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Interview: Lawrence Arabia Talks About His 'Singles Club' Album + Tour

Interview: Lawrence Arabia Talks About His 'Singles Club' Album + Tour

Interview by Lukasz Pawel Buda / Wednesday 3rd April, 2019 11:26AM

Lawrence Arabia aka James Milne unveiled his long-teased Singles Club album last Friday, the culmination of a hugely ambitious project where the award-winning Auckland-based artist released a standalone single every month over the period of one year, beginning in February 2018. The wide-ranging new collection included contributions from Hollie Fullbrook of Tiny Ruins and legendary US songwriter / arranger Van Dyke Parks – Milne is celebrating the record's release with a nationwide tour kicking off today at Christchurch's Blue Smoke, performing with his all-star band featuring Heather Mansfield (The Brunettes), Claire Cowan (Blackbird Ensemble), Anita Clark (aka Motte, who is also playing support for all dates), Tom Watson, Alistair Deverick and Hayden Eastmond-Mein. In anticipation of the tour, Wellington's Lukasz Pawel Buda aka Luke Buda of The Phoenix Foundation generously spared some time to get on the blower with Milne for an insightful chat, exploring the nitty-gritty details of his year-long-project, working with Van Dyke Parks, what it can mean to be an "adult" artist and more. Scope out the tour details here and read their conversation below...

Undertheradar proudly presents...

Lawrence Arabia's Singles Club Album Release Tour
w/ support from Motte on all dates

Wednesday 3rd April - Blue Smoke, Christchurch 
Thursday 4th April - Grainstore Gallery, Oamaru
Friday 5th April - The Captain Cook, Dunedin
Saturday 6th April - Sherwood, Queenstown
Thursday 11th April - The Cabana, Napier
Friday 12th April - San Fran, Wellington
Saturday 13th April - St. Peter's Hall, Paekakariki
Friday 26th April - Hollywood Theatre, Auckland w/ BEING.
Saturday 27th April - Hollywood Theatre, Auckland w/ Hans Pucket

Tickets available HERE via UTR

So you've got a big band, it's a different kind of band. What's going on there?

It's Tom (Watson) and Hayden (Eastmond-Mein) and Alastair (Deverick), and then Heather Mansfield and Claire (Cowan). And also Anita Clark, who's Motte, she's supporting as well and she's also going to play some violin and sing some parts as well. But we haven't met up yet, we're meeting up on the day in Christchurch and we'll see what we can put together. Basically it's the core of the six of us as the band.

Going to the album... I was thinking there's so much pressure at the moment, on people to release their albums in interesting ways. Certainly it helps right? There's so much noise out there, that people have to seemingly look for interesting things to do, to get attention. I'm aware that it sort of sounds like saying this was a social media exercise, but what I thought... was you have kind of got the best of both worlds. Because it's a kind of rigorous artistic manifesto as well as a really interesting concept that people can talk about. What was your thinking? Were you just bored of doing it "normally"?

The theory was... releasing records, at least the last two records, in a very conventional way, I'd found a bit deflating. Being old enough to remember a time when it was good enough to write some good songs, and then do a good job of recording it and it would get a four star review and then you'd sell gold.

[laughs] Ahaa the good old days.

I was probably slightly rooted in that era, or I definitely was idealising, as a teenager I was "this is how it works". So then to discover it wasn't enough... it was at least three to four years between records, and then releasing a record and it kind of just disappears really, to some degree. It still exists in some people's minds, but compared to what some people's expectations are it can be a little disappointing. There was definitely that sense there, and there was also a sense that I wanted to release music but I didn't have a whole vision for a record yet, but I wanted to force myself to make music.

Keeping it in bite-sized pieces meant that you weren't intimidated by the size of the project or something. It was like, okay I want to release some music.

Yeah and I didn't have a project in mind. Usually I've got a body of work where I can kind of imagine the record there, but this one... I had a bunch of demos and ideas. They didn't really coalesce into a record, and the only thing that seemed to be unifying them was they had more synths on them. They didn't really have any thread at all, as far as I could tell. It was a way of getting myself into making music without having to have written a whole 15 songs worth of material. It felt definitely like my record.

I know a little bit about that, because I'm just drowning under never-ending demos. I think if you don't release things... the energy that you get from the entire process, which is writing, recording, mixing, and then releasing. The release is also some kind of energy release, y'know? Perhaps by doing it bit by bit, you kind of invigorate yourself?

Yeah you do. It's really amazing having the epiphany about the creation of a piece of music. But as you know, it's amazing how much that energy dissipates as you go through the process of finishing it. If you then factor another six months of preparing to release something, and the disappointment of things not being picked up and not quite going the way you were hoping business-wise. The distance from that point when you release it, going way back to that really quite thrilling moment of creation, it's so far.

The purity of that excitement and joy.

I think it's like, you could equate it to a honeymoon period in a relationship. That moment is a moment of delusion – it's like falling in love and having heaps of sex... you've got this completely intoxicating moment of creation, then you actually have to face up to reality of fixing it up, and it's not as great as that moment of delusion.

This album of yours, well it's called Singles Club isn't it? You've just had a year of care-free, lustful, casual shagging with your songs. Oh you lucky thing, you're young again. I really like it. I was really surprised in a way at how well it sits together. Maybe because, like you, I have that romantic notion of the album, I think I liked it more when it was all together. Which is odd, because the process you went through is not about the collection. But in the end it works well together. I have to say that there's a couple of moments, 'Oppositional Democracy', to me when that hits the chorus, if that's the bit you want to call it, it sounds like a carefree Lawrence Arabia that kind of reminds me of some of the vibe on the Reduction Agents album, that I think is impossible to fake if you're not just feeling a pure enthusiasm. Open your mouth and sing a big note...

Yeah I did. There were definitely moments of doubt along the way, probably less than the average record. That song definitely kind of harks back to some kind of classic rock thing that I have done in the past.

It seems to me that the lyrical content, actually is potentially a bit darker than it used to be. I know that you've always had a bit of a dark edge, but I just think this one... it's probably tempered by 'People Are Alright'. Do you think that's age, or sign of the times?

It's probably a bit of both I'd say. It seems, the kind of conditions of the world are pretty compelling at the moment, and also the way the media works at the moment, it's a lot harder to ignore it. It's hard to write lyrics, you kind of have to respond to whatever your brain seems to be.

You've got to find something to say.

Yeah, you've got to find something to write about. That is just what seems to be in my head at the moment, and I'm sure a lot of people's heads. I guess in the past I've been more carefree in general, and come up with silly kind of horny songs about adolescence and stuff.

So this is your adult album?

Hopefully there's enough humour in it to not feel like some pompous grand statement. I don't think it's pompously adult. It's probably facing up to my responsibilities as an artist, to respond to the mood of the times a little bit more.

I realise in a music sense there's probably some negative connotations to the word "adult", which I didn't mean like, "is it your adult contemporary album"?

Or adult film.

Oh yeah well! The album doesn't quite get there.

It doesn't quite get you there.

We were talking about... the instinct to pull back from that classic rock moment. Not that 'Oppositional Democracy' seems all that classic rock to me, it sounds like it's got a bit of exuberance. I think it's a New Zealand thing, we sort of pull away, we sort of feel afraid of going there. It's different from self-depreciation but it's that similar thing, you have to put a little twist on it.

I think there's a bit of curse of our generation, and older as well, I feel like the younger people have been released from that, that sense of obligation I think a lot, which is quite refreshing.

I remember at Camp A Low Hum, realising that heaps of people there, they really didn't like Radiohead. [laughs] The reason I bring this up is Radiohead are quite serious, right. Definitely a bit pompous. But I was like, all the bands here are really like "up", it's all an up energy, and it's a real unabashed up energy. It was very different to I guess when I was 20.

The negative nineties.

Fuck yeah, [sings] "I hate myseeelffff". It was all that shit... How hard was it, to not tell anyone about Van Dyke Parks for so long? How long was that in the works for before you let it out? I don't reckon I'd been able to keep it to a couple of people.

I did tell a couple of people. It almost felt like a motivation that song there, it was pretty much complete in February. It was not only finishing the song, but also, having the song up my sleeve, but also having the information of its arranger up my sleeve as well. It was a strange kind of carrot that was dangling for me at the end of the project I guess.

Perhaps both calming and stressy, in a weird way I could imagine. How was that? You sent him the demo and a couple of days later, he sent the arrangement back?

We had some emails, and told me how much he'd cost, and then I was like okay that's quite a lot of money [Luke laughs] and that's pretty much why I did the Kickstarter. It's not probably a commercial decision to get Van Dyke Parks to arrange a song, but it was definitely a personal dream fulfilment decision I couldn't turn down really. It was just something I had to do. We emailed back and forth about it... and then about two weeks later he said "I've completed the arrangement and it's spectacular" [Luke laughs] or "sublime" or something.

Then a couple of days later he sent me the MP3 of the recording, which was the real strings, and he'd also written the MIDI, which he hadn't even told me about, it was supposed to be a string arrangement. But then at the last minute he'd written a woodwind section as well, it was recorded on MIDI. So that was the last recording we did for the whole album, was capturing doing real woodwind at Roundhead. It was pretty amazing receiving and spending that much money and I'd just given him a very basic demo, which he'd carved out the solo vocal from and then just put a whole heap of stuff on it. Which is pretty incredible.


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