Faux Pas: Artist 2.0
Operating under the Faux Pas moniker, Melbourne musician and broadcaster Tim Shiel’s success hasn't been played out among Melbourne’s live music venues, but online, writes ANDREW MCMILLEN.
"I owe a lot of people a beer."
This is how Tim Shiel, also known as Faux Pas, jokingly describes his career so far. Unconfined by spatial constraints, Shiel's success as an independent solo artist hasn't been played out in Melbourne’s live music venues, but online. The beer-owing remark was a response to his experiences with community radio, which he credits, along with the internet, with disseminating his music to Australia and beyond.
“I don’t play live shows, so radio airplay and internet exposure are really the two main ways in which my music gets spread out there. And the thing with community radio is – and I know this is obvious, but sometimes it bears repeating – in the majority of cases, it's the individual presenters who make the call about whether they are going to put your stuff to air or not. So there are a lot of individuals who I’m heavily indebted to."
Shiel began operating under the Faux Pas pseudonym in October 2005, with the release of his first EP Faux Feels. They were the first five songs that he finished, he says, although he’d be making music in various guises before that. He learned how to play guitar for a high school grunge band before his first foray into recording. “I made these mixtapes full of overdubbed guitar ideas, just really fragmented, sketchy type stuff. Eventually I bought a computer and started fooling around with software.” It took a further two years of fooling around before the songs that would later appear on Faux Feels sounded “finished”.
Around the time of the EP's completion, Shiel had watched his friend Wally de Backer attain community radio airplay under the Gotye moniker. "He wasn't super huge at that stage, but he was getting noticed a bit," Shiel notes. De Backer's completely DIY approach – burning CDs in his bedroom, printing covers on his inkjet and making handwritten notes – was particularly inspiring. “I could see that he was having a lot of fun managing that side of things, making direct connections with people. It looked like a fun way of doing it.”
Inspired by his friend's success, Shiel sent the EP to Melbourne community radio stations. The response was so positive that he began working on a second release “immediately”, as he had planned to spend most of 2006 travelling overseas. Released in April of that year, The Entropy Begins At Home mini-LP went on to become “Album of the Week” for both Triple R in Melbourne and FBi in Sydney. "It was a pretty big deal for me," Shiel reflects, "because at this point the record was only available on mail order from my website, and Faux Pas had only existed for less than six months." True to his plans, he left the country a few weeks after the album’s release to backpack through Europe, thereby pressing pause on his music career for the rest of the year.
“Nearly everything else happens inside my computer, and inside my mind. I basically just sit in front of a computer and play with sound, following an internal logic that I'm almost completely sure only makes sense to me.”
Upon his return in 2007, Shiel set to work on what he thought would be the second Faux Pas album. He was wrong. "Unfortunately, it's taken three years for me to actually get something together that I'm happy with," he says. In the meantime, he's released music just before Christmas each year including the Changes and Waterfalls EPs and, most recently, the ‘Silver Line’ single. While readily admitting that it’s the “shittest time to put a release out”, each release was welcomed with open arms by community radio and achieved some triple j rotation as well. "Each time I put the single out, I honestly thought it would be the lead-in to my record coming out. Unfortunately, it was only the third time lucky that this actually has turned out to be the case.”
Out this month, Shiel’s second album, Noiseworks, is a co-release between Melbourne indie Sensory Projects and Heroics, his own label, which is structured to “develop and promote future sound projects”. “I just want to create an entity that is separate from Faux Pas,” he says of Heroics, “to give me the freedom to potentially explore other things - whether it’s Faux Pas or someone/something else.” Although, for now at least, Heroics isn’t much more than a placeholder for Shiel’s big ideas.
When the conversation turns to his hardware setup, he asserts the benefits of simplicity. “I have a computer running [loop-based software music sequencer] Ableton Live and a few MIDI controllers to shape the sound,” he says. “On Noiseworks, I mostly used virtual instruments. There was almost no actual ‘recording’ in the literal sense.” However, he admits to playing guitar and breathing into a microphone a couple of times.
“The only thing I've ever spent any real money on is my speakers,” he continues. “Nearly everything else happens inside my computer, and inside my mind. I basically just sit in front of a computer and play with sound, following an internal logic that I'm almost completely sure only makes sense to me,” he laughs. “I play around with things until they sound right to me, then I cross my fingers and hope that other people are into it too.”
Operating largely within the digital realm, Shiel has cultivated a level of respect enjoyed by few Australian electronic artists. Online, he posts demos and free songs to his self-coded blog, uses Bandcamp to distribute his music for sale and for free download and actively uses Twitter to interact with fans. Unsurprisingly, he’s also proactive about sending his music to blogs.
"Often it's not hard to get their attention if you're polite about it. My advice to anyone who is considering sending their music to a blog, or a radio presenter, or whoever – just be honest, be yourself. Show that you care. Don’t pretend to be anything that you’re not. That kind of thing is generally more obvious than you think it is."
Shiel also prefers the digital distribution model, simply because it's how he personally accesses music. "I download, and it's been that way for me for so long that releasing my music in that way just makes sense. It is what it is. I tend to think of the physical product as a bit of an afterthought, but that probably says more about my own personal habits than anything else." In his experience, are there any drawbacks to selling mp3s? "Some people still want a physical product," he says. "I totally get that."
Shiel has also remixed several Australian acts over the years including Pikelet, Gotye, Aleks and The Ramps and Inquiet. These remixes often end up on his releases. "Sometimes I actually claim them as my own songs because I feel I've significantly moved the track on, so it's more like a Faux Pas song that samples the band in question, rather than just a Faux Pas remix," he says.
Shiel generally approaches the artist he'd like to remix, not the other way around. However, his most notorious remix didn't happen that way. His vocoder-heavy reworking of the Paul Dempsey track 'Ramona Was A Waitress' appeared on the Ministry Of Sound Chillout Session XII compilation last year after Dempsey's label specifically requested a Faux Pas remix. "I had a crack at it and I was happy with what I made. When I handed it over to them, I also handed them all the rights to the song. This isn't out of the ordinary for a low profile artist like myself,” Shiel says. "In fact, I think it's pretty standard.”
After it appeared on the Dempsey single, the label organised the spot on the Ministry compilation. "It was cool," he admits. "I took my sister to Sanity and pointed at a massive shelf full of Chillout Sessions CDs and said, ‘I’m on that!’” But he wasn't completely comfortable handing over 100 percent ownership rights. Shiel understood that condition from the outset, and went ahead with it because he really liked the remix he made. "I didn’t want to be left in a position where I couldn’t do anything with it, and no one would ever hear it. But I’m not sure I’d want to make a habit of signing my songs away. That works for some people, but not me." So was the Dempsey remix lucrative? “I wouldn’t say it was lucrative, no. No way. I tend to approach everything with a ‘see what happens’ vibe. But no, I’m not beating down any major label’s door asking if I can remix their bands for cash.”
Alongside his musical journey as Faux Pas, Shiel began hosting a weekly radio show, To And Fro, on Triple R in 2007 with his friend Dave Slutzkin. For more than two-and-a-half years, they played "esoteric music from all over the place”. In late 2009, Shiel was announced as one of the station's “Breakfasters” team, along with Fee B-Squared and Ben Birchall. Parting with Slutzkin, he says, was “one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made”.
Having experienced the benefits of community radio as both an artist and now as a broadcaster, Shiel is aware of how his transition might be perceived. “I'm more sensitive to the potential conflict of interest than ever,” he says. “[Although] I try my best to maintain a clear distinction between my involvement with the station as an artist, and my involvement as a broadcaster.”
If Faux Pas ever led to commercial success - which, in Shiel's opinion, is extremely unlikely – it’d be a happy by-product, he says. "I’m definitely not of the mindset that only struggling, broke musicians can make art of any value. I’m open to the idea of using my music for commercial purposes, but I don’t take any of those considerations into account when I make the music. It's cliched, but I try to just make music that I can be proud of." In the meantime, the digital DIY approach suits him just fine. "I understand it’s not for everyone, but I actually enjoy it."
Noiseworks is out now through Sensory Projects/Heroics.