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We interview Andy Bull!!

Our very own Danni L got to catch up with Andy Bull yesterday and discuss recording of Phantom Plains and more!

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I'd just like to start by saying that Andy Bull is a really nice guy.

I was horribly disorganised. I'm disorganised at the best of times, and this wasn't the best of times. I really wasn't sure what I was doing. I never am. He waited patiently while I tried to work out how to record the interview. We chatted about the weather, and the open-topped cars in the street below him left to fall victim to sudden showers of Sydney rain. A brief exchange of pleasantries, and I launched awkwardly into my first question:

You've described Phantom Pains as the most spontaneous and natural thing you've ever done musically. I'm just wondering if you can describe how this one has differed from the other albums you've done in the past?

Well, the first album I ever did, which I don't really talk about now because I feel quite distant from it, and I felt distant from it when I put it out, it was a very laborious process, and it took a lot of time and it was really hard work, and I suppose it was so difficult because I didn't really feel close to it, even when I was doing it, but with the Phantom Pains EP, it was done comparatively quite quickly, and it was done with friends, and the whole process was done in a more casual sort of natural way, so instead of forcing songs, I would just let them unfold, and if they didn't unfold I wouldn't force them. I'd just let them go.

When it came to recording, it was the same sort of thing. Instead of going against the grain, we did what felt right and we didn't labor over it for too long. So basically, instead of wasting time on ideas that intellectually were appealing but didn't sound good, we would just let those intellectual ideas go and concentrate on doing the stuff that just spontaneously worked better, and that just made the whole process more energy efficient really, and rewarding, and quicker, and spontaneous for that reason. Things fell into place rather than had to be rammed into place, and that was very refreshing.

 

So, from that perspective, I've read that there was a technical element as well. I've read that you recorded some of the songs with analogue methods. Is that correct?

Yes, so we tried to where possible, use tape machines. Anyone can record these days who has Logic Audio which is an audio program. Logic Audio comes with all these things called Plug Ins, which are effects and things like this, but they're all modelled on old equipment, so stuff that is like hardware, actually boxes with knobs and dials and things, and we always tried where possible to use the boxes with knobs and dials rather than the software equivalent, because when you compound all those software things on top of each other you end up with something that sounds like it was made on software, whereas if you use all the old hardware, you end up with something that sounds more kind of, hopefully more classic, more kind of organic sounding.

It's kind of a hard thing to describe. But with a whole album of it, and you've got all these things running all these effects and all that kind of thing, it does have an effect where you're kind of consciously aware of what that is.

 

The other interesting thing I found with this album was that you illustrated it yourself. The illustrations are quite energetic and they're sort of strikingly beautiful. Was this a conscious decision to sort of aim for something that was more you and more natural?

Yeah. That pretty much hits the nail on the head. I drew my own hand for it and I drew all the stuff inside, and I'm not like a trained artist. It's just it's something I've sort of done as a hobby over the years, and I just thought that that would fit with the whole kind of ethos of the album, which was to do something that wasn't perfect, but something that was honest. You know, something that had character in it. So that was, I guess, the motivation behind it, and I always wanted to.

Though I'd never showed anyone my drawings really, outside my circle of friends, a part of me really wanted to draw something for people outside of my family or friends, so this was the perfect vehicle, and on top of that, it's exacly like you said. It just bound everything together as being something that was a bit more spontaneous and personal, so with the drawing, it's a scratchy sort of drawing that was done very quickly, but that was hopefully not trying to overperfect, but just to get something that gives off the spirit of the thing even if the details were scratchy.

 

You've mentioned friends and sharing, and that sort of thing. You've done a lot of collaboration on this album: Lisa Mitchell, Hungry Kids of Hungary, Little Red. You've appropriated a rhythm section from Deep Sea Arcade, which you've described as one of your favourite bands. Have the collaborations had a big impact on the way you've worked as an artist for this album?

Yeah, it reminded me why you do music. Why you make music public, and that's for the use of people, and for the experience of connecting with people and doing things with other people, so it's not just elevation or self interest. It's your prerogative to be involved in life, and be involved in the lives of others, and to collectively create something, and in terms of how that relates to the creative process is that instead of just trying to forge your way through on your own, which can be very lonely, and also very hard, you're working with friends you love and whose opinions you love and respect, and everyone's bringing their own personality and their own history and their own perspective, and the value of having a whole group of people paying attention to something is exponentially larger than just having one person paying attention to something, you know. So if you get ten people who are really aligned, looking at a thing, solving it, it's a hundred times better than just one person looking at a thing trying to solve it.

So when it came to the EP, I had these people that I really loved and they were offering their creative input, and we were finishing one another's ideas and things like that, and that's immensely rewarding because it's no longer a lonely process then. It's a really communal fun one, and if you can put your ego to the side and not try to control the process so much, then you can have a really deeply rewarding and satisfying experience.

 

And this would seem to tie into your 'Making Tracks' program for Tourism Australia, when you were involved with Irene Chen the clarinetist.

Mmm. Yeah, so it was really interseting meeting Irene because she's from Taiwan and our backgrounds are so different, and our upbringings were so different, and even the kind of music we make is really different. She's a classical clarinetist. It was fascinating because we got along so well despite coming from such different worlds and we had the same sense of humour, and she was a really spirited fun girl, which was kind of revolutionary . . . her family's really conservative, and she said Taiwanese society, at least in her kind of circles is very conservative and strict, and she was this really spirited, fun, charismatic person with a really hilarious sense of humour and a really rebellious streak.

She was awesome, and the way we talked about music was exactly the same, and this reminded me that regardless of what domain you exist in creatively, so whether you're a classical musician or a pop musician or anything else, an architect or an artist or whatever, there's a process you go through, and you experience a lot of the same phenomenon on a high level, so the details are different about what happens along the way, but at a high level, the creative process is quite similar for everyone. There's a lot of shared experience. So we talked about the experience in the same way, and really connected and really saw eye to eye, and because we both had that respect of the process and one another, actually writing music together was a breeze. It happened without words, or it happened very quickly. It was a real pleasure that experience, and really nice to make, again, another friend from a whole other country.

 

It's really a universal language isn't it?

 

Exactly, we were joking about how that seems like such a cliche, but it was true.

 

Yeah, it does seem to be, from my experience.

I guess the other interesting thing about that is that you've travelled this country a lot as a performer, but this was a very different type of travel, wasn't it? I guess if you're touring as a performer you spend a lot of time sort of focusing on the show, but this allowed you to focus on your whereabouts, on the environment around you. How was that different, creatively.

Well, I mean, it's funny because when it's all edited together, it looks like we were just sort of moving around soaking up the environment, but in reality, and I can say this now because that campaign's finished, it wasn't really like that. We had to move very quickly. There was a camera crew. You know, they constantly wanted soundbites, and we were constantly talking to the camera. So I was joking, we did something for ten minutes, and then we'd talk about it for an hour. So that was very difficult actually, and I found that a bit frustrating because actually to write music, you do need time to reflect and wander around and talk and stuff, and like I was saying, Irene and I were really on the same page, so that process was pretty expedient, but if we hadn't been on the same page it would have been quite difficult because we were always being rushed around to get shots of this place, and say things for the camera. It was interesting.

I wouldn't do it again, but it was definitely . . . I mean to go and see those places was breathtaking, and I actually had seen them before. You know, I've travelled around the country a fair bit. I've been to Uluru, and Kangaroo Island and all that kind of stuff, just on my own time, but they never get less amazing, those places, and if you're stuck for inspiration and looking for something to do, I would honestly recommend going to see them because there's nothing else like them that you see in your day to day life. Uluru is like being transplanted onto another planet. I don't know how else to describe it, and I kept using words like 'oh, it's so surreal. It's so alien.' and everyone was laughing because that was the only two words I could really come up with to describe it. But I still feel it's tbe best way to describe it. It's totally surreal. It's totally alien, and you feel like you're on another planet, like you're a stranger on another planet, and it's very jarring, but also mesmerising. The rock is the biggest thing you'll ever see in your entire life, and there's something pretty magnetic about that.

 

There's something amazing about the fact that it's just remained uneroded, this giant slab of sedimentary rock.

Totally, and you start going, 'who put this here? How did this. . . ? What natural phenomenon created here, and what unique set of environmental circumstances made this the way it is. You know, it's crazy.

 

Well there's a few scientists that could go into that with you. I could put you in touch with them if you want to know.

I've also read that your father father collected keyboards, and I was watching a video where you're talking about your album art, and your said father brought home a bunch of cassettes and let you guys fight it out over what you were having. Was music always a shared experience in your family?

Yeah, it is at home. Both my parents were medical, and all the kids, the four of us, we all ended up going into  creative fields. So, there's an architect, two musicians and a ballet dancer. So, I don't know what went wrong that we all ended up doing this sort of stuff, but yeah, music was a shared experience, and continues to be. Especially, my eldest brother is always touring around the United States and Europe doing music, a very different kind of music, but music nonetheless, and it remains to be something that we all kind of connect on.

 

I guess there's just a few other things. Congratulations on your Hottest 100 success. You came in at number 68, which is a pretty big thing for an Australian artist to make it into the Hottest 100. The listening public seems to be pretty impressed by you. Has that actually turned into a financial success?

No, it hasn't. I don't know. It's a tricky one to answer, because you know the dream, of course, is that one day you'll be able to just make music and just survive off making music, but no. I have a dayjob, and that pays for everything. I mean, that pays for my music as well. At this stage, music almost doesn't even pay for itself. It takes a lot of sacrifice and living a kind of double life and living super cheap and everything, but I'm still optimistic that there'll come a time when I can just do music, and then maybe I'll be in a position to tour for more than a month at a time, and maybe I'll be able to go overseas and play overseas and things like that, but as it stands, I feel a little bit hog-tied, because, and this is mainly everyone in the band as well. We all have to work dayjobs, and we have to wrangle to get time off, and talk to our bosses to get time off, and it's hard. It's hard, but we do our best to make it work, and it's a constant stress though, trying to juggle it, but we do our best to make it happen.

 

That's a really common story with a lot of what would appear to be successful bands in the country. How, then, do you measure success for yourself as an artist?

Just by my happiness, I reckon, because that's an internal measurement, rather than an external one. So, I mean, if you were to measure it by records sold or money in the bank, then most of us would be able to be able to come up as nothing but dismal, dismal failures, which is really discouraging. You don't want to know about that, so the way you have to think of it is 'Am I happy?' and if I'm happy then I can say that I am fulfilling my purpose, and hopefully then, when you're happy, you're in a resourceful frame of mind and then by being in a resourceful frame of mind you can make the most of opportunities, which hopefully then might lead to a better material position as well, but being happy is the trickiest bit because if you're not happy, then obviously it doesn't matter what your circumstances are.

The point of life is to be happy and to make other people happy as well. So, I think that's really the only measure you can go by, because you know, if you've got nothing in the bank, but you're struggling, but you're having the best time then that's ultimately how you decide whether your life has been well lived. Like, 'How do I feel? I feel good. I'm doing the right thing' You know. But you don't always feel good either. Sometimes you focus on the wrong things or sometimes things are really hard, and you can be discouraged, and there's a lot of knockbacks and failure and disappointment and stuff like that as well, which temporarily knocks you back, but the trick is to always return to a happy centre after all.

 

You've done a lot in the last year. Your name is getting about a lot more. What's next for Andy Bull?

The tour is immediately next, which is taking up all my attention at the moment. Trying to get that happening together and rehearsing after work, and that sort of thing. But after that, the band and I are working on new songs, and we've actually co-written some songs that we've recorded. We've recorded I think three now, and we're going to do more recording, and maybe put out a song in a couple of months time, just after the tour, and then work towards an album next year. So there's heaps to do, and it's nice now because, like you said, there's an interest. I'd like to be able to deliver something towards that interest. So, we're just plodding along and hopefully whatever we do next, we'll do it right. I don't want to rush anything. I want to do it correctly and for the right reasons, and put out music that is good music. However long that takes, and whatever form that comes in, we'll see.

 

Do you think that that is a benefit to the fact that financial independence through music is no longer the goal. If you're going to make music, it's purely about making music itself, and you want to make it count. Is that resulting in better music?

That is true. When I had that moment, I was like, because I've been doing this for ages, I'll be 27 next month, and I've been doing this since highschool, and for so long the goal has been to just live off music, and I've never done it. I've never been able to do it, and I've tried so hard. It's just never happened, and so I thought okay, well just screw this. Imagine that whatever I do is, this sounds pessimistic: whatever I do is doomed to failure, okay, and there's nothing I can do. It's just going to fail, and so then, what would I do then, knowing that it made no difference, that the only reward was going to be the enjoyment I've had in making it.

What would I do? So I try to remind myself of that all the time. A more optimistic person might say, 'Okay, no matter what I do, it's going to be successful so what do I want to do?' That's also helpful, as well so basically, the point is that no matter what you do, the outcome is out of your hands, so how do you want to do it then? If after the process of doing it, it makes no difference, what do you want to do? So I try to remind myself of that as well. But having said that, it's also like that's a very idealistic way of looking at it, but also worrying about money, and worrying about how you're going to fit in touring and working, that's very energy draining as well, so that actually can negatively affect your creative surges because you've spent so much mental energy and nervous energy kind of worrying about that stuff that you don't really feel light and breezy and inspired and free to do stuff. So yeah, it can go either way. It's a matter of perspective, I suppose.

 

After the interview I put in an early request for "Smalltown Asshole" and "Au Revoir". I'd stopped recording at this point, and we talked a little about my favourite songs from the new album, and the fact that the songs were are quite upbeat, despite dealing with difficult experiences, all but "Work Is A Slow Way To Die", which couldn't quite push over into the jovial. What joy, we concluded, can be found in work after all?

Danni L - AAA Backstage


Andy Bull tour dates

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