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Seekae - interview

It’s five years since two thirds of Sydney indie-electronica trio Seekae decided to lay down their guitars, step away from the kit and try their hand at MIDI keyboards, samplers and drum machines. After the encouragement of a well-received debut in 2008’s The Sound Of Trees Falling On People, John Hassell, Alex Cameron and George Nicholas return with their most ambitious release. Fusing their glitchy electronica with cinematic atmospheres and the energy of a live band, +Dome – out March 25 – is set to make Seekae more than a local favourite. After all, as Hussell explains, they’re already huge in Russia.

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You’ve just been on tour with Mount Kimbie. It must be exciting to have a new batch of songs to play?

Yeah it is. But as much as it’s exciting, it’s equally as nerve-wracking, because a lot of the songs are quite different and we haven’t practised them anywhere near as much as we have the old album. So we’re just hoping people are going to get into them.

How much work goes into getting them ready for a live set?

It’s a lot of hard work. Certain songs, the more electronic ones, have been easier because we’ve got computers on board, but the ones with live instruments – guitars, strings – we’re either not doing them this tour, or we’re practising for the album launch, trying to get some strings players to come along. It’s proving to be a lot of hard work – a lot harder than we originally intended.

I love +Dome, it sounds amazing.

Thank you! We’re pretty chuffed. We’re still a bit nervous because it’s quite different to the last one and I’m sure we’re going to get quite a few mixed reviews, but we’re very happy with it.

The record leaked online quite early. That must be weird, that you’re the kind of band who have an album people want to share and download. Is it frustrating but also kind of exciting?

Someone posted on Twitter that it’d leaked, and we were like, “What?!” And it leaked on some Russian website, which we thought was a bit odd. Then we saw on last.fm that all these people in the Russian Federation had been listening to it. As you said, it was a bit annoying but at the same time it was amazing. I can’t believe people went to the effort of putting it up on a site. It’s really cool; it’s good to see that people are hungry to hear it.

Plus, you might be big in Russia.

Yeah, exactly. Yes, comrade!

You hope the people who download it here will maybe consider buying the album when it comes out, then.

To be honest, when I’ve downloaded music, about one in 100 albums I’ve then gone out and bought. All the others I’ve just downloaded.

It changes the currency of what a CD, and then a vinyl record, means in a music collection.

That’s so true. You only really buy the CDs you’re going to listen to a lot. It’s good as well, because I think if you buy the CD, or the vinyl, you listen to an album in its entirety. Whereas when I download something and put it on a computer or iPod, I often just listen to a few songs and then skip to something else. It shows a lot more worth.

You released the first album twice, independently then a re-issue on label Rice Is Nice, and it had a real slow-burn effect to be a bit of a sleeper hit. Now, +Dome is your first album with an audience waiting for it. How does that feel?

Being on a label now, they’ve organised interviews, promotion – it’s crazy to see the amount of effort and work put into the album even before it’s been released. With the last album, we released it initially ourselves, so we’d be sitting around having a beer and be like, “Oh, by the way, do you want an album?” So it’s so different. It’s very exciting to see, but it’s also quite nerve-wrecking because people already have that first album to compare it to. It’s going to be interesting to see how it goes down.

You recorded it in Sydney over some time – how long did you spend on the new album all up?

Some songs have been around for two or three years. We weren’t working on them all the time, but we’ve had parts lying around. Really, the last six months was when we got everything together and finalised stuff. It’s been a while, to be honest – at least a year in total.

Were there any clear objectives going into it?

One of the main things was to try to get a bit of singing on there, and also just to write all the songs together. A lot of the songs on the last record we wrote individually and brought to the table at the end. With this one, we wanted to make sure we started everything as a band and finished everything as a band.

It feels like a much more organic, “human” record. Which can be hard with such electronic arrangements.

Aesthetically, too, that was something we really tried to work on getting done properly. With the last one, to be honest, we had no real idea about mixing or production; we knew how to make melodies and things like that on the computer. So we really wanted to make sure this album sounded quite nice and crusty, in a way.

It’s also quite a directly affecting album, even though there’s a lot of depth and intricacies to the arrangements.

That’s what we hoped to do. With this record, there are a lot of layers that are literally just noise or scratchy sounds. There are a lot of ridiculous layers that have no input towards the rhythm or melody; they’re purely to give it that kind of feeling. Alex really got into doing a lot of drum stuff, both on the drums and with his sampler. Rhythmically it became a lot more complex, I think, and he spearheaded all of that and did a really good job.

We gave someone a bit of time to mix and master it, whereas the last time we told the person who mixed it to do it one day. We did a bit better in that sense! I think it’s sounding a lot better, production-wise, too. And Burke Reid mixed it and he did a really, really good job. He did the PVT album, he’s done Jack Ladder, I think he’s in the process of doing Liam Finn’s album. It was good to get a different perspective on the album because we’d been used to everything being done electronically, he approached it more from a band perspective. He made it sound pretty much how we wanted it to sound, but it still had that shock value for us initially because it was like, “Oh wow! I can’t believe you made that thing I’d made on the computer sound like a real drum.” It was really cool. And it’s nice to see someone putting their input in after you. Basically, once we felt like we’d finished it, before it’d been mixed, you realise there’s so much work to be done with mixing that it can completely transform an album. And it was so good to sit back and see Burke change it into something a lot better than what it was.

You got the arts council Soundclash grant in 2009. Did that help with the recording?

Yes. Basically what we used the Soundclash funds for was to pay the session musicians we got. Like in the song “Nor”, there’s a clarinettist, so we got her in to record a few times and paid her. We got some strings players for a few songs. It wasn’t necessarily session musicians on every song, but the money definitely helped us meet new people, in terms of connections as well. And it helped us get new ideas on how to make music and how having other people come in and record stuff can really changed your songs.

Plus they’re not cheap.

Exactly! It’s one of the beauties of having a label, as well. You can get an advance, and all of that does help in the long run. And the Soundclash thing has been great; the people have been nothing but helpful. That money is something that most musicians can’t muster up, too. When we first got that grant and we were able to get some speakers, it made us relax a lot more because we could think, “Now I have this money and it’s been given to us by the government, we can sit back and really plan this record out.” Rather than having the issue of finances eating away at you in the back of your mind.

And a lot of the time you buy this really boring software that just allows your mixes to be a bit louder and it costs you thousands of dollars. You look at that and want to say, “Oh, I could have fucking bought 10,000 cheeseburgers with that!” So it seems like a waste of money, but in the long run there’s just so much money that goes into making something – an album or a recording – go from good to really amazing. And that’s where all the money goes.

It must be really nice to also have your music crafted to its full potential.

Definitely. And we felt it with the last album, especially. Time as well, if you rush things and don’t properly record them, you often feel like you’d almost have preferred to not put the song out rather than put it out at half potential.

Was time an issue?

The first album, we collected a lot of songs we’d all made over two or three years and put it all together on the album. I guess they took the same amount of time, but differently approached. This one took a lot more effort, and we put a lot more planning into it. I feel like this one was harder to do than the last, definitely.

It’s weird, the amount of effort and sleepless nights you spend trying to make it sound [like] you did it really easily – it’s pretty ironic. But a lot of that came with mastering and mixing; that really helped it flow and to bring out things that we hadn’t mixed so well, making things louder and brighter. So it wasn’t just us.

You guys sound very confident in each others’ abilities. How did you all start on Seekae?

George went to primary school with Alex, and then Alex went to my high school. We never really talked about music back then, but we re-met at schoolies at a wet T-shirt competition, no joke. We got chatting and realised we all lived near each other and were all into the same music. George had an MPC [Akai sampler], Alex had a sampler and I had a microKORG, so we thought, “Fuck it, why don’t we meet up and have a jam?” We did that and after about two years of making some of the worst music anyone has ever heard, we decided we’d try to get some gigs and get some recordings done. But I think the new album sounds more confident, because we’d taken a long time to figure out what our sound was and we were finally comfortable with our instruments and where we were recording and with one another. Just experience helps produce what we feel is a better-sounding and better-written album.

It’s funny that you said you all had keyboards and samplers and decided to jam. Hardly the “traditional” indie-rock band session.

It’s funny as well, because Alex and I were playing in an indie-rock band at the time, so we were in probably the most conventional band you could have been in. And during that we really got into electronica. When we met George and found out he had an MPC, we were inspired to do something entirely different. We were all into a lot of music from overseas, especially from Europe and England where there were lots of bands like that, so it was easy enough to figure out what to do. But at the same time, as soon as we showed anyone our initial recordings, they were like, “Nope, get rid of it.”

It’s interesting then that you went from a very traditional band to one with a more niche audience, but you haven’t seemed to have struggled getting gigs. It feels like there’s some diversity in Sydney, especially right now.

In ways it helped, to be honest. At first people were kind of like, “What the fuck is this?” And, “Where are the guitars and drums?” But the fact that it was quite unique, especially in Sydney at the time, I think helped; it made us stand out a bit more and people were more interested to see what we were playing rather than just another indie-rock band. And I witnessed that first-hand, being in an indie-rock band at the time, thinking, “People aren’t really into this anymore.” And when I play with Seekae, people are actually cheering and having a really good time watching. We were scared shitless at first, we thought people were going to boo us off stage, but somehow it worked.

Audiences are usually quite receptive to people doing something a bit different.

And it’s really good to see as well, because people are able to bring out those wacky instruments that their granddad played 50 years ago. It’s cool. I think as well, the Sydney scene is starting to blossom. It’s good to see all these bands come out and not stick to the template and play something new and fresh. From what I’ve seen, five or six years ago, it’s entirely different – in my opinion.

What about further afield – are you guys heading off overseas with this album?

Yes! We’re planning on leaving early May. We’re popping over for a few months; we’re playing the Great Escape in Brighton and a few more shows, hopefully one in Bucharest in Romania, which will be pretty wacky. Apparently we’re big in Romania. But we’ll just test the waters over there.

Then you’ll be moving to your second home, Eastern Europe.

Yeah, and marry some crazy Russian model… and find the guy who leaked our album and bash the shit out of him! [laughs] But a lot of our favourite bands are over there as well, so it’ll be interesting. We might get over there and they’ll be like, “Oh, not another one of these bands – just get out already!” But we’ll definitely be back in Australian in three or four months.

Regardless, sounds like a big year ahead.

Oh yes. It’s going to definitely hurt my wallet heaps and heaps! But I’m looking forward to it; it’s going to be a lot of fun.

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Bronwyn Thompson

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