Vocalist Tom Rawle discusses this Friday’s release of Papa Vs Pretty’s sophomore LP, White Deer Park, with AARON BRYANS ahead of their return gig at Mojos on Sunday, February 23.
When Tom Rawle picked up a pair of drumsticks at the tender age of four, little did he know he was embarking on a musical journey that would result in record deals, ARIA nominations and national tours alongside bands such as Birds Of Tokyo and Kaiser Chiefs.
Papa Vs Pretty began as Rawle’s stage name in 2006 leading to his debut EP, The Presence, which received strong airtime and was praised locally.
“I still remember the first time that I really resonated with music,” Rawle says. “As a child I was always playing instruments. The one thing I noticed about music was the fact that you could do something that you love and progress things with it. You could explore cultural ideas and all sorts of things through the medium of it. That was the big appeal and always has been. It speaks to a part of you that I don’t think anyone understands, there’s like a weird mysticism with it.”
Despite his solo success, Rawle teamed up with school friends Angus Gardiner and Tom Myers, evolving Papa Vs Pretty into a trio and steamrolling through Sydney’s local music scene, releasing two EPs and signing to Piece & Riot.
“It just happened,” Rawle reflects. “I remember I was at school when I put out The Presence. I haven’t stopped doing that kind of stuff, I just want to find the right time and place for it. I’ve made several albums that I haven’t released, mainly because I don’t know what to do with them yet. The decision to move to a band scenario wasn’t so much a decision it was something that just happened. We left school and got asked to tour with Paul Dempsey pretty much our graduating year of school. He produced the Heavy Harm EP and so we went on tour with him after that.
We wanted to be able to translate things live, so I started writing for that kind of scenario, and then we all started collaborating and it became what it is today, very organically, I guess. There was no real decision.”
Heavy Harm was released in August, 2010, alongside a sold-out launch show at Sydney’s Spectrum. The EP was the final push the band needed, throwing the trio into national tours and festivals. It was during these tours that the band had the game-changing experience that thrust Papa Vs Pretty into the studios and begin work on their debut LP United In Isolation.
“We got a call one morning to support Phoenix that night. We played at the Big Top and, at that time, we hadn’t played at anywhere like that before. It was this big venue. We thought it was great; and then we watched Phoenix and we realised we needed to step up. If you want to do great things you really need to work hard for it. It’s not just something that comes. There was that realisation that you can’t feel entitled, ‘cause nothing comes out of entitlement but boredom and disappointment. That was the biggest lesson I’ve ever learned. You can never be satisfied but in never being satisfied is satisfaction anyway.”
United In Isolation was a huge success for the band, being awarded 9/10 by triple j’s J-Mag as well as receiving an ARIA nomination for Best Rock Album and a nomination for triple j Album Of The Year. The album itself was praised for its mature themes, solid execution and strong production.
“That record was written in a fairly short amount of time,” Rawle says. “I’d just finished and I’d just come out of a really heavy bunch of situations, and the only way I could really justify myself as normal was through the ideology that everyone is kind of alone no matter what they do. And that’s what that album was about, that kind of thought process. I don’t think that now but at the time that’s what I thought. It’s also a duality because everyone’s in their shell and kind of casing, which is everyone’s commonality. Depending on whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic they’re either swimming together or sinking together, it doesn’t matter what direction they’re going. That’s what the album title and a lot of the songs were about.”
The band’s momentum skyrocketed, embarking on two years of touring including headlining shows and an appearance at Big Day Out 2012.
By 2013, Papa Vs Pretty had begun recording their sophomore album, White Deer Park. In what was a lengthy creative process, the band recorded between three studios, working with 80 possible songs to eventually finalise and perfect 12 tracks.
“There was a long demoing and writing stage and then recording at Studio 301 with Dave Trumfio who did Wilco and My Morning Jacket. After that we went to Forgotten Valley, which is a studio in the middle of the forest. We did a bunch of overdubs there. Then we went to Los Angeles and mixed it there in Dave’s studio. It was a really long process over a bunch of different locations, a lot of time and care and the most expansive amount of effort I’ve ever spent doing anything.
Our actual creative output is a lot more then what is actually released. It’s about time and place, quality rather then quantity. For White Deer Park we wrote 80 songs for the album, kept 20 and then it became 12. The songs just had to start getting really good. You just don’t stop and keep going until they get better and better. We went through this process where if all of four of us weren’t really passionate about the song then we just didn’t play it. So everyone in the band had to be really behind the song and really want to do it. They end up being a lot better then they would be. That’s what a band is. It should be everyone’s collective talents come together to make something unique and special.”
Sophomore albums can make or break bands; with many failing to live up to the hype received from debut LPs. White Deer Park however; is one hell of a record; Papa Vs Pretty have grown artistically both in their composition and sound, a progression felt within the band.
“It’s not radically different; it just feels like a progression. It’s more concise, I think, this record. United In Isolation had the tendency to meander a bit and go on tangents, this one does that a lot less. We’ve all been into ambitious music and ambitious artistic statements. The first album was overly ambitious in what it was trying to do; White Deer Park is probably less of that, because we’ve gotten better. You always try to get better and that’s what White Deer Park is meant to be anyway. It’s from this TV show called Animals Of Farthing Wood and it’s this place that all the animals are trying to get to; their salvation. That’s my earliest memory I had as a child, and I guess that’s kind of the idea.”
The last year hasn’t just been about the release of White Deer Park. The trio – now a quartet with the inclusion of guitarist/keyboardist, Luke Liang – has also been active in the protest against the Great Barrier Reef dredging, releasing a montage video of official Great Barrier Reef footage alongside their track, To Do, from White Deer Park, to raise awareness of the national issue.
“The issue was something that was close to us as a band. A close friend of Gus’s (Gardiner, bass) is a marine biologist who works up there and she’s the one who gave us all the footage. I wouldn’t say that we’re a political band. I would say that I think we’re living in a time that’s becoming increasingly more narcissistic and callous. As a young person I find it difficult to imagine the future. Once upon a time when I was a kid, I had a rough idea of the future, but the way things are going, it’s very difficult to imagine a bright future and its not that I don’t think it can happen, but I think the only way it can happen is if people get angry about what’s going on and the generation that we’re a part of becomes an enlightened generation that does good not bad.
“I think the stuff that’s going on in Australia, politically, seems to have a great lack of care and moral decency for the value of other people and the environment. It seems to have this grotesque amount of narcissistic unawareness. The song that we used on the reef video is based on this idea that once something dies it never comes back. I guess it’s that idea that if you let things slip and you become apathetic, it doesn’t come back, it generally just falls apart. As a society we’ve come so far and it’d be such a shame to drop the ball now.”