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Interview: Polyester Talk About Their Self-Titled Debut Album

Interview: Polyester Talk About Their Self-Titled Debut Album

Interview by Kiki Van Newtown / Photo by highlightnz / Wednesday 11th July, 2018 11:24AM

Auckland's Polyester have just released their eponymous debut album, and are bang in the middle of a national tour to celebrate their new release. Kiki Van Newtown (of Wellington witch rockers Hex) met up with bandmates Amelia Berry and Michael Garelja in a record store in Pōneke on a particularly stormy day and invited them back to her soccer-mom van to gossip about music and love...

So you’ve just put out an album and you’re on tour. What has been the timeline for doing this, for planning the tour and album release and everything?

A: The album’s been a long time coming.

M: The tour was a kind of a side that we thought “um, ooooohh, yeah?!”

A: The second half of last year was all getting ramped up to Laneway. We hadn’t really thought of much beyond that - apart from that we were making an album. So after Laneway we were like “oh, we have to do other stuff now!” so we finished the album and started planning the tour.

You said ramping up to Laneway - did you write a lot of new material for that? What sort of preparations did that entail?

A: Just kind of like trying to get better as a band. [laughing] Like “oh god, if people are going to see us!” Y’know, we better be good! So we already had most of the songs together for the album and we decided to just focus on a set of them and several times a week practice getting them tight. It kinda worked out though, we sound like a real band now! It really does feel like a magic trick cuz you don’t really notice the change, and it wasn’t until I heard some recording of us playing live and I was like “oh! It’s MUSIC!!”

I’m gonna dive right in and talk about the album. So it’s basically a love album, or am I projecting? It's just really about… like I listen to it and I think all of these songs could go on a ‘songs-to-make-love-to’ playlist.

A: Oh my god!

M: I like that!

A: Yeah I like that!

Was that intentional, or are these just the things that come out because that’s what’s happening in your life? Did you set about to write a love album?

A: No. I mean, partially. A lot of our older songs were about the depressing aspects of my real life, like “I have to go to this terrible job, I have to do this thing” and they were all quite specific. And… I don’t know! What changed Michael?

Yeah, where did the joy come from?

M: I think Tane [guitarist] came along, and Tane brought a lot of groove.

A: And we started listening to a lot more soul and disco music where all of the songs are like hymns to the transformative power of love. I think partly also for me, a bunch of it was about escapism, because my life has not been hugely flowers and rainbows and falling in love recently. So it’s been kinda nice to have that in the band at least, if not in real life. [laughing]

M: And maybe part of it has been that you’ve accepted that twee is the real rock music? [laughing]

Oh my god can we talk about this?!

A: Yeah we can talk about this! When I was a teenager I kind of stumbled upon twee thanks to the very start of being able to find music on the internet. Like downloading things on LimeWire.

M: That’s on the record now!

A: That’s on the record! I illegally downloaded things via LimeWire. I don’t do it any more though. We’re past the statute of limitations I’m sure. But yeah, I really liked it, it was like… all of the bands had women in them. And it really kind of spoke to me in a way, and it seemed really accessible to make music like that. The other kinds of music where it was like "you can pick up a guitar and do this" - it seemed like you had to yell and be quite aggressive or something. [Twee] just really spoke to me being a huge wuss.

I briefly made some twee music in high school and then people were just like "what is this?" And there were some New Zealand twee bands around, but they were all kind of dissolving by that time. It seemed like when I was like "okay it’s my time to start a band now!" all of those bands were gone. And for a a long time I just repressed the twee, I think. Pushed it deep down inside. What’s your relationship with twee Michael?

M: Um, much stronger for having met Amelia, is what I’m going to say on that. [laughing]

A: I’ve been kind of an evangelist for it I think.

M: I guess I came at it from loving Orange Juice to bits, and then just hanging out with Amelia a lot meant that I got to listen to a lot of twee. And then sometimes you fall down a twee hole and…

And what is at the bottom of a twee hole?

A: Tullycraft.

Is this the point that you’re like "we need to drag you out a bit, we need to intervene?"

M: When you’re listening to the reggae Tullycraft. I found Amelia in her room listening to reggae Tullycraft being like "this is okay" and I’m like “nah, it’s not”. It’s just not! [laughing]

Along with twee the music comes twee the aesthetic, and then stemming out from that comes twee, the mode of social interaction.

A: Yeah, it can be a lot. And I think it took a while to navigate to a place where I could have a love song with jangly guitars and be like “yeah, but I’m not going to make you a cupcake”. [laughing]

M: Keeping with twee is the real rock…

A: Twee is the true punk!

M: Twee is the true punk, we thought about getting fake tattoos for the tour but we ran out of brain power and time.

Can you put "twee is the true punk" on underpants?

A: I’ve been trying to get that started as a slogan for a long time.

Well it’s going in here!

A: Okay good. I feel like enough time has passed since the mid 2000’s drinking-cups-of-tea-and-frilly-doilies version of twee - cuz I think a lot of people reacted badly to that - to bring it back. Because I think it is quite transgressive to be emotionally open in that way. A lot of other music that is that emotionally raw is also quite aggressive and quite cruel. So it’s nice to have something that speaks to the nice part of sincerity. I don’t know, this is all making me sound like a wuss. It’s going to finally be revealed to the world.

Uh oh.

M: Oh no! Nobody could’ve guessed! [laughing]

So the music. When I listen to it it’s like this is a better version of what my aunties would’ve listened to in the 80’s when they were getting on the turps with wine coolers, and they were listening to this sexually expressive music and feeling a bit sensual in Henderson of wherever they lived. But it always struck me that the music was primarily sung by male vocalists and it was always like "I’m going to take you as a lady and do things to you"…

A: Yeah.

But your album is way more updated and equitable sounding. And I also really like how much touching is mentioned in your album. It’s so refreshing hearing that physical dynamism coming from a female vocalist, and I love it. Can you tell me about that? Is that intentional? Where does all that come from?

A: I was listening to a lot of pop pop music, like Carly Rae Jepson and Kylie Minogue, and I found the most affecting moments of it - and thinking about real life, not just learning emotions from pop songs - were the ideas of those simple moments that can be so transformative. It seems like you can evoke a whole lot by just talking about the start of some kind of encounter, like that tenderness. It seems like a good way for me to talk about closeness with someone. The way that you touch people speaks a lot about the relationships you have with them, and in a way where you don’t have to go into other details.

Yeah like on your song ‘Closer Than Words’ - that’s sort of perfect really.

A: I think that’s my favourite one, that one.

So Amelia, you write all the lyrics. I wanna know how it works with someone else singing them.

A: Our band really started when I talked to Sylvia about her singing some of the music. It’s nice having someone that you can collaborate with like that. She really seems to understand - like sometimes I’ll write something and not be 100% sure about it, but Sylvia seems to get something from it.

I wanna know about this process. When you pass across the lyrics [to Sylvia] are you like ‘this is the feeling, this is the timbre of voice’ or do you actually just hand them off and be like "you do you now"?

A: Usually there’ll be a demo with me singing and playing an instrument underneath and I’ll send that to Sylvia and she’ll learn it from that. Sometimes things change, usually things change. And it’s also taken some time to learn to write songs that suit Sylvia singing them.

Right, so that’s been an evolution in terms of your songwriting?

A: Yeah. Definitely some of the earlier songs didn’t work so well. It just sounded like someone singing someone else’s songs.

Is that because of vocal range, or different vocal techniques or…?

A: Yeah range, and certain rhythms that people want to naturally fall in to. And if you write something very opposed to that it can sound very unnatural. But over time you get to know someone really well and it becomes a lot easier to write things for them to sing.

You become like one brain?

A: Yeah, ooooh…

Too close to home? Too much?

A: Yeah, I don’t know about one brain. [laughing]

I guess you learn each others’ musical language and it becomes a lot easier to communicate ideas.

M: Like a Venn diagram brain!

A: Yeah, that’s good! Like, very seldom will I be like "this song is about this," and most of the time I don’t need to.

You mentioned that you basically have a scratch demo - is this what you give to the band, or do you write all of the instrumentation?

A: No, everyone writes all of their own bits.

M: Normally Sylvia gets a week off when it’s time to try and learn a new song because it’s terrible, everyone gets grumpy.

A: Yeah cuz usually Sylvia will have her part down, she’ll learn it and change anything she wants to change and suss it all out right away, and everyone else is busy trying to figure out what the song should sound like. Sometimes I’ll have specific directions for things - usually for rhythms rather than particular parts, like "the kick needs to be on this beat throughout the whole song except this part." But it’s very collaborative, the arrangement.

Amelia are you the band leader though? Do you get the final say?

A: Do I have final say Michael? I can get a bit stroppy if something’s not sounding how I want it to sound.

M: And because Amelia does lots of the mixing she gets the sneaky final say. In saying that, if you fight her on something, sometimes not right away but a couple of weeks later you’ll get "oh that bit I got rid of in the recording is actually quite good so I’ve brought it back."

A: I know that I have a tendency to be like "I thought it should be this way so it should be this way," and it can sometimes take a little while to take on people’s ideas if they’re different from what I thought. But I don’t think there’s any songs where I’ve had to stop everything and be like "no! no, you can’t do this!"

M: I think I’ve pushed that button maybe once. [laughing]

A: Yeah there have been a couple of bass solos that we’ve had to pull back a little bit.

The bass is quite magnificent.

A: Yeah it’s a blessing having Michael in the band. I can’t imagine what it would sound like with a different bass player.

M: I fell into the bass when Amelia was trying to bring up an old band that she used to play bass in, but she didn’t want to play the bass anymore. I played Amelia’s bass for three years, and it was only last year that I bought a bass.

What did you get?

M: A knockoff Rickenbacker.

Yes you did! So can I just ask about the production process. Do you record everything yourselves?

A: Yeah [laughing]. A lot of things broke during the process of recording this. I think possibly next time we will go into a proper studio! But it was really important for me anyway that the first thing that we made was like us. And so it was many, many hours at the bFM studio late into the night.

Did you track everything individually?

A: Yeah we tracked everything individually. Yeah I basically did everything on it apart from master it, which was done by Rohan Evans from The Wine Cellar.

And so the mixing process - how long did that take? A million years?

A: Yeah, months and months. There were so many tracks on everything. It was a lot. I dunno. Does it sound good Michael? Do you like it? [Michael nods] Okay good! [laughing]

I’ve spent too much time with it now. It’s hard for me to listen to it without thinking "I need to turn this thing up and move this to the side." But I think a lot of the music that I was most attached to growing up has a very kind of home-made quality to it. Even if it’s not super lo-fi in the sound, it’s…

M: Lo-fi of the heart.

A: Yeah! You can hear the fingerprints on the recording.

Do you feel acceptance now though, or do you still have times where you wake up in the middle of the night and are like ‘I could actually just go back and remix that bit and then re-upload it all online’?

A: I do occasionally think that! We have a physical… it’s on cassette now, so we can’t really do anything. I think I’m happy that it’s all finished. A lot of the things I love about other people’s recordings are when you hear something strange happen, or you can hear something intentional and unusual. There are a lot of things in there that probably sound to me right now like things I should change, but to other people hopefully that will give them the same feeling that I have when I listen to The Pastels or whatever.

Yeah, it’s like being let in on a secret when you hear those little things. So what function do you hope your music serves in communities, or for yourselves?

A: I think a lot of the most important music to me has been comforting. I would hope that this music is comforting to people. I’m hoping that queer people listen to it and hear something of that in there.

It’s so valuable because often music is written to charge people up in a 'taking action’ way, but there’s so much repair that people need to do for themselves because everyone’s so damaged because the world is a hellhole. So it’s so nice to have music that is really tender and that revitalises you in this way, and with this album I think you’ve really achieved that.

A: When I was younger I made a lot of music that sounded a certain way because I thought that thing was cool, or I wanted to make music that expressed some deep feeling within me. In starting to write the songs for this album, I was listening to a lot of music to feel better, and I kind of approached the songs like that. But live is a lot more fun than that sounds!

M: We’re a bit heckers. And I reckon that the people in the band are really great at everything they do. Like we had a bit of a drummer crisis and then Keria came along and he’s… woah!

I have one last question. I saw you played at a PAPA (People Against Prisons Aotearoa) benefit show. Do you draw your politics into your music? How do your politics manifest in your music, or does it not and actually music is more comforting escapism?

A: I listen to quite a bit of political music. Speaking very personally, being trans, your whole identity is politicised. People take attitudes towards you not as a person, but based on their political beliefs about things. And so I really appreciate seeing media about trans people and queer people generally that isn’t about the terrible things that happen to them, but is just about them doing cool stuff and them just being people. And so I kind of just try and do that, because that’s what I like to see. Obviously it’s important to tell all of these stories, but for me those [terrible] stories are just my life, so it’s empowering for me to see other queer people making music that’s just for themselves, that’s just music. I think I’m also just not as good at writing songs about politics as I think possibly other people are.

M: One of Amelia’s glory day old songs was a song from the perspective of Paul Holmes, and it involved vaudeville piano.

Did you listen to his album?

A: I just listened to it because I wanted to know what it was like. It’s just him kind of doing half-arsed versions of ‘Echoes of Your Mind’ and he reads some poems. It’s not nearly as weird as it would need to be to make that thing good or listenable in any way.

Can I ask about Polyester the name? Just really into polyester clothing?

A: We’re really into polyester clothing.

M: All of Amelia’s favourite bands are named after fabric.

A: I was really into Denim and Felt.

M: There was a good list that we came up with.

I love this. Were there any other fabrics that you were playing with in terms of names?

A: Polyester was the one that came to mind. It took us a long time to think of the name, cuz we were previously called Kip McGrath which did nothing for our Search Engine Optimisation. Also Sylvia especially loves John Waters.

M: And polyester usually comes in super sweet looks.

A: Like crazy 70’s designs.

M: And it’s also the vibe. It’s like slightly sticky, gets a bit weird, but you love it.

You can catch Polyester celebrating the release of their debut record at Christchurch's darkroom this coming Saturday 14th July, and at Auckland's Whammy Bar on Friday 27th July. For more info and tickets head along here.


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