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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. They’ve been labeled everything you’d expect them to be labeled – the ‘new Stone Roses’, the ‘instigators of a Madchester revival,’ and just last month, NME quoted Noel Gallagher as having said that the future of the galaxy depends on their next record. So, it’s an understatement to say there was a lot riding on Howlin’s release. Thank God they didn’t 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 he’ll 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 you’re at home in Sydney now after wrapping up two tours earlier in the year with Foals and the XX – how did they go?

Yeah I’ve 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 – 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 – those classic venues where we’ve seen YouTube videos of our idols playing – it was fantastic.

I’ve actually read some interviews you’ve done in the past where you said you didn’t 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 don’t have to struggle against poor sound quality. Those really great, classic venues always have great acoustics and it makes it more fun for everyone – the crowd and the band.

I don’t know what it’s like in Australia, but in NZ we don’t have that many great venues in these beautiful old buildings, partly because we’re so young, but also because we’re small.

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

Would you particularly notice that with the electronic, synth-heavy music, that if the sound wasn’t good it would sound a bit like mud and you couldn’t pick up on the complexity?

Yeah definitely. The thing about EM is it’s 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 can’t hear the complexity of the sound. Electronic music isn’t like that. If you can’t hear the complexity then the point is lost.

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

I’ve 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 I’ve read you’re being compared to The Beach Boys or Primal Scream… is that a compliment or just a pain in the arse?

It’s definitely flattering and it’s 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 ‘Yeah okay, Madchester Baggy,’ but to me that’s only one element in a much bigger concoction of influences and ideas and imagination. To say we’re the second coming of the Happy Mondays – that feels lazy and it feels like it’s undermining or ignoring the other ideas in the record and in the sound of the band. So it’s flattering, but I also think it’s lazy.

I totally agree with you about the lazy thing – 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 we’re in now, but it definitely feels like there are certain articles that I’ve read, where I can see it’s cut and pasted. I see the articles get posted on Twitter every time they’re published, and I read most of them, so I see the cut and paste stuff going on and it feels lazy and irresponsible. It’s like, ‘Have you even listened to the record or are you just writing about it as quickly as you can?’

I’ve 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 – I think that’s a great idea.

Yeah that’s fantastic. It sounds great. I don’t 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 it’s reminiscent of Francis Bacon or whoever, and then you learn to apply that way of thinking to music, and that’s how we communicate. But, then it gets to a point where you’re 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, that’s a cool idea. I like it.

That sounds like first year philosophy stuff… 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 – it was very ‘Where the Wild Things Are.’

Yeah it does have that kind of feel.

Are you artistic in that way?

Now it’s 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 – I wanted to be a director and I was really into cinematography – 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 ‘Come Save Me’, Jagwar Ma’s first single, and then I realized I hadn’t 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 ‘Come Save Me’ 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 ‘Come Save Me’ clip was the first one with the silhouettes and patterns, so that was my return to visual art.

Well that’s a good way to do it – if you’re able to create music videos, you have outlet for that artistic side… 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 it’s easier in a sense. I found narrative-based stuff really difficult, and when I didn’t 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 – the only difficulty was the technical side of it, because I’d been just focusing on the music for such a long time.

You’ve 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 that’s 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. That’s the role of music in film.

Who do you think does that particularly well?

That’s a really good question. It sounds really obvious but I love Hans Zimmer’s 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 doesn’t overcrowd the film, it’s 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. He’s basically been my mentor - he did Animal Kingdom too, which I also worked on. He’s 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.

It’s bizarre how a small piece of music can capture so much: images, nostalgia, memories, smells, and sounds…

Yeah that’s the beauty of music really – when it’s 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 weren’t 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?

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

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

Yeah it’s not just that I couldn’t fly, I could barely walk until about a week ago, let alone fly.

Oh no, I’m sorry.

Yeah, I’ve been hammered for the last… God… 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. I’ve pretty much been in bed since then – which is about two months ago.

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

Without going into too much detail, it’s a chronic disease that they don’t 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, that’s awful.

Maybe it was the post album, energy exertion, I don’t know, but basically my body just went ‘Alright – enough. You’ve mistreated me for too long and I’m shutting down,’ so yeah, I’ve 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 couldn’t tour it and I couldn’t go back to the UK. I’m meant to be in the UK now but I’m not - I’m 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 – are you on the mend?

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

That’s great – I’m glad to hear it, but that sounds really rough man…

Yeah, it’s 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 ‘Okay I’m going to teach you how to do the Jagwar Ma live show, and you’re gonna go and be me until I’m better.’ So he’s over there now, and Glastonbury is on in two weeks, and I’ve dreamed of playing Glastonbury for years, like, I might not be able to play it.

Well, I think you’re surprisingly upbeat considering the fact you’ve been left behind on your own tour!

(Laughs). In a way it’s fascinating - this concept of putting all your energy into creating something and then actually letting go of it. That thing of letting go, there’s something quite Zen about it. It’s been interesting…

Well, I bet it has been good for you personally – 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 – that’s 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 that’s it. The sound you’ve helped to create becomes their sound, and you have to let it go. You’ve 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 you’ll 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.