Not so long ago touted as ‘The Next Big Thing’, now unequivocally ‘The Big Thing’ and soon to be ‘The Freaking Massive Thing’, The Jezabels are now most likely constructing volcano entombed lairs for their imminent world domination.
Currently in the midst of a gruelling tour in support of their breakthrough debut LP, Prisoner, their non-stop, global criss-crossing adventure will last throughout the year and will bring them back to Oz for a whistle-stop national rendezvous during the month of June.
However, despite the overwhelming critical and commercial acclaim, no success ever comes with absolute universal consent. After winning the Australian Music Prize in March this year, the backlash had well and truly arrived. The decision was deemed polarising, its bestowal upon a band that had already received widespread attention was contrary to the ideals which many believe the AMP was designed to subvert.
In their humble acceptance of the award the Jezabels wrote:
“What is clear throughout all the difference of opinion, regarding both the politics of the prize and musical tastes, is that The AMP is made up of people who care a great deal about Australian music and the importance of maintaining the ideals that the prize has come to represent, the encouragement of excellence and quality in Australian albums, regardless of their popularity or success, but to also recognise that those things are not mutually exclusive.
Indeed, it seems hard to chastise four under 25’s who have achieved so much in such a short time, while remaining fiercely independent, without the backing of commercial radio. The AMP award seems fitting, Prisoner is a record that feels particularly evocative of Australia itself.
The Jezabels’ story starts in the northern New South Wales coastal town of Byron Bay. Three of their four members all originate from the area, but while they shared a hometown, their associations took a while to form. Something that’s raised over a disembodied telephone connection to guitarist (and probable lair architect) Sam Lockwood.
Lockwood and frontwoman Hayley Mary first encountered each other through a single shared semester at school. The latter used to busk around Byron Bay with her father and though Lockwood is in prime position to see her strut her stuff now, he can’t recall seeing her earlier performances.
“It’s not a long stretch of the imagination that I would have seen her. I must have missed it, she was probably at the markets or something like that.”
While there was a pre-established connection between Mary and Lockwood, he was less acquainted with keyboardist Heather Shannon,
“I met Heather once at an 18th in Byron. We went to different high schools so I didn’t really know her at all. We got a cab together from the town out to a party in the fields. I remember it clearly but she doesn’t remember at all. It’s funny looking back now at that chance meeting and now we spend every day together.”
It wasn’t until a serendipitous encounter after all three had relocated to Sydney for university that the genesis of the Jezabels began.
“I was sitting outside the library. Hayley and I had said hello to each other a little bit before, we sat down and started talking. She said that Heather and her had been playing a bit, doing some open mic nights and they were always jamming together, and that’s how it started.”
The first, primarily folk inspired, incarnation was known initially as the Neon Stetsons, “but then Nik [Kaloper, drummer] came along, I got a scholarship from the uni and bought an electric guitar and we started playing non-folk and more like what we do today.”
Kaloper, originally hailing from California and moving to Australia when he was sixteen, had began drumming in a few metal bands, including a Metallica inspired thrash, techno-metal outfit known as Schrödinger’s Cat.
“We’ve been playing for a long time with a few different drummers,” recalls guitarist Lockwood, “a few different set-ups but Heather, Hayley and I stayed together and kept playing. We actually wrote our fist song, ‘Disco Biscuit Love’ in my bedroom with really basic recording material. We signed up for the Sydney battle of the bands concert without a drummer and that was pretty strange thing to do with it coming up in two months. We had about a month where we didn’t think we’d be able to, but I met Nik in a café… we started talking about music and found out that he was a drummer. Hayley and I took him back to my house and we showed him what we did and it was weird because it was very early on and it sounded pretty shit. But, he came back and we started playing together and that’s when we started to realise… it sounded quite good and we were really excited.”
And thus began the meteoric rise of the Jezabels and the birth of Prisoner. The album title is in itself evocative of something quintessentially Australian; a land whose path to modernity was forged by convicts, on a land girt by sea. But most importantly, their music speaks of space. Any traveller who goes to yonder shores is immediately struck by the spatial difference between Australia and other nations.
“The album was written around Australia,” remarks Lockewood, “the cover is Jindabyne and I think that’s a good representation of the open spaces Australia provides. I definitely like to think that it’s representative of it, especially since we’re overseas now a lot; you realise how open and empty Australia really is. You can drive around America over here and it’s so populated and Australia’s just so empty. I feel that more and more now.”
This immense space and distance of the land is reflected through several strains of Australian music, most notably demonstrated in the Triffid’s Born Sandy Devotional, Midnight Oil’s Diesel and Dust and, more recently, the Drones’ Gala Mill. It is this interplay of sonic temporality which dominates Prisoner.
Mary’s voice rises sweeping, floating and cascading upon the backing of the band, the poignant lyrics repeatedly drawing upon barren landscapes, stark intonations of colour and melancholia. Shannon’s keyboards, at times monolithic, gothic, cathedral and then simple, melodic. Kaloper’s drumming is often complex; pounding beats and rhythms spurring his compadres on.
Lockwood’s guitar fills the void. He intimates a preference to restraint, “I like to think I’m the glue between everything, everyone… I can go quiet or loud and that’s a good tool to use in arrangements. I’m just a rhythm guitarist really…” In this regard he’s similar to U2’s the Edge or REM’s Peter Buck, guitarists whose role is not necessarily to dominate proceedings, but often to subtly fill out the spaces and at the same time create space; a role compounded by the fact that the Jezabels run against the grain of standard rock set-ups by espousing a bassist.
A role that is particularly important in a group which prioritises diverse influences amongst its members, yet adheres to a democratic partnership.
“We basically just come together in a room and one of us will have an idea. For ‘Mace Spray’, Nik had a chord progression he’d done on his computer… For ‘Rosebud’, Hayley did it with an acoustic guitar and we just started to make it really eighties. Someone has an idea and then we just workshop it together and collaborate and try and make the best song.”
“We never really talked about it, it was sought of a bit passive aggressive there for a while, but it’s kind of worked out now. We know what we want… by accommodating both halves and both points of view it works in the end.”
In a band, the temptation is always just to turn up your amp a little louder to make sure you get heard. It is a collaboration that necessitates abandonment of absolute control and ego, to place faith in those surrounding you and in doing so become greater than the acts of an individual. The Jezabels have somehow managed this fine act of alchemy to produce a beautiful record that seems to speak of the land which birthed it.