and there’s something, you know, a little ridiculous in that kind of drama as well, which I think is kind of funny. But I am so really definitely moved by music which does that as well, which is why you can maybe be moved by a Broadway musical, even though you’re totally aware of its artifice.”
Though it was almost entirely composed on computers, Lily Perdida still houses wonderful organic warmth, with its multifarious range of synthesised instruments and sounds wafting through the breeze, belying the digital crunch that spawned them. You can trace Mitchell’s growth as a musician through his albums, and how his consummate skill on computers has seen his compositions grow from lo-fi electronica to glorious, indie-pop reveries.
It’s surprising, then, to discover that Mitchell doesn’t actually play an instrument. Or play one well, I should say. He dabbles on the keyboard, and can strum out a few chords on the guitar, but the only instrumental Mitchell uses to construct his tunes is a Dictaphone. It’s easy to picture the affable musician wandering around his share house in Adelaide, crooning melodies into a silver box. “I walk every day,” he explains, no doubt picturing the route in his head, “and the longer I walk, the more I feel I can get done. Because there’s a natural rhythm to walking as well, so you’ve sort of already set up your click track I guess and certain things just kind of pop into your head.
“It’s a lot different from how I used to do stuff when I first started using computers,” Mitchell continues, “which was basically sitting in front of a computer and, like, throwing things down, and then sort out working a song from what I’d already kinda thrown down. Now I actually like to write the song in my head before I sit down and make it. I like the sound design aspect of what I was doing before, but now I’m really interested in the idea of traditional songwriting – the melody’s really important, the arrangement is really important. And also it feels like I’m just getting back to a way I was writing when I was a kid, which was basically singing into tape recorders. There’s something really nice about getting back to that basic way of doing it where you’ve got no instrument, kind of, standing between you and a particular idea.”
To understand Mark Mitchell the musician, it’s important to reminisce on Mark Mitchell the child, growing up in the relative geographical isolation of Adelaide; a town whose musical output has forever been overshadowed by Australia’s more glamorous urban destinations. “For me, music was basically part of when I was a kid,” he recalls, “and playing as a kid was making up songs and pretending I was a recording artist and making up fake records and singing into cassettes and making cover art and stuff like that. To me that was like the funnest thing I could be doing.”
It all changed, though, when Mitchell realised he had no great interest in learning an instrument. After a brief flirtation with writing, Mitchell had an epiphany when a high-school friend became the proud owner of a new computer. “I realised you can actually not just play an instrument and make music that way, but you can actually use a computer to multi-track and make arrangements,” he says, his eyes lighting up. “It was amazing. ‘If I can just learn how to use this, I can just make a record from scratch.’”
Whether it’s as a musician or in his failed career as a writer, what’s clear about the young Mitchell, and the one that sits in front of me now, is that he was – and still is – a creator first and foremost. Music, it seems, is purely the vessel he chooses to translate what’s inside of him into a language that people can understand.
“I would listen to a record and I’d think, ‘Oh my God, I would love to be able to make that,’” recounts Mitchell. “And that was always how I saw it. It wasn’t like, ‘I’d love to be able to write that song, play that song or perform that song’. I really didn’t have any concept of how that would actually happen. I wanted to make the record how it sounded, with all its production, with the song and everything in there, but it was just that slightly different perspective on how I viewed it, I guess. Basically because I didn’t know how it was all done. It’s fun sort of not really knowing what you’re doing.”
It’s an ethos he continues to uphold in his choice of Clue to Kalo band members. They were assembled at the behest of Mush Records for his first tour of America following the release of Come Here When You Sleepwalk, a collective of faux musicians who had no real experience aside from a handful of lessons when they were younger. So how does this affect the process of rearranging his computer-composed songs onto traditional instruments, I ask? “It’s pretty tough. The scariest thing for me is the limitations that I have as a musician technically,” he answers. “I’m still not really good and I’m still quite self-conscious about it. I guess because I wrote it I can still sort of listen to things and try to get the bare bones of it.
“And I think if we were relying too much on the computer – like we used to rely on the computer quite a lot in our shows – we would probably be trying to replicate the sound of the album a little more closely. Because it’s impossible for us to do that because of our own skills and instruments and all that kind of stuff. It’s good to be forced to actually arrange things and actually have a different take on the song.”
In his own words, Clue to Kalo is not “buzz music”, but there’s a certain innocence that renders each of his records so endearing. While he’s never made a serious attempt at it, Lily Perdida stands as the first real chance for Clue to Kalo to make an impression on Australia’s admittedly limited scene. “I think that we’re going to spend more time on actually committing ourselves to playing more shows and seeing if we can kind of reach a greater amount of people here because we’ve never really done that. We’ve always been rehearsing to go overseas to America to do tours. Now we really want to go out of our way because, I mean, this is where we live and we love this place and it’d be nice if we could have a few more people who might be interested in our music hear what we do.”