Seja: The Synth Whisperer
Ahead of an east coast tour with Otouto, Seja Vogel talks to former primary school flame JON TJHIA about her first solo album 'We Have Secrets But Nobody Cares', her memories of Grade 6 camp and how she’s always wanted to be as cool as Stereolab.
If you're keen on anything to do with synthesisers and pop, chances are you've already seen Seja Vogel play. After years of unremitting touring and recording as a member of Brisbane outfits Sekiden and Regurgitator – and as part of backing bands for Dave McCormack, Heinz Reigler, The Mess Hall and Spod – Vogel has become a highly prized synth-whisperer. She even sews accurate replicas of them using felt, and is currently creating two Moog felt synths for none other than Bob Moog's daughter. Born in Germany, Vogel moved to Melbourne with her family at the age of seven, but spent her formative teenage years in Brisbane.
In what ways do you feel Brisbane's influence arising in your music?
When I was growing up in Brisbane as a teenager, I was really obsessed with bands like The Melniks, Biro and Custard, and was influenced by them and their perfect little pop song structures. Short and sweet! Although I didn’t really adhere to this formula on my solo album so much, I certainly did in Sekiden.
Do you ever ponder how things might have been had you never left Melbourne as a child?
I'm not sure there would have been a Melbourne equivalent of these bands, so I'm sure things would have been very different had I stayed down there.
Do you remember much of the Melbourne of your childhood when you come down to visit or play?
Yeah, I remember a lot. I lived there from when I was seven until I was 14, so I still have some friends from back then. We reminisce sometimes.
Do you remember catching the bus back from school camp in Grade 6?
Ummm, not really … Were you there?
I was, actually. We went to primary school together for a little while and even “went out” for a few days. Then I think possibly you went out with a boy named Coki Page who, by the way, doesn't appear in Google at all. Disappeared.
So how did you arrive at having your own album? Was it something you always considered you might make, or did it arise from a desire for something other than what your current bands could pursue?
I guess I have had many thoughts about making my own album, but never really aspired to it as such. I started making it mainly because I had a lot of time on my hands in between tours, with lots of creative energy and nothing really to sink it into. So I started writing songs. I never really intended to release it even. It was more just something fun to do. It was only much later when [brother] Mirko, who ended up producing it, and a few others got involved that I thought I owed it to them and myself to put it out.
How long ago did you start working on the album? And at what point did you start involving Mirko and all of your other collaborators?
I'm not sure exactly how long ago it was. I just remember having a bit of time off between Regurgitator tours, maybe about two years ago. The first collaboration on my album [‘Framed You In Fiction’] was with Saul Jarvie (ex-Rival Flight). We had talked about writing a song via email in the past, so I thought this would be a good a time as any to try it out. And it worked a treat!
I had almost finished writing the basic structure, main instrumentation and lyrics of all the songs before I asked Mirko to get involved. The reason I asked Mirko was because he has a much better understanding of sound than me, and because he is the only person I know that I can take criticism from quite easily. The other collaborators were just good friends I asked them to help because I was bored of sitting in a room working on my own.
What have been the most drastic differences, for you, between writing for a trio like Sekiden and working on a recording that isn't based on any particular people or instrumentation?
It was a completely different process for me. Every song I wrote in Sekiden I sat down and wrote from beginning to end with simple chords and lyrics. I didn’t think about harmonies all that much until we recorded them...
[By contrast,] all of these songs were written in parts and thought about carefully, mostly completely on my own. I never sat down and wrote one song from beginning to end. I'm not really sure why. I put a lot more thought into all my harmonies and synth sounds and tried out a lot of different things before I settled on the end result. The luxury of writing/recording most of it at my house was also that I had a lot more time to think about sounds than you would in a studio, and more time to try out weird things that sometimes sounded awesome and sometimes didn’t really work.
Is that a process that you'd like to return to when writing more band-focused material in the future?
I think I would like to try a mixture of the two, particularly because working out how to play a million layers of synthesisers and vocals live can be a bit tricky. It has definitely changed my view of how a song can be written, though.
“Because Sekiden hasn’t done anything in ages, I feel like this has already kind of taken its place in a lot of ways.”
Through playing with other notable songwriters - there's Quan Yeomans, Spod, Dave McCormack, Heinz Reigler and a bunch of others - what have you learned about your own approach to songwriting? And what are the records you were listening to while making the album that most informed your approach?
It's interesting seeing how other people write and play songs. Most of the people I have played with are incredibly gifted musicians, which I think makes you write songs in a pretty different way, because the ability to do exactly what you want is at your fingertips. I've never really felt like that. I always just take what comes and experiment with the results.
As far as bands I was listening to who informed my approach, I've always been a big fan of bands like Stereolab, who layer lots of synths and guitars and have quite a lot of vocal tracks. So I guess they play a big part in inspiring me in lots of ways. I imagine that they write a lot of their songs in parts too, especially on their later albums where songs change form completely at random points. I think all I've ever wanted was to be as cool as Stereolab!
I don't think you'd be alone in that aspiration! Is that part of your motivation to work primarily with analogue synths?
I guess so ... although it's not really about vanity and coolness as much as it's about the way they sound.
What have you got in your collection?
Synths we have at home are the Roland SH-101, Roland SH-7, Roland Juno 106, Roland Juno 60, Roland JX-3P, Roland GR-300 Guitar Synth, Korg MS-20, Farfisa SuperBravo, Yamaha CS-01. And a few others I think.
You're about to go on tour with Otouto, so I thought I'd ask Hazel [Brown] to pass on a question she'd like you to answer. She asks: “I think Martha [Brown – also in Otouto] would agree that working creatively with siblings seems to be about as rewarding as it is difficult. How did you find it having your brother produce, mix and master your first solo album?”
Mirko and I have always been really close, so our working relationship is super good too. He's probably the most patient, logical, calming and understanding person on the planet, which helps a lot … He's one of the only people I can really take criticism from well, so when he said, “This part sounds shit”, or, “This song shouldn’t be on the album”, I took it on board instead of getting upset. I guess we've been working together writing music for over 10 years so it didn't really seem like a stretch to get him to help. And yes, [it was] definitely rewarding. Luckily for me, he's also a really great engineer and understands outboard stuff much better than I do. I wish everyone had a Mirko.
Tell us a little bit about how you fell into music in the first place. How far back does it go?
I really did fall into it. I never really wanted to be in a band when I was young or anything ... Mirko and [Sekiden guitarist] Simon [Mackenzie] asked me to play some keyboards for them when I was about 16 or 17 when their bass player didn't show up for practice. Then he stopped coming all together and I would rehearse with them every weekend - until one day, Simon announced we were playing at someone's party. I was completely terrified and looked down at my fingers the entire show. But it ended up being something we all enjoyed doing. And that's how it all started, I guess.
What are, for you, the album's most pleasing moments?
I like the moments on the record that were sort of unplanned. Like the tom roll at the beginning of 'I'll Get To You', and the nine-count break in 'Silver In My Eye' that could only be written by someone who is a bit rhythmically challenged. I also enjoy some of the layered vocal harmonies and “oohs”, like a Seja choir.
How do you feel about sharing the tour van and splitting the rider with the Seja choir?
I reckon the Seja choir would be a pretty polite bunch of people who wouldn't be big drinkers. So it might be OK.
Have you ever been tempted to credit yourself on a recording as having contributed “keyboards/guitars/vogels”?
I think I made a joke about my Vogel cords a few times while I was recording, but didn’t mention it in the credits. Maybe I should have! Mirko and I talked about using the word “Vogel” as a verb for a while when we were both doing tour managing jobs for other bands. The definition would be: “Vogelled: 1. To be Vogelled; to be tour managed and looked after in an extremely proficient and German manner.”
Given an ideal situation, where would you see Seja, the solo project, ending up? Considering the luxuries of self-reliance, could you ever see it taking the place of Sekiden for you?
I can see myself doing this for a while. I think I have pretty realistic expectations about “Seja – The Solo Project”, though. I'll be happy if a few people listen to it and like it and come to my shows. But hopefully I'll make some more albums and stuff. And because Sekiden hasn’t done anything in ages, I feel like this has already kind of taken its place in a lot of ways.
Perhaps you could tell us about the felt synths that appear all over your album cover.
I started making little felt instruments a couple of years ago, just as presents for friends. I always try to get them as accurate as I can to the real ones - to get every key, every button and every slider to match. One Christmas, I decided to make my friend's entire studio out of felt. After that, everyone who saw them convinced me to set up an Etsy store and I have been successfully selling them there ever since. It was something I was doing a lot while I was recording my album and in all my breaks from touring, so I thought it would fit nicely to put some on the album cover.
We Have Secrets But Nobody Cares is out now through Rice Is Nice. Launch dates here.