Interview: Oh Mercy
Great Southern Band
By Andrew Geeves
Contemplating a large bowl filled with barely-eaten fruit salad, Alexander Gow looks a little uncomfortable. The plushness of the hotel lobby in which we’re meeting seems at odds with the 23-year-old Melburnite’s unassuming nature. “I spend most of my time on stage withholding burps from drinking too much beer, and pulling an awkward face,” Gow offers as an opener, as if to counteract the intimidating nature of our environs. “That basically sums up my live performance woes.” Well, good – after that introductory leveller, we’re both feeling a little more comfortable in our black-velvet-upholstered booth. Mutual relaxation is imperative, actually, as there have been some very recent changes in the Oh Mercy camp that warrant some thorny investigation…
Most noticeable is the absence of former band member Thom Savage. Friends since high school, Gow and Savage – together as Oh Mercy – won the Victorian sector of triple j Unearthed in 2007, before releasing their acclaimed debut album, Privileged Woes, in 2009. Then came 18 months of touring, including a support slot with Crowded House and a visit to the States in early 2010 to play at South by Southwest. But with 2011 underway, and Oh Mercy’s second album, Great Barrier Grief, about to be released, Savage seems to have disappeared…
So, when did Oh Mercy become a solo project? “A few months before we recorded the [new] album, Thom decided he didn’t want to tour any more. It wasn’t a big surprise. We worked it out like adults. Tom’s an incredibly talented guy,” Gow explains diplomatically. “There was no soap opera.” With Savage playing guitar on Great Barrier Grief, and even holding co-writing credits on a couple of songs (‘Stay, Please Stay’ and ‘Hold Out Your Hand’), the split seems to have been more amicable-White Stripes than eat-your-ex-partner-alive-Kramer vs. Kramer.
In the interests of the interview, I’m hoping that Oh Mercy’s recent signing to a major label will prove a more fruitful hotbed of controversy. Having previously expounded on the creative freedom that being signed to (relatively) independent label Shock allowed, I ask Gow if he has found the recent transition to EMI challenging. “I haven’t noticed any difference,” he replies, with his characteristic soft-spoken confidence. “We recorded the album independently, so we still didn’t have any A&R people breathing over our shoulders. We presented the record to EMI as a finished product and they understood it. It’s not like we have a traditional major label deal either – we’re still in a really good position to make our own decisions.”
Gow is evidently the wrong person to approach if tabloid-worthy tales of scandal are the order of the day – but his account of how the album came into being beats the pants off headline-grabbing in the interesting and substantive stakes. After South by Southwest last year, Gow remained in the States, holing himself up in a pad in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, for six weeks, and temporarily retiring from the world. “I didn’t have any money. I’d have a coffee, but that was basically the extent of my venturing outside of my room. I was locked up in there, it was dark, and it was heaps of fun. Being free of everyday responsibilities really helped me get my head around what I was doing and what I was preparing to do. I was getting in the headspace for recording the album.” Corresponding with renowned producer Mitchell Froom (who has worked with the likes of Pearl Jam and Crowded House), Gow’s output was prodigious, producing over 30 songs by the end of his voluntary hermitage.
With the peace of mind afforded by solitude, Gow approached Great Barrier Grief mindfully. “[Mitchell and I] wanted to make an album that was more concise, in terms of its arrangement, than the first one; an album where all the instruments had their own room, and their own spotlight,” he reflects. “That meant simplifying and specifying arrangements. I was honing in on old songs, trying to make them as simple as possible. Everything having its considered space in the song makes for a really great sound … it hits you in the stomach, and you’re able to concentrate on every part.”
The result is, indeed, an album with a particularly deliberate sound that has an unavoidable and steadily-growing impact on the listener. While comparisons to Neil Finn, Ryan Adams, Elliott Smith and even Bob Dylan are inevitable given features like the easy-going croon of ‘Blue Lagoon’ and the interplay between strong melody and guitar lines on ‘Keith St’, Gow has managed to establish an aesthetic that’s both readily identifiable as Australian and uniquely his own.
Following his self-imposed reclusion, Gow travelled to Santa Monica to begin recording in Froom’s home studio. With a six-hour session policy in place, Gow’s 30 songs were whittled down to the 12 that now appear on GBG – and the album was finished within six weeks. Such time constraints may sound challenging, but they’re small-time given the circumstances in which Privileged Woes was born: in the single-mattress-sized bedroom of Myles Wooton, from The Panics. Gow enjoyed the process of supersizing to Froom’s studio for the second album. “We had a space to play instruments, which helped us follow through on the concept of making a record that was really simple and refined in terms of arrangement. I’m proud that I didn’t double-track any vocals or guitar parts. Doubling and tripling can be a really good tool, but it’s also something that young [artists] may hide behind. I know that I did that on the first record. Having single takes and guitar parts is something that I’m really proud of.”
With the album now finished and its March release accompanied by an Australian tour, Gow is set to encounter the landscape that stimulates his songwriting. “The Australian landscape is just so unique and inspiring,” he muses. “I don’t really have any profound way of saying it, apart from the fact that it’s just so beautiful and unique.” The laconic collective psyche of its inhabitants is another part of Australian culture that Gow admires: “Australians have this really dry wit about them, and they’re just so straight-talking. There’s a lack of pretense,” he says, before unconsciously illustrating his point by querying, “Is that the opposite of being pretentious? Lack of pretence? Does that make sense?”
Not one to shy away from Australiana, Gow charmed Ken Done into painting the nude that graces GBG’s cover. “Ken and I bonded quickly and formed a mutual respect. He gets asked for things like this every day, and has a reputation for saying no,” says Gow, before hurriedly adding: “There was a passing comment, that we caught him on a good day. I was just a young, ambitious kid walking in there, and I think I somehow tricked him into being impressed by me or something.” I can’t help but think that Gow’s unaffected demeanour and humility, the antithesis of trickery, must have played a more significant role in sealing the deal. They are traits that he downplays, but which seem aligned with the Australian spirit that he so respects. I suggest to Gow that he strikes me as someone who is quite down to earth himself. “Yeah, I like to think so,” comes the understated reply. “Just with a couple of loud shirts. That’s about it.”
What: Great Barrier Grief is out March 4 through EMI
Where: Oxford Art Factory / The Northern Star, Newcastle
When: Friday March 25 / Saturday March 26