ART OF FIGHTING The X-Press Interview

There are few bands that can be inactive for over a decade and return without missing a beat. That is exactly what Melbourne indie luminaries Art Of Fighting have done with Luna Low, their first album in 12 years. Other things may have taken precedence, and whether it be writing books, international living, parenting or other adult pursuits, Art Of Fighting never broke up. Luna Low finds the four members of the band showing more of their playful side, without losing any of their expansive sound. CHRIS HAVERCROFT spoke to frontman Ollie Browne just as Luna Low was about to hit the record store shelves this month.

The way that people digest music may have changed, but Art Of Fighting have remained steadfast in their vision of creating albums that function as a whole as well as having some bite-size pieces that people can latch on to. Having maintained their stable line up, Luna Low was developed in rehearsal rooms since 2012 and then recorded with drummer Marty Brown at the helm in his studio, and also taking the band to the Brunswick’s Masonic Hall for some added reverb. The band may be older and arguably wiser, yet they have lost none of their grace and sheen.

This record has come out of the blue. It’s a lovely surprise for many who thought there may never be another Art Of Fighting record…

Yeah. We weren’t so sure ourselves if we were going to do one, but we are glad its happened.

Why was there so long in between? It doesn’t sound like it was planned. Did things just get in the way?

It was a bit of everything really. We finished our last tour, the last record Runaways – I think we did our last show around the middle of 2008. After that, I think that everyone wasn’t quite burned out but creatively exhausted. We didn’t sit around and have a meeting and say “let’s have a break”, we just went about getting on with our lives. At that time, all other 3 members of the band had young children, so I am sure that played a factor. Then day jobs and other things happened. I was playing drums in C.W. Stoneking’s band at the time, so that was keeping me pretty busy. It was just a combination of factors really. There was certainly no acrimony or a planned hiatus, it was just the way that it worked out.

You don’t sound like a band that would be at each other’s throat. The music sounds like a calm and quiet place to be…

I think that is true. Miles is obviously my brother, so we have had a lifetime of negotiating and being kind to each other. We are all really calm people and the music certainly has its calming elements. We are always looking out for each other so it’s good.

Are you a drummer by trade? Was that where you started playing music before moving on to guitar and vocals?

It probably was. Mine and Miles’ dad was a jazz drummer. He has passed away now, but he was a well-loved member of the Melbourne jazz scene. When I was about 12 I asked him to teach me to play drums and he said “as long as you promise not to become a professional musician”. When I was 16 or 17, I inevitably picked up a guitar as a lot of the music that I was listening to, like Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth were very guitar focussed. I wanted to write my own songs and that is pretty hard to do on the drums. I’ve always played both.

When I was playing with Stoneking, even though I felt very much a part of his band, it was an employment scenario. It is the only time in my life when I have been a professional musician for a few years, so it was really great. It’s not on that level to support other people’s tunes, and it certainly wasn’t as stressful as having to stand up the front of a band. In Art Of Fighting we are all pretty much self-taught and none of us have studied music or anything. I’ve never had a guitar lesson. I think that comes out of the spirit of the lo-fi stuff that we were into like Pavement and Sebadoh, when we first started the band. I guess it has also got some of that punk mentality of giving it a crack, because what could go wrong! That’s not to criticise people that study to play music, because I think that is awesome, but to be in an indie rock band I don’t think you have to hone your skills that well before you can start to make something expressive.

You can certainly hear the indie rock references in Art Of Fighting releases, but I suspect your father’s love for jazz also filters in there too?

I think so. Certainly the dynamism of jazz and the fact that with jazz it is heavily based on listening to one another. With Art Of Fighting when we were making (debut album) Wires, you really had to listen intently because the tempos are so slow that you really have to lock in otherwise it just all falls apart.

With Luna Low, there are a few tunes on there that are a bit on the quicker side. Aren’t you meant to be getting older and slowing down?

I’m not really sure how that happened. It is the first time ever that we have had left over songs. We tracked about 14 songs. When we were putting together what songs would be on the album, and which ones would work, there were a few of the quieter ones that didn’t really fit. It came out of amalgamating the songs for the album and then someone realised one day that it is a pretty upbeat record for us, but we think that it works as a set of songs. It is certainly more upbeat than our other records that is for sure.

It has come out without a heap of fanfare leading up to the release date. Was the plan to keep things quiet and close to your chest for this album?

All of our records, except for the second one which had a bit of expectation about it, have just been put into the world and hoped for the best. We have always worked closely with record labels to get as much press and exposure as we can. With this record, it really took us a long time to make it for a start, so it just has to come out at some point and then you let people know about it. Art Of Fighting also aren’t really a band that does singles, so we haven’t really had the strategy of trying to get a song played on the radio, even though we are grateful when that does happen.

The digestion of albums is very different to how it was when you released your previous album over a decade ago. Is that a consideration when you make a record now?

For us, it has always been all about the album as that was our focus. That is not to disparage young people (or anyone, really) who just stream a track or two – because any way that people listen to music is fantastic – but sure, there is a bit of a disconnect that put all this effort into making the album sit as this entity, and it is not really the way that it is most likely that people will digest it. If people only listen to one song that they discover on a playlist and they connect with it, then that is great. Hopefully, it will lead to them going to look for the whole album if they one day have the time.

The songs are longer this time around also…

When we started to work out the songs that we were writing for the album, we consciously didn’t put any limitations on how long they would run. We didn’t care about the length of the tracks on Wires, but it was something that we did start to consider when we made our second album Second Story, because at that stage Triple J airplay was really important. We felt like we may have cannibalised some of those songs a little by keeping them short, and we had the revelation with this album that we wouldn’t care about editing them down. They are pretty slow songs anyway, so even if they have a standard song structure, they are going to be longer by default.

A lot of our songs build to a kind of climax, so to make that cathartic you need to massage it for quite a while before you get there.

Peggy (Frew, bass player) has written three novels. Has that experience impacted her songwriting in Art Of Fighting?

I think that Peggy has always wanted to be an author, but she really enjoys being a musician as well. She really has only presented one or two songs to the band for each album, and we have had to try and encourage her to bring as many as she can. I don’t think she is driven to that format as much as she is towards writing fiction. We are very thankful that she at least brings one or two tunes to the table for each record.

“Dickhead” is not a term you’re heard used in songs very often…

A lot of our songs start out with the music and I will have melodies that I sing, but the words will be gobbledegook, as it takes me a lot longer to write the lyrics. Often I will give them stupid names and Dickhead’s Lament was a name I gave to that one when I didn’t have lyrics yet. Those stupid names can often turn into the lyrics as that name becomes the first identity of the song. So on that case, it was a matter of thinking, what would a song called Dickhead’s Lament actually be about? I guess I extrapolated from there. We had some people say to us, that they weren’t sure we should call a song Dickhead’s Lament and I said to them, that the Dirty Three have a song called Everything Is Fucked, so its really not a problem. Just go there. People are mature enough to handle it.

It goes against that perception that Art Of Fighting is a particularly serious band…

When we were deciding whether we should go with the title, we did think that people see us as a super serious and emotionally intense band. We just like to hang out together and have fun. The music is serious, it absolutely is, but we wanted people to know that we could also poke fun at ourselves and at how seriously people think that the music appears. I ultimately don’t know what people perceive of us as individuals, but I do try and dispel any myths when we are on stage by having fun and trying to put in some witty banter in so as people don’t get the sense that we are deadly serious. I think it is important that we are relaxed and casual on stage and invite people into our thing, as opposed to being standoffish and serious.

Your voice is often spoken of for its choir boy innocence. Did you have any choir experience when you were young?

I never had any choir experience, and we weren’t brought up particularly religious. What happened was, when the band first started we were writing these songs, and we got a gig at an open mic night. Then it dawned on us that someday someone would have to sing, and because I was on the guitar and they were predominantly my songs, I thought I better learn how to sing. I think that over the first two or three years of the band, I just got so mortified at my voice and the sound of cracked notes, that I took time to sit down and try and find out what would work for my voice and what wouldn’t. I developed it from there. I think it was the fear of singing out of tune.