I am speaking to a man called Marcus Whale, on the phone, and it’s hard to understand what’s happening during this phone conversation just due to the nature of our respective locations. He’s walking from his house, apparently along a very busy road and then, some 5 minutes into the conversation, down a much less travelled path.
“Stop the Beyonce covers!!” he exclaims, roaring with a kind of laughter that is formidable and rumbling. You can almost imagine birds in the distance being scared off by it’s loudness. While on the surface this seems like some kind of hegemonically masculine trait, it’s interesting to note that he is not at all frustratingly west coast or intimidating to talk to. On the political side of things, Marcus is seemingly more interested in talking about the complexities of his own emotional reactions to situations and being unapolegetically open about them. His answers are introspective and reflexive and he is often enthusiastic to address how these answers are informed, rather than being an icon of what it is to be a typical male in the world. Our conversation lead to the topic of Outkast covers and how there are so many in the world, and how often they are covered acoustically in some sort of twee, ironic fashion by young white teenagers with an internet connection. This lead to Beyonce, which is fitting because not only is Marcus a self-described budding diva but also because he sings in a band called Collarbones, who have just released their third album, Return.
Collarbones are an interesting band. They’ve been “at it” for a long time, longer than anyone would expect for a musical group that is often lazily slapped with the “hype band” moniker. They refuse to subscribe to labels! They walk a fine line between many genres. Each album has been quite noticeably different to the last despite maintaining some key elements, and their mythology as musicians stretches back to their ubiquitous beginnings meeting on an internet forum. They instantly engaged with each other personally and musically from seeing each other’s posts, and went on to become one of the most blogged about musical acts in Australia, crossing divides of experimental electronic landscapes and pop music structures.
Their new album was release last week. The frontman, Marcus, at the time of talking, was awaiting this release and we began talking about how things have changed since the band started and how the music making process has shifted.
“Before it was sort of a negotiation or an exploration through listening and throwing ideas off of each other like ‘how do you feel about this?’ or asking questions like “how do you think about this loop?” which at the end of the day would result in this sort of messy, resultant swill…which is nice. Subsequently, we kind of thought that there would be more to life than that.”
Listening to the first two singles that have been released off of Return, the glitchy, frenetic first single Turning and the lush Only Water (which features well known Melbourne heart-throb and song maker Oscar Key Sung) would suggest that the focus is placed more consciously on the song-writing and “less on the sonic aesthetics.” Only Water, for example, could honestly have been a Depeche Mode b-side if they had grown up listening to Brandy and Active Child. It’s is a refreshing change from some of their earlier work which could be a bit inaccessible and noisy as much as it leaned towards tenets of pop music. It’s clear from listening to Return that this image of “two guys hanging out on the internet” no longer holds much basis. This is a band that considers where their music is going and what they want to achieve with it, instead of holding the oh so restricting torch of “bedroom producers.”
The album begins with the discordant wash of 100 nights an instrumental opener that grows harshly towards the finish before leading into the more nuanced, R&B influenced Sinking (Deeper). Within the first three minutes it’s clear that the structure of this album has been thought about, considered, planned and tweaked what seems like a million times before it reached the dinner plate. The album is all the better for it. It jumps up and down in tone from track to track and is an eclectic mix of electronic music. The closer, Enough is as dramatic in it’s title as it is sonically. It is revealed through interviewing him that this is Marcus’s favourite track on the album.
“Enough (the last song) is the strongest song, I think. it’s 8 minutes long and has this bloated, full second half. I think lyrically and in terms of structure and the drum sounds and how it changes, it was one of these really enjoyable occasions where I thought about how it would sound and managed to execute it in full. It was quite easy and natural. The lyrics also came really organically and remain very important to me.”
Enough is a small part of Return, but it’s grandiose sound and statement is intertwined through the chemical make-up of the album – yes, this album is about a break-up. That much is clear even just from reading the album statement. The thing about Return is that the ultra vulnerability of the lyricism and delivery almost makes it sound affected. Treating a break-up like the literal end of the world is not new to popular music. However, to call Return juvenile or insincere does not give credit to Collarbones as artists, as song-writers. Return is soul-baring but is knowing in it’s delivery, and of it’s portrayal of a ravaged emotional landscape. With each spoonful of self-pity there is an equal amount of self-consciousness. Return knows that it is too much, but shows the layers of self-awareness as much as it shows it’s underbelly. The combination is satisfying, somewhat self-indulgent and successful as a piece of art.
Speaking to Marcus about the current musical climate makes it clear that their development could be attributed to environment as much as it would over personal development.
“Electronic music has changed so much [since the inception of Collarbones.]” he begins. “It was kind of weird and nerdy to make sample based music back then that wasn’t hip-hop.” What then, defined the electronic music scene back in 2007, when emo ruled the airwaves and Missy Elliot was still releasing singles? “it would either be an IDM thing or really non-standard, messy kind of affair. Since then everyone has gotten better at different things and we’ve had to change our modus operandi.”
In addition, the fan base of Collarbones “hasn’t seen a meteoric growth over the last few years” and, as Marcus says, “there’s definitely an extent to which we’re influenced by what we think will work in the live arena.” They’ve been able to grow steadily with their fan-base and develop their sound in a way that has been comfortable and rational. “One thing to consider is that these days, now that people don’t buy music that much, you’re more of a performance act than a recording act.”
Aside from Collarbones, Marcus is renowned for the amount of pies his hands are in, ranging from his involvement in Black Vanilla and his solo project Scissor Lock to playing keyboards with Alex Cross. What’s next for the members of Collarbones after this album launch? Travis is working on a series of talks for the Adelaide Fringe, aptly titled How to be Travis Cook. Whether it’s self-parody or self-aggrandising of nuclear proportions is rather unclear. Marcus, however, is beginning work on a solo album, which he’s “really happy about.” the album, which is co-produced by Nigel Yang from HTRK, and has, as he assures me, “lots of instruments…and should hopefully be out next year at some point.” The album sounds expansive and like a concept album of huge proportions.
“My solo album is basically me tracing a path through Australian colonial history that I can connect with…for instance there’s a speculative history of power and sexuality, and also the history of the Chinese in Australia and the status of whiteness in Australia. It’s meant to be like a personal ethnographic negotiation of what I’m doing here and why I’m here.”
The future holds many interesting things for the two members of Collarbones but right now, right this second, they’re interested in promoting and planning a tour for this new release. Return is a satisfying, emotionally loaded album that is accessible and rewarding. It is, most importantly, their most realised work. Marcus and Travis have created an album that feels like the logical conclusion to everything that came before it in their music career. Return shows promise for their musical future. If there was a guidebook that held all the keys for what a third album should be, Return holds all of those qualities deep in its chemical make-up.