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The Lizard Kings
The Lizard Kings, by SJD


Interviewed by
Natalie Finnigan
Friday 14th December, 2012 8:28AM

After hunkering down in his studio for 5 months, SJD aka Sean James Donnelly emerged into the 'bright and beautiful' world to release Elastic Wasteland, his sixth album under the moniker. Ahead of his show this Saturday at Q Theatre, Sean chatted to Natalie Finnigan about the magic of songwriting and why he feels the need to put down the pen and make squirty electronic noises for while.

How have you felt about the reception of Elastic Wasteland?

I think that people are still processing it so maybe a bit early to say...certain key people have been very encouraging and that's all I need, really...

You’ve made a number of albums now – you probably always get asked how this one differs from the ones that went before it, so instead I’d like to ask, how is it the same?

I think this album is the same as others I've done in that the songs are psychological in nature with a slightly repressed emotional undercurrent. People accuse me of being a tad subtle sometimes - it seems that hasn't changed. I love good melody and harmony, pleasing sounds, interesting dissonances but I have an aversion to anything that wears out its welcome too quickly - for that reason alone my albums tend to be grow-ers rather than show-ers.... There's plenty that's different this time though but I'll leave that to the listeners to work out for themselves....

How did Elastic Wasteland come together for you? Was it a similar process to how you’ve made albums before?

I made the album completely alone in my home studio using analogue synths and drum machines - that's new for me. I usually get someone in to help when things get a little too claustrophobic but I decided to confront those feelings alone this time round. All in all it was composed, played and produced pretty quickly. About four months for most of it and about another month of pissing around....

I have a theory that the best songs don’t feel like songs, but rather like instant life soundtracks. If they can somehow transform and enhance your perspective so that experiences seem more significant, then the artist has captured the magic of a tiny piece of the human experience. Do you think that’s rubbish? What’s your take on the magic of songwriting?

I think that's very well expressed. That idea of transforming perspective sounds a lot like defamiliarisation - where you reframe the everyday event or object in an unusual context or at an unexpected point in the narrative. All my songs have a little bit of the soundtrack in them - I see it as an emotional space that you enter into - it might seem nebulous at first but I think it's important that the writer not be too vague inside that space or it can make the experience a little meaningless and forgettable (for me anyway). Everything I write comes from my own experience, sometimes subtly disguised but coupled almost always with a lyric or musical motif that has a contrary motion....

Who are some of your favourite songwriters?

Some songwriters I love....In no particular order...Randy Newman, Brian Wilson, Don McGlashan, Annabel Alpers, Connan Mockasin, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, Judee Sill, Townes Van Zandt, David Kilgour, Shuggie Otis, Cohen, Dylan, Scott Walker etc....

Can you tell me what you think is the best lyric you’ve ever written and how did it come to you?

My favourite lyric of my own invention is Song of Baal off the new album Elastic Wasteland. I wrote it pretty much all in one go on the night of one of those 'supermoons' we had a while back. It's not often that the lyrics come first for me in a song but I'm keen to try it again...just gotta wait for another auspicious lunar occurrence...

You work with a fair few NZ musicians on all sorts of projects – how do you choose what to be involved in - do you follow your head, your heart, your ears, or all/none of the above?

I naturally want to hang out with people whose music I like...but I've got to have a connection with the person too so I'm really following my heart. There are many people I'd love to work with in this embarrassingly talented little country so it mostly seems to come down to timing or circumstance...

What are some of the projects you are working on currently and what do they give you that working on your solo stuff doesn’t?

I'm still working on The Bellbirds' album - that's Don, Victoria, Sandy and me. Hoping to see that released in the new year - it's very acoustic and un-synthy. Also feeling another collab coming on with Mr James Duncan....But mostly I'm totally sick of me and my thoughts. I'd love to just play bass or make squirty electronic noises on someone else's stuff....

You’ve gained a fantastic reputation within the NZ music industry – what are you gunning for? I know you’ve previously said that trying to make a living off your music in NZ is not really viable, so how do you approach it?

I think I have a good reputation with some people but I've probably annoyed others by taking way too long to complete projects or by making offhand comments with absolutely no basis in experience or fact. I survive by attacking a miscellany of projects. Generally I sit here and take absolutely everything that is offered to me. I hope people are pleased with my work - I think most of us move on to the next thing very quickly and try not to look back...

What music do your kids like and have you been able to have any influence? Have you come to appreciate any new music through your children?

My kids all have awesome taste in music - something that I'm willing to take a large amount of the credit for. Mainly they seem to pick up on one or two things at a time and totally drive them into the ground. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard Tashi play Neutral Milk Hotel and Jamie's room generally seems to be reverberating with something Dylan-y or folky which comes as a relief after years of endless Elliott Smith... Their main influence on me seems to be their cool disinterest in any music I make....

Can you give me one sentence which summarises the state of NZ music from your perspective?

If you mean New Zealand music then ‘an embarrassment of riches’ - if you're talking about the state of the New Zealand music industry then ‘head up own arse looking for the light switch....’

And finally, once sentence which summarises your current state as a musician?

I feel like I've just come out of my room for the first time in six months and everything looks beautiful and bright but also kind of strange and overwhelming...

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related gigs
Sat 15th Dec
Q Theatre, Auckland

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