Jack Ladder: ‘The Nick Cave Thing Always Gets Brought Up’
Shape-shifting Sydney songwriter Jack Ladder tells DARREN LEVIN how he happened upon his Australian sound.
The first thing that strikes you about Jack Ladder (real name Tim Rogers) is how low his speaking voice really is. Talking softly down the phone from the Blue Mountains – he’s decamped here for the time being to escape the pace of Kings Cross – it’s the kind of deep baritone that invites frequent (and largely unwelcome) comparisons to Nick Cave.
Ladder’s third album Hurtsville – the follow-up to the Australian Music Prize-nominated Love Is Gone (2008) – may do little to sway those detractors, but as Ladder reveals over a 40-minute chat a month out from the album’s June release, there were a multitude of influences and circumstances behind his shift towards a modern Australian gothic sound.
Recorded by Burke Reid in the same Yass estate that Gareth Liddiard cut last year’s solo debut Strange Tourist, Hurtsville is the first record to feature Ladder’s newly christened backing band: drummer Laurenz Pike, guitarist Kirin J Callinan and bassist Donny Benét.
Do you prefer Jack or Tim?
Um, Jack’s fine for the purposes of this. I try not to talk about the Tim Rogers thing anymore.
Do people still bring it up?
Yeah, all the time. That’s my claim to fame apparently.
So you’re in Sydney?
I’m in the Blue Mountains.
Do you live up there?
How long have you been there?
Just a few months.
What prompted the move?
I was living in Kings Cross and getting a bit silly. It’s a self-imposed exile … I’m on the internet now doing promo stuff now. It’s a really beautiful place where we are. The autumn is much more intense than it is in Sydney.
Hurtsville is an incredibly different record to Love Is Gone, obviously. Just wondering how you arrived at this sound?
I guess it was a long process of trial and error. I’ve never been big on guitars. I like guitars. I play acoustic guitar, but when I played electric guitar I wanted the sound to be very pure, without effect. When we did Love Is Gone, I was very anti effects pedals. I didn’t even want reverb on my voice. I was afraid of that process and wanted to keep it as raw and natural sounding as possible. I don’t know what happened, but we made that record [Love Is Gone] and then I went away. People thought I made Love Is Gone in New York when I went over there, but I actually made it before. It was a reaction to a record I was making before that was really dense and orchestral and dark and moody, and I just decided I didn’t want that: I wanted to make a rock’n’roll record.
So what happened was I made that record [Love Is Gone], went away [to New York] for nine months and then came back. I started playing it but was bored by it already. I needed to get another guitar player to flesh it out, because it was just like a trio. I should’ve got a keyboard player and horns to do the record probably, but instead I met Kirin. He was opening a show for me – my manager booked him, because he was a friend and he thought I’d like him – we got along pretty well and I asked him to be in the band with me. The songs were so simple, I thought I could do them any old way and they’d still be the same songs. They’re very basic chords and the lyrical content is strong. It’s more in the phrasing than it is in the melody, so I could do whatever I wanted with the song.
Kirin’s much more intuitive – he doesn’t know written music – so I was very open to him doing what he does, letting him work with Lawrence [Pike] and the other guys. Then we would take the song in a certain direction. All the songs changed so dramatically that when we went on tour no one really recognised a lot of the record.
That probably explains the Golden Plains performance, which people continually talk about.
Oh, yeah. People didn’t like that. That was unfortunate because we left a lot of our gear at the airport. We were using a lot of gear at that point! [Laughs] It’s a pretty longwinded story, but Kirin and Lawrence, Donny [Benet] and I did a national tour as a band. We were playing the songs really differently, and it weirded people out. We were playing the main single at half the speed with totally different intent. We recorded it live to document it. I was much happier with that than I was with the record. Lawrence went on tour to Europe with PVT and we were asked to do the Wolfmother support. We found this drum machine while we were on tour in Byron Bay, and just started using it. Lawrence plays like a machine anyway, so it made sense to just replace him with a machine. [Laughs]
“You see connections between all types of music and you put it together in your own way. That defines what you do.”
Kirin and I decided to do the Wolfmother tour as a duo … We did that and it was a real shock. We played the songs dramatically different from the record, which was a soul rock’n’roll thing, and turned it into a no wave drum machine thing with echo on the voice. People thought I was doing a DJ set. That didn’t go down to well … Kirin and I got really good as a duo, but the problem was I completely isolated anyone who actually liked the record. [Laughs]
We decided to go to America to finish writing the record … We lived in LA for three months, finished writing [the album] and played a bunch of shows as a duo. We were working on the sound of what would become the record. But then things got different. We’d been working primarily as a duo now, but went to Yass to record the album and brought in Donny and Lawrence to do their parts. Once we were in Yass everything changed again. It became a much fuller band sounding thing.
Which is where it’s at now.
Which is where it’s at now.
I guess people who didn’t know that back story would assume it wasn’t a natural progression.
It’s really natural and it’s very incremental; step-by-step to reach where it is. Because three years passes in an album cycle now, ideally I should’ve been documenting each step of the way. I’d like to release the live recording of Love Is Gone with this record, because I want people to see it as a step, rather than a shocking jump.
Well, you’ve gone straight from a sort of Motown-sounding record to a weird Australian gothic album.
Yeah, but people always thought that’s what I did anyway. The Nick Cave thing always gets brought up. People say the last record sounded like Nick Cave – it sounds absolutely nothing like Nick Cave. I don’t know why that happens. It’s not even just journalists, it’s kids that come to the shows, “Oh, it sounds like Nick Cave.” And you’re just like, “Well, it does and it doesn’t.”
I think it’s because you have a deep voice, maybe?
It’s a very superficial thing.
There is that Australian gothic element, but that encompasses The Triffids and Rowland S Howard, and others as well.
I got heavily influenced by the Triffids somewhere along the line. I got In The Pines first. That was the inroad. That ’80s Australian sound was never really something I enjoyed growing up. It came to me really late.
What did you grow up listening to?
A lot of jazz. In high school, I wasn’t an indie rock kid. I never had Sonic Youth written on my school bag. As a little kid I was really into hip-hop like Ice Cube. Cyprus Hill was the first concert I went to when I was 11. I don’t know why I was allowed to go to that. Then I got into Mike Patton, Faith No More, Mr Bungle, Primus and all those bands that you get into as a young teenager. After that I got into jazz and electronic music, and from that post-rock (Tortoise, God Speed You Black Emperor) and then country music. It’s all connected. You see connections between all types of music and you put it together in your own way. That defines what you do.
Did Kirin push you into that Australian gothic direction?
I was already going that way, which is why I respected what he was doing. He had already been through all that. I was giving him Springsteen records and he was giving me My Bloody Valentine and that kinda thing. I had listened to Nick Cave’s catalogue because country music and songwriting is what interested me and he’s pretty good at that sort of stuff. I think The Triffids thing came in, because I didn’t really understand The Triffids and the Go-Betweens and that sort of world.
I listened to In The Pines and he [David McComb] does this Phil Spector song. I was really into Phil Spector. I realised that Dave McComb was putting this ’60s girl-group thing with country music. I read the liner notes to Born Sandy Devotional and he has notes that he’s written for the songs and it’s all like Tom Waits and Suicide. I realised that I had a lot in common with those influences.
Those eerie keyboards on the record really give it that Born Sandy vibe.
I wasn’t thinking that so much. The keyboards came really late. We recorded the majority of it down at this place at Yass, this huge castle. It was amazing that we found it. We were dropping points on Google maps going, “This is halfway between where we have to pick up the gear in Melbourne and where we have to drive to in Sydney.” We called up a bunch of local councils looking for scout halls and different places. The guy at the information centre in Yass was incredibly helpful. He put us onto someone who had this huge house and was renting it out. We went there and did the majority of it, but we didn’t bring a lot of keyboards. I wanted to do most of it with guitars. Most of the demos I had done was about generating guitar sounds that sounded like keyboards – and Kirin is really good at that. Something happened and it just didn’t sit right, so I did the keyboard overdubs at another place.
Was it the same estate that Gareth Liddiard did Strange Tourist?
It was the same place. We borrowed The Drones’ gear to record the album. Burke was supposed to go do Gareth’s record just after he finished our session. But instead, it was just easier for Gareth to come up there and do it. He did that [Strange Tourist] straight after we were there. It was a much simpler record for him to make, so it came out a couple weeks later. [Laughs] I think other people have been doing recording there, maybe Palace of Fire, which is the guys that used to be in Wolfmother and Matt [Blackman] from Charge Group. I’m not sure if anyone else has been there, but it’s a good place.
What’s so special about it?
It’s really big. [Laughs] It has this big atrium area with a staircase that goes up three flights. So we were miking up this whole room and putting microphones at the top of the staircase to capture that full reverb sound. Playing the drums in there and creating these huge guitar sounds – you’re getting a much larger picture, rather than putting a microphone in front of the amp. The album sounds big because there’s a really wide picture on it. You can do all that stuff on the computer, but the reverb never really sounds that real. It gives the whole record a certain ambience. I could tell because when I tried to do overdubs outside the house, things wouldn’t fit and it just sounded so fake.
You can’t really replicate natural reverb.
And certain rooms have certain sounds, so it becomes very site-specific. It becomes different to match other reverbs to. It loses something.
How long did you spend there?
We were supposed to be there for two weeks to begin with. The record was supposed to be much simpler: just drum machine, guitar and light percussion. But it kept growing. We were going to mix and record it in two weeks, but we pushed it to three weeks – because two weeks to make a record isn’t much – and then we pushed it out another week. So we were there for a month in the end.
The location seems to match the album's themes of isolation, etc.
Yeah, and the property was huge. It had an amazing stretch of field. There were cows and sheep. There was a big hill with bushland up the other side. It was quite eerie up there. It was so cold. There was frost every morning. It’s such a big house; it was impossible to heat, so most of the time was spent at the control room which was in front of the fireplace. I guess those things influences the sound. There’s no wonder Icelandic bands sound like they’re from Iceland, or London bands sound like they’re from London. [Laughs] There’s an Australian sound and it’s pretty special. Once it hits you, few things sound as good … Most bands just sound like they recorded in LA. To keep things within their own locality … that’s why bands like the Drones, who make very Australian music, record in Australia in these sort of locations: they made a record in Tasmania [Gala Mill], they made a record at Gareth’s house in Havilah, Victoria [Havilah]. Technology allows you to do that now, so there’s no reason to go into a big studio – unless you want to make that sort of record.
“I was bored of just seeing Jack Ladder written. It didn’t mean anything to me. It’s more about a sound now. Before it was about songs.”
It’s interesting because Born Sandy Devotional was recorded in London, but I suppose that record was informed by homesickness.
When we were in LA I think there was a lot of homesickness. We were sharing a one bedroom flat [in Los Feliz]. It was fun, but the music scene there isn’t that inspiring for me, especially from a songwriting perspective … There’s not the great romance to LA that there was in a musical scene. The Tom Waits thing doesn’t exist there anymore. It’s become a franchise, like House of Blues. The Troubadour isn’t The Troubadour – those places have lost their romance. What’s booming there now is that all-ages DIY thing, places like The Smell. It’s healthy, but it’s not my scene. Kirin and I would sit around and watch Go-Betweens and Triffids videos on YouTube. [Laughs] We’d go out to the Gold Room, where you can get a tequila shot and a beer for $4. We’d stay there all night and not do anything, take in what is LA, go to the Taco Zone and go home and watch ‘Wide Open Road’ on YouTube. [Laughs]
Lyrically, is that what put you in the headspace of the record?
I’d been writing it for a long time. There were heaps of songs that didn’t make the record. I wanted to make a concise sort of record, but it’s 50 minutes and eight songs.
I was going to bring that up!
[Laughter] So it’s three times as many songs, really. Lyrically, the people that I like are the people that influence Dave McComb. I think Dave McComb was heavily influenced by Nick Cave, but the thing that always comes through in Dave McComb’s writing is Leonard Cohen and Springsteen and Tom Waits and all those great songwriters. It comes through that romantic poetry thing. It’s a hard thing to touch on, because the whole idea of Baudelaire and Rimbaud and all these great poets seems so far away now. There’s so little of that left in music, because every new wave that comes through destroys part of the history, and the kids that take that on lose something. Unless you actively go back and search out these things, they get lost along the way. For me, I’m interested in that stuff, so I go back and find that. People just like Bukowski now. He’s the classic poet, but he only died 20 years ago.
Going back to Springsteen, the working class imagery of the title track, really reminded me of him.
[Laughs] There’s that sort of thing going on – and that interests me – but a lot of it is about infidelity. It takes the working class thing, but it’s much more personal. The whole burger joint thing [the line, “I flip the burgers/While you work the till”], it’s an idea, it’s not real.
Did you come up with this fictional place called Hurtsville first, and then build the songs around that?
That was an idea from a friend of mine … The idea of Hurtsville/Hurstville [in Sydney’s inner-south], I mean we see that sign everywhere, so I think it’s kind of funny … I ran with it and maybe went too far. I think it’s a beautiful word typographically. You use the things that resonate strongly with you – for better or worse. [Laughs]
And the stories came out of that?
They’re all just bits and pieces from everywhere. I don’t really write in a lineal way. I write more verses than are used. I take things from here and there and eventually it makes sense purely because I wrote it. Or maybe it doesn’t make any sense. There are fractions of myself and fractions of other people and fractions of stories. I just put it all together.
I ask because there seems to be a lot of recurring themes.
I guess there are. There are infinite things you can write songs about, but I guess I do tend to operate in a certain world. The world of songwriting that I like is the ballad, and I like country music. ‘Hurtsville’ is just a country song … It’s not particularly groundbreaking stuff, that’s just the form I feel comfortable working within. I think there’s something interesting about taking that history of songwriting and redecorating the place with a few new elements … [Having said that] it’s not a modern glossy sounding record, but it’s really crunchy. The keyboards don’t sound like they do on new records. They sound a bit dirty. There’s a bit of grit in it. I don’t think it sounds particularly ’80s …
I think if you’re going for that ’80s sound and you perfect it, it’s quite boring. All that ’80s music was influenced by that ’70s Berlin Bowie stuff and that’s what I listen to more than ’80s music. I really developed a fondness for Depeche Mode and that was something I never really liked. It’s even more that early ’90s production, than ’80s to me. But, yeah, the Berlin Bowie stuff, [Iggy Pop’s] The Idiot – those were the main things I was going for. I wasn’t listening to Simple Minds records.
Why did you decide to give your band a name and equal billing?
Because they’ve been playing with me for a while. It felt good – we’re close friends. I was bored of just seeing Jack Ladder written. It didn’t mean anything to me anymore. It’s more about a sound now. Before it was about songs. I didn’t even own an electric guitar, really, when I made the last record. I borrowed all the guitars. I borrowed amps and I didn’t have a sound. The only sound I had was my voice and the idea of the song. I was very pure about that. I would turn my nose up at people that got too involved with effects pedals. That wasn’t what music was about to me. I came to gradually understand that things really are about sounds and I became much more interested in the sound again.
Do you think you’ll stay at this sound for a while?
[Laughs] I don’t know. Sounds and songwriting – it’s healthy to have a mix of both as a songwriter. You see songwriters that stick primarily with songwriting as they get older – they seem to have less and less interest in the music … The separation becomes bigger, I think. It’s really important to have a sonic world you inhabit and I think that’s the main thing we were trying to do with the record – whether it’s ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s, it’s kinda irrelevant. It’s the world that those songs fit in.
And that world becomes yours?
I guess it ends up being mine. I take a bit from here and there – it’s healthy to have a well-balanced diet.
‘Hurtsville’ is out now through Spunk! Records.
Fri, Jun 17 – Alhambra Lounge, Brisbane, QLD
Sat, Jun 18 – Kings Cross Hotel, Sydney, NSW
Sun, Jun 19 – East Brunswick Club, Melbourne, VIC