[MUSIC: Interview] Jonathan Boulet
Jonathan Boulet is not an overbearing fellow. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine chatting with a humbler, less demonstrative chap, seeming at once completely grounded in the present while appearing uncomfortable with his rising notoriety as the Australian Gen-Y pop-wizard par excellence. Maybe the Sydneysider has simply managed to channel all of his angst into his music: his superb second album, the wonderfully inelegantly titled We Keep The Beat, Found The Sound, See The Need, Start The Heart, is a darkly ecstatic, relentlessly danceable headtrip – two parts pop-rocks, to one part pneumatic drill.
Enjoying a break in the storm that his life has become, Boulet speaks with the quiet confidence of a man who has achieved exactly the success he’s striven for, and earned satisfaction through good work done well – or, as he puts it, “making a record that you’re completely proud of.” While his 2009 self-titled debut generated widespread popular and critical adulation, Boulet is quick to downplay its many merits: “It wasn’t THAT successful,” he chuckles. “It kind of did what it had to do.” But pride unavoidably creeps back into his voice when talking of We Keep The Beat…: “The first one … was just a collection of songs. This time around it’s more intentionally an album from start to finish, so I’m very happy with it.”
And with good reason. Anyone who heard first single (and opener) ‘You’re A Animal’ when it was released early last year will have an inkling of what to expect: blistering guitar-blasts punctuate the overwhelming concordance of massed vocal chanting, layered over unrelentingly frenetic drums. ‘I will sing this song’ comes the cry, with the clear-eyed determination of its creator to make something soaring, purposeful and true hanging over the eleven tracks that follow. Second single ‘This Is A Song Called Ragged’ follows suit, its manic marimba riff quickly subsumed within a dense, gleefully euphoric sound that, like the stacked clauses of the album’s title, seems to amount to much more than the sum of its parts. In fact, anything might be hidden amidst the pounding, feverish textures explored on We Keep The Beat…, as Boulet explains: “There’s a part on ‘You’re A Animal’ where I got my mum to do a subliminal message. I recorded her saying something, and we just stuck it in the track. It pokes its head out a little bit – if you know it’s there, you can tell, but if you don’t it just sounds like noise.” And are we allowed to know what she says? “No way.”
Such flourishes emerge readily, with uplifting buoyancy giving way as quickly to menacing undertones. Indeed, part of the appeal is the ambiguity that Boulet has injected into the project, whether it be through something as innocuous as the nigglingly incorrect grammar of the aforementioned single, or naming one of the record’s most musically uplifting tracks ‘Keep Away You Feral Son Of A Bitch’ – not to mention the downright eerieness of the cover art, its subject wearing the expression of blank fatalism most often seen on B-movie actors immediately prior to their dismemberment. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised; this all comes from a man whose video for the ‘summer anthem’ ‘A Community Service Announcement’ depicted a group of faceless youths turning on one of their own.
For Boulet, though, the project remains about the music. “I write a lot, I record a lot – it all kind of comes from the recording side. A lot of the time I’m just trying to experiment with recording and get better at that. I have to write something to record it, and vice versa… I feel like it’s all just the same thing. Whether I’m better or worse at one or the other, it all just fits together and forms this ugly little baby. It’ll always start different, with a drum beat [one day], and maybe the next day it’ll start with a loop on a pedal or a guitar, or sometimes you’re in the shower and think of a melody and go downstairs and start writing around that. It’s always changing. I think it’s a lot better to do it that way, ‘cause if you just do it the same way it’ll end up all sounding exactly the same.”
Though comparisons with artists as diverse as Sleigh Bells (Boulet shares an abiding interest in hardcore with guitarist Derek Miller) or Merril Garbus’ Tune-Yards aren’t unreasonable, with all three placing percussive complexity and distinctive vocals in the foreground, Boulet is hesitant to point towards any particular influences. “I listen to a lot of heavy music,” he says, “[but] I just enjoy bands that are trying to sound different. Whether that’s atmospheric or poppy or whatever genre, as long as it’s someone trying to be different then I’m into it… There’s a band in Indonesia called Zoo, they’re just really drummy and weird as hell. I’d really like to play with them.”
Playing with the right people is a first order priority for Boulet, who’s as happy to hang out on the drumkit with Sydney alt-popsters Parades as he is playing with power violence outfit Snakeface. It’s telling that the only aspect of We Keep The Beat… that’s not entirely delivered by Boulet himself is the cacaphonic vocals, with bandmates and friends invited into the studio achieve the right effect. “That was the only part of the last record that was lacking a lot: it didn’t have genuine vocals, like real group vocals,” he explains. “[With We Keep The Beat...], it was crazy – everyone was in the garage, there’s only one set of headphones, so I had to crank it up so they could hear where the cue is, the lyrics scrawled on the whiteboard in front of them and they could hardly read it. We’d go through a take and someone would get the hiccups and everyone would just laugh at them… It was just really fun.”
As for how to translate this to the stage, the jury’s still out. “We’ll just have to make do, I guess. We’ve got four of us on stage with mics; we just change it to a two-guitars, two-drums kind of set-up. We rely a lot on our sound guy [Damian Weatherley]… he’s out of control,” Boulet says. “He’s probably the best in Melbourne and Sydney – in Australia, there you go! He’s like the sixth member of the band; without him, our shows would sound shithouse. We don’t want anyone to steal him from us, so note that he’s taken.” …Don’t be surprised if you see a fella with ‘belongs to JB’ branded on his forehead at the next show.
In between gearing up to tour the record around Australia, Boulet plans to spend any quiet moments in the coming months working on his Japanese and German. “Hopefully we’ll get over to Europe and the UK, try to do that thing,” he says, “see if they like us, or if they extradite us… I’ve gotta put on some weight so I can stay warm!” As for how he’d like listeners to feel by the time they reach the eye-of-the-hurricane stillness of album closer ‘Cent Voix’, Boulet doesn’t seem to mind: “I wanted the album to be relentless from start to finish, just to keep pushing and not letting up,” he says. “If [people] listen to it, I’m happy – but either way it doesn’t really matter. It’s not neccesary. I’m happy with what I’ve made.”
What: We Keep The Beat, Found The Sound, See The Need, Start The Heart is out now through Modular
Where: The Metro Theatre
When: Saturday June 30