profile of MattShea

PVT: "It got a bit weird for a while"

About a third of the way through my interview with PVT's Laurence Pike, I make the slip of tongue that’s plagued me ever since the Sydney three-piece were forced to change their name. 

I pronounce it ‘P-V-T’ and not ‘Pivot’, as it was originally spelt until a US-based band of the same name issued a cease-and-desist order. I correct myself and there’s little awkwardness, but it speaks to what has become of the band (featuring Laurence on drums, his brother Richard on vocals and guitars and Dave Miller on electronics) . Removing those two vowels in 2010 was talked about as being no big deal. It didn’t change anything.

But PVT were changing, and in 2013 are increasingly removed from the last time they packed a five-letter band name. The new album, Homosapien, was largely written before the band got in the studio. And guitarist Richard Pike, who started to sing fulltime on the last PVT record, has taken a further step to becoming a bona fide frontman, his vocals delivered with greater precision and purpose.

I caught up with Laurence Pike on the phone a week before the release of Homosapien. He was wandering around Petersham Oval in Sydney – “Apparently it’s where Don Bradman scored his first first-class century in 1928” – and we talked for nearly half an hour about his expanding role in the songwriting process, PVT’s work with British producer and engineer, Ben Hillier, touring as a more ‘traditional’ band, and INXS.

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I like this quote in the presser throws out about you being a “futuristic INXS” –

Ah! (laughs)

I was wondering how you feel about that? They tend to be a divisive band.

I love INXS. Most people grow up listening to INXS, in my generation. I had my moments with them, but I think they’re a fantastic band. I think that came from our American label guy – someone maybe described us as that, and I think it’s a little tongue in cheek because that is going to be divisive for a few people; I think that was the point. I don’t mind it, I think it was really fun, I don’t really give a shit. I don’t like references generally, but they’re also a way of giving people the scope of what’s going on. So a provocative statement like that is fun, but at the same time might make a few people go, “Wha?!”

Well I think INXS sticking around for a long time put a hold on them being reassessed, in a sense.

I know what you mean. It’s hard to reassess the back catalogue of a band when they’re still opening for Matchbox 20. But if you listen to some of those early records, there’s no doubting that Michael Hutchence was a complete motherfucker. Such a good frontman and such a good singer – probably one of the best to ever come out of Australia. I think there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that (laughs).

I understand Homosapien was the first LP for the band where you wrote first, and then recorded: is that right?

Yeah, kind of. We’re a bit of an odd band, in that our process is always shifting – as does our sound. I think we’re always wanting to challenge ourselves to try new things and get better. A lot of it has to do with the fact that we’re separated all the time, with Richard living in the UK. In the past we’ve done writing in spurts and usually when we’re together in the studio. So often it’s been outputting a whole lot of information, pulling it apart and putting it back together. Whereas, I think we really wanted a different result with this one as far as there being a lot more space for the music, and I think when you’re working quickly and just throwing shit at the wall you tend to just throw everything you’ve got out and you can smother lots of ideas really quickly, piling them on top of each other. I think we wanted to avoid that.

So it was partly from being separated, and it was also the first big break we had from touring and being together, which was really great. And I think that whole experience: having a really busy four years, putting out records and touring constantly, and then just being at home and thinking, “Oh well, what’s next? Who am I? What is this place?” That flowed a lot into the music. I was writing a lot and demoing a lot at home, as was Richard, and we were sending things back and forth. So when we went down to record we had about twenty ideas, some more fully formed than others. So it was definitely the most pre-prepared we’d ever been for a recording.

Writing then recording is a more traditional way of doing things. Was it also in part a reaction to the more traditional version of a band PVT now is, with Richard out front singing?

Not so much. It’s not like we thought that we had to start acting like a real band. It’s just that we do things out of necessity, and it seems no more normal or natural to us than any other way we’ve worked. Although now that we’ve started writing this way it’s a bit like, “Oh, okay, this makes more sense. The other bands were right (laughs). Maybe improvising albums was not the way to go.” So I think we’ll just wait to see how this develops in the future, but certainly, we’re pleased with the result. We feel like it’s opened up some new possibilities to us.

I understand that this was the first time you personally really got stuck into that writing phase. Was that in part down to this new approach? Did it give you the space to actually approach the writing and construction of songs?

Well I think more than anything I wanted to put my hand up and get more involved. I felt like I had more to say about what we wanted to do. And I think for me, my writing has always been in strange bits and pieces; it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve become a lot more serious about it and started doing it a lot more regularly. For me, there was this weird thing where we finished the last album cycle, if you want to call it that – and it happens quite often if you’ve been busy touring and so on – but you get home and feel at a bit of a loss as to what to do with yourself. You can often get quite depressed. The post tour comedown is quite a common thing with musicians.

And when we started doing it, the discussions we had were about not putting any pressure on anything having to be for a record and just trying to reconnect with the idea of making music for fun and doing whatever we feel and seeing what happens. So it became a really nice form of therapy for me, in terms of re-energising myself. You tend to go through ebbs and flows creatively, and to me it feels like we’re all on a bit up at the moment. To the extent that we’re still writing; I feel like we may have started writing the next record already. Richard just sent me a dozen tracks.

I’d imagine for Dave and Richard it must be great to have another person coming up with the ideas. Suddenly you’ve got this whole new cache to draw from.

Yeah. Well we’ve always contributed, but it’s been in quite a loose, organic way, and I think there’s definitely more of a definition about this record when compared to previous ones. It has songs and melodies and stuff like that. I don’t know: we feel like we’re always learning, and I think that’s maybe what keeps us energised and why we’ve been doing it for a while and why we’ll probably still be doing it in a while. We like to challenge ourselves and entertain ourselves (laughs).

The presser mentions the 120-year-old mansion you recorded in like they’re just lying around the place. Where was it exactly? How did you get onto it?

It’s the rock cliché, isn’t it? (laughs)

It is.

We tried to do as much heroin as the Rolling Stones, but we just can’t keep up with those guys (laughs).

Well you all grew beards, right?

It got a bit weird for a while. But we were down there for about a month and it’s this huge old house outside of Yass. I made a record with Jack Ladder [Hurtsville] – he and Burke Reid found this place when they were looking to do a similar thing. So I’d spent some time there already and we were wanting to do this thing where we went somewhere isolated and lived and worked in a space for a certain period of time, because it wasn’t anything we’d ever done before. That had a lot of appeal to us.

And that place was just at the top of the list, because it’s pretty magical and pretty unbelievable. And I had a relationship with the guy who owns the place from being down there with Jack Ladder. We did explore some other options but it just seemed like we were being drawn there. And we knew we’d get a result, and that’s often important when you’re taking a risk on building a studio in a foreign space somewhere. We didn’t want to hire some fibro shack somewhere, get there and discover that the neighbours hated as and didn’t want us to make any noise, you know what I mean?

You’re sticking your neck out, so you’re trying to control as many variables as possible.

Yeah, you want to make sure you can go down there and actually work and get a result. But it’s a pretty magical place. It’s completely isolated, twenty minutes outside of Yass, so there’s really not a lot around. And you’re surrounded by hills and kangaroos and a bunch of sheep. It was a special experience. I’d love to do something like that again, but maybe somewhere entirely different.

Does the isolation inform the record in ways you can readily pick up when you listen back to it?

I dunno. I’m not sure if the space had much of a bearing in an aesthetic sense, maybe in the way it did for Jack Ladder’s last record. For us, it was more about a logistical thing. But certainly being in that environment, and it’s something that’s unique to Australia: there’s this palpable feeling whenever you travel overseas and comeback that there is a lot of space in this country. And it’s nice to be making music and know that it’s just outside the door. And I think one of our big ambitions for the album was for there to be more space in the music, and more space for ideas to breathe, and exist and not pile in on top of each other. That was something that we felt the last record suffered a little bit from. I guess being in a place with a tremendous amount of space and a lack of interruption probably helped in a small part in that regard, and kept us focussed.

Richard’s vocals came around organically last time. I’m guessing it was different this time around: did you approach it in a more purposeful way? Did he bring lyrics with him?

Most of the vocals, Richard finished in London. We did track several songs down at Yass, but a lot of it was done afterwards. A lot of the tracks were finished really in a melodic sense. I don’t know: I think we’ve always, in our minds, written songs. It’s really no different to us; it’s just a matter of what kind of space and sound you want to give the melody. I think he’s singing a lot better on this record. I think he’s singing as much as he did on the last one, but it’s just that there’s a lot more space for you to actually connect with it. There’s not as much superfluous information around it. It’s a lot more focussed and therefore the music’s a lot more focussed.

They sound a lot more purposeful.

Yeah. If you give more space for them to exist, it’s like their role becomes stronger, if you know what I mean. That was probably how we approached it, more than, “OK, Richard needs to be the frontman!” We don’t really think like that; we just do whatever we want, feel what is right, and hope that it comes out good (laughs).

I read with interest on the last LP that Dave was sampling in real time and throwing stuff back at you guys. Was it the same sort of process this time around?

No, not really. That was a big, weird experiment we did with the last record where, literally, a lot of it was improvised. When I think about it, it’s pretty nuts. The last track on the last record [‘Only the Wind Can Hear You’] is literally improvised – we didn’t change anything. There were some real highpoints on that last record, but then some things that I felt we could have done better. But that was one of the highlights: “That was weird. We just made something up on the spot!” In some ways I think it was, “Well, been there, done that. What can we do now that’s exciting us now.”

That’s interesting. For the most part it worked well last time, and I’d imagine a lot of bands would continue to mine something that differentiates them like that.

Yeah, maybe if we were smarter we’d make a deal out of it for the next ten years. I have nothing against trying that again, but Andy Hillier, who mixed the record, said something great to me, which was really obvious. Often when we were mixing tracks, a lot of the tracks would change very little from the initial demo to the finished product, because we were conscious of not filling everything up too much: “Leave space. Leave space. Leave space.” We had to be really disciplined about that the whole time. And then at the very last minute, during mixing, if we felt like something was still missing in a certain section, we might add something.

So when we mixed the record in London we added a couple of tiny little things in: an extra little keyboard or something like that. But he said, “When you make a demo, that’s usually when the music occurs. That’s when the instinct and moment of inception occurs.” And Andy sees his job as a producer to hold onto that moment and carry it through to the mix, and try not to fuck it up. So I think we were quite focused on doing that for this record: find the moment of creation and not swamp it too much with other shit.

I was going to ask about Ben: he’s known for producing Blur’s records, but one of the most interesting credits I think he has is with Depeche Mode’s Playing the Angel – in the role of producer, that is – where he was credited with helping them to focus after an average previous album. Apparently, he didn’t let them dawdle with the process and really pushed them to get it done.

Which I imagine wouldn’t be an easy thing to do with a band’s that so established – older guys who are quite set in their ways. I’d love to work with Ben again. He’s a great guy and really inspiring. He’s a super-musical engineer, which is what I really loved. He really hears the arrangements and understands the roles of all the parts without you having to explain anything, which for our music was a really big thing. We’d never worked with someone who has that level of intuition, and he made great suggestions as well and tried some cool things. It was a really fun mix and I can’t speak highly enough of him

Going back to the vocals thing – and I’m not trying to stir shit here – but is there label pressure now to keep that up?

God, no. We’ve always done whatever we want; we’re not that calculating. For us, we’re just trying to make our music. When we were at Warp, their whole ethos was to take people who work with that sort of attitude. They want people to have singular approaches and singular sounds and do what they want and don’t adhere to any sort of formula. Certainly, they were always supportive of what we wanted to do. And Create/Control: again, the only pressure comes from us.

Let’s talk about Create/Control a bit: what was the attraction for you guys, instead of going with Warp again?

Well, we’d finished our contract with Warp, and the industry’s changing all the time. Actually having control of your music is becoming more and more important. The means to make an income as a musician are getting smaller and smaller. So control has become essential for survival. So it’s a new lease on life to be in a situation with Create/Control – they understand that and they’re trying to make it equitable and manageable for both parties. So it’s a bit more of a fair relationship. Coming from one experience, being locked into an intense contract, it’s been really liberating and a real breath of fresh air. We’re in control of our own destiny now, which is really exciting and makes you want to get out of bed in the morning and get to work.

You’re touring in March. How much has touring for you guys changed since Church With No Magic, with the singing and so on? Has the nature of the band onstage changed much over those couple of years?

A little bit, yeah. I was really relieved with the new songs when we first started playing them, because they’re just so easy and fun to play. I was like, “Thank God!” Because the last record, we made it in a pretty obtuse way and we hadn’t really played the songs before we went out on tour and some of them just didn’t make any sense when we went to play them live. This record: we did a week of rehearsals and learned how to play it from beginning to end. It was really quick and easy and fun and I’m not a completely destroyed mess at the end of every show, which is a lot more sustainable over eight weeks of touring.

So you’re looking to take it out on the road?

Well, we’ve already done more shows for this record than a lot of bands would do in an entire cycle. We did fifty shows at the end of last year overseas, and that was a nice way to road test everything. So hopefully we’ll be in okay form in March. I feel like we still need to do some rehearsing, because we’ve probably developed some bad habits.

Matt Shea (@mrmatches)

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PVT - 'HOMOSAPIEN' TOUR 2013

Friday March 22nd The Zoo, Brisbane
Tickets available from www.oztix.com.au

Saturday March 23rd Corner Hotel, Melbourne
Tickets available from www.cornerhotel.com

Thursday March 28th (Good Friday Public Holiday Eve) Oxford Arts Factory, Sydney
Tickets available from www.moshtix.com.au

Saturday March 30th The Bakery, Perth
Tickets available from nowbaking.com.au & www.moshtix.com.au

Sunday March 31st Ed Castle Hotel, Adelaide
Tickets available from www.moshtix.com.au

For more information: www.pvtpvt.net


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