Melbourne four-piece City Calm Down are preparing to release their 2018 sophomore record, two years since their debut album launched them into the musical spotlight. Fronting a group whose sonic is refreshing in the current alternative scene yet has hints of Joy Division, The National and New Order, Jack Bourke took a break from the group’s UK tour to have a chat about City Calm Down’s latest inspirations, origins and the 2017 album he’d recommend to our readers.
After your debut album, you’re back with your single ‘In This Modern Land’, which I’ve read is about coming to terms with your social isolation – can you tell us a bit more about that?
I guess it’s an observation of how easy it is to isolate yourself in the technological landscape we’re all living with. I think you we can bury ourselves in what’s often meaningless content you’re just filling your brain with, that doesn’t really help you develop strong relationships, which I guess is just part of digital media. I think that on a superficial level it seems culturally, it’s driving a lot of groups on the fringes of political ideology, (probably also where it’s manifesting itself), where people deal with people who share exactly the same opinions as they do, which increases the isolation. That’s not solely my personal experience, but obviously the narrative in the song has a bit of melodrama in it and creates a caricature of that social occurrence.
it’s an observation of how easy it is to isolate yourself in the technological landscape we’re all living with
So it’s quite a contemporary commentary?
Yeah, it’s not supposed to be political in any sense but the narrative is a person recognising their own social isolation and coming to terms with that, which is maybe the first steps in trying to rectify that. I’m not going through any sentiments of joining some far-right or far-left Facebook group where I dash away at the keyboards for six months and then realise I’ve been a fool, it’s just at least when I speak to friends, you can kind of talk about difficult issues and it seems even when you’re not on the internet and discussing these things in person that because people are being fed stuff that already aligns with their personal view, it just reinforces it. Trying to have a conversation about difficult subjects when people are far more entrenched in their positions than they were previously. I’m only in my late twenties so I can’t really say what it was like before, but I’ve lived with social media since I was eighteen but it seems more and more it’s quite unique, historically. Maybe that’s the best way to put it.
How is preparation for your second album going? Was it a typically difficult second album?
It was difficult in some respects, but it was more that the production of it was difficult. That was because we had a much clearer idea of what we wanted to achieve, so it was just a matter of executing what we wanted. The songs for it were written quite quickly, almost in contrast to the first album which took us a long time to write. So, on the writing side it was a lot easier, but the production side was much harder, so somewhere in the middle. I’m not sure what most bands go through when they’re trying to put together their second album but it definitely had elements that were a lot harder for us. I think there was just a lot more to learn, because we’ve done it before, and after your first record there are a lot of things you probably don’t want to do again. So, we were quite conscious of not doing certain things again but we didn’t necessarily know what we wanted to do instead.
You’ve recently signed to I Oh You Records, how did this come about?
We’ve been with I Oh You for a while now, and I think back in 2012 we played a club night in Melbourne, that Johann (Ponniah, who runs I Oh You) was doing, just when I Oh You was starting out, and we just seemed to get along, and he liked our music. So I think there was just a natural affinity there where we saw eye to eye with where we wanted to go as a band, and Johann generally only works with people he gets along with and can form a lasting working relationship with, and that’s something we’ve tried to maintain as well, in all our working relationships, because you spend so much energy trying to see eye to eye with someone, whilst it’s always good to have different opinions, but when that’s not presented in a helpful and respectful way, you just kind of get side-tracked in dealing with those personal issues instead.
Are there any artists at I Oh You you were really excited to be on the same label as?
Johann’s done an amazing job and has quite a diverse roster, he’s got DMA’s who seem to be doing really well in the UK; he’s got another solo act called Brightness, who’s released an album earlier this year and it’s a fantastic record, it’s a bit more lo-fi than the stuff I Oh You’s released previously but the songwriting is fantastic.
You’ve performed with alt-J, Chvrches and Bombay Bicycle Club, to name a few – how was that? What was the most surreal moment you’ve had?
When we played with alt-J back in 2013, the first show we played with them was the biggest show we’ve ever done, it was a 5500-capacity room, and the biggest we’d done before then was 1000. So, it was quite a big jump in terms of the size and stage we were performing on, so it was quite a big learning experience – our own headline shows had been in 200/300-capacity rooms, so it was quite surreal. I think by the time we played with Bombay Bicycle Club we’d played some bigger rooms, and one of them was a venue in Melbourne called The Forum, which is a maybe 1500-2000 sized venue. It’s a big old theatre which we’d seen a lot of our favourite bands play over the years so getting to play that room was a pretty fantastic experience.
I’m only in my late twenties so I can’t really say what it was like before
I’ve heard and read many comparisons with your music to the likes of The National, New Order, Joy Division – how has that been/is it something you were aware of?
All those bands are ones that we’ve grown up listening to and loved and on one hand you don’t want to be derivative, but at the same time it’s never a bad thing to be compared to bands that you admire. I don’t think there’s much point in resisting those comparisons, as when you resist them it’s as if people are implying that you’re taking too much from them. I think we know that we go about our writing process with our own sound in mind, and there are elements of our sound that are comparable to the ways New Order and Joy Divisions were. I guess it’s very much a compliment!
Who do you cite as your influences?
Well, definitely in my late teens I spent a lot of time listening to Joy Division and New Order. I’ve gone through a number of phases, I grew up listening to a lot of my Dad’s music like The Grateful Dead and Van Morrison, and so not that a lot of those influences are present in the music, but when I’m writing, I don’t know what it is about those bands but I think that bittersweet, melancholy songwriting is something that I’m naturally drawn to and that has always been present in a lot of The Grateful Dead’s music – funnily enough the two brothers in The National did a covers album of The Grateful Dead of like fifty songs or something, so it’s funny how a lot of bands have similar touchpoints.
How did City Calm Down come into being?
We started playing together – Sam, Jeremy and I, in around 2008, and we were all at university. Jeremy and I had been in another band together which had broken up, and Sam had always wanted to play in a band and had recently brought a synthesiser. We kind of started to produce electronic music which we were never really good at! I think to produce electronic music you have to have a lot of focus on the production, whereas we were just jamming around in a bedroom. So, around the time The Klaxons, The Rapture and Australian bands like Cut Copy were around, we had a certain dance, electronic rock component to it and looking back, it wasn’t very good, but that’s sort of how we started. We had a drummer for five years who left before we signed with I Oh You, and then Lee came along and it’s been the four of us ever since. We produced an EP titled Movements and then our debut record and now this record. We’ve been playing for ten years, but the first five we’re during university so it was kind of having a play around one evening. Over the last five years it’s been a lot more full on.
The group’s name is simultaneously evocative and ambiguous, where did it come from?
Yeah! We got booked to play a gig through a friend, and we needed a band name so I just went through my iTunes playlist and thought I’d just pick a song title and that’ll do for the time being. We made a shortlist of all these song titles, and the one we went with was ‘City Calm Down’ by a Melbourne band called Architecture in Helsinki, so it just struck a chord with everyone, we all thought ‘that’s the one’. We never changed it as we never thought we needed to. I’ve always been a bit funny with band names, because I think they don’t matter that much. The band name is often defined more by the music than the music is defined by the band name. I guess there’s a lot of bands out there with the word ‘city’ in the name, which has been funny occasions when people think we’re in City and Colour – we had a radio presenter introduce us as that. A lot of band names are songs by other artists, like Radiohead (a song by Talking Heads) – if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us!
How is your UK tour going?
Good! We had one show last night, which was in London, and that was a great venue. The stage was tiny which was really good actually, as our bass player likes to move around a lot so I had to dodge his bass head a bit but I think we managed to miss each other! We’re off to Paris tomorrow.
Aside from your own, are there any releases you’re excited for in 2018?
I’m awful at keeping track of who’s supposed to be releasing what, which is a shame. I’ll only often find out about stuff after’s it’s come out – I don’t know why that is, probably because when we’re producing music, we spend so much time listening to and working to music I don’t really want to listen to anything else. Often when I’m working on music I tend to take my finger off the pulse and then I’m often catching up on stuff, so I haven’t really had a look at what’s coming out next year, although this year has been fantastic in terms of what’s been released.
If you could recommend one album from this year to our readers, what would it be?
I’ve really been enjoying the new The War on Drugs album, A Deeper Understanding. I’ve been listening to that a lot. It’s sort of impeccable in a way, the way it’s produced and the fact that it’s got so many different sounds and details that catch your ear, it’s a grower. When I first listened to it, it didn’t grab me as much as Lost in the Dream, but now I’ve listened to it so much I prefer it. Every moment has a really enjoyable part going on, and it just sounds beautiful.
We end the conversation by discussing our favourite tracks from A Deeper Understanding, and I leave Bourke to think about more of his anticipated releases for next year, after it “got me thinking”. One thing is for certain though, the release of the new City Calm Down record is sure to be highly anticipated as well as something special.