It's been a year since my last chat with Andy Bull. In that time he's released a critically acclaimed album, toured the country, recorded a new EP and most importantly, cut his hair. The third item in that list is the reason for today's interview. Andy's new EP "Phantom Pains" hit shelves (sounds better than was uploaded to iTunes) a couple of weeks ago and has already won over the indie-pop crowd - largely due to his magnificent duet with Lisa Mitchell. I didn't think it was possible to top "Small Town Girl" but "Dog" comes very, very close. That song is representative of the EP's dark tone but unlike most of his contemporaries, Andy never forgets the power of a good harmony and catchy pop chorus. Which is one of the reasons he is such a favourite of mine. That and the fact that he graciously puts up with my stalking on Facebook. Anyway, here's what the extremely talented Mr Bull had to say about "Phantom Pains".
The EP is a beautiful collection of songs but your sound is darker this time around. In fact, “Dog” (bottom of post) is possibly the catchiest song about depression that I’ve ever heard. Is it fair to say you were going through a bit of a rough patch when you were putting it together?
"Phantom Pains" is darker than the music I have made in the past, but it's not because I am less happy than I was. it's just because I am discovering, perversely, the joy in articulating that ever-present emotional darkness. Learning to express the personal and the emotional, rather than simply crafting well constructed words, is liberating for the songwriter and the listener, and furthermore, it's honest.
Are you going to do a video for “Dog”?
Maybe, I’m tossing around some ideas. I think I might try animating something, maybe in the style that I drew the EP artwork in. Currently I’m working on a really cool video for the "Phantom Pains" song though. It's not animated: one of my best pals shot it for me in this weird house on Long Island in the States, and sent the footage here, and then me and another pal filmed some more material to complete the clip. It’s really cool just working with your friends on it. Very do-it-yourself. It should be finished soon. It's about a guy who cuts off his thumb to get the insurance money. I wont spoil the ending.
How did you rope in the services of Lisa Mitchell, Little Red and Hungry Kids of Hungary for the EP?
Lisa and I became friends when we toured last year. I had actually become a member of her band during that tour also, since she had cut her finger very badly on the second night of the tour and couldn’t play guitar, so I played piano for her. She called me up earlier this year and invited me to sing a song with her at her Enmore Theatre show, and in return I invited her to sing on my album. One afternoon, when she was in Sydney, she came around to my house for a cup of tea, and then we recorded "Dog" in my little home studio. It took about an hour.
Basically the same deal with Little Red singing on "Nothing to Lose", I made friends with them when we did a long tour about 2 years ago. Earlier this year they were in Sydney mixing their new album, and one afternoon they rocked up to my house with a case of beer, and a few jars in, we decided it would be cool to sing on a song together. With Hungry Kids, my producer Tony Buchen had produced their single “Let You Down” and we thought it would be cool to have them sing on "Last Waltz", so we sent them the track over email with some suggestions for harmonies, and they sent it back pretty well nailed.
Is the EP a taste of a forthcoming album or a stand alone project?
It’s a stand-alone project. I think that in this day and age, with the way we consume music (i.e. iTunes) that long albums are not always so necessary. Or in other words, I think that the EPs could now fill the role that albums have for the last 10 years. From my point of view, EPs are great because there is a shorter time span between their creation and their release, which I think improves the relevance of the output. Take Sufjan Stevens as an example. I think his career is really exciting to watch because it’s very dynamic - he releases stunning EPs regularly. I think there is something to be said for it. Artistically and commercially, it's healthier, because there is less expectation and without that expectation, you can just get on with the business of playing music, and you can do it for the right reasons!
One of my other favourite songs on the EP is “Work Is A Slow Way To Die”. Which basically verbalises my general attitude to employment. What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
I’ve had a few jobs over the years, some of them grubby and very rough. Working in a commercial kitchen is up there as one of the most exhausting jobs, but definitely not the worst. I think, surprisingly maybe, that my stint as a personal trainer was my worst job. Early mornings, late nights, shit pay. You spend half the time cleaning up after people, cleaning vomit and shit off toilet floors. And then you spend the other half listening to people complain about being fat and unmotivated. They want a magic pill to fix their problems, and there is none. I felt like I was always giving people hard facts that they didn’t want to hear. Plus, you have to be one hell of a salesman, which I am not. I had some trainer friends who were amazing at it, who thrived on it and made good cash. But my mind was elsewhere, and I was getting nowhere, so after an unhappy couple of years, I stopped.
You spent 7 years working on your debut album. I loved it but it didn’t quite take off the way you possibly would have liked. How do you deal with that after pouring your heart and soul into something?
Actually I was pretty amazed by the response, and on the whole I felt like reviews were incredibly generous. It didn’t, however, smash though the charts and for that I am incredibly thankful, not disappointed as you suggested. I think that had “We’re Too Young” been a big hit then I would still be tied to it now, which would be the real disappointment. Instead, I got to free myself of it and move on, which was deeply cathartic. Making "Phantom Pains" was a very beautiful, rich, personal experience that brought me real contentedness. Where "We’re Too Young" had been like surviving a trial, "Phantom Pains" came like a happy revelation.
Do you think the record company’s marketing strategy backfired? You were put forward as a retro soul singer, when your sound is actually a lot more eclectic.
Again, it seems to me like other people worry more about all that marketing stuff than I do. If anybody tried to represent me as anything, well, I don’t know what to say about that? I represent myself only, I try to behave in a way that is in accordance with what I believe at that time; and if you really want to know what I believe, then you can ask me and I will tell you. If you want to know about my music, just listen to it and make up your own mind based on your own emotional response. I don’t have ambitions to be seen as one thing or another in particular. My ambition is to not care.
You’re hitting the road soon, doing some solo shows as well as supporting Clare Bowditch. How did that come about? What can we expect from the shows? Will you be dusting off “Small Town Arsehole”?
Just one of those small-world connections. I live across the road from her manager, and so I hassled him about it while he was walking his dog. Well, that’s only half true. But the shows should be cool, I’m working on a little duo at the moment that I think is going to be pretty great. "Small Town Arsehole" is likely to get a run. Should be a great tour.
You can order a signed copy of "Phantom Pains" from JB Hi-Fi. Click on this link to see Andy's upcoming tour dates.