If you’ve ever been to a gig at Melbourne Town Hall, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the elephant in the room.
It looms large behind the stage, four storeys high with close to 10,000 pipes pumping 90,000 cubic feet of air every minute, as it roars along to the keypresses of its multi-tiered console. It’s the City of Melbourne’s Grand Organ, a veritable behemoth of the local music scene, and a coveted prize for any band lucky enough to receive an offer to play it.
For local post-punks New War, this is exactly what happened, and the enigmatic quartet jumped at the chance.
“We’d done two albums with a very similar palette of sounds; synths, keyboards, drums, bass and vocals,” explains keyboardist Jesse Shepherd. “So, when the opportunity came up to try a different approach to what we were doing, we thought it’d be a good opportunity to just see how it went.”
The task was simple; write a set of songs incorporating the grand organ, to be played and recorded live on Halloween. The only catch was that the whole process had to be completed in three months.
Known for being meticulous, vocalist Chris Pugmire says the band embraced the faster writing process as a way to break from their regular workflow.
“We wrote all our parts separately for the most part, which we’d never really done before. We usually just hash everything out [in a room] over a period of years. It usually takes us a long time to whittle down songs into something we’re happy with.”
Indeed, the new material was never even envisioned as an album. It was just supposed to be a spooky show for a bunch of lucky punters. The band were so pleased with the results, however, that it seemed a shame not to release it.
“We hadn’t done it knowing it was going to be a record,” Pugmire says. “We knew it was going to be recorded, but that wasn’t the initial plan.
“The initial plan was the challenge of writing new songs in that short amount of time and employing them with this new instrument. The record was just a bonus.”
There’s something very dramatic and otherworldly about the way the grand organ is played with a live band. The organist sits facing away from their audience and bandmates, as though they and the heavenly pipes were some ghostly projection, dominating the scene yet not connected to it at all.
It’s a contradiction Shepherd was keenly aware of.
“It can be hard, timing-wise, and we were a bit lucky in the performance on that one. It’s disjointed, but you’ve been playing [the organ] by yourself anyway and rehearsing by yourself with it mainly. I knew what the drum beats were going to be so I knew what the prompts were. And I tried to turn around as much as I could just so there was some kind of vibe.
“We did have the option of playing the organ on the level of the band … but I think at the time [playing above] seemed appropriate. We’re interested in the theatre of it as well. The idea of doing a midi performance on there or tracking it into a different keyboard … I don’t think it would have given us that vibe that we’re after.”
To that end, the band don’t see themselves playing this set of songs without the sound and spectacle of the grand organ to underpin them.
“I think it would be compromised if we did the whole song cycle with drums and the normal song setup we use,” Shepherd says. “We’re going to keep this as a project on its own.”
That said, a national town hall tour playing the country’s various organs wouldn’t be out of the question.
“Hook it up,” Pugmire jokes.
We can only hope someone will.
New War’s latest record Trouble In The Air is out now via Heavy Machinery Records.