Published on January 5th, 2016 | by The Beige Baron0
Little Desert’s power flows from many tributaries, a confluence of sounds and ideas that swell into something primal and unique.
Driven forward by the raw soul in frontwoman Esther Rivers’ voice, and ably supported by organist Roman Tucker, guitarist Bonnie Mercer, bassist Ema Dunstan, and drummer Ash Wyatt, Little Desert combines vintage garage psych and post-punk sounds with a ’60s B-horror aesthetic.
The Melbourne band’s debut LP Saeva [IT Records, 2015] corrals much of their potent live-show energy, but Rivers asserts that with a recent lineup change, they’ve taken another big leap forward.
“I’m proud of the album, definitely. It’s a documentation of that part of our history. I love that. But I also think that we have developed so much as a band since recording those tracks that the next album is going to be pretty different.”
BNU: Did you have a clear sound or know which direction you wanted to take musically before you started rehearsing? Has what you play changed much since you got together three years ago?
I think the content got darker as I explored with words and metaphors and let the sounds control the lyrics more in some songs.
ROMAN: I think I’ve always played music my way, I don’t know any other way to do it. I enjoy art, post-punk, garage rock, new wave, soundscape, dissonance, electronica, vintage punk, and raw psychedelia.
When I first heard Esther sing I felt surprised; the clarity and directness of her voice was overwhelming. When she asked if I would be interested in starting a new band, at first I didn’t feel ready. Eventually I succumbed, I just couldn’t say no any longer, my old friend had placed in front of me an opportunity too good to ignore.
The band has already succumbed to lineup changes in the three years together but I think now we are ready.
ESTHER: Yeah, definitely. I feel like it would be boring if it didn’t, I mean you’re constantly learning and growing and being inspired by different stuff. My voice got much, much bigger as I learned how to use it and control it properly. I think the content got darker as I explored with words and metaphors and let the sounds control the lyrics more in some songs. I often tend to write long vocal sounds with a 5/6 tempo – I’m incorporating hip-hop into my listening these days in an attempt to change that up!
I think the current lineup is very exciting.
BNU: So are you guys all from Melbourne originally? What brought you together?
ROMAN: I was brought up and live in the inner-city suburbs of Melbourne. I became friends with Esther years before Little Desert had been conceived. Originally we met through a mutual friend here in Melbourne. It wasn’t until much later that we decided to play music together.
ESTHER: I met Roman first, when I moved here from Adelaide in my early twenties. I became best friends with Roman’s friend Mimi, she and I were this uncontrollable pair of bohemian soul-mates, just generally causing a lot of trouble and making noise wherever we went. I credit her with writing my first song — we went to the shop and brought my first guitar from our friend Billy’s music store on Brunswick Street. Her and Roman and I spent a lot of time listening to records on their porch.
After Mimi moved back to England I put an ad on the web saying I was a singer, and a band contacted me. That’s how I met Mick, who played guitar in Little Desert for the first few years. I wanted to start writing my own songs to work with, stuff with more guts. Mick helped me flesh out guitar parts, and Roman liked our demos which was a bit of an honour! I was initially just the weird friend who used to come home to his house at the wee hours of the morning with Mimi, yelling about the disco era or trying to make him shave our heads… he’s a patient man.
BNU: So what bands would you say have an influence on the way you sound? What musical comparison are you most irritated or flattered by?
ROMAN: My sound in Little Desert is influenced by The Music Machine, The Seeds, Brian Eno, Patti Smith, Taipan Tiger Girls, Dead Moon, Laurie Anderson, and Jefferson Airplane to name a few. I’m flattered by any comparisons to the above.
ESTHER: I dunno, Swans, Patti Smith, Black Mountain, The Divinyls, Jefferson Airplane, Edith Piaf, and Sabbath have been influential.
It really is different for all of us though and we all bring our own thing, instrumentally, to the table. I got compared to Chris Cornell a few times. That was weird.
BNU: What’s a surprising or interesting fact about your band or members that people might not know? Do you guys hang out much as friends?
ROMAN: We like to play unusual shows in different scenarios and in difficult places. Little Desert will play anywhere, any time. Especially outside the places or venues you ordinarily see rock music. This is something we all agree on, oh, and wearing black glittery garments.
The people in this band are all friends and come straight out of Melbourne’s underground music scene.
ESTHER: Surprising fact… We’re all secretly in love with Bonnie. But I think everyone that’s seen her play is. And Roman is 100% as weird as he seems.
Yeah we love each other! It’s an exciting time. Ash and Roman are like family. And getting to know Bonnie and Ema better has been so great. We miss each other when we don’t have rehearsal; it’s a bit gross. We had so much fun on the album tour, we all were on chat the next day like, “I miss you guys already …” [Laughs]
BNU: Can you talk us through the process of creating your LP? How long did it take to pull together? Are you satisfied with how it turned out? Will you do anything different next time?
ROMAN: Well the album Saeva was recorded by Simon Grounds in Melbourne 2015 and comprises the original lineup featuring Mick Beard on guitars, Ashleigh Wyatt on drums, Esther Rivers on vocals/percussion and me, Roman Tucker, on keyboards and keys bass. Simon and Esther mixed the record over some months in mid-2015. All tracks were engineered by Simon Grounds at Second World Studios.
Yeah, I’m pretty satisfied with how it turned out; Simon Grounds has done a magnificent job. I’m looking forward in getting back in the studio to record with the new lineup.
Coming out from a long period working with Rocket Science meant essentially starting again with Little Desert, and that was at times difficult…
ESTHER: I think everyone has things they would do differently. There are so many ways you can approach recording, it is endless. I find it difficult to listen back to anything I have recorded. There’s always stuff you pick up on that you could change.
BNU: Esther, your voice is central to the band’s sound. It kind of reminds me of Patti Smith on some of the songs, is that way off the mark? Any vocalists that have shaped how you sing? Did you always want to sing rock music or did you do other styles when you were growing up?
ESTHER: No, you’re on the mark with Patti! I am an enormous fan of hers. Just that era really. Patti, Catherine Ribeiro, Edith Piáf, Diamanda Galás, Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Chrissy Amphlett, Marie Laforêt. But I credit Etta James with teaching me to sing. I bought her Chess record when I was like 13 and used to just sing along in my bedroom.
I listened to all the big voices, secretly. Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin. I had ’em all! But I liked the shiny stuff less and less as I got older. I liked the voices with a story, the ones that had a point. Edith Piaf said she would die if she couldn’t sing, she sang to feel alive. That’s one hell of a point.
BNU: Roman’s old band Rocket Science had quite a bit of success in the late 1990s, if I remember correctly, being signed to a major label. I’m wondering if his long experience in any way affects how LD approaches music in terms of expectations and ambitions? And you guys have all been in different bands before this, right?
ROMAN: Yes, well coming out from a long period working with Rocket Science meant essentially starting again with Little Desert, and that was at times difficult. The industry and expectations are so different now that it’s difficult to compare the success of Rocket Science with the success of Little Desert.
I’m very pleased with the album and the new lineup; who knows what could be in store in the future. All members of Little Desert have come from other notable bands. It is a privilege to work with everyone in this capacity.
ESTHER: I have learned a lot from Roman about performance. He’s been a very important part of my journey; he and Bonnie have had a lot of experience. Roman and I know each other really well now and he’s just… he’s a wonderful human. I’m very grateful that we met and I had that platform he provided in order for me to grow how I needed, and wanted to. We’ve done some crazy shit together. We’ve had a lot of laughs.
BNU: I really love the organ too… Roman, any story behind where you picked it up? Is there much experimentation involved with finding a good tone?
ROMAN: Well, I have many organs ranging from Farfisa, Vox Continental, to Yamaha YC45 and YC20. I have six YC45s, one of which lives in the UK.
We enjoy everybody taking what they want from the music.
I have been collecting organs around the world mainly because it costs too much to ship or fly them everywhere you play. Little Desert mainly uses a Farfisa or a YC20 and when capturing good organ tone I always recommend the use of a Leslie sound speaker. These days a lot of digital simulation can be used, but there is nothing better than the original thing.
BNU: There’s a kind of vintage horror movie/gothic/comic book vibe going on with the band, are you guys all into that kind of stuff? It seems to sit well with the darkness in the music …
ESTHER: Comic book! I’ve never heard that. I don’t read comics … I am certainly a bit vintage goth. Dario Argento is an influence for sure. And Ennio Morricone, horror cinema, and orchestra. I like creepy, emotive piano lines and big punishing bass sounds.
But we enjoy everybody taking what they want from the music. We don’t really intend for anyone to have a certain experience. Our responsibility is to make it, get it out, the rest is yours.
ROMAN: I’m very influenced by Dario Agento films and the soundtracks created by Goblin. The soundtrack to films like Cat o’ Nine Tails, Suspiria, and Deep Red all influence my playing.
I love Giorgio Moroder’s soundtrack to the film Midnight Express and Jack Nitzsche’s soundtrack to One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest; I love Ennio Morricone and enjoy albums like The Marble Index and Drama of Exile by Nico, not to mention David Bowie’s album Low.
BNU: How did you form your relationship with IT Records and Kate Reid?
ROMAN: I met Kate Reid before she began IT records, but it was Little Desert that began my working relationship with her. Kate is a lover of the rare and peculiar, she especially loves obscure female psych, driven by strange electronic organ, so it is no surprise that Little Desert is straight in her line of fire.
ESTHER: I love that woman. I met her through mutual friends, who suggested to her that she come see us. It was love since then I think. She has been an immeasurable support for us, and for the underground music scene in Melbourne. She is making history. Somebody pay her more.
BNU: So what’s your favourite venue to perform at in Australia? Are you planning to head overseas any time soon? What band do you enjoy playing with?
ROMAN: Besides playing at the Tote in Melbourne, I really enjoyed playing in Byron Bay the other week out the back of Byron Music in their basement, we played on the floor to a packed room full of Byron locals gesticulating and pulling faces at us and each other, it was cool. There is talk of doing something in Europe soon, sooner the better.
ESTHER: Ooooooh … The Gaso has a great PA and stage. I have enjoyed myself on that stage every time and we’ve played there quite a bit. And the Tote of course. But we just played at The Double Basement in Byron Bay and it was probably the funnest show I’ve ever done with the band. Just this gorgeous lamp-lit room full of enthusiastic people getting sweaty!
We really love the small, weird, intimate shows, they are always the best experiences. The album tour was such a success I can’t wait to tour again. I’m unsure how soon, but Europe is on the cards.
BNU: What’s coming up for LD, anything you’re looking forward to?
ESTHER: We played New Years’ Evie festival and we have a residency at the Tote on Saturdays this month [January], the last week being an IT Records showcase of all the bands on the label. All the bands are mates and love what each other is doing, so we’re really looking forward to that. And recording our first single with the new lineup. That’s happening soon!