“It’s been 16 years and to be perfectly frank and honest, we didn’t know whether we’d actually make it through this record.”
Not that you can tell from the summery tones of Eskimo Joe’s latest offering, Wastelands, but the band hit a wall after 2011’s Ghosts of the Past.
“We sort of set out with a mission statement [on Ghosts of the Past] to make the most Eskimo Joe-sounding record we could, and I guess in a way we just trod old paths,” guitarist Stu explains.
“We just basically did what we’d done many times before.”
Stagnation has never been an issue for the band; the evolution from the adolescent pop punk of Sweater, to the darker, brooding Black Fingernails, Red Wine is evidence of that, but in the initial days of Wastelands the trio struggled with where their next step should be.
“We couldn’t all agree on a direction or a particular theme or tone for the record, so we ended up arguing a lot.”
It wasn’t until former member of Gerling and now producer Bourke Reid signed onto the project that things started to take shape.
“First night we set up in the studio [Reid] mic’d up the drums, set up a few amps, and started playing with an old CompuRhythm drum machine. I was on bass, Kav was on synths and Joel was playing drums along with the … machine.
We had a few beers and pressed record and, I don’t know, there was just a real electricity and spark in the air and we thought ‘far out, this sounds really, really fun and fucking cool’.”
‘80s synths and drum machines aren’t usually the go-to instruments for a rock band with a mature edge, but that’s exactly what Eskimo Joe wanted.
“Any time we started to do anything that felt like what we’d normally do we just had to stop ourselves. One of the things that, thankfully, just felt weird and wrong [was] whenever we picked up an electric guitar and played anything on this record it just didn’t work.
That was always our fallback, but it didn’t work this time around. We had to come up with new ways.”
And with these new ways the band have created their most vibrant and youthful album since Girl. Tracks like Get What You Need and What You Want sound like a band refreshed and having fun making music after a long, dark hibernation.
Just as much of a surprise as the synth-driven nature of the album are the influences Stu and the group drew on when in the studio. LCD Sound System and Beck are understandably name-checked, along with the less obvious Major Lazer and Kanye.
“It’s just the danger factor with a lot of that music. A lot of the time the production on those records, the levels are way out … They’ll bring in some rhythmic part, or even a melody … and it’s 15 dB louder than it normally would be. [That’s what] really makes it exciting to listen to.
But also, I mean Get Free, that Major Lazer track, the way they made a ‘90s rave synth have soul… It’s great.”
Wastelands is also the first Eskimo Joe album made free from the corporate shackles of a major label, having negotiated an early release from their contract with Warner Music, they decided to stay independent and jump on the crowdfunding band wagon.
“It was an overwhelmingly positive experience for us, and I think also the fans who got behind it and got involved.
It’s actually pretty exciting to drop that third wall between you and the fans. It’s a great way to, I guess, get the other side of your music.”
The constant contact with fans also gave the band the chance to reflect on the way they had been approaching songwriting.
“I wouldn’t say it had an effect on the music [but] we felt that we had people behind us that had invested their faith that we’d make a good record, so we felt free to make a record we wanted to make.
I guess subconsciously we were sort of writing the records previously that we thought, not only the record company, but the fans would want to hear. We were writing for ‘Eskimo Joe: The Band’ rather than the three members of Eskimo Joe individually.”
It seems as though their fans’ faith was well placed, with the new songs receiving “the best response to new music we’ve ever had” and even outshining some of the classics during a run of regional shows along the west coast.
The real test is now underway though as Stu, Kav and Joel take Wastelands to the people who helped create it for the album’s official Australian tour.
And as difficult as stitching together a set of guitar-heavy classics with synth-laden newies might seem, it’s as easy as a change of attitude for the Freo natives.
“Instead of the tortured, dark rock stance, you just have a good time on stage and everything fits in pretty well.”
Catch Eskimo Joe on the Wastelands Tour at these remaining shows:
Thursday, 31st October – Hi-Fi, Brisbane
Friday, 1st November – Sugarland Tavern, Bundaberg
Saturday, 2nd November – Tanks Arts Centre, Cairns
Saturday, 9th November – Astor Theatre, Perth
Saturday, 23rd November – Goegeous Festival, McLaren Vale, SA