Published on October 16th, 2015 | by Robert0
All Roads Lead to Ryrie Street
An Interview with Claire Birchall
In preparation for this interview, I listened to her four solo albums on bandcamp and I just re-read an interview she gave for Mess & Noise. She paints a vivid picture of Geelong during the latter stages of its golden age in the ’90s. And I just had a distracting thought: how cool is that we’re now a few years into Geelong’s second coming led by the actual children–Ausmuteants— of the ’90s scene’s stalwarts, Bored!
To make this whole thing completely circular, I’ve asked Claire and her band to play at Happy Trails, a festival named after an import record store that my mum ran in Geelong in the ’70s with her first husband. All roads really do lead to Geelong, don’t they?
In the Mess & Noise interview, she covered her early years in detail, so we’ll focus on her time playing with Paper Planes and the recording of her solo albums—This Gallery of Mine, Captain Captain, PP, and Electricity.
Over the next few years we kind of gradually got louder and louder
BNU: Tell me about Paper Planes. How did it begin, what were the highlights and lowlights, and how did it come to an end?
The band started out in around 1999. I’d been home recording and playing solo shows for the previous couple of years, and had heaps of material. I didn’t really plan to put together a band, it just happened. It was me—playing completely clean guitar, lots of odd tunings, and no FX—Mark “Stacka” Stacey [Bored!, New Season] on drums, and Mark Brant on bass. It was a great lineup, but unfortunately we didn’t play that many shows.
When we did play, we tried out a few different names… This Little Jupiter, The Colour Blue… I launched my solo album Captain Captain with the band in January 2001. Shortly after, with my sister and a new drummer in the band, the name Paper Planes stuck. Over the next few years we kind of gradually got louder and louder, the songs got a little more rockier, and I got into using FX pedals and stuff.
Highlights for the band were definitely some of the great shows we got to do: supporting Magic Dirt numerous times, including at the Freakscene Festival in Lakes Entrance, and NYE at the Tote, supporting Magnolia Electric Company, Cat Power, Band of Horses, Richard Buckner, Ed Kuepper, Matt Walker.
But as I love recording so much, I think recording at Birdland Studios was when I was really in my element. We recorded all of our stuff there [2 x 7” singles and a full-length album] on 2” tape with Rob Long. I felt right at home there, and got such a kick out of recording on their big old 24-track tape machine. Plus Rob was so great to work with; he made it easy for us.
I’ll never forget hearing the very first playback of You’re a Winner after we’d done a couple of takes. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face! To this day I’m still really proud of all of those recordings.
And lowlights? I don’t like to think about them, but there were some. Over the years, Paper Planes had three different drummers and three different bass players. When someone leaves a band (by their choice or yours), it’s like going through a relationship break-up. Every time it was horrible, and it took time to get over it and move on.
I was devastated. It got to the point where I realized I couldn’t face going through it all again.
The demise of the band came in 2010. We were staring down the barrel of yet another band member change when we’d had a really solid line-up for a few years. I was devastated. It got to the point where I realized I couldn’t face going through it all again. Plus it’d been 10 years, we’d had a good run, and perhaps it was time for me to do something different musically.
There were lots of teary phone calls when I decided to call it quits. Even though it was my decision, I felt incredibly lost for a while there. It really was awful. That’s when I got back into 4-track recording and accidentally ended up recording an album [PP, 2012].
Your Tascam 4-track has been a trusty sidekick for a long time. How did it come into your life? How do you produce such great-sounding records—both acoustic and fuzzed-out—on it? Why have you continued to favour it over the computer?
I bought my Tascam Porta 03 pretty much exactly 20 years ago. I was in Year 11 at school, and there was one that belonged to the music department, which you could borrow out for a weekend. I did that a few times, and fell in love with it. I came into some money from a school competition that year (nerd!), and decided I needed to buy my own 4-track and microphone. I went out and bought exactly the same model as the one at school.
I recorded so much stuff in those first couple of years, including a bucket-load of bad-sounding stuff. The great thing about 4-track recording is that there’s no pressure. You can just try something out, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter. It can be a demo, it can be something you release, or it can be something you never show anyone. I never approach a 4-track recording with intentions that it’s going to a release. It’s only when it’s finished that I decide what I’m going to do with it (or not do with it).
Purely from the number of hours I’ve spent recording and the number of cassettes I’ve filled, I’ve gotten really familiar with what I can and can’t do. I don’t like to do too many takes when I’m recording, but I do like to spend a lot of time on mixing. Over the years I’ve worked out a few tricks to minimize tape hiss, and I like to think I’ve gotten okay with my mic placement too. Again that’s all down to trial and error. The Porta 03 has no EQing capabilities and only two inputs, so it’s all about getting the right sound from the outset.
Tape just sounds real to me, and I have no reason to go digital. It’s so quick and easy to get something on tape, no f*ing around with too many leads, gadgets, and plug-ins, etc. I like things simple and instant, with no watering down of the initial spark that makes me want to get something on tape. Plus there’s things you can do with tape that just don’t work when you record digitally, like running your levels way into the red to get some sweet natural tape overdrive. The Porta 03 is like another instrument I play, which also helps me write songs. I don’t know where I’d be without it.
When did you move from Geelong to Melbourne? You talked in the Mess & Noise interview about how supportive the Geelong scene was. Did you find a similarly welcoming community in Melbourne, or did it to take some time to find your place?
I moved to Melbourne in 2004. The band scene in Geelong had become pretty much non-existent by that point, with a lot of bands already making the move up the highway. Both of the bands I was in at the time, Paper Planes and The Happy Lonesome, were already doing most shows in Melbourne, as there wasn’t much on offer in Geelong.
I don’t feel like it’s a bad thing at all to be from Geelong. I’m not sure why I felt like people were using it as a derogatory label
So we’d made a few band friends already. Regardless, it took quite a few years to shake of the “Geelong band” stigma. Actually I must admit there’s still the odd occasion where people assume I still live there. I don’t feel like it’s a bad thing at all to be from Geelong. A lot of great music has come from there. So I’m not sure why I felt like people were using it as a derogatory label. I suppose it’s something about the big city folk assuming small town people are hicks
Once I got over what were probably only self-inflicted insecurities, I found the Melbourne music scene to be totally welcoming. And that includes our fantastic and supportive community radio stations, which have helped my music to no end. I’m also still playing some shows with people that I met when I first moved to Melbourne. I’ve become a part of a wonderful and varied music community, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
You played solo for a long time. How did the move to a sprawling band—The Phantom Hitchhikers—come about? Tell me a bit about its members’ backgrounds and your connections to them as well.
When I released PP in 2012, I put together a live band pretty much just to launch the album. This included my sister Bec [Paper Planes] on keyboard, and my friends Pete Azzopardi [The Happy Lonesome/The Coves], and Brad Young [Paper Planes] switching between guitar/bass. We did a few shows like that with the drum machine and it was really fun. Bec and Pete are both great singers too, so we were able to get some good harmonies going.
I spent a long time recording Electricity, and there ended up being a lot more instrumentation on it than on PP (which was pretty much just Casio keyboard and guitar). To play the songs live needed a full band with drums and all, so I decided to put a lineup together.
I instantly thought of asking Bec and Pete to play again. I’ve been playing/singing with Bec forever, our voices go so well together, being sisters, and she’s a really talented musician, so it was an obvious choice to ask her to play.
I’m still very lucky to have this band. They’re an amazingly talented bunch
I’ve also been playing with Pete for years in the Happy Lonesome, and he’s a fantastic guitarist and singer. I felt a little bad asking him to jump on bass, but he’s a great bass player too! Pete fronts his own kick-arse band called the Coves, with Jarrod Brown on drums. I’ve dug Jarrod’s drumming for a long time, he’s got a great feel, and he likes all the right kind of music. He was my first choice for a drummer, and I was really surprised and lucky that he said yes.
My partner Matt Green (The Happy Lonesome) and I have been playing music together for years, but he’d never played in a band that I’ve fronted. He had a lot to do with Electricity, from helping me come up with ideas to finish recordings, to doing all the artwork, to helping me film the MaryJane film clip, plus he’s the only person other than myself to play on the album.
His harmonica parts were crucial parts to those two songs, and it had to happen live, so we expanded on that so now he’s playing on pretty much everything live.
Without even thinking about it, it turned out I’d managed to put together a band consisting entirely of people from Geelong. Plus the dynamics and relationships amongst the band members result in a really tight group.
The first Hitchhikers gig came about, as I was booking some solo shows, and the Retreat offered me a gig on the main stage. I’d only really talked to the guys about helping me launch the album, which wasn’t even mastered let alone anywhere near being released yet! The gig was only a month away, and I asked everyone what they thought about getting something together for the show. Surprisingly everyone said yes, and we did the show without having a single rehearsal with all five members present.
Now we’re still playing, we’re a few months past the album launch and I’m still very lucky to have this band. They’re an amazingly talented bunch, and they’re some of the closest people I have to me in the world.
I’d really love to record with the band. We recorded a song a few weeks ago for a Spencer P. Jones tribute album and it was so much fun. It was cool to hear what we actually sounded like! We don’t have any concrete plans for more recording as yet, but I definitely want to do some.
That being said, there is no way I want to give up my 4-tracking at home. The band is really understanding and know that I won’t be stopping recording stuff on my own. Ideally I’d like to do both solo recordings and band recordings.
We’re really excited about playing Happy Trails, and we have a few more shows coming up over the next couple of months. Plus I’m trying to organize a Christmas show too.
Touring is a bit hard for us, due to jobs and kids and money… But we’ve been talking about it. Let’s hope we can work something out soon, as it’d be ace to get on the road with these guys.
You have a completely unique and consistent sound across your albums, however, no artist works in a vacuum. You spoke about your early influences in the Mess & Noise article mentioned above (Dinosaur Jr., and Geelong bands like Magic Dirt); who inspired you during the various stages of your solo career? What have you heard lately that’s blown your mind?
Oh man, there are so many bands/artists I’ve been fixated on over the years. But some that I’ve had huge crushes on are… The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Beach Boys, Neil Young, Big Star, Tom Petty, Kiss, Tom Waits, Stooges, MC5, Black Sabbath, Elliott Smith, Spiritualized, Beachwood Sparks, Tortoise, Gillian Welch, Hank Williams… and did I mention Dinosaur Jr.?
I cried last year watching the Rolling Stones at Adelaide Oval doing an absolutely killer version of Wild Horses with Keith doing all the backing vocals. I also openly wept seeing the Beach Boys 50-year reunion show when Brian Wilson sang Surfer Girl, and couldn’t wipe the grin off my face seeing Ray Davies sing Waterloo Sunset at the Palais. Neil Young & Crazy Horse made me completely lose my mind when they played right in front of my face a couple of years back at Rod Laver Arena and at the Hill Winery in Geelong in the pouring-down rain. Neil’s guitar rumblings had me in ultimate bliss. I’m so lucky that I’ve got to see all of these guys!
I also openly wept seeing the Beach Boys 50-year reunion show
Recently I’ve gotten well into Kurt Vile, I have all his records and have already seen him live twice. Great songs. And just a few weeks back I started getting into Ariel Pink when I bought the Before Today album at an op shop (of all places!). That album has been on high rotation on my stereo ever since.
I always enjoy your Night Owl Records posts on my news feed. You seem to love classic rock as much as I do. With that in mind, if you had a time machine and you could pick a city and an era in popular music to land in, where and when would it be? And of course, why?
There are so many! And even though I could pick anywhere in the world, there is one major era and place so close to home that I can’t neglect to mention… The Barwon Club, Geelong, late ’80s/early ’90s.
I’ve felt for a long time that maybe I was born just a little too late, not that I want to be any older! It’s just a damn shame that I missed the Barwon Club heyday and getting to see all those great bands. Some I’ve still never seen to this day. What a tragedy, I never got to see the Powder Monkeys! The bands of that era have become so influential on me musically. And it just doesn’t cut it looking at distorted YouTube footage and feeling endlessly jealous of all the people that were there.
I’ve heard many a story of the “good old days” at the BC, and it sounded like a place I would have definitely liked to be, watching the Powder Monkeys, Bored!, God, Splatterheads, Hoss, The Sunset Strip… And as luck would have it, being at the BC in this era would mean I could witness the famous Dinosaur Jr. gig of 1989!
Claire and her terrific new band The Phantom Hitchhikers are playing at Happy Trails Music Festival on Saturday 31st October 2015. You can check out the line-up and buy tickets for the event here. Check out more music at bandcamp or via Night Owl Records.