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Interview
Signer

Signer

date
Monday 9th August, 2010 8:36PM

Bevan Smith is a bit of a workaholic, as his impressive list of credentials illustrates. In an interview that tried to focus on just one of his projects (Signer), it became obvious that you can’t talk to Bevan and just talk about one thing. So why fight it?

What are you working on at the moment, music wise?

Just writing some new Signer songs. I’m trying to write a bunch of stuff really. Just trying to do things faster than the last album took. I’m concentrating on getting everything done by the end of this year really.

How long did your last album take you?

It took me like four years.

Is that because of other projects you were concentrating on?

Yeah, after I finished it I decided to work on collaborative stuff and not work on solo stuff. So I worked on a couple of Skallander albums and then two Over the Atlantic albums.

What was the catalyst behind wanting to do collaborative work as opposed to your own thing?

I just thought I’d help some friends out. Skallander was just that I really like working with Matthew [Mitchell]. We’ve worked together since we were teenagers so it’s quite good to keep working on that stuff and with Over the Atlantic is was just inspiring to work on something fresh and new. Something that’s different. It can be inspiring to work on something in a different vein to what you’re used to working in.

Do those collaborations influence your solo output?

Probably, yeah. I can’t say in what specific way, but it must have definitely helped. I think working with Ryan [McPhun] from The Ruby Suns as well made me think a lot more about trying to write more upbeat or happier songs instead of doing all of this kind of sombre, sad stuff [laughs].

Do you mean writing in more of a pop sort of way?

It is like a pop thing, trying to embrace the pop aesthetic and trying to take it as far as we can. Trying to be interesting but trying to be really pop, where you’ve got this really accessible thing, but it’s really interesting as well. It’s really challenging actually. It’s good to work on music that’s really tricky because I can write sad songs all day and slow stuff all day but it’s not really interesting for me to write stuff that I find easy. So I try to do stuff that I find hard. It’s challenging writing stuff that’s really happy, upbeat and interesting.

Why do you think that writing that kind of music is difficult for you?

I think it’s hard in general. There are not many people that can do it. In general, writing stuff that’s upbeat, or happy and not cheesy is really hard. Most happy stuff is kind of cheesy. Ryan can do it. He just always writes stuff that’s happy and I don’t understand how he can constantly crank out happy stuff because he’s not like a particularly happy person or anything [laughs]. He just always writes happy songs and then he’s talking about how glum he is [laughs]. I don’t know, there’s not much really interesting poppy stuff out there. The Mint Chicks can be quite interesting and quite poppy.

You have a long list of credentials. Would you describe yourself as a workaholic?

Yeah, I really like working in the studio. It’s one of my favourite things to do. And if I do something, I just want to keep doing it, like if I play basketball or whatever, I’ll just play for hours and hours. I get kind of stuck doing something, so if I’m in the studio then I just don’t want to stop I just want to keep going and going.

Is that how you’ve always been?

Pretty much, yeah. Just focus on one thing and just do it for a long time.

That must be really useful for being a musician then...

Yeah, totally. Because there’s this myth of creative genius, but it’s mostly just hard work. You just kind of slog away. I think Ryan is a harder worker than I am. He’s pretty crazy with the amount of hours he spends writing one melody or something. Spending days and days on one little bit. I can’t put up with the frustration. If things aren’t working then I can delete and start again rather than push through the pain barrier [laughs].

What is the purpose of your work as Signer?

It’s just my main solo project at the moment. It’s the thing I want to express my point of view the strongest through. That’s the point of it at the moment.

You’ve been doing Signer since about 2000 is that right?

Yeah, it started out that I wanted to make minimal techno stuff. Maybe I should have changed the name because the style of music has changed so much. But I kind of like doing as much range of music I can do. At the moment I’m just interested in this like synth pop thing. It’s got a techno influence. There are influences which I’ll never escape and techno is one them and shoegaze is another. It always comes through no matter what I try and do. But I’m trying to make upbeat, poppy music that’s heavily melodic and interesting.

When do you think you’ll have your next Signer album out?

I want to get something out this year. I guess I’ll have to start thinking of finishing it in June. I don’t really have a timeline yet. I just want to generate as many song ideas and then cull the crappy ones and get 10 solid ideas and finish them. I’m kind of getting close to ten.

Do you ever get help from other musicians when you’re working on Signer material?

Yeah, all the time. I haven’t really had that with this new stuff because Ryan’s in the states touring The Ruby Suns and Matthew is in Hungary. These new ideas have all been generated by me and then if I get stuck or I get to a place where I want some inspiration I’ll send the stuff to Ryan or Matthew and just get them to jam over top of it or see what they can come up with. It’s really good because they’re both really amazing song writers and they’re both quite different as well. I sent them one track that I was having trouble finishing on the last album and Ryan put drums and vocals on it and then Matthew put all of this programmed drum machine stuff over top of it and it completely changed the song and made it really good. It was just so fast as well. It took like three days and the song was done. If I’d been working on it solidly by myself I never would have come up with as good ideas as they came up with and it would have taken ages as well.

And I suppose you all know each other so well by now that they know what kind of thing you’d be looking for?

Definitely. Like if I want more rhythmic or percussion ideas I can send it to both of them because they’re both really good rhythmically.

Did you tour following the release of your last Signer album Next We Bring You Fire?

I did a little bit. I did a tour about 2 months ago with The Ruby Suns. It was kind of their album release tour and I supported them. It was kind of like my album release tour as well, but it was pretty low key from my end. I didn’t advertise it that much. I’m a bit slack at that stuff.

When was the last time you performed as Signer overseas?

I haven’t done Signer stuff overseas for ages actually. Probably like four or five years. I’ve been overseas since then with Over the Atlantic and did a couple of tours last year playing in The Ruby Suns. But I haven’t done Signer stuff overseas in ages.

So do you have any more plans to tour, or are you just focussed on writing and recording at the moment?

I’m just interested in working on this new Signer stuff. I’ll maybe play some Signer shows if people ask. But without Ryan being here; he’s a really big part of the Signer live band and it’s kind of intimidating to think about playing shows without him organising everything. He’s kind of the brains of the live operation. For some strange reason he’s kind of taken over that role [laughs].

Is managing Involve Records [Bevan’s label] a lot of work for you?

It’s really not. I get a lot of orders from overseas, so every couple of weeks I go to the post office to send off some orders and a lot of stuff is on the bandcamp website, so people download mp3’s and that. But the label is semi inactive, like I’m not looking for new artists and I’m not thinking about putting stuff out on Involve, it’s just usually projects that I can’t find decent international labels to put out. Like Matthew’s solo album that was meant to be out on a British label but because of the financial crisis they couldn’t put it out. So I thinking about putting that out. Other than that the label just kind of sits there in the background. I’m not very good at running the label, that’s kind of why I don’t do it so much.

Why did you start Involve?

Back in the day when I started it, like in 1998, there wasn’t anyone in NZ who was putting out electronic music and I had friends stuff that I thought was good so I was sending it overseas and people were really into it. So I just put it out myself. Then I got all of these distributors around the world. Things went really well and then electronic music took a really big dive in about 2003 and all of these distributors started going under and went bankrupt. I guess that was the start of the demise of the CD market as well. So it just became really hard. I lost lots of money from distributors going bankrupt, so I didn’t really have money to put out new things. I lost enthusiasm hard out, so I just do small stuff now; NZ, Japan, online orders and MP3’s and stuff. It keeps it ticking over.

Would you describe any of your projects as your main focus?

It changes per project. My main focus is always what album I’m working on and at the moment I’m working on a Signer album. I’d love to work on another Skallander album this year if Matthew and I can get that together. It’s purely project based, like last year it was The Ruby Suns album and before that it was the Signer album.

So apart from doing the new Signer album quicker, is there anything else you’d like to do differently?

Well, there was one weird review that said there was no bass on the last album so I’ll make sure there’s lots of bass. I kind of want to make things a bit more direct. I kind of get annoyed when people talk about reverb. There was virtually no reverb on the last Signer album but because it’s quite spacey or there’s this style that I have which is dense soundcloud stuff that I get into, people think that’s reverb. So anyway, I want to make things more direct and upfront. Ryan’s always hassling me to turn the kick and vocals up, so I’ll probably do that [laughs].

In your opinion, what is the state of music in NZ?

I think it’s pretty good. I think there’s some good stuff out there. It’s about the same as music everywhere really. I think for our size we have a better amount of good stuff than we probably should do. There are heaps of bands I really like in NZ. When you go overseas you see lots of bands and the main difference is that the bands are a lot tighter because they’re playing heaps more shows but they’re not necessarily any better or more interesting. Whereas in NZ the bands are generally sloppier but there’s something more interesting. But then we do have really tight and super well practised bands as well i.e. The Mint Chicks and So So Modern. But overseas that’s the usual standard when you see a band. But yeah, in the indie scene, it’s really good.

Gareth Meade