Drummer and vocalist Daniel Spencer on Brisbane, studio recording, and motorsports.
Blank Realm, a fearsome quartet from Brisbane, Australia, officially entered the misfit consciousness with their 2013 single, “Falling Down the Stairs,” which approximates the 1980s for Gen-Y unease. This late-summer feeling continues on their new record, Illegals in Heaven, which is a massive step up for the band, both in songwriting and production, as it marks their first time in an actual recording studio. Here they’ve managed to successfully marry that classic Flying Nun gin from the cellar of yore with a fresh Queensland tonic, and the potent combination is more than the sum of its parts. The single, “River of Longing,” has that specific vacuum-tube sound, a definite phantom hit on the pirate radio that only reveals itself if you park in the right spot. Elsewhere, the impossibly American-sounding “Palace of Love” has that sort of chugging train-off-the-rails quality, which gracefully swirls to a thunderous climax. The whole LP is a great listen. I recently chatted with Daniel Spencer about his band’s position in Australia, what it’s like to be both the singer and drummer, and his country’s racing scene.
Gary Canino “Cruel Night” is one of my favorite tracks on the new record. You guys are often compared to Royal Trux—who just reunited last week, incidentally—but I didn’t really hear that comparison until this song. It has that ragged, greasy vocal thing going on.
Daniel Spencer Thanks! Yeah, I saw videos of the Trux show from Berserktown, and what a setlist. Wish I could have gone.
GC It also reminded me of the Rolling Stones circa Beggars Banquet—particularly their classic “No Expectations.”
DS (laughter) I hadn’t thought of it like that. I don’t know what we were going for with that song. It just sort of happened. Every so often we’ll try and write by starting with an electronic beat, just to see if we can come up with something different if I’m not playing drums. “Cruel Night” definitely started that way. But “No Expectations” is really great—one of my favorite Stones songs.
GC It was reportedly one of the last tracks Brian Jones played on before he left the band and passed away shortly thereafter.
DS Crazy. I did hear something like that in a doc about him. Kind of a sad note to go out on.
GC So Blank Realm is from the storied, musical city of Brisbane?
DS Yes, I’m in the ‘burbs of Australia. It’s pretty quiet here.
GC Actually, I was surprised to find out how large Brisbane is. It’s almost seven times the size of New York in terms of square miles—
DS Yeah, but probably with one-seventh the population; there’s just over two million people here. Brisbane has one centralized council, but it is this really large, spread-out thing. All the cities in Australia are quite big, and I didn’t realize that until I went to some other parts of the world, like in Europe, where a lot of places are pretty small and close together. Here you have these three or four major cities with millions of people, and there’s nothing for the rest of it. But New York is still one of the places where you definitely feel like you’re from a small town—it’s so crazy in the street.
GC It’s great that so many Australian bands can make it to the US. I saw Total Control last week, which seems to be this Australian supergroup—those guys are all in two or three bands each.
DS They’re amazing, and friends of ours. They’re a really loved band at home as well. Al [Montfort, guitar] has a new band, called Snake; and Zephyr [Pavey, bass] has a new band called Russell St. Bombings, who also put out a great record this year. It’s definitely an Australian thing to have every member of your band play in a bunch of others. Blank Realm doesn’t have that, though. This is it for us. (laughter)
GC In a previous interview you mentioned the first track on the record, “No Views,” is from the perspective of a speedway driver.
DS I had different lyrics that were more explicit about that at first, but then I changed them to be less narrative and more open-ended. It’s not really obvious what it’s about anymore—but, yes, definitely from the perspective from a speedway driver.
GC What’s the raceway scene in Brisbane? Do you ever go to the races?
DS I’m actually not into it myself, but I do know people who are through my job, and it’s a pretty heavy scene here. Just the car scene in general in Australia is very strong—a lot of people customizing them, etc. I’ve never been to a race, but if you don’t know a lot of people who go to that kind of thing, it could be pretty weird to just turn up.
GC Back in college I met a lot of people from Martinsville, which is this small town in Virginia. There’s a huge speedway just south of there, where they have NASCAR races. Apparently the whole town just smells like burning rubber all the time.
DS Geez, that’s really intense—a speedway town. A few years ago at the Adelaide Festival, Ennio Morricone performed, but they had the Adelaide Grand Prix at the same time and in close proximity. They can’t move the Grand Prix, obviously, but they also wouldn’t give this festival any other location, so Morricone was playing with Formula One cars cutting into his music. There were all these complaints from people who came to see him because they heard engines revving the whole time. So, yes, Australia is pretty into motor sport. (laughter)
GC “River of Longing” and “Costume Drama” have this classic drumbeat that reminds me of a lot of songs by the Clean. But you drum and sing live as well?
DS Yeah, though sometimes I wish I didn’t have to. We’ve thought about getting another drummer, but I think it just has to be the four of us to work. I don’t think we could have another person in the band, though I would prefer to just be the singer. I do like drumming, but it’s not my ideal way to play. I can do a lot more when I’m focusing on just the drumming.
GC It always interested me how bands with drummer-singers tend to set up with the drums up front.
DS We try and set them up at the front when we can, but sometimes it’s not possible—like at festivals, where you end up with the singer in the back, which is kind of strange, but it still works.
GC Is that a sample of a chainsaw that opens “Costume Drama”?
DS That’s actually an analogue synth. I used to play the synth live quite a bit, but I stopped when I switched to drums. We made this synth patch and recorded a lot of it on the record. Lawrence English, who produced the record, is an experimental musician who has a large collection of old synths. Some of his field recordings made it onto recordings as well, not of a chainsaw, but there’s some strange frogs in the background of “River of Longing.” Him and Luke [Walsh, guitarist] put together a lot of sounds for these songs. So, it’s like an analogue modular chainsaw (laughter).
GC “Too Late Now” is my favorite track on the album and sort of a departure for Blank Realm. Perhaps it’s cliché to ask if the last track on an album points to a new direction for a band, but is there any new Blank Realm material in the pipeline with this new sound?
DS In a way, I think you’re probably right. We’re making another album that we hope to have out before the end of the year, but there’s not too much time left. It’s slower and quieter, and even though that track [“Too Late Now”] is not quiet, the songs will be more stand-alone or melancholy.
GC “Too Late Now” is impressive because it’s this long, building trip, which can be hard to pull off.
DS Lawrence was talking a lot about the Cure, and that’s definitely one where we went for that vibe. Sort of reminds me of “Pictures of You.” We’ll do more stuff in that vein for sure. There’s a lot of guitar overdubs on that track.
GC Is it Sarah Spencer that sings on “Gold”? I always dig the one track sung by a different band member per album, like “Spiral Stairs” on a Pavement album or something.
DS She didn’t have a song on the last record, but she had one on Go Easy. I wish she’d sing more, but she doesn’t really want to. I sang “Gold” initially, but it wasn’t really working, so we tried it with her and it turned out really well. It gives the album a different feel—breaks it up.
GC You’re doing a tour of Europe shortly. Is it important for you guys to tour globally?
DS It’s really fun, though exhausting. There’s not too many places to play in Australia where people will come besides the five major cities. Getting to Perth on the other side of the country is almost as expensive as going to America, so there’s a lot more places to play and things to see outside of Australia. We haven’t been to America for a while, but we’ll get there next year.
GC I interviewed Robert Forster earlier this year, and the Go-Betweens—being, in my mind, the classic Brisbane band—had this travelling reputation where they spent a lot of time recording in the UK, France, etc.
DS They were from this era where Australian bands would go live in London, but I don’t think that really happens anymore. Some do, but I don’t know anyone who’s really profited from doing so, at least making the sort of music we do. Bands these days just move to Melbourne, but we haven’t done that yet (laughter). A lot of people visit and think there’s nothing, but there are hidden charms when you live here, when you realize what’s going on. Some cities, obviously, have a lot of charm right away. Brisbane doesn’t really seem like a great place on the surface, but it gets under your skin.
GC With this record, you recorded in a studio for the first time. How was that experience?
DS Going in, I wasn’t sure if it would be worth it because we’d always done things on our own and had complete control. There was never anyone there who wasn’t in the band. But going into a studio was amazing—a great idea. They have a lot of nice preamps and vintage gear, which I really didn’t understand the importance of, but I think the results are a lot better. Lawrence and Tim Morrissey from the John Steel Singer recorded us and had a lot of input as to what was a good take, etc. Otherwise, we can definitely go down a rabbit hole of endlessly playing things over and over for the right take, or not knowing if what we’re doing is any good.
GC It can be definitely be a great decision if the circumstances are right.
DS When you’re paying for studio time you’re on your best behavior. If you’re recording yourself, you can muck around and it doesn’t matter as much. We perform better live than we do on our records because of the energy of a live situation, but going into a studio is like that, too. Things are on the line, and you have to do a good performance with the time allotted. It could turn out better.
GC Do you ever write as you record? It can be riskier to do that when you’re paying for the time.
DS We wrote songs in the weeks leading up to session, around forty or so, many with half lyrics. Eventually we whittled them down to twenty or so and recorded most of those. It became pretty apparent which ones fit together and were more complete. So we just worked on those the rest of the time. None of the lyrics were complete or anything. That was all done in the studio. It was kind of hectic. “Flowers in Mind,” for example, was written a week before it was recorded.
Gary Canino is a musician and writer based in New York City.