Ahead of the release of new EP ‘Solarium Down The Causeway’, Witch Hats singer/guitarist Kris Buscombe talks to TREVOR BLOCK about indulging hipster fantasies in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, changing labels and recording on the road. Stooges-esque photo by LAUREN BAMFORD.
At the end of their 2008 US tour, Witch Hats took some time out in Oakland CA to lay down a few tracks live to tape with producer Greg Ashley (The Gris Gris). The result is new EP Solarium Down The Causeway, which is rounded out by a tune that singer/guitarist Kris Buscombe recorded upon the band’s return to Melbourne.
It’s not a tour diary, however. There is a brief reference to a Milwaukee carpark, but that’s as far as the observations go. And there are no homesick songs about the “joys” of life in a Motel 6 either. It’s more about unloading some of the psychic baggage picked up while travelling.
How long were you indulging your wanky fantasies in the Chelsea Hotel for?
I stayed in the Chelsea for three nights. What a place. I was up on the eighth floor which is pretty close to the roof where this voodoo Harry Smith filmmaker guy tried to make a real life zombie by burying a homeless person in the rooftop garden.
I was in one of the transient rooms rented out to curious touristy types like myself. It had been modernised and spruced up a little – I didn’t get fleas, the heat pipes didn’t “just cough” and I wasn’t sharing a bathroom with junkies. Still, it had an undeniably surreal atmosphere. The whole building did, it spurred me on. I was feeling pretty deranged by that stage anyway, it was the first time in my life I’d spent that long travelling around playing music most nights and partying like a lunatic.
After probably two months “on the road” and a few nights and days off by myself in such a great city (staying in such a historic place where everyone’s heroes used to live), taking some time to fine tune songs was irresistible. I set up a tiny one watt Fender amp that I’d picked up in Milwaukee and ploughed through about 12 songs worth of ideas and lyrics, recording to a video camera.
I was sticking paper to the walls like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind by night and running around Greenwich playing art hipster by day with a small troop of new Yankee friends. We were all ignoring its present gentrified nature and pretending it was 1961. I became addicted to using a hair straightener and looked like a primary school kid playing Duran Duran dress-ups.
How did you sort out the recording, while still being on the road?
Once we were back on the west coast we rented a rehearsal space for two days and learnt the songs as a band before meeting up with Greg in Oakland to record. It was a very quick process from writing to recording, only a couple of these songs existed prior to going to America.
We recorded roughly 12 songs over a couple of days, aiming for an album’s worth of gacked-off-our-faces material. After getting back to Australia, doing some mixing and having a chance to properly assess what we’d done, it became clear a bunch of the stuff was either recorded poorly, played poorly or the song was just shit. Having said that, there were six tracks which came out brilliantly so we thought we’d settle for an A+ EP rather than a C+ second album.
“I became addicted to using a hair straightener and looked like a primary school kid playing Duran Duran dress-ups.”
I hadn’t personally heard of anything Greg made prior to meeting and recording with him. I’m pretty sure Duncan [Blatchford, ex-drummer] had just approached him via his MySpace page which had some information on his studio and so on. He was a pretty funny and nice little hobbit guy to work with. The only problem arose after he’d partied on all night without any sleep and then fell asleep during a vocal take the next day. I started singing Billy Ray Cyrus songs into the mike for about 10 minutes as he still had his earphones on. It was a subliminal mind experiment that didn’t do anything.
Are you happy with how it turned out?
Oh, yeah. We wanted to make a recording that got away from the slicker studio recordings we’d made in the past. I personally think our band sounds its best with the rougher edges exaggerated through recording live on shittier equipment. And minus vocals and one guitar overdub it was all live, which is completely different to how the previous stuff has been recorded. That’s all full of overdubs.
My favourite song off this thing is ‘Sessa (Son Of A Silo Salesman)’. It was an interesting one that I hadn’t taught the rest of the band until we were ready to record it. I’d wanted to have something a bit krautrock-y, a bit Neu!-esque in our arsenal for a little while. After the two-note Johnny repetitive riff was set in place we just weaved it back and forth, dancing around in imaginary toilets. It’s got Tom [Barry’s] best recorded guitar work to date on it.
Yet you re-did one track here in Melbourne?
The version of ‘Check The Center’ we recorded with Greg had some serious tempo issues and lacked the punch and feel of the version I recorded. It sounded like a strong song that needed to be on the EP so we went with the recording I’d made myself. We’ve got a film clip for this which will be put online very soon. The clip was made in the Arizona desert, it’s kinda like a $10 version of that Audioslave clip where they all fly into the desert and let off fireworks.
Why did you include a proper lyric sheet this time round?
This was the first time I’d made a deliberate effort with my lyrics. In the past I was using the first thing that came to my head, and that was what ended up in the songs. Not that they rival Leonard Cohen yet but I’ll get there. So yeah, I’m comfortable for them to be seen for the first time. Plus it stops shithead journos making up their own [words] in reviews.
You’ve changed labels for this, and issued the first 10” vinyl I’ve seen for ages.
We were ready to go with Bruce Milne and In-Fidelity back at the start of the year, in preparation to release ‘Check the Center’ as a 7" split (prior to the full EP) with a track from an American band we made friends with on our tour, Thee Oh Sees. But one thing led to another – it probably had something to do with the fact we weren't recouping a whole stack of money they'd spent on us in the past – and in the end we got the heave-ho.
So then we sent it to a few labels, most of whom declined. After hearing that our old friend Lou Ridsdale (who had worked with us as a publicist in 2008) was starting her Z-Man label, we gave her a copy and found a willing and excited new home. She's never had a label before but is very experienced in all sorts of other “music industry” areas so I can't see her fucking us over too badly. She buys us beer and potato wedges whenever we meet her too.
The EP was only supposed to come out on vinyl but Lou insisted on CDs as well which makes promoting it cost effective. You can't really send stacks of free vinyl out for reviews etc. And the length of it meant it worked well as a 10" record. I've always liked 10-inchers, the Fall’s Slates EP is one of my favourite records I own. They're just like a strange poofy midget thing; a pubescent 7" on it’s way to the common adult size of 12", a pretentious teenager trying to stand out from the crowd.
Witch Hats’ Solarium Down The Causeway EP & 10” vinyl is out this month via Z-Man Records.