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CESTER’S DOIN IT FOR HIMSELF

Nic Cester at Bluesfest by Jason Rosewarne

Everyone knows the story of Jet, the world conquering Australian rock band formed by brothers Nic and Chris Cester. They had massive success globally with their Get Born album and in particular the single Are You Gonna Be My Girl, which was boosted by its use in the Apple iPod and iMac ads at the time. Jet went on to sell 6.5 million records but by 2012, the band had announced on social media their ‘discontinuation as a group”. They did however re-convene this year for dates supporting Bruce Springsteen. During Jet’s heyday, members of the band could be seen in photos relaxing in some of the world’s most exotic locations. Lead singer Nic set up shop in Como Italy for 8 years, one of the most scenic areas on earth. But what you see is not always what you get. For Nic, with the fame and fortune came disillusion and a headspace which didn’t necessarily include making music anymore. It was a recent stint in Berlin, a city synonymous with game-changing recordings, which sparked Cester’s creative comeback. Nic decided to book a studio for a month, purchased some gear and set off on a journey of musical and personal discovery, resulting in SUGAR RUSH his debut album which is released on November 3rd. Nic was sitting in his new home town of Milan when Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips caught up with him to discuss the creation of the album.

Nic, you’re about to head to Australia for a couple of live shows with your new band to coincide with the release of your album Sugar Rush but I actually caught you earlier in the year playing some of this material at Bluesfest in Byron Bay. How was the Bluesfest experience for you?
It was great. It was kind of premature in a way because I’d only met those musicians two weeks before that show. There was a lot of frantic rehearsing and the album had only been finished a month prior to that. Everything was kinda fresh and we were still trying to find our feet but I think all things considering it went pretty well.

How did you come across those guys?
I needed a band. Obviously I needed musicians to play these songs live. I had been working with the engineer of the album, an italian guy named Thomaso Kaleva. I’d been friends with him for a while and I really leant on him. I said I have a show in two weeks, can you help me? Together we considered some people and had a few auditions before settling on the final lineup.

How many songs did you have to play with all up? Were there some which didn’t make the album?
Yeah there are quite a few. There are a few that we recorded and right up until the end … I dunno .. when the album was done and I was able to listen to it for the first time from start to finish, I made a decision that there were a few songs that sounded a little too dramatic for me. They didn’t really represent the place I was in, so I made the tough call to drop three songs completely and replaced them with two others that were kind of demos, but a bit more representative of how I was feeling and more like the kind of album I wanted to make. The first single was one of those, recorded at the eleventh hour.

There are a lot of sounds happening in a lot of the songs. In general did they begin their life acoustically or did you build some of them originally with electronics and effects as part of the writing process?
I was living in Berlin for a while and I booked months of studio time where I would just go to work every day. When I started I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was trying stuff for the first time and learning things. I used a drum machine for the first time and I played a lot of different instruments. All of the songs were born out of a studio environment. It was kind of out of necessity because I didn’t have a band. If I wanted to write a song, I’d have to start with a bass line and build up a drum track, so it was very much a studio process. It’s very different to how things worked with Jet … 4 guys in a room with physical instruments in their hands. This was much different and very confusing. In the beginning I had no fucking idea what I was doing.

Did you hit YouTube for some tuition videos on the new gear you’d bought?
No I am useless with technology anyway. I bought a bunch of new stuff that I wanted to start using and then together with the engineer in Berlin we’d just try it. For the first few months, again because I didn’t know what I was doing, there was a lot of awful stuff to be honest. Then when I started to get the hang of it and got more confident using it and got a bit of momentum going, it started getting some focus and the idea became clearer.

Did you use many guitars?
Not really. I relocated to a foreign city and I didn’t even have my instruments with me. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to keep doing music but thought I had some unresolved business, which was enough to say ok, let’s give this one more try and see what happens, so I booked the studio time. All I had with me was a bass, an old 60s Hofner and almost all of the songs started on that bass. I would never call myself a bass player but it was a lot of fun to begin writing a song without a guitar for the first time in my life.

A lot of the sounds, the drums, the bass … everything at some point seems to be distorted or have some sort of effect on them. Did you have a lot of fun with that?
(Laughs) yeah I did have a lot of fun with distortion! Again, I co-produced the album and a lot of the time I really didn’t know what I was doing so I would just keep pushing things until it sounded exciting. Sometimes that was distortion and sometimes delay or whatever but it was trying things for the first time and I kept pushing until it sounded interesting and exciting to me.

There’s a big psychedelic flavour to the album. Had you been listening to a lot of that kind of music at the time of writing or has that just always been with you?
It’s always been in my past I guess, coming from being into the Beatles and 60s music. For the first time in my life I was free to do anything I wanted. I was listening to all sorts of stuff. I would say the biggest influence, even though it may not seem that obvious, was that I was listening to Brazilian music from the 60s and 70s. There’s a huge percussive theme throughout the whole album. The idea of mixing electronic drums with real drums was more the common thread.

There’s a track called On Top Of The World which only goes for a minute and 9 seconds. Did you consider further developing that into something longer or was it always going to be that mood piece in the middle of the album?I guess it started out as a demo but the simplicity of it is what attracted me the most and the idea that it does sound unresolved, that’s the thing I like about it the most. I was musing on the irony of the Jet years and how on paper at least, everything seemed to be at the peak of our career and how isolating that felt and how melancholic some of those moments felt as opposed to the excitement you would expect to be attached to moments like that. So to keep that song unresolved helped to tell that story a little better.

What made you go for Jim Abbiss as producer?
Well I spoke with a lot of people and as always it was just through a conversation… who did I get the better vibe from? The things he said made the most amount of sense. I was familiar with a lot of the things he had done and I knew he would be more than capable of helping me pull this together but he was also the most enthusiastic. He gave the most positive reaction to what he’d heard. I go for enthusiasm any day over an intellectual decision.

What would you say his production style is?
It was interesting. He was focusing on moments. I was surprised at how open and easy he was. I had the assumption that when he begun that we’d replace most of what I’d done with new tracks but he was really happy to keep a lot of the work I’d done in Berlin and a lot of the original guitar tracks and even some of the original vocal tracks stayed. I enjoyed working with him because he never forced anything to happen. It was more listening and reacting emotionally, rather than cerebrally.

In the notes you say that Jim ordered some bones from the local butcher to use for percussion. Was that a late night drunken idea or something he’d done before?
On the song Sugar Rush, it kind of already had a dark, swampy, ritualistic atmosphere and we were just talking about that and how we could draw that out as much as possible. We’d used a lot of percussion already on many tracks and just looking for ideas and he said what about some bones? He went to the local butcher store and brought back these disgusting bones that were covered in meat and blood. Of course we realised we had to do something to them if we were going to use them. So he gave them to his wife who boiled them over night and then left them on an ant’s nest, hoping that the ants would finish cleaning them up for us. After this whole drawn out process of trying to clean up these bones … one hit and they smashed into a million pieces. It was not the best idea in the end. The only enjoyment anyone got from those bones was the ants.

Did you learn a lot making this album … things that you might take into the future?
Absolutely. I learned so much. Just playing bass for the first time and writing on the bass, getting better at playing piano. I played drums on the original demos, some of which stayed. In terms of my ability on instruments, I had to get better because I didn’t have a band, in the beginning anyway. And in the studio, things like how to balance the ingredients together was something that I learnt. In Jet, I did my job and the others took care of their jobs but this time I had to think of it from everyone’s perspective. I learned a lot about songwriting doing it that way… how to leave space for other people and how to balance all of these things together and use effects … it was a lot of fun. It was like I went into the studio everyday…. I’d look around and think, OK I feel like playing drums today, let’s start there.

Nic Cester at Bluesfest by Jason Rosewarne

Is there a song on the album which is closer to your heart than others?
Probably God Knows. Just to sing it is a lot of fun. It had been a long time since I’d done anything musically but I forgot how much I enjoy singing. To use the full range of my voice in that way and really let go and scream, it’s always kind of cathartic and that song has some great moments where I really get to unleash.

Looking at some recent clips of you performing, you’re not always playing guitar. Is that part of that new found enjoyment of singing on stage?
Absolutely, it’s a luxury I have never been afforded before. There’s a lot of guys on stage so it’s given me a new sense of confidence that I don’t have to worry about anything. These guys have got it all covered and all I have to worry about is singing.

Because of how these songs were created, when it came to playing them live, did it present some challenges?
There were. First and foremost that some of the guys don’t speak any English was interesting. I mean there wasn’t a lot of guitar on the album and the moment we had a guitar player onboard freed me up. I hadn’t even considered that I might not be playing guitar in a live environment. When the band all arrived and we picked up the instruments, it became obvious there wasn’t a lot for me to do apart from sing.

Do you think you are a better singer when you are not playing guitar?
Yes, to not have to divide your mind into two parts is huge. I never had any ambitions to be a singer to be honest but I have found myself in a situation now where all I am doing is singing.

You were saying that there was a moment when you weren’t even sure you wanted to do music at all. Having gone through the process of making this album, how do you feel now about your future in music now?
I feel great. I had a lot of doubts. I think through the process of making the album I answered a lot of questions in my own mind. I felt like I had some unfinished business to do which is now coming to completion, which makes me feel really good and proud that I managed to pull it all together in a foreign country, in a different language with a bunch of people who I didn’t know before but are now I can call some of my closest friends. The whole thing has been an amazing adventure and one that I am quite proud of.

You’ve got gigs coming up in Melbourne and Sydney. Is the whole band coming out for that?
Yes we’re all coming over. I can’t wait. Finally these things that began as ideas and thoughts or even some fears, the fact that it is fully materialised now is fantastic and most of the heavy lifting has been done. We now get to enjoy playing these songs and I can’t wait.

What’s in store for you after this tour?
I’m becoming a father next year in January, so thats going to put a pause on things. I’m just looking forward to playing.

http://www.niccester.com/

Sugar Rush is released Friday November 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nic Cester dates
Tues Oct 31
Leadbelly, Newtown NSW

Thu Nov 2
Memo Music Hall, St.Kilda VIC

 

 

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