We chat with The Chemist
With two eclectic EPs already under their belt, The Chemist are getting ready to take the plunge and release their debut album. With attention already building with the release of The Wolves Howls Shatter The Old Glass Moon and last year’s Lullabies, the quartet are also gaining buzz from their hometown of Perth with their strong live show.
Having supported the likes of Boy & Bear and fellow Perth natives Birds of Tokyo and Sugar Army, they’re set to continue to defy both expectations and genres as they embark on their second national headline tour, their first chance to showcase their new material.
The group’s press release features an eccentric description from frontman Ben Witt on the new recordings, “we blended electricity with the insides of a badly beaten blues & folk rock piñata to make a milkshake that is not dissimilar to cement or hair wax. You may not like it, but your dog will fucking love it.”
Speaking down the line with Tone Deaf, he’s less colourful about the time it’s taken to roll the album out to the general public, “it’s kind of laborious… it takes a while. The actual recording didn’t, we cut it in November and finished some things off in January. But it’s just a lot of waiting for each step to happen next.”
Following on from the stylistic mix of their EPs – Wolves… prioritising Tom Waits-esque warping to Lullabies’ plaintive use of acoustic and glockenspiel – Witt guarantees their debut will see the band marching in yet another new direction. Albeit one “probably less pop.”
“The songs, in their embryonic stage,” clarifies Witt, “started as folk and blues songs, inspired by Dylan and Waits – those kind of guys. Then it was trying to come up with the most interesting grooves and parts we could, finding some abstract guitar for the melodies.”
Named Ballet In The Badlands, the forthcoming album contrasts light and dark, “we needed a name that worked phonetically… and I felt it sounded like a junkyard ballet,” remarks Witt, “there’s dirty elements, but then the backing vocals are more like Lullabies, where there’s reverb and a pop vein like Pet Sounds or Sleepy Jackson with washed-out backing vocals.”
Producing The Chemist’s balance of shades and experimentalism was the winning production team of Matt Lovell and Burke Reid, who turned out to be a snug creative fit
“We’d grown up in high school listening to Silverchair,” remembers Witt, whose album Freak Show, Lovell engineered, “also we checked out, and really liked, the Mess Hall record that he did (2005’s Notes From A Ceiling). When we chatted on the phone, we just hit it off. He knew what we were going for. We have similar tastes, like The Pogues for instance. We were very privileged to work with him, because unlike us, he really knows what he’s doing .”
His involvement naturally led to Burke Reid’s, another Mess Hall record alumi, “they were good friends,” confirms Witt, “also I’d really liked Jack Ladder’s last record (2011’s Hurtsville with The Dreamlanders), and the Drones as well” which Reid also worked on, “so Burke seemed like a natural choice. They both just knew how to get the best sounds, took what we suggested, and took it that extra distance.”
The Chemist’s first chance to road-test the material comes this May, when Witt and his bandmates embark on the curiously titled Precarious China Pig Tour. When pressed on the name he offers, “it’s a slight reference to Captain Beefheart, but also to our financial position,” he declares humourously.
And what can punters expect from the live setting? “It’s like going to get a haircut but the hairdresser’s really rough.”
“I think before when we’ve toured,” Witt continues, “we’ve just said ‘okay, this is the song we recorded.’ You try to condense it in the recording, then just replicate it; but now we’ve become more aware of the fact that you’re entertaining people. Putting in sections that are for the benefit of the drinkers. You’ve got to keep them happy.”
“Just recently, we’ve tried to inject some extended sections, just to get it a bit freer.” It seems the sense of experimental adventure has crept into their sets, “I’ve really been loving a lot of free-jazz, like Mark Ribot” confesses Witt, “I’ve also been listening to John Lurie & The Lounge Lizards. I found out about him because he’s in all of Jim Jarmusch films and soundtracked a bunch of them.” It’s had a direct result on the band’s outlook, stretching out their compositions in a performative sense, “we’ve got some intros, outros and sections where we’re playing around with the rhythms as opposed to just sticking to the songs.”
Speaking of his own solo performances, Wit remarks “you can really follow your mood and instinct. If songs don’t work in that solo form, I’ll just go John Cage on it.” Using the famous musical philosopher and composer’s name as a verb surely shows how much experimentalism has leaked into Witt’s attitude.
“The last gig I did, I had a fan with paper in it, spinning around and a bell while I was just singing the melody of the top of that. Instead of trying to keep it clean, just fuck it up a bit.”
It’s an approach that he brings to The Chemist’s writing process, and in particular the impending debut, “there’s a song on the record, which is one of my favourite moments, which is inspired by St. Vincent and Mark Ribot – the whole riff is built around the abstract sounds you can pull from a guitar. Pick scrapes, plucking strings behind the nut, hitting the fretboard, but putting it into an actual pattern and structure. Things like that I enjoy, because then I feel I’ve pushed or surprised myself.”
It’s the kind of inventive approach that gets you nominated, as Witt has just been, for ‘Guitarist of the Year’ as part of Perth’s WAMi Awards, which – tidily – marks the closing dates of The Chemist’s tour. Witt playing solo for the event’s opening party, then with the full line-up for the Festival’s closing ceremony.
Is he humbled by the award nod? “Yeah, for sure, I’ll do my bit to bring back the burn in 2012,” he adds with characteristically dry humour, “I think you get a lamington if you win. So you get to have your cake and eat it too.”