Listening Intently For Any Signs Of Life, Mark Moldre On His Second Solo Album ‘An Ear To The Earth’.
Having registered a number of musicians, who are more like family than simply hired hands, and utilised a variety of weird and wonderful components that pieced together a number of instruments, in addition to the standard instrumentation, that helped create the sounds and bind together the cross-pollination of genres, ideas and influences into one entity, the expression too many cooks spoil the broth fails to translate when it comes to Australian singer-songwriter Mark Moldre and his most recent creative output ‘An Ear To the Earth’.
By piecing together such an abundance of sounds and influences as those found throughout ‘An Ear To The Earth’ involved great skill, but one that required an objective approach so that the variety of sources available did not become overwhelming. Such a challenge was not lost on Mark Moldre, but it was one that required the aforementioned additional help in order to trim away any excess edges, so that the creative ideas of ‘An Ear To The Earth’ could transmit as one complete whole.
“My biggest problem is that I listen to far too many genres of music, as I just love music!” begins Mark Moldre enthusiastically regarding his passion for music and the difficulties this creates when trying to decide on a particular direction creatively. “For example, I listen to world music, calypso, jazz, indie-rock and I love folk and old blues too. I get bored of listening to records where the genre remains the same or bands find their sound and it remains the same throughout the entire record. I know that’s what you’re probably supposed to do if you want to be successful, but I don’t know if I’d ever be capable of doing that as I tend to write a calypso song one minute and then a folk song another time.”
Considering the different influences of ‘An Ear To The Earth’, how did you manage to combine all of these ideas and make it work as a whole?
“That was one of the things about working with Jamie Hutchings [producer],” replies Mark, “as I did have this hodgepodge of material with a jazz tune and a country tune and a waltz and a calypso, but I wanted to work with someone who I knew could really pull all of those threads together and create a ‘band’ sound out of it. Jamie and I talked a lot about percussion, and I think it was a lot of the percussion work that Jamie and Scott [Hutchings] did throughout that record that really pulled the sound together. In the end, it did sound like a band and not this hodgepodge of genres, even though that is what’s there, as it’s a pretty wide-ranging record in terms of styles.”
The influence of Jamie Hutchings has played a considerable role in the music of Mark Moldre, as the two worked together as sometimes songwriters [‘I Don’t Know What’s Become Of Her’] as well as the latter name providing additional musical accompaniment to Mark Moldre’s debut album ‘The Waiting Room’. Therefore, it was a natural decision for Mark Moldre to call on the services of his childhood friend, considering their mutual interests when it comes to certain artists, but also their close understanding in terms of how both sides function creatively and their shared respect for items and imagery tainted by the wear and tear of history.
“The working relationship with Jamie Hutchings started with my first solo record ‘The Waiting Room’, as Jamie provided some background vocals,” explains Mark. “In fact, I have some good memories of that record as it was the first time I worked with the band that I’ve got now; Scott Hutchings [Infinity Broke] was playing drums, Reuben Wills [Infinity Broke] played bass and Jamie and Scott’s sister, Sophie played piano. In addition, I worked with two of the producers I had been working with for a long time – Michael Carpenter and Tim Powles [The Church]. We had a lot of fun making that record.”
The decision to include Jamie Hutchings on production duties was a masterstroke as there is a definite looser approach to ‘An Ear To The Earth’; one can almost hear the floorboards creaking and the rattling of pots and pans in the background as if life is going about its everyday business while Mark Moldre and his musical assemble laid down the tracks in a very open manner. In other words, any impression of a one-take live recording was definitely the objective here, and one that was captured to great effect.
“I felt as if I had become obsessed with a ‘chasing pretty butterflies’ syndrome when making records from before, with suggestions of 48-tracks, for example, and I just didn’t want to make a record like that again. One thing that I really loved about Jamie’s solo records is that there was always that raw and often strong live element that you can feel coming through the record. Therefore, I felt that by having Jamie producing, I could get some of that rawer, exciting live feel coming through the album. Also, I knew that I wanted to take the band to a room and just play the songs. I knew that Jamie had done that a lot, so if anyone was going to capture the vibe that I was talking about, then I knew Jamie could do it.”
Where was ‘An Ear To The Earth’ recorded?
“We ended up in a house on a beach in Avalon one weekend, and just set up in a room and played,” recollects Mark concerning the recording of ‘An Ear To The Earth’. “The vocals and my guitar parts were recorded live, with the whole band playing all at once. The only overdubs that we did were Jamie’s electric parts on some tracks and some horns and some backing vocals, so there was just the tiniest amount of overdubbing as we tried to capture one good take of each song. I hadn’t made a record like that before; it was a little bit nerve-wracking and confronting, especially when you’ve always agonised over vocal tracks and things like that and wanting to get things right. However, this time I just had to sing [without over analysing] and go for it, but that’s how records used to be made. I had the greatest time making that record, and it was a great learning curve for me as well.”
How long was the overall recording process at the beach house in Avalon?
“It was done and dusted over two weekends,” answers Mark. “There were two songs that did not make the final record. So we ended up with twelve tracks in six days. I should mention that there were no computers used this time during the recording process as everything went straight to tape; that was the first time I had the pleasure of recording straight to tape as well.”
By capturing a live ambience to the overall recording of Mark Moldre’s second solo album ‘An Ear To The Earth’ evokes images of times past, especially the old-timey qualities of opening song ‘Everything I Need Is Here’ with its old-time blues and almost skiffle approach considering the basic instrumentation and its creative usage that brings to mind fellow Australian and musician C. W. Stoneking.
“Yeah, I’m definitely a fan of C. W. Stoneking,” says Mark enthusiastically. “It’s that old-timey thing because as soon as you do that strong [mimics the rhythmic beats] down feel with one, two, three, four, with accents on all the beats; something of which Tom Waits has made his own. So there is definitely that old-timey element to my record.”
Have you always been fascinated by older types of instruments and music?
“Yeah, without a doubt,” is the immediate reply. “I am an avid collector, not just of music and books, but of vintage gear and weird bits and pieces. I tend to fill the house with a lot of old stuff, which sort of ends up translating in the music. You end up finding weird instruments or picking things up in a second-hand store and then crafting an instrument out of it. For example, I made myself a small cigar box guitar recently. In terms of music and my current album, the inclusion of a double bass really appealed to me as Reuben [Wills] had been using the electric bass before. In fact, Reuben had never played the double bass and I really wanted one on the record. So he decided to go and buy one and within a couple of weeks he was playing like a natural. It was really amazing actually, as the double bass is a hard instrument to play if you haven’t picked it up before. However, once Reuben had mastered the double bass, something just happened within the band as everything fell into place around that instrument and more so than it had ever done before.”
The cigar box guitar sounds fascinating! Care to elaborate further?
“A friend of mine who is a carpenter put the box together as he made a cigar-sized box that was going to be able to handle the strain of putting a [guitar] neck on it. I pulled the neck off an old guitar, which we then bolted on top of the cigar box. I also had to order from the States a small aluminium resonator cone and we built the little biscuit that sits on top of the cone and got new machine heads for the neck and put it all together. I really love it, as it sounds like a banjo.”
A passion for unearthing old artefacts and then transforming such antiquated items into musical instruments extends to Mark Moldre’s previous album ‘The Waiting Room’ and, in particular, his touring partner Adam Lang who is deserved of an award for ingenuity after conjuring up the idea for a drum kit made from an old suitcase!
“When I first started working with Adam Lang on my solo stuff, it was quite layered,” explains Mark. “As a result of this, we had to sort out how we were going to recreate some of the songs on stage. So we decided to use a whole bunch of things; Adam grabbed an old suitcase that used to belong to his grandfather; a disc brake that he had from an old motorbike; a biscuit tin that he taped a dog chain to the bottom and added this to a snare drum stand and we ended up using this as a makeshift drum kit. Adam is an amazing multi-instrumentalist and I have been working with him for a long time. I am yet to see a challenge where he hasn’t been able to accomplish it. The crazy thing too is that he comes from a really heavy rock background, as he’s more into grindcore, death metal and all that kind of stuff, so when I asked him to play xylophone, for example, it was probably the lowest form of musical instrument that I could ask him to play [laughing]!”
The seemingly improvised grainy black and white imagery of ‘An Ear To The Earth’ adds to the sense of history by giving the impression of stills from a period in filmmaking where technology hadn’t mastered the power of speech just yet. Such photographic imagery greatly compliments the (troubled) stories unravelling inside. Whether it’s tales of simplicity (‘Everything I Need Is Here’), the lost at sea ‘Nowhere At All’ or mentally debilitating ‘Killer Anxiety’ – wonderfully depicted with the weight of the world on his shoulders via a snail shell – it would seem that Mark Moldre is not afraid to express personal issues openly if, and when, the need calls.
“I call that my Woody Allen song!” laughs Mark in response to his song ‘Killer Anxiety’. “I wrote the lyrics to that on the last record, as it was ready to be included on ‘The Waiting Room’. It was Reuben [Wills] he kept saying that I needed to resurrect that song, but I had been pushing it to one side as I was unsure about the calypso element, which definitely wouldn’t have fitted on the last record. As far as the lyrics go, I did go through a massive health crash, which left me with all kinds of anxiety issues. I wrote that [song] as all that was going on. It’s funny as there’s a company over here in Australia that helps people with depression and they’d heard the song. One of the directors of the company was even thinking about using it as a theme tune because he thought it seemed to hit the nail on the head in a mildly, left of centre and humorous way in terms of its contents. I probably wrote those lyrics four or five years ago, and they had just been sitting there for a long time until Reuben made the suggestion to go ahead with it.”
It’s very refreshing when artists and bands are willing to communicate about such sensitive issues regarding anxiety because such topics are not always expressed openly due to various stigmas attached and the deeply personal nature of such problems.
“Definitely, as I think it draws people in,” acknowledges Mark in agreement. “I tell these stories at my shows and I really think it makes people relate and maybe even listen more to the lyrics than they would normally if you hadn’t brought in a personal anecdote or explained how it had something to do with yourself or a period of time in your life that you went through. I think it’s important to talk about that stuff, as we all go through it.”
FLW - From the Tapes
Despite working miracles when it comes to production duties, Mark Moldre’s thoughts regarding Jamie Hutchings’ stage manners are far less exalted as he explained to FLW.
“This anecdote concerns Jamie Hutchings and his disastrous relationship that he has with musical equipment. Everything that he seems to touch breaks down or falls over. During our last tour, we wanted to recreate some of the percussion that Scott [Hutchings] had come up with. So Scott had his separate drum stand that had a tambourine and a cowbell and some other kind of can that he was hitting. Without fail every evening it would fall over or a thread would strip or something would fall off the stage or Jamie’s guitar pedals would cascade down a staircase or something else. So generally, if something is going to go wrong, it’s usually in Jamie’s corner as he’s very happy to tell you that this curse has followed him right through his career. Also, one of the funnier things that happened was when Jamie asked me to give him all of my lyrics [‘An Ear To the Earth’] so that he could start thinking about song arrangements and start making notes. The following week, we had a rehearsal and in typical Jamie style it looked like he’d left the lyric sheets at the bottom of his bag and tipped a jar of coffee in there! In fact, it looked like he’d used them to line the bottom of a Budgie cage! So either Jamie liked the lyrics so much that he read them until the pages fell to pieces or he used them to line the bottom of a Budgie cage!”