Skyring Talks Grates Departure, Working With Finns
News posted Friday, May 27 2011 at 12:00 PM.
Related: Pajama Club.
Ex-Grates drummer Alana Skyring wants to clear a few things up: she’s graduated from culinary school (with honours) and returned to music. Despite a vaguely worded release from former bandmates Patience Hodgson and John Patterson, which implied that she had quit drumming to pursue her dreams of being a baker, Skyring recently picked up the sticks again as part of Neil Finn’s new project with wife Sharon, the Pajama Club.
Speaking to M+N from the Finns’ Roundhead Studios in Auckland, New Zealand, where the band have been rehearsing for their maiden tour, Skyring says the opportunity to join the Pajama Club came “out of the blue”. While she parted ways with The Grates more than a year ago, the announcement of her departure was made only recently, causing all sorts of confusion.
“I think the reason they [The Grates] chose to wait was because I wasn’t going to go back to being a drummer,” she explains. “I made the decision to go back to school, so my decision to come back to playing was out of the blue and it almost directly coincided with their announcement. It does look rather strange. People have been going, ‘So you’ve quit school?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I totally graduated.’ It’s just the timeline’s all out. It made sense they [The Grates] announced the change in band when they announced they had new music ready.”
While birthed in the Finns’ music room – the moniker refers to the nightly, red wine-fuelled jams the pair would have in their PJs – the Pajama Club has become a “proper” band with the addition of Skyring and Auckland singer-songwriter Sean Donnelly on keyboards and guitar. We spoke to Skyring about what it’s like to be part of the Finns’ – for lack of a better phrase – private universe.
So you’re in Auckland now?
Yeah, we’re working on getting the show down. The Pajama Club record is something Neil and Sharon worked on together. They built it over nights of jamming and recording the sessions then passed it on to Sean, who’s the keyboardist in the band now, to mix down and patch together and help them form the arrangements for each song. Then I came in and we’ve been working backwards from the album, in as much as we’re deconstruction what’s on the record and what to sacrifice and what to embellish as well. It’s been a few weeks now of very solidly putting it all together so we sound like a real band.
So you didn’t play drums on the record?
That was Neil actually. It was a blessing and a challenge. It was presented to me as: “Here is the album. We’re looking for someone who’s comfortable playing this, and wants to be a part of it.” I was allowed to add my own personality to it, of course, but I had all the guidelines waiting for me. When I walked up, I already knew the songs as they stood anyway and then we’ve been putting the energy into giving them a different dynamic.
You’re busting open this whole illusion of this being a loose, jammy project.
Am I? [Laughs]
A little bit maybe. I just got the impression that it was this informal lounge room jam.
Oh, but it was, because Neil was playing drums and singing and Sharon was on the bass guitar. She had never played bass before, so she was learning as she was going. They worked together putting other bits of instruments on, so it is jamming, but only with a couple of people. Then they worked with Sean to arrange the songs. I guess it’s both: controlled layering and two people figuring out what kind of music they can make together after being together for a very long period of time.
Is it strange being part of this intimate little world?
It is, but I get used to strange. I’ve been in so many different circumstances these past six years, that I’ve just learned to roll with things. [Laughs] It’s very comfortable here. It’s an excellent studio. There’s two big recording rooms and plenty of space for rehearsing and all the equipment that we need. Working with new people is an excellent experience, because I never really thought I’d play again, let alone come at something I enjoy from a completely different angle.
How long have you been at Roundhead?
About three weeks now. I came over for a couple days to audition about a month before that while I was still finishing up school. It was a really excellent couple of days. We played for a couple hours one day as we were getting things together, and by the next, we were recording stuff for the website and doing out first photo shoot. After Neil played some shows in England and America, we all came back here together and are working on putting the show together to take on the road.
“There’s a big difference between playing in a band for a living and working 12-hour shifts in a tiny kitchen.”
So you had other competition for the gig?
[Laughs] I don’t know. I’m not the world’s most technical drummer, that’s for sure, but I love to tour and I’ve been doing it for a while. It’s good having a couple girls in the band. Sharon is used to the road, because she’s been on the road with Neil before, but never in a situation like this. I think the same number of boys to girls is a good ratio to have. And it’s fun hanging out with Sharon. She’s such a creative woman and I really admire here for having the guts to make a change at this stage of life. She’s done so many things in her life. I’m sitting in a studio that she uses to make crystal chandeliers and jewelry. She’s a mosaic artist. She’s been surrounded by music for 30 years and has decided to take it up. It’s an excellent group of people.
So this is Sharon’s first proper stab at it?
She’s sung for many years with other people, but not in her own right. She was writing the songs and the lyrics with Neil and working on the music with him. It’s a new thing for her. She’s bought a whole different perspective to things … They’ve been husband and wife for a very long time [since 1982], so have a unique way of communicating, but it’s something new for both of them. You can hear that on the album: the experimentation mixed with the confidence of playing. That’s what the project has that’s so unique.
Did you know Neil and Sharon before?
No. The first time I met them was when I auditioned, and I was so nervous. They immediately put me at ease … To be able to do the number of projects that they’ve been involved with and he [Neil’s] done, I think you need to be a really good people person. They’re so used to a house and studio of people coming and going, so they’re incredibly open and excellent hosts. If I had half the social prowess that they do when I’m their age, I’d be a very happy woman. [Laughs]
So how’d they get in touch?
Well, the decision to leave The Grates was made more than a year before the announcement was made. The announcement was made and within four days, Neil had asked someone in the industry to recommend a female drummer. They had heard about my split. Actually, split sounds so dramatic! [Laughs] That I was no longer in The Grates and gone back to school, so Neil took that as an opportunity to see If he could lure me away.
The impression that I got [from the announcement] was you had given up music for culinary school?
I did. [Laughs] I graduated, I did the full diploma, just under 11 months’ worth. As I said, the announcement was made quite after the fact – I had almost finished my course by then. In fact, I got my grades last night and I got honours.
Thanks. I loved it. It’s a totally different lifestyle: living with my boyfriend, going back to school. It was a completely different way of using my hands. I was meeting people from different walks of life all over again. When I went to the workplace, I really took to that – even though there’s a big difference between playing in a band for a living and working 12-hour shifts in a tiny kitchen. They both have their positives.
And you still want to be a pastry chef?
Yeah, I want to own my own business in New York when I move back there.
Has The Pajama Club reignited your passion for music?
Yeah. I’ve always loved touring and playing, but I hit a different stage of life and made a decision based on what I was going through at the time. It [The Pajama Club] seemed so out of the blue. I completely wrote off the possibility when I first heard about it. I remember going to work and then going, “Why did I say that? Why did I say that?” And then freaking out: “Oh, my god. What an opportunity.” I came round to it stage-by-stage. Now that I’m here, it’s something that I’m really comfortable with, but in a completely different application. It’s challenging in a different way.
What can we expect from the album?
It’s an interesting mix of the confidence of Neil’s guitar playing and songwriting ability mixed with a new spontaneity from someone [Sharon] that hasn’t played in a band before and has different ways of looking at time signatures, let alone music. A lot of great players are like that; they think about it with their hands and fingers, rather than breaking it down mathematically. There’s a lot of different types of songs on the record. It all has a distinct sound, which is a combination between tight pop-rock arrangements that goes into these great guitar solos and moments. We’re working with the album backwards now and seeing whether we can make them breathe on stage.
‘From A Friend To A Friend’ sounds a bit kraut rock to me.
I wouldn’t even know what kraut rock is. [Laughs] Is that German?
Yeah, it’s like a German and experimental type of prog. Bands like Can, Faust and Neu! Have you heard them?
No I haven’t, I’ve been pretty insular.
I’m sure Neil will appreciate the reference.
I hope it’s positive!
There’s different types of songs on the album, but they’re all quite upbeat. There are lyrical themes that they share together. Sorry, it’s like the hardest question in the world. It’s got a confidence to it, but a lot of naivety to it as well, because it’s people doing something that don’t usually do with eachother.
Neil and Sharon played everything on the album?
Yeah. The album was ready to go, but the time I got to hear it. We’re doing a re-master right now. I’m essentially playing what he played on the record, which is interesting again, because I was given everything prepared. I was learning someone else’s way of treating music. It’s not necessarily the sort of thing I would’ve written by myself, but I’m learning by playing someone else’s adaptation who isn’t actually a drummer. I’m able to hopefully bring something to it, because I’ve had experience with more dynamic playing, with building up and filling differently. Hopefully I can bring something to it, rather than just replicate what was made a while ago.
And Sharon plays bass live?
Yeah, and sings.
How are you enjoying playing in a rhythm section?
It’s great. Honestly, I haven’t had a bass to play to in about seven or eight years [The Grates were a bass-less trio]. It’s different because they’re classic bass parts. I’m learning to listen to her … I’m used to completely different sounds around me … [I’m learning] how to lock in with a bass player and how to refine my playing, where I’m not all over the place and don’t fill too much. I’ve got to let the guitar and the vocals speak for themselves. I need to listen to solo and jamming and stuff. On stage, we’re treating the songs differently and allowing them to breathe at different points. They change every time they play, and that’s something I need to learn as well.
It sounds like a pretty intensive three weeks of training.
We’ve really been knuckling down that’s for sure. There’s a big difference between this week and the first week. Not that I haven’t had faith from the start, but it’s getting four people who haven’t really done this sort of playing and bringing them together in a room for five hours a day and trying to see what works.
Why Australia in particular for the world premiere of the band?
It just seemed right. We’re going to America afterwards, and didn’t want our first show to be on a festival stage (it would’ve been thrilling, but probably not the best decision). I think there are a lot of people who’ve been following Neil’s career and are interested on what he’s working on yet. I know it’s early to go out [on tour], considering there’s only one song on the internet, but we’re hoping there’s enough curiosity out there and enough people who trust our collective tastes to give it a go.
Do you think fans of The Grates will embrace it?
I don’t know. It’s a totally different way of treating music.
Are your old band mates supportive?
Yeah, they are. We’ve kept in contact and I’m really excited for their new album to come out. Their first tour starts the day ours finishes in Australia. It looked so strange online, because the announcement was made that there was a change in their line-up very soon before it was announced that I was playing with Neil, but in reality it was almost a year-and-a-half from one decision to the next.
So you’re currently in transit, I suppose. Is New York home?
Yeah, I’m living in New York with my partner. I’m in Auckland right now and then we’re touring, so I’m back on the road again. I’m just taking things as they come. I’ve learned not to expect anything. If being in a band since 2005 has taught me anything, it’s just to flow with things; to make the best decision that you can at that time.
by Darren Levin
PAJAMA CLUB TOUR
Saturday, June 11
The Northern, Byron Bay, NSW
Sunday, June 12
The Zoo, Brisbane, QLD
Monday, June 13
Oxford Art Factory, Sydney, NSW
Wednesday, June 15
The Corner Hotel, Melbourne, VIC