Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Interview: Devastations

“I haven’t lived in a place for longer than four or five months in five or six years…” Conrad Standish of Devastations shares the overseas experience with James McGalliard

There are many universes, and parallel existences. In one, Devastations frontman Conrad Standish is half of a rock glamour couple, being followed by paparazzi and besieged by supermarket checkout magazines that want a feature on the celebrity lifestyle of him and his wife. In this one we’re sitting in a real ale pub in Hackney in London’s East End, a few days before Conrad flies out to Melbourne to begin rehearsals for their February shows, and I’m trying to understand how you can afford to live in London as a musician.

The truth is, you can’t. “At the moment I am going for a lot of job interviews… I’ve kinda managed until now, but this can’t continue like this; it’s dawning on me that I can’t be a gentleman of leisure for too much longer. It’s fucken tough here, it’s really expensive…” Conrad has recently moved here after he and the band spent the last few years based in Berlin. “Before we were living in (our current home), we were living in a place in Camden with seven or eight other people.”

Along with drummer Hugo Cran, and guitarist and vocalist Tom Carlyon, Conrad makes up Devastations, a band formed in Melbourne, and now living in three separate countries. But with Hugo still in Berlin, and Tom having recently moved back to Australia, isn’t this going to make things a little tough? “I guess we will just have to put aside a certain amount of time each year to get together somewhere. It could be Europe at the end of a tour, or Australia back on holidays, or we could meet halfway or something. Meet in Iraq for a rehearsal spell? We will just have to be more selective about the way that we tour and more respectful of our own lifespan as a band. We gotta be clever about it.”

This lack of money has had its beneficial side though. The long, languorous soundscapes of Yes, U may never have been achieved, except for the way the record was created. “We’ve always felt in the past, because of the way that we wrote songs, that when we would record albums, we will just layer and layer and layer stuff. Also we had a lot of time in which to record those albums, because we had no money, so we would only go into the studio when we had money. And like all the off-time, we had like a rough mix of the song and we would be thinking ‘maybe it needs an organ bit here, or maybe it needs a violin or extra whatever…’, which would invariably happen. We all would have ideas for the songs over the course of a year. I mean each of those albums took a year to make. Which was good in one sense, because it gave us a lot of time to live with the songs, and see how they could be improved but at the same time, when it came to playing live as a three-piece, there were obvious limitations…”

That’s the other big change recently in the band. Conrad tells me that there have probably been eight keyboard players during their history, but now it’s back to the core trio for the foreseeable future. “This is kind of tough on everyone who’s ever been in the band… But really the band is just the three of us; no matter who joins, that’s always how it is. It’s a funny dynamic. Even if we were craving a fourth member, still at the same time always the three of us.”

The other dynamic of the band is between the two singers. “I think that is a good thing for an album (and) for a pair of songwriters. I think we’re both fortunate to have each other in a lot of ways. We have quite a complex relationship, me and Tom, but I think we tend to compliment each other well. I think we’ve arrived at a point where we know what to do with one another, if you know what I mean.” Although Tom has always sung, recent shows seem to feature him more as a singer, as does Yes, U. “Tom’s a great songwriter and his contributions to the band have always been huge and his work probably overshadows all of us. But I don’t think he is actually singing more on like Yes, U…I guess on this album there are a couple of instrumentals so it probably seems more.”

Conrad has strong thoughts on live performance. “We don’t like to play for a long time. I myself get really bored watching anyone for more than half an hour. It could be The Stooges, after half an hour, I’ve had enough! So I keep that in mind when we are playing. It can be nice to have a show where you have your peaks and your troughs. You can do that in a dynamic sense, without having to get people to stay two hours to watch you play.”

“It’s a weird thing to perform in front of people. Sometimes you wonder why you do it at all, what’s like the point? …We’ve done shows where we’ve walked off stage and it’s like high-fiving in the sun in the Caribbean, and someone’s walked in, like our manager or whatever, with a very worried look on their face. And we’ve done shows like that, which we thought were a total piece of shit and we’ve had people walk up to us in tears - tears of joy. So we really aren’t the best judges.”

Conrad cuts a weird onstage figure. He’s tall, he struts, jerks his hips and arches his back, while his head comes forward, almost like a cobra. “It’s just how it feels natural to play for me. I have to move. It seems to be what the music dictates. It’s a physical thing, but I don’t have any idea of what I appear like on the stage… I don’t think I look that weird, but I really enjoy playing bass. Maybe I enjoy it 10% more than other bass players?”

Following the Australian shows is the possibility of an American tour, as Yes, U is only now being released there. And after that? “I think it would be boring if we made another record that sounded the same as Yes, U. All of us have ideas that we want to pursue, but it’s realistically like another year before we would step foot in a studio again. It gives us all a fair amount of time to get it how we want it.”

If you ask what he’d like most from the forthcoming dates, the answers simple – sold out shows. Although they’ve lived and played overseas for a long time, Australia is still loved, faults and all. What might people expect to hear on these dates? “Some songs you can leave out of the set for like a year or two. Then you’ll revisit them and suddenly they’re fresh all over again. Certain songs have to be put into gaol for a bit, if they are not kinda working for you… We’ve our whole lives to play these songs, I don’t see what the rush is - we will be around for a while yet.”

Devastations play East Brunswick Club on 2 February, and St Jerome’s Laneway Festival on 24 February. Yes, U is out now on Remote Control

© James McGalliard 2008