We chat with Paul Dempsey of Something For Kate
As Something For Kate edge closer to two decades of making music, Paul Dempsey – the band’s face, voice and chief songwriting linchpin – can’t cast his memory back to his first act of music making.
“I don’t remember one single earliest memory… I can remember hitting a piano or strumming a guitar – making noise. [But not] specifically when it started to sound musical as opposed to just noisy.”
He might not be able to pinpoint the origins of the creative endeavour that eventually became his livelihood, but 36 years on, with exactly half of that time taken up by the band – he can certainly tell you where Something For Kate are at; “at this point we’re just doing this because we can and we want to.”
“We don’t have anything to prove, we don’t have anything to worry about, we don’t give a shit about the things we used to give a shit about,” he replies coolly.
Looking over a crowded café’s patrons with his piercing, blue-eyed gaze to some middle distance before adding. “We each are lucky enough to have other livelihoods, Something For Kate now is this thing we can choose to do.”
It might sound like rock star braggadocio, but Dempsey concedes that the choice of being in a band is “an extremely lucky” one.
When pressed if he saw ever saw himself making music full-time back when he was simply ‘bashing’ on instruments in a childhood home strewn with them, he replies “I certainly hoped that would turn out to be the case, but it doesn’t stop you from feeling incredibly surprised – like you’ve won the lottery – when it does turn out to be the case.”
While his original goals were modest (“at first it was just about getting a bass player!”), here he is, 18 years and six albums later, seven if you include his 2009 solo excursion, Everything Is True.
Even now, Dempsey admits that “you still feel like you’re feeling your way, easing into it… and still sort of learning.”
Still, surely the writer of one of Australian music’s most envious songbooks and penman of subtly esoteric humour must have seen the humour in the lead single for the band’s first single in five years being named ‘Survival Expert’?
While some of the Melbourne trio’s contemporaries have fallen by the wayside (most notably Powderfinger and Silverchair), Something For Kate have arrived at their sixth studio album, Leave Your Soul To Science with a sound that strikes with the familiarity of their classic work, but with a far more adventurous sense of sonic adventure.
The subtle redrafting of their aural blueprint however, was not the result of months of painstaking construction – but instead written in half of the time of their previous albums – and recorded in just three-and-a-half weeks of the six booked at a Dallas, Texas studio.
“We couldn’t make records the way we used to, even if we wanted to. There just isn’t the time,” explains Dempsey. “We all have other things going on.”
Namely, Dempsey and his bassist wife, Stephanie Ashworth, saw the arrival of their son, Miller, one year ago; while burly drummer Clint Hyndman has his own partner and two restaurants, Yellow Bird and Woods of Windsor, to think about.
As such, they “literally haven’t had time or haven’t taken the time to second guess, procrastinate or nit-pick the way we used to,” declares Dempsey affably.
Leave Your Soul To Science finds the band simply trusting their instincts more than ever before, and helping them keep on track was Texan producer John Congleton. A hands-on desk jockey who has helped bring records from St. Vincent and Okkervil River to fruition.
A man who “made something like 26 records last year” marvels Dempsey.
“That’s insane! That’ll give you an idea of how quickly he likes to work… he doesn’t like nit-picking or over-analysing things,” which made Congleton “the best possible producer for where we were at because that’s exactly what we wanted.”
“I think it’s actually been a weird blessing,” reflects Dempsey, “being time-poor has fed Something For Kate this whole new sense of urgency. Everything’s coming out more raw and immediate, and that’s a really good thing.”
While their older laborious approach has shifted, some of Dempsey’s habits remain unchanged. Chiefly, his deeply articulate lyricism that balances brow-furrowing concepts with lung-baiting sing-a-longs.
Even the title of the band’s latest belies deeper concepts, the physical versus the metaphysical, an idea echoed in the closing number ‘Begin’, and its image of “an angel in a white lab coat.”
When asked about his noted fascination with science – phsyics, astronomy, cosmology – his belief in logic, he corrects with stern affirmation, “logic doesn’t require belief.”
These concepts remain preoccupations for Dempsey because “I don’t understand it,” he says. “It’s fascinating to me in the way ancient cultures are fascinating to other people.”
“I basically think that religious belief is a lack of critical thinking. Sorry.” Before the pitchforks can be rallied though, Dempsey clarifies: “I’m absolutely not saying that those people are unintelligent or stupid or anything like that, it just seems to me like if you really, really look very hard at it…”
While he’s interrupted by the arrival of a plate of sardines, which remain respectfully untouched for the course of the interview, (“I don’t like talking with my mouth full…”), the conclusion is that if you look at the facts, according to Dempsey, spirituality is illogical.
“Some people take a leap of faith and choose to believe something that requires them to believe it without any further proof or evidence,” he continues.
“I’m fascinated by that because I’m not built that way. I was raised that way… in an incredibly strong Roman Catholic family, I was an altar boy, rosaries – all that stuff. I sort of came out the other side.
Yet, in something like ‘Miracle Cure’ and its desire for “a cure for miracles”, his songwriting seems like the work of a man who wants to see something extraordinary – beyond logic, despite all the evidence telling him to expect otherwise.
“I’d love to!” he enthuses, “Fuck! I would love someone to prove the existence of a higher power… of magic, of miracles, or an after life. Fuck – they’re all wonderful things.”
Describing them as forms of ‘wish-making’ – the promise of outliving the body, of leaving the soul – not to science – but to the hope of something beyond, Dempsey questions rhetorically: “Who wouldn’t get behind it?”
“That’s why religion is the best-selling product on the face of the planet,” adding curtly that it’s “an easy product” to sell.
“I think I get the attraction,” explains Dempsey “but it asks you to pay a pretty high cost as well, because you have to suspend your critical faculties if you’re going to embrace this product. If someone could make that deal of a lifetime actually look as good as it sounds, and actually prove it’s ‘as advertised’ – I’ll buy.”