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SPRAWL The X-Press Interview

Eccentric, experimental and excellent WA post-punk band Sprawl launch their second album Irrealis this Saturday, August 1. In a show at Lyric’s Underground, they’ll be joined by a big line up of contemporaries including Didion’s Bible, Con Art, Rental Knives and Great Statue. Expect to hear the new record – which was four years in the making – played all the way through. Bassist Edric Matviev speaks to HARVEY RAE about the diverse influences, an increased emphasis on technicality and the meaning behind Irrealis.  

Congratulations on the upcoming release of your second album, Irrealis. How does this one differ from Deepo, your 2016 debut?

Thanks! Putting together Irrealis has been a highly charged, rollercoaster of a process.  The result is more melodic and more rhythmically surprising than Deepo. We stray from the path of pop sensibility much more, too. In terms of lyrics, you’ll still get a healthy dose of theatrical angst, but perhaps in a way that’s more directed towards specific questions, specific uncertainties.  Though, as always we’ve written the songs based on what we enjoy hearing as a casual listener.

Your sound could be loosely defined as unhinged post-punk, but on Irrealis you’ve noted a bunch of other outsider influences ranging Steve Reich, Gorguts, Arthur Russell, Maurice Ravel and Yussef Dayes, to Zappa – how would you categorise the sound on Irrealis, if that’s even possible?

We’re so close to the music that I think it’s hard to pin down precisely what Irrealis ‘is’, and in my experience differing musical vocabularies result in widely varying experiences. For me, it’s best described as post-prog or prog-punk. Although, one of my favourite descriptions from someone outside the band was “emotional math”. With each release, it’s a great experience to hear where listeners think our work fits in and to discover new artists through their comparisons.

You’ve previously stated that lyrics have always been pretty important to this band. I’m not sure if you went into writing the record with a theme in mind or not but looking back on the process, do you notice a thread running through it?

There’s definitely a continuing train of thought throughout the lyrics, but it’s not one that our singer and guitarist, Ben (Claessens), set out to write. A bunch of the metaphors on the album recur at different moments, and in different contexts – and that’s just the accidental result of him genuinely trying to understand things, using any language that creates clarity.

Theme-wise, one supremely important question to care about is whether there’s an appropriate reaction to ‘this’ (whatever ‘this’ is). Which might seem like a simple yes-no question. But really, there are a billion different answers, because there are a billion different ways of cashing out what it’s asking. To understand ‘there is’ requires an account of reality, just as ‘appropriate’ requires an account of value, ‘reaction’ requires an account of selfhood and agency, and ‘this’ requires, in part, an account of language and mental content. It’s more important (I think) to figure out which questions are worth asking than it is to provide answers. So, the lyrics explore that bigger question, by way of banging our heads against the smaller…

You recorded at Loop studios with engineer/producer, Kieran Kenderessy, who you worked with on Deepo. What does Kieran and working in a famous studio like Loop bring to the process of making a Sprawl album?

It’s great knowing that we’re working with someone who can bring out the best in our performances and the textures of our equipment. If we want to sound big, ominous, calm or chaotic, Kieran can always make that happen – as long as we’ve thought carefully about the composition and put in the work at rehearsal. We turned into headcases while self-recording our first two EPs and, after working at a well-equipped studio with a professional whose creative attitude we enjoy and respect, I don’t think we’ll ever do that again.

Irrealis refers to events or things that are yet to take place. How does that title reflect this album?

It also refers to things like hypotheticals and desires! Anything which is not known to be factually concrete, such as events in the present or near past. Yet, things like hopes, fears and hypotheticals often form the bread and butter of experience, and overwhelmingly structure the way we relate to the world. ‘Irrealism’ is also the view that, broadly, the distinction between ‘real/unreal’ is indeterminate.

The lyrics are about these things, for sure, and there’s an underlying normative upshot to the album, as a result. One way to proceed (in general) is to sharply delineate between real and unreal, and then respond exclusively to the things which are real. This approach might be unavoidable, but we’re not sure it can totally succeed. And anyway, it’s anxiety-inducing to try! Alternatively, perhaps by giving up on the distinction, you can come to respond to anything which presents itself in experience. In this sense, calling something ‘real’ seems more like an honorific, rather than a descriptive statement. Although, insofar as we have a choice as to how we think about these things, it might be an aesthetic choice, rather than an ethical one… There’s a lot of grey area.

I don’t want to say Sprawl are underachievers, because based on the quality of your records you’re clearly not, but perhaps unappreciated is a better word as we don’t hear as much about you as some other local post-punk contemporaries. Is that all set to change with Irrealis and can we expect to see you gigging more regularly – because your output certainly suggests a killer live show!

Feeling as though vapid proclamations of your creative output are detrimental is an easy thought to follow, and I think it’s one we’ve collectively embraced, subconsciously or otherwise. It’s easy to talk yourself into a “build it, and they will come” mentality, but that couldn’t be more wrong. The folks who follow us have always had great things to say about our live performances. I think a large part of that comes from the improvisational elements lead by our drummer, Michael (Emery). Even though Ben and I aren’t too great at jamming, responding to his playing keeps things fresh. So yeah – we’re keen to play, book us!

There’s an increased emphasis in the technicality of your melodies and rhythms this time around, which you’ve said contributed to the four year gap between this and Deepo. Can you give us an insight into that and how it affected the writing, rehearsing and recording process?

We put together the songs in a similar way to Deepo. Starting with Ben’s lyrics, we’d record a rough demo, workshop that extensively in rehearsals and then record live in the studio (as much as we can). Because of this, it’s easy to map out ideas which are way beyond our chops, so it’s a challenge to remain confident during the rehearsal process. Hopefully, some of that struggle makes for an energetic live show, as we try to keep it all together. To get a bit nerdy, one of the songs (Time and a Place) has a section centred on a quarter-note triplet embedded in a 7/8 bar with a frustratingly elusive rest. It’s both painful and elating to think about the time (and arguments) spent getting those few seconds down.

What can we expect from the launch at Lyric’s Underground this Saturday, August 1? Who else have you got on the line up and what can we look forward to from your set in particular?

We’re playing with Didion’s Bible, Con Art, Rental Knives and Great Statue – we’re pretty stoked by the line up and reckon folks should come even if we sound like wankers. We’ll be playing Irrealis in its entirety and maybe a song off Deepo. It’s obviously pretty exciting to debut an album’s worth of material!

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