Published on September 29th, 2015 | by Robert0
Interview: Chris and Sarah from Tangrams
I was in a band called Shack of Bells a couple of years back and we played a show with Tangrams at Long Play, a little cinema at the back of a classy place in North Fitzroy with a kind of mid-twentieth-century Scandinavian furniture vibe. Tangrams blew me away. They totally nailed the post-punk sound but they imbued it with plenty of their own personality, too.
I tried to find something on the internet to sum up their sound and the best quote I could find was this one: “[They] sound how I’d imagine Siouxsie and the Banshees would if they were bashing away inside a cavernous garage wearing tracksuit pants and last night’s eyeliner.”
I adored that keyboard, and took it everywhere.
I’m not entirely sure how appropriate tracksuit pants are—they seemed pretty sharply dressed to me—but Siouxsie-in-a-garage kind of fits.
Chris and Sarah, two thirds of Tangrams, are playing at Happy Trails and will definitely add some nice shades of blue and black to the musical palette. They’ve kindly given up their time to answer a few questions for BNU.
BNU: Was there a particular band, album, song, concert or person—or combination thereof—that inspired you to take up your instruments? If so, who or what, and how?
Chris: I only really picked up the guitar relatively recently, getting my first one in 2005. Sarah was with me in the shop actually, it was some acoustic Ibanez thing. I’d say it was her who got me to finally get one of my own.
I’d messed around a little bit with the bass years earlier in high school but didn’t really do much with it. I won’t mention a specific band or bands, as that might prove embarrassing.
Sarah: My first instrument was the violin, which I was forced to play (hi dad!) for a few years, before finally summoning the courage to tell dad that I hated it.
At the same time, dad also gave me a tiny Casio keyboard for Christmas. I adored that keyboard, and took it everywhere. I used to play it out on Salamanca [in Hobart] and try to elicit money from morning shoppers. Mostly I just mimed along to the inbuilt demo (Wham’s Wake Me Up, Before You Go) while bopping in a way that only a precocious seven-year-old can. I used to listen to the ads on TV and try to play back the melodies.
A few years later, I got an electric guitar and amp for Christmas in 1994 (Brash’s catalogue special) which I attempted to play in the solitary confines of Canberra’s suburbs for my teenaged years. Thanks again dad!
BNU: Tell us about your projects before Tangrams. Are there any you’re particularly proud/ashamed of?
Chris: My first-ever band (to actually play a show) was called You People—we made a drunken noisy debut at the Gasometer back in 2012, I think? It was kind of a two-piece noise-rock thing with a bit of a bogan tinge, which later turned into a three-piece.
I played some solo stuff as a teenager in Canberra, which can best be described as avant-turd.
I also played in a ’60s/pop/alt-country thing called Rah-Rahs, played about six or seven shows with The Primary (another post-punkish noisy thing) and was in The In The Out (a psych-rock thing) for a year or so. This was all happening at about the same time as Tangrams got started, though it’s the one that took over my brain.
Sarah: I played some solo stuff as a teenager in Canberra, which can best be described as avant-turd. I was also in a short-lived band here in Melbourne with our drummer Andrew called Kunstlich. We didn’t play shows, we just practiced a lot. It was an obnoxious punk band where I wrote awful lyrics and attempted to make my Telecaster sound like a herd of cats.
Chris and I also wrote a bunch of songs pre-Tangrams and put them on MySpace. My main love was always sound art and noise—so I was pretty involved in that side of things before settling into Tangrams.
BNU: Where, when and how did you become Tangrams? What were you hoping to achieve? What were your shared and individual influences? How close do you feel you’ve come to realising the sounds you initially had in your head?
Sarah: In the sunroom of Chris’s old place on Sydney Road, North Coburg. It was May 2012. Chris, his old computer “Toshiba”, and I. We would drink too much, there would be impromptu parties, and then we’d write songs.
In August 2012 we decided to ask Andrew if he’d like to replace Toshiba by playing drums. He said yes, so we started rehearsing way too much. Initially, we were playing more expansive and pop-oriented songs, but it became annoying having to lug the keyboard around so we dropped a lot of the poppier songs from our set. I think we’ve become more focused-sounding as a result, and less genre-hopping. We used to get labeled as shoegaze a lot, and that never happens anymore (thankfully!)
I think we tired of trying to out-noise each other, and so our aesthetic is much more minimal now. I’d say our biggest shared influences are (early) Cure, Einsturzende Neubauten, Siouxsie & The Banshees, and Radiohead. We were all huge Radiohead nerds. OK Computer/Kid A/Amnesiac were released when we were in high school, so I think it will always loom large as an influence whether we acknowledge it or not.
I think we tired of trying to out-noise each other, and so our aesthetic is much more minimal now.
BNU: There’s a whole raft of great bands with female and male vocalists: Fleetwood Mac, Pixies, and my favourites, Low. Did you consciously try to achieve that contrast in vocal sounds, or did it occur naturally because you each sing the songs you write? Speaking of which, what is your writing process?
Sarah: It was something that happened naturally. We both write the songs, and usually the song is sung by whoever wrote it (although not all of the time). There are songs where we both sing, or there are small vocal harmonies where both of us will be singing at once.
I think it’s an instinctive desire to add texture and interest to songs. In regards to the writing process, there are two distinct ways we write. The first is where either Chris or I will bring a song to one another and we’ll try and flesh it out a bit before playing it as a band. The second is where we drink some wine at practice and someone starts an insistent riff or beat. Most of our songs these days use the first method. At practice we’ll probably argue a bunch about what fits, and what doesn’t fit, and then we’ll settle into something more honed.
BNU: What have been the career highlights and lowlights thus far? Sorry to be a downer, but I love stories about terrible gigs a lot more than triumphant ones.
The heckler got pretty fired up; he kept (aggressively) yelling, “IT’S JIF! JIF!”
Sarah: We once got heckled at The Old Bar for pronouncing the name of file-format “GIF” incorrectly. I insisted that it was “GIF” with a hard G, as it’s an acronym for “Graphics Interchange Format’. The heckler got pretty fired up; he kept (aggressively) yelling, “IT’S JIF! JIF!” and I yelled back, “It’s not a cleaning fluid!” Andrew got bored of this very quickly and started bellowing “BO-RING! BORRRRRED!” in the style of Vyvyan from The Young Ones. That shut the heckler up quick smart.
That’s one of the many reasons we don’t really do stage banter. We’re awkward, awkward people.
BNU: Tell me about recording your recent double single, In Love/Ephemeral. They’re great songs and the production is really slick. Did you guys do it yourselves or did you go some place nice and work with a pro?
Sarah: We recorded those songs at Head Gap, with Neil Thomason. We’d initially gone into the studio with the intention of recording another EP, and we managed to get down 6 tracks. The process really hammered us emotionally. I think the pressure of being in a slick, fancy space really ate at us, and we weren’t able to get the performances from ourselves that we would have liked. As a result, we ended up with two songs we were really happy with, and we put those two onto vinyl.
It was a completely different process than what we had encountered when recording the Waves EP. With Waves, we were able to get through five songs in about six hours and then play a gig in the evening. They were two completely different, equally rewarding experiences.
BNU: Where to next for Tangrams? Do you have any releases, tours or that kind of thing planned?
Sarah: We’re looking to get up to Brisbane, Sydney, and Canberra soon. I toured Brisbane with Aktion Unit last year, and the bands and organisers up there are fantastic. It’s a microcosm of what can happen when you have a bunch of dedicated performers, an open-minded audience, and some really out-there venues.
It would have been cool to do something at Real Bad Music, but it has closed down. We’d also love to get down to Hobart soon. Release-wise, we’re cooking up something new at the moment, and it’s going to be more lo-fi DIY styled.
BNU: Lastly, with Happy Trails fast approaching, I’ll ask you a question about festivals. If ATP gave you an unlimited budget (perhaps that why they went broke) to curate your own festival of bands currently active, broken up, or even dead, who would you choose and why? Top five or ten will do.
Chris/Sarah: Hard question! Some wish fulfillment was granted at the ATP event in Altona in 2013. But for the sake of science, we will try…
The Cure (Circa 1980/1981 only)
Wire (late ’70s particularly, maybe a trilogy of sets comprising Pink Flag/Chairs Missing/154)
Siouxsie & The Banshees (Nocturne-era)
Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra
Delia Derbyshire (Sarah)
Dead Can Dance
Check out more of Tangrams’ music on bandcamp and follow on Facebook for gig details. Robert Webb is currently in the band Labradorable and is organiser of the not-for-profit artist-run Happy Trails Festival in Creswick, near Ballarat, staged this year on October 31. See website for full details. With photography by SM.