Skipping Girl Vinegar
It was a weekend of crazy vibes at Splendour In The Grass that turned the tide for Melbourne art-rock band Skipping Girl Vinegar. Their debut album 'Sift The Noise' had opened doors for them. For album number two, the decision was to do everything totally different. Why repeat oneself, after all? There are too many other things you can do with your life.
"We wanted to deconstruct everything," recalls singer and guitarist Mark Lang. "Everything from the way we wrote the songs, to the way we worked in the studio, to the way I played my guitar."
It wasn't as easy as first thought. It meant the band had to slow everything down to focus on recording, and they had to keep going back on the road.
At Splendour, they hung out with Ben Harper, who listened wisely as they blurted out their problems. "Don't be afraid to limp in public," he told them.
"What he was getting at was not to be afraid to take risks," Lang reflects. "That sometimes it'll work and sometimes it won't work, and you have to be comfortable when it doesn't work. Ben's statement clarified to me we were on the right track. Because when you've left everything you know behind, it's kinda like you were swimming in the sea."
The new SGV album Keep Calm, Carry The Monkey is charmingly eclectic, and consequential in the way it takes risks. SGV call their music "old world pop music". It ranges from the sunny pop of Here She Comes and opener Chase The Sun where they demonstrate the right end of a good hook - Mark and bassist sister Sare grew up listening to their parents '60s collection in the back seat of the family car - to the atmospheric Castles Full Of Storms and Central Station, to the enigmatic quasi-ballad You Can.
The latter song was written at Splendour. Recalls Lang, "We'd been running around like maniacs to see as many bands as we could, and we were exhausted. So we thought we'd take a break, go into town and have some breakfast. I wandered off while they ate. In a junk shop I found a harmonium. By the time I got back to our bus, the others were waiting impatiently because they wanted to go back to the festival to see Frightened Rabbit, and not really interested in the fact I'd found this harmonium," he laughs.
"I said, 'seriously, has anyone got any money?' They flipped me a credit card, slammed the van door and drove off. I went back to the junk shop, bought the harmonium, and sat on the side of the road coming up with ideas for the song. I wasn't even sure if the others were coming back for me," Lang remembers, chuckling. "They did… one and a half hours later. Chris (drummer Chris Helm) and I finished the song off in the van."
While the record was being mixed, being in Nashville was exhilarating. "People would wander in and out of the studio, our producer Brad (Jones) would say, 'Oh yeah, he played trumpet on all of Aretha Franklin's records' or 'He writes for Mojo magazine'."
Lang had been struggling with one of the tracks, Heart Does Ache, written about Sare and his grandparents. His vocal, he felt, had not captured the song's sentiment. But Nashville cast its spell, and after two more tries, Lang felt he'd nailed it. It just needed a second earth-bound voice to complete the track.
That evening, a 'how are things going?' email came unexpectedly from the manager of their buddy Ron Sexsmith. Ping! A copy of the song was dispatched to the Canadian troubadour. Next morning he'd replied he loved the song. "He came in at nine at night, and threw down this amazing vocal," recalls Lang. "The line in the song 'Thank you for loving me'; was the last thing my grandmother said to my grandfather after 64 years before they wheeled her away."
It is these moments, Lang says, which consolidates how SKV work so well together. The Langs are siblings, with deep-rooted friendships with Helm, keyboard player Amanthi Lynch and violinist Kelly Lane. They liked similar music and held similar values. "We could never have been a band that forms out of an ad in a music magazine. It wasn't to start a career: it was to write songs.
"We'd been in other bands and recorded little EPs, but nothing significant came from that," he remembers. "When we made the first album, it was as a collective to make as classic an album as we could. We weren't connected to people in the music industry; things started to happen because the music worked."
Their collective approach expands to the CD's impressive packaging which, like the music, comes in layers. It comes with three different insets which, when you place them next to each other, continue a theme and tell a story.
It's to Skipping Girl Vinegar's credit that they had a following which allowed them to make a record like Keep Calm, Carry The Monkey. In their early unknown days when they'd open for other acts, they'd hand out little buttons with their name on it. People remembered. They wrote personal letters to fans and brought them homemade goodies to their gigs. In return, when they asked for donations to fund the new album, they got $22,000.
Arcade Fire once said that they hoped their music made listeners feel cool and special. What did Lang think of that? "That's awesome, man, that's a great quote. I guess my thing is, that when people listen, it takes them through a journey, and that helps them in a reflective way through their own thing.
"People have told us about how different songs of ours helped them through a bad time. That's always been the power of music."
SKIPPING GIRL VINEGAR launch their excellent new album, Keep Calm Carry The Monkey at The Arts Centre (Fairfax Studio) this Saturday June 4 with Kieran Ryan (Kid Sam). Ticketing details through skippinggirlvinegar.com. Keep Calm, Carry The Monkey is out now through Popboomerang/Secret Fox/MGM.