Andy Bull is the odd man out on the Australian music scene. His music sounds like it has been transported from the 1970s in a time machine and he sings in a pitch that often gets him mistaken for a female vocalist. However, what really makes Andy stand out is the quality of his beautiful piano driven songs. They positively ooze melancholy melodies and almost always boast a catchy, sing-a-long chorus. And let's not forget his lyrics, which have an honesty and warmth that recall a bygone era when songs were crafted by songwriters instead of pasted together by A&R teams. I've been a fan of Mr Bull since first hearing "Small Town Girl" on the radio. That song is one of those rare anthems that stops you in your tracks with its brilliance and makes you want to run home and jump on Myspace to find out more about the singer (yes, I really am that sad). Since then Andy has released another fine single and is currently promoting his debut album "We're Too Young". That opus has been 7 years in the making and finally hits shelves on the 7th of August. I couldn't wait to probe Andy about the recording process and tackle the really big issues like his amazing hairstyle. Check it out.
Andy, your debut album is set to drop in August. Has it really been 7 years in the making? (Andy was kind enough to also address this question in a video blog)
Well, it's hard to say. I started writing songs when I was 14. That’s when I first decided I wanted to be somebody who made albums. But yes, seven years ago is when I met my producer, Tony Buchen, who throughout this process has been my creative “other half”. He has played a key role in bringing all this to fruition and he has been in the picture for 7 years. Anyway, there are songs on this album that are up to 7 years old, like “Young Man”, which I wrote when I was 18, and then much newer songs like “Girls!” and “She’s a Ghost” which I wrote late last year. The actual recording process (separate from the writing process) for this album took place over the last 3 years. We had four sessions in the fully decked out studio over that time. The first session was that incredible session in 2006 where Kanye West happened to come by while on tour with U2 and offered up some advice. In the end the only song to make it from that initial session is “Young Man”.
While 7 years of writing and 3 years of recording was a very long time, I hope that it was of good use. You cover a lot of ground in that time, try a lot of things. There were so many things about music I wanted to discover. The other interesting thing about making an album over that time is that so many styles come and go through the public consciousness in that period. The pop world travels as the speed of light. I mean, bands can go from obscurity to world domination and then back to obscurity in a single year. Seven years is a lot of time to spend under the radar. So all the while you are watching the world pass you by and spin in circles and explode and disappear; as you just slowly chip away unnoticed, trying to figure out what it is you want to say should you ever have your moment.
Do you have a favourite song on the album?
Depending on the day. I think all of the songs on the album have been my favourite at one time or another. Usually when you’ve just written a song you are so excited by all the possibility you hear in it that it's at least a favourite for a short while. Then you record them, and you get such a vibe from listening to them that you play them to death! So then you need to write a new song… Some songs on the album, especially the more reflective ones like “Grown Folk” or “One Thing You Should Know” I must have played in my car 1000 times. It’s a very warm feeling when you can listen to a song you have recorded and think “I achieved exactly what I wanted to achieve, and I wouldn’t change this”.
I read your dad taught you how to play the keyboard when you were just 7. When did you realise that you wanted to be a musician?
I think I was about 14 years old. I was a bit of a geek in school, you know, I liked writing and drama and was crazy about drawing and all of those drastically uncool things you should never admit too. I had always really liked music, but as a boy never considered that I could actually write it myself. I had no idea how to write a song. Where do you even begin? When I was 14, everything on the radio was alternative rock, all guitar stuff. Hip Hop was also stepping into the mainstream in a huge way. And there was all that nu-metal stuff too, which wasn’t really ringing my bell. So I was looking around thinking “what the hell am I meant to do? All I have is a piano and a weird voice” And, like a god send, Ben Folds Five, who shall be herein known as the Patron Saints of Andy Bull, appeared amongst the fray. I became smitten with the band’s music. Basically it opened my mind up to the possibility of piano being used in contemporary pop music, which I found incredibly encouraging. Piano wasn’t just something people used in the 70’s, it could be used now. So I started listening to Ben Folds Five and trying to understand what their songs were made of. That’s when I first started trying to write songs and that’s when I decided I wanted to be a “proper” musician I think.
There has been a big revival of so called "blue eyed soul" lately. Does that help or hinder you? How do you stand out from the crowd?
That’s an interesting question. Actually it's made no difference here at home. I still feel as if I somehow need to apologise for the way my voice sounds, or for playing piano and not guitar, etc. I really did not set out to be the odd one out, but sometimes I feel the crushing weight of the awareness that I am, as if I need to intellectually justify it to others. This might all just be a function of my own insecurity, however! My objective mind tells me it’s a good thing! I think that despite the inherent terror in putting yourself out in front of the world, the internet, the newspaper, the blogs, the twittering etc, you have to just be yourself, succeed and fail on your own terms and try not to take it personally if you are ‘teased’ by the jocks for being a nerd (the press is like one giant high school, I am telling you). Just do your thing. That’s what all the greats did. That’s one of the things Kanye West stressed to me in our conversation."
Talk about your sound. The piano plays such a big role, there are strong retro influences but it still sounds so fresh. Did it all just come together naturally or was it a long process to reach this point?
That’s kind of you to say, thank you. I guess there are a few reasons for that “retro but new” sound. Firstly the piano; you don’t hear a lot of it nowadays. There is a sensitivity in the sound of the piano that predates the punk, metal and grunge aesthetics, and a lot of the major pop developments of the last 30 odd years, so it automatically carries and old fashioned reference. Also there are rules with a piano. You cant bend notes, you cant distort the sound, no whammy, you can’t mess with the tuning. Physically, if it falls on you, it will kill you. There is an order, a heirachy when you play piano, and it goes ‘piano first, you second’. This is a very un-modern attitude. The modern attitude is “Me-first, and everybody else can stick it”. You really have to respect the piano. Its hard to pick it up an smash it into your Marshall stack. As well as that, Tony Buchen and I spent time really trying to record the music with a warmth and sensitivity that reminded us of “the feeling music gave you as a kid”. We took care in the more technical aspects of recording, like trying to leave space in the tracks so you can hear the room sound, making sure we didn’t over-compress stuff. That’s sort of thing.
Who are your influences? I have a feeling you must have a pretty amazing record collection.
Yes, there has been many. I have already mentioned Ben Folds. I won’t go on dropping names, but lots of stuff, from a lot of different periods of time and styles. Recently iTunes asked me to put together a list of my top 20 songs of influence. Only 20? Impossible. Top 500 would have been easier! Sorry I haven’t gone into more detail here, but it would just become tedious and boring to read! On the whole however, I am really attracted to unique voices.
I think "Small Town Girl" is one of the best Australian pop songs of the decade. What was the inspiration behind it? Will you be releasing it overseas?
That’s *incredibly* flattering, thank you. It’s a coming of age song, I suppose. Over the last seven years I busted my guts trying to go back and forth between here and the US, mainly New York. As everybody tells you, it’s a really busy city, and it can really kick you in the guts. I suppose it just became symbolic of somebody trying to outgrow themselves, and how that’s generally the kind of experience that brings you face to face with your own shortcomings. "Small Town Girl" is a story about trying to outgrow your environment and how you make a lot of errors along the way while doing that. That old chestnut! When you’re young, you’re full of youthful bravado, which is just naivety really. You’re ready to kick down the doors and conquer the world; as if the world is going to just give it all to you without a fight. “Wait ‘til they see me coming!” you think! “Nobody’s ever seen anything like me before!” Then, the years go by and you reflect on all you’ve done and you just can’t help but think “hmmm, I wish I had known a little more about the ways the world actually works.” Of course, I still have hopes of releasing that song overseas. Working on it now!
Tell us about "Small Town Arsehole". Do you often get abused by "fans"?!
Ha! Well actually, it's not the fans who abuse. It’s the small town assholes! That guy was just a permanent drunk bastard who is a fixture at the venue in question, so he wasn’t a punter. I’ve seen him again since then though, and I think he’s a bit brain-damaged. Too much alcohol. At first I was like “damn, how many more times can I get called a faggot?” and then I discovered, by talking to friends in other bands, that being called a faggot is pretty commonplace stuff. Can you imagine abusing a total stranger? I would never do that. You should only abuse friends and loved ones! Ha. But I’ve gotten pretty good at heckling back, and occasionally it makes good material for a song. The funny thing is, people often really aggressively point out to me that my voice is high, as if I somehow hadn’t noticed yet. You gotta just let that stuff go, or it’ll make you nuts. Its not very nice. That’s why I take real pleasure in seeing bands like The Presets, who may have once been abused as jazz-trained fags, become the utter toast of the town. Now all those roid-raging, Ed-Hardy wearing party boys who used to heckle them are out there popping E’s to “My People”, haha. Generally though, the people who come to my shows are so super lovely and beautiful and wonderful to talk to. I only want nice fans with good hearts, and I think that’s how it’s shaping up.
Your latest single "Young Man" explores a recurring theme ("My First Love", "We're Too Young" etc) in your music - the pressures of youth, for want of a better explanation. Is that accurate or just a coincidence?
A lot of my music has to do with coming to terms with your own youth, about dealing with the first cuts (which, as they say, are the deepest). When you are young, as I mentioned, you are full of notions, ideals, romances and so forth. The friction comes when you smash up against the force of the real world, and you suddenly have to begin consolidating all of that with the hard facts of life. That’s what it means to grow up. You have to begin taking responsibility for you own life, owning your decisions, engaging with the real world in a real way. You have to become morally responsible for your choices. You have to stop waiting for that million-dollar cheque to come in the mail. You have to ask yourself “ok, I know what I appear to be doing with my life, but what am I really doing?”
I love your cover of MGMT's "Electric Feel". Do you have any more up your sleeve?
I’ve played a handful of covers over the years. Another one I frequently like to whip out is "New Slang" by The Shins but I’ve done that one quite a lot, so I think I need to find a new one. I was thinking about a Jackson 5 cover, in respect to Michael. In a couple days time I’m heading into the studio to record a song for Island Records 50th Anniversary CD. I’m recording "Common People" by Pulp.
Speaking of Michael, you wrote an amazing blog post about his death. What did you make of the macabre aftermath?
Oh man, you know what I read in the tabloids the other day? Some creep spinning more rubbish about Michael Jackson “secret obsessions”… Are you for real? He’s dead now, so you can leave him alone. Listen, I’ve been thinking about this whole thing a lot. It really makes me sad. It's like Michael Jackson had to deal with way too many small town arseholes saying awful things about him, and in the end, it made him rot from the insides out. It is very macabre. I don’t know what to make of it all. All I can say is that I am continually disappointed and saddened.
Oh, and I have to ask - who does your artwork? Your single/album covers are amazing!
Ah yes, it's amazing isn’t it! Basically, we took photos of me, and sent them to a woman named Sara Hingle, who illustrates for FRANKIE magazine, which is how I initially became aware of her work. Then she draws the photo. The “Piano Machine” was originally compiled like a collage, with different images we’d put together and arranged. Then, Sara drew the collage in the same way. I have been very, very fortunate to have had such wonderful artists involved; the artwork has really made an impression on people.
Last but not least tell us about your amazing haircut!
The truth is, I used to have long hair, no fringe, just long and over my face. I didn’t really like it but I didn’t know what to do with it. Now, a few years ago I was in a long distance relationship with a girl in Europe. Anyway I went over to see her after being separated for about 10 months and met her in Rome. She told me I needed a haircut. I think I had been hiding behind all that hair because I was basically miserable and depressed and had been for about, let's see, 10 months. Anyway, I went to the hairdresser and he gave me this haircut. I felt like my life had begun again. I left Rome and I left the girl. I sometimes joke that all that suffering, all the misery of that long distance relationship and that final, horrible break up in Rome all happened for a purpose; to lead me to this haircut, haha. Since then, its become my signature. Ridiculous story, I know, but fate has very dark sense of humour.
"We're Too Young" is released on the 7th of August. You can order an amazing deluxe edition that comes with exclusive tracks and a t-shirt from his website.