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Jagwar Ma

Jagwar Ma

Interviewed by
Natalie Finnigan
Tuesday 18th June, 2013 9:34AM

Before the release of their debut album Howlin last week, Jagwar Ma were riding a wave of hype so high it could have ruined them. Theyíve been labeled everything youíd expect them to be labeled Ė the Ďnew Stone Rosesí, the Ďinstigators of a Madchester revival,í and just last month, NME quoted Noel Gallagher as having said that the future of the galaxy depends on their next record. So, itís an understatement to say there was a lot riding on Howlinís release. Thank God they didnít disappoint.

The 11-track stunner has received rave reviews from the music press worldwide, an achievement that should have been the perfect start to a perfect European tour. However, this was not the case for one half of the Sydney-based duo. After putting his all into producing Howlin, Jono Ma was taken down by an obscure illness that has seen him bed-ridden since April. Instead of touring the new record with band-mate and vocalist Gabriel Winterfield, Jono has been reading books in bed and hoping like hell heíll be well enough to play Glastonbury at the end of the month. Under The Radar caught up with a surprisingly upbeat Jono last week, and chatted about his art, his health, and his hope to join Gabriel for the second leg of the Howlin tour.

Hi Jono, I understand youíre at home in Sydney now after wrapping up two tours earlier in the year with Foals and the XX Ė how did they go?

Yeah Iíve been in Sydney since April when we did a tour of Australia with the XX and a European tour with Foals. Both were really great. The Foals tour was fantastic Ė their latest record had just come out and we were playing really big, fun crowds. We played some really amazing venues across Europe, like the Paradiso in Amsterdam and the Olympia in Paris Ė those classic venues where weíve seen YouTube videos of our idols playing Ė it was fantastic.

Iíve actually read some interviews youíve done in the past where you said you didnít like big festivals so much because you prefer to play beautiful venues with good sound.

It always helps to be in a room that sounds good from the start. It means you donít have to struggle against poor sound quality. Those really great, classic venues always have great acoustics and it makes it more fun for everyone Ė the crowd and the band.

I donít know what itís like in Australia, but in NZ we donít have that many great venues in these beautiful old buildings, partly because weíre so young, but also because weíre small.

Yeah Sydneyís not that great either. Thereís not much a culture here or a desire for really great sound. Thereís kind of that pub culture, where as long as you can hear the band and itís loud, itís fine. It does seem like in Europe, thereís this really great culture on top of the great spaces, where itís important to people to have good sound.

Would you particularly notice that with the electronic, synth-heavy music, that if the sound wasnít good it would sound a bit like mud and you couldnít pick up on the complexity?

Yeah definitely. The thing about EM is itís as much about the character of the sound and the construction of the space with sound, as it is about melody or hooks or lyrics. Pop music is about lyrics and big hooks and singing loud, and your ear tends to be more forgiving if you canít hear the complexity of the sound. Electronic music isnít like that. If you canít hear the complexity then the point is lost.

Well you would have an understanding of that better than most given youíve worked in production. I understand youíve actually worked with Foals on production?

Iíve been friends with them for a long time, well before Jagwar Ma, and when they came out to Australia for the Laneway Festival they had a couple of weeks off. We spent that time hanging out, writing music together and jamming, and actually spent a bit of time in the studio working on some tracks which ended up being the springboard for their next record.

Were these tracks for Holy Fire?

Technically not, but there were some tracks that inspired tracks on Holy Fire.

How do you feel about all the comparisons that get made between you and other artists? Every article Iíve read youíre being compared to The Beach Boys or Primal ScreamÖ is that a compliment or just a pain in the arse?

Itís definitely flattering and itís definitely a compliment to hear your name alongside the names of great bands such as the Happy Mondays and Stone Roses, but it does also feel a little lazy sometimes. I think some journalists may have just read that and then gone ĎYeah okay, Madchester Baggy,í but to me thatís only one element in a much bigger concoction of influences and ideas and imagination. To say weíre the second coming of the Happy Mondays Ė that feels lazy and it feels like itís undermining or ignoring the other ideas in the record and in the sound of the band. So itís flattering, but I also think itís lazy.

I totally agree with you about the lazy thing Ė I think some journalists run out of time, so they just read up before the interview and say what everyone else said.

Yeah I guess this is a result of the online/blog/social media environment that weíre in now, but it definitely feels like there are certain articles that Iíve read, where I can see itís cut and pasted. I see the articles get posted on Twitter every time theyíre published, and I read most of them, so I see the cut and paste stuff going on and it feels lazy and irresponsible. Itís like, ĎHave you even listened to the record or are you just writing about it as quickly as you can?í

Iíve read a couple of reviews where the writer has made a rule that they wont use comparisons, and instead they have to try and describe what the track brings to mind in terms of imagery Ė I think thatís a great idea.

Yeah thatís fantastic. It sounds great. I donít know where it comes from but I feel like we almost learn critical thinking at some stage, and one of the first things we learn is to compare and contrast and classify things. I remember even in High School art you learn to look at a painting and know that itís reminiscent of Francis Bacon or whoever, and then you learn to apply that way of thinking to music, and thatís how we communicate. But, then it gets to a point where youíre constantly comparing one thing to another and you stop needing to describe things as they are. It sounds interesting - that concept of not relying on referencing other artists when describing an artist - to try and use references to imagery and stuff like that, thatís a cool idea. I like it.

That sounds like first year philosophy stuffÖ did you study something along those lines at university?

I did a Bachelor of Media Production at uni and majored in film, so it was basically an arts degree. In my mind, film is kind of like the perfect conglomeration of all the arts.

Are you responsible for the drawing on your Tumblr account, which had the track list for the album?

No that was Gab.

I was looking at that thinking it was quite a telling drawing in terms of the influences in your music Ė it was very ĎWhere the Wild Things Are.í

Yeah it does have that kind of feel.

Are you artistic in that way?

Now itís mostly just music, but I definitely have a strong visual side. When I was growing up I wanted to be a cartoonist/animator, and used to draw and paint a lot. Then I got into art in general, and studied film at university, and it was actually at uni that I started to turn away from the visual arts Ė I wanted to be a director and I was really into cinematography Ė but I shifted towards sound design and soundtrack work, and then came out of uni and got a job at a studio doing just that. At the studio I started recording bands, and then playing in a band myself, and then it just became all about music and I sort of forgot about that whole other world of art. Until ĎCome Save Meí, Jagwar Maís first single, and then I realized I hadnít done anything visual in a while and I wanted to make the video clip. I teamed up with a friend of mine who had experience directing, and we co-directed the ĎCome Save Meí video, but it was originally based on my ideas and concepts.

Is that the one on the rooftop?

No, but that was also my idea. The ĎCome Save Meí clip was the first one with the silhouettes and patterns, so that was my return to visual art.

Well thatís a good way to do it Ė if youíre able to create music videos, you have outlet for that artistic sideÖ although music videos are probably one of the harder things to create well, because you have a short period of time to try and communicate a lot.

Yeah I actually think itís easier in a sense. I found narrative-based stuff really difficult, and when I didnít have to adhere to a narrative, and it was more free form, I liked that. I had loads of fun doing the clip because I knew exactly how I wanted it to look Ė the only difficulty was the technical side of it, because Iíd been just focusing on the music for such a long time.

Youíve also done scoring work on films and TV shows such as The Slap. Did you write the music for that?

Yeah I did the final episode of The Slap and bits and pieces on various episodes. As I said before, when I left uni I got a job at a studio working on scores and thatís been my day job outside of playing in bands, producing bands and DJing -my day job has been scoring films and TV shows.

Soundtrack work is very much about narrative though right?

Oh absolutely, you have to be completely conscious of the development of characters and the unfolding of the plot because your responsibility as the composer is to support and apply emotional cues to the narrative. Thatís the role of music in film.

Who do you think does that particularly well?

Thatís a really good question. It sounds really obvious but I love Hans Zimmerís big Batman soundtracks and stuff. If you watch The Dark Knight, the first cue with the percussion, it just gets your adrenaline rushing, but it doesnít overcrowd the film, itís just this less is more approach. But I also love the work of an Australian composer Anthony Partos who did most of the work on The Slap. Heís basically been my mentor - he did Animal Kingdom too, which I also worked on. Heís amazing at the less-is-more approach and not leaning on the big, epic Hollywood style string arrangements. He finds more interesting sounds and ways of supporting the emotion in the scene.

Itís bizarre how a small piece of music can capture so much: images, nostalgia, memories, smells, and soundsÖ

Yeah thatís the beauty of music really Ė when itís done really well it can trigger emotions that are hard to trigger any other way. There were certain moments on the Jagwar record where my motivation was a visual motivation. The last two tracks on the record, Did You Have To and Backwards Berlin, where I was taking direction form images that I was seeing. A lot of the other tracks on the record werenít like that, but for those two, I was seeing an image, like a memory, and I was trying to sonically represent it.

Any plans to come to NZ?

Iím a little out of touch actually with the touring schedule because Iíve been really ill for a few months and have been shut off from the world while Iíve been recovering.

I saw something about you being unable to fly and having to cancel a gigÖ

Yeah itís not just that I couldnít fly, I could barely walk until about a week ago, let alone fly.

Oh no, Iím sorry.

Yeah, Iíve been hammered for the lastÖ GodÖ since the end of the XX tour. We were meant to do a national tour of own, but we had to cancel that and a bunch of shows in the UK. Iíve pretty much been in bed since then Ė which is about two months ago.

Oh my goodness Ė is that something you mind me asking about?

Without going into too much detail, itís a chronic disease that they donít know too much about, and it sort of crept up on me with the stress of touring and whatnot, and it ended up just shutting down one of my organs.

Oh God, thatís awful.

Maybe it was the post album, energy exertion, I donít know, but basically my body just went ĎAlright Ė enough. Youíve mistreated me for too long and Iím shutting down,í so yeah, Iíve basically been really, really sick for a long time. It was good and bad in terms of timing actually. In a way it was really frustrating, because the record was coming out and I couldnít tour it and I couldnít go back to the UK. Iím meant to be in the UK now but Iím not - Iím still in Sydney trying to get better. But, it was also good timing in a sense because at least the record was done and delivered and I was able to just shut off from all the hype and read lots of books in bed and not be part of the fire and the fury involved in the build up to the release.

So have you sorted it out Ė are you on the mend?

Yeah, just in the last week I feel like Iíve turned a corner and Iím starting to show signs of improvement.

Thatís great Ė Iím glad to hear it, but that sounds really rough manÖ

Yeah, itís pretty rough. The worst bit is that the tour in the UK and Europe started last night, so I had to train up a friend to be my clone or stand in if you will - I had to find a contingency, so I just got my best friend basically, and said ĎOkay Iím going to teach you how to do the Jagwar Ma live show, and youíre gonna go and be me until Iím better.í So heís over there now, and Glastonbury is on in two weeks, and Iíve dreamed of playing Glastonbury for years, like, I might not be able to play it.

Well, I think youíre surprisingly upbeat considering the fact youíve been left behind on your own tour!

(Laughs). In a way itís fascinating - this concept of putting all your energy into creating something and then actually letting go of it. That thing of letting go, thereís something quite Zen about it. Itís been interestingÖ

Well, I bet it has been good for you personally Ė a lot of the angst you hear about within bands is over that very issue, people not being able create and let go.

Yeah totally Ė thatís something I was really bad at in the past. I did a lot of producing for bands and I had a real struggle because I would put so much of my own energy and creativity into the sound, and even sometimes the songs directly and the arrangements, and then the band goes off and thatís it. The sound youíve helped to create becomes their sound, and you have to let it go. Youíve got no part at all in what happens next, but you form this weird attachment to the music. So I guess being put in this situation has forced me to learn to do that.

Well, I have my fingers crossed for you, that you get better, and that youíll be well enough to go and play Glastonbury and live your dream.

Yeah I hope so too. You never know what could happen in two weeks.

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