The 90s was indeed a vibrant time for Australian alt-rock with a sea of quality bands regularly filling venues and a host of great indie labels willing to take a chance on them. Off the tip of my tongue, there was You Am I, Regurgitator, Powderfinger, Clouds, Custard, Falling Joys, Underground Lovers, Magic Dirt, Spiderbait, Jebediah, Grinspoon, The Fauves, Tumbleweed, The Superjesus, and so many more. Pop rock trio EVEN was another notable act that made their mark during that period too, forming out of the ashes of The Swarm in 1994. Featuring acclaimed guitarist, songwriter Ashley Naylor, Swarm drummer Matthew Cotter and bass player Wally Kempton of The Meanies, Even went on to deliver seven excellent albums. In 2019, Even has turned 25 and to celebrate, the band has announced a string of headline gigs around the country before their national tour dates with long-time pals, The Dandy Warhols. They have also gifted their fans with a brand new, unreleased single, ‘Mark The Days’, while announcing Laura Imbruglia, Immigrant Union and Rinehearts as tour supports.
Ahead of the tour, AM’s Greg Phillips caught up with Ash Naylor for a chat about the anniversary tour and Even’s stellar career.
Tell me how and why The Swarm morphed into Even.
Our singer Francis Leach at the time was doing media studies. He ended up getting a job at Triple J, which meant he was moving to Sydney to work and that meant we were reduced to a trio. Matt and I split off and did some demos in 1993 which became Even, so Matt and I have been playing together for 34 years now!
Who came up with name and were there others rejected?
There was a whole litany of names on the cards. Even was just one of those in-joke words among our circle of friends like, ‘as if’ or ‘bulk’ or ‘ace,’ one of those words we might have used in the late 80s, early 90s to make a point about something. It was just a word. You grow into your band name and get used to it, I’m sure The Smashing Pumpkins had the same problem.
What have been some of the more memorable Even gigs or tours over the 25 years?
I guess looking back, the first national tour was pretty memorable because I’d never toured on that scale before. We did a national tour with Header and Gaslight Radio and we were touring to support the debut record at the time. Triple J had really got behind it and we were getting a lot of attention and airplay. Matt and I had never experienced that before. Wally had experienced it with The Meanies so it was something he was accustomed to but for Matt and I it was a new experience. Touring the country playing your own music to people who wanted to hear it was quite a thrill. That tour was pretty special and it still resonates with all of the people involved. I felt like it was a great experience for all of us, Gaslight Radio and the Header guys because we were all enjoying a bit of airplay at the time.
Your 2004 album Free Kicks had The Faces’ legendary Ian McLagan play keys on it. How did that happen?
That was another fortuitous episode. Ian was out touring with Billy Bragg at the time and Kate Stewart, who was You Am I’s manager back in the day was the tour manager for that tour. We gingerly approached Kate about Ian coming to play with us on his day off. He had one day off in Melbourne and he accepted the offer to come and play with us. It was also due to Kelvin Flanders, who was his tech on the tour. He helped getting Ian down, telling him we were good guys and that it would be fun. So he came down to Sing Sing in Richmond to do two tracks. It was and still is one of the most thrilling things I have been a part of, also aided by the fact that he was a lovely bloke and very generous with his time and his personality. He got comfortable, had a few cans of Guinness and started to tell us a few stories, not in an arrogant way but in a blokes sitting around a campfire way. Then to hear him play the Hammond and piano on the tracks that he did, it’s mind blowing even thinking about it really because for me, The Small Faces are one of the greatest rock bands that ever walked the planet and to be on a recording with one of them is an honour and a thrill I will take to my grave.
There are a lot of legendary musicians, who when they sit down and play their instrument, you just go … there it is … there’s that sound. I imagine that’s what it might have been like with Ian?
That’s precisely what happened and I even changed the key of the song for Ian. I said this one is in C sharp, would you prefer if it was in C, as it might be a nicer key to play the organ on and he said yeah, that would be great. So we changed it down a semi-tone and he let rip, it was wonderful.
What are some Even songs that you’re really proud of for the way they turned out?
That’s a really good question because I fluctuate. Sometimes I think we got really close and sometimes I think we really nailed things. Sometimes I listen back to mistakes or slightly out of tune things at the time that bothered me but ten years later, they don’t bother me anymore. There’s one song that I think we really nailed and that’s Electric Light off the album A Different High. I tried really hard to get every component of that song to sit as perfectly as possible at the time. Another one, which was off the album In Another Time is a song called Waiting For You, which was a song which was just on our demo pile and we ended up giving it a shot in the last session of the album and it turned out to be one of the most enduring songs I think I have recorded with the band. We don’t play it live much but Electric Light and Waiting For You. Another one I think we hit a home run with is probably a song called To The Lights, also off In Another Time. Again it was another song which had been kicking around for years as an instrumental and I finally put some words to it and put a George Harrison-like slide on top of it and it came to life. The other one is Return To Stardust off the most recent album Satin Returns. It’s the last track on the album and goes for about 9 minutes. It’s the kind of song I have been wanting to do for years and finally got the balls to do it. It has multiple harmonies, multiple guitar solos and yeah, goes for 9 minutes. I think if anyone is remotely interested in the band, that would be the song which casts the net a bit wider in terms of what people might think of the band.
There have been some legendary trios in rock music. What do you enjoy about the trio format of a band?
The trio format for me enables me as the guitar player, the freedom to go anywhere I want at any point in time. We have a lot of very concise, short pop songs in our set but in the live format we have songs that we flesh out and I like the freedom to just go anywhere we want, anywhere that Matt and Wally want to go. We can go there together and we are not locked into some kind of format with another melodic instrument that requires conscious interplay between them. That said, I love being in other groups where there is a definite interplay between the guitarist and say, the keyboard player but I do love the rawness of the trio, bands like Nirvana and You Am I, which were very influential on me as a young person in my early twenties. Seeing You Am I at The Tote in 1993 and seeing something so exciting and liberating which had so much space in it, yet it was also so dense and exciting at the same time. I like the freedom to pile on as many guitars as I like in the studio but live, also to pick and choose when I play or not play or go for an extended solo or whatever, it’s just that freedom
What is it about the rhythm section of Wally and Matthew that makes them so great to play with?
I think we … and I say we as I feel like part of the rhythm section too … there is just a .. it’s hard to explain .. it just feels right. These guys grew up in the same era as I did. Music for us is a soulful experience, it is not something that is overly regimented. So a song like Black Umbrella for example, only Matt and Wally can play that song. They are the heart and soul of that song. It just swings and Matt has feel, he’s had feel since 1985 and Wally plays by ear. We are not trained musicians as such, we learned to play by listening to bands and joining bands. Our band plays with feel. We have a certain amount of technique but it’s all about the feel. I know it sounds very cliched but that is the main ingredient.
You have announced a new single called Mark The Days. Tell me how that song came about?
I was longing for a pop song that had a big riff at the start and I hadn’t done one for a while. I thinking about what would Cheap Trick do or something off the first Kiss album. The engineer who recorded the song, Jeff Lovejoy said it reminded him of Red Kross. Power pop has become a dirty word in certain circles but I wanted something that was overtly power pop and had a bit of muscle to it but also melodically really strong from the get-go, not waiting for the pay-off of a chorus. I wanted something melodically strong from the first word to the last word and also not reliant on too many guitar overdubs, which is why during the solo there is no rhythm guitar under it .. as we would play it live. Essentially it is the sound of the band and the more time passes the more I want us to sound the way we do as the trio.
And lyrically it was a bit of a nod to Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis …
Yeah, one of my favourite songs of all time is Life Is What You Make it, a song which has resonated with me for 30 years. When he passed away, I just wanted to honour him in some way as a music fan. Phonetically the concept was to mark down the times you have which are special, mark down the days. Also I was fascinated by Mark Hollis’ journey because he essentially retired from music in the late 90s, barring a couple of co-writes or soundtrack things. I just find it fascinating that people can walk away from an artform the way he did. So it was a personal tribute to him and also to the concept of getting older and saying goodbye to your youth, which is the first line of the song… say goodbye to your youth, say hello to the truth!
Is there an Even album in the works?
There’s always an album in the works! I guess having taken 7 years to create Satin Returns, I don’t put a timeline on these things and I have no idea if and when the next Even record would be finished. I’d like to think there is an album in the works. There are songs that have been demoed at home which are crying out to be put on an Even album but naturally you need 10 or 11 of those and at the moment, there is not an album’s worth but hopefully in 12 months time there will be.
You are not a guitarist that we associate one particular guitar with. Tell me about some of the guitars you have used throughout the Even journey.
When Even started I was borrowing guitars off my mates. I borrowed my mate’s SG and I borrowed another mate’s Telecaster. I had a Rickenbacker in The Swarm and a Telecaster copy and I was searching for the ideal guitar which I kind of found in 1996, the Epiphone Casino. When I found the Casino, that became my main guitar from ’97 to about 2004, that was my absolute desert island guitar. Then I bought a Les Paul in 2004 and started using that in conjunction with the Casino but having said that, all that time I was occasionally using a Strat in Even as well. I’d probably say the Casino, the Japanese Strat and the 1982 Les Paul Deluxe were my main guitars for the Even recordings and as time passes on, the Casino for me is the most durable and versatile guitar for what we do and I think that will be my main guitar on the next tour.
And you mainly play through a Vox AC30 don’t you?
Yeah, when I was teenager in The Swarm I was using a Roland JC60 and liked that really chimey Johnny Marr clean tone. I never played a Marshall until I joined Even. I bought a Marshall in ’93 and that was for the first few years of Even and I enjoyed that but then when we started recording I had the chance to play through some AC30s. When we made Less Is More, I used two AC30s. I was told one of them might have belonged to Mark McEntee of The Divinyls at one point which was pretty exciting. Knowing that Jim and Martin from Midnight Oil had used AC30s and The Church and Beatles, I was more than happy to use an AC30. Getting back to borrowing gear, I had a mate’s gold top when we tracked Less Is More and played it through an AC30 and for me that was the magical tone. I’d say every album since Less Is More, I have tracked through an AC30, usually an older one. I take a hire one out on the road, a cheap modern one for gigs but for Even, the most synonymous tone is either an Epiphone Casino or Gibson through an AC30, with a Blues Driver pedal for the times when I need a little extra push over the cliff … as Spinal Tap would say.
Have you been a big pedal guy?
No, not really. I have been using a Blues Driver since about 1995. A mate of mine bought me an AC Plus 2 in 1 boost pedal, which is fantastic as well. If I don’t want to take the full pedal board out, it’s two boosts in one pedal, which is excellent. I just use a Boss Digital Delay but I am not a pedal junkie. Occasionally I will break out and try something different but I keep it all contained on the one board. The Blues Driver, the delay and a wah … If I’ve got those then I’m done. That said, I have chorus pedal that my brother bought me in Hong Kong in 97, I’ve also had that since then. I don’t really swap things out very often unless they break, so no in answer to your question, I am not much of a pedal guy.
You have the anniversary tour starting in a couple of weeks, has it been difficult putting together a set list?
To be honest I have only thought about the set in the last few days in my head. I think the plan is to have something off everything we have released, just to be thorough. I guess because we are celebrating the catalogue, the idea would be to give an overview and not belligerently trying to shove new music down people’s ears.
You’re also supporting The Dandy Warhols and have Immigrant Union featuring the Dandy’s Brent DeBoer supporting you. How do you know those guys?
It sounds really freaky saying it but we met them 21 years ago now. We did a show with them at the Prince of Wales in St Kilda, we opened for them and just hit it off. There’s a bit of style crossover and we became buddies and they became fond of us and took us under their wing and we did six tours with them. It was a great friendship and sometimes it is really hard to catch people when they are doing gigs and I couldn’t catch up with them the last few times. I was away or whatever and it just so happened that this time, we’re all going to be in town and it has all fallen into place, which is really cool.
Will there be an Even Christmas show this year?
Yeah there will be. We had a year off in 2014 I think it was but it is one of those things that creeps up on you. It’s a nice chance to play, nice to have this date in the calendar and it’s outside the realm of the regular touring mindset. There will be a Melbourne and Sydney one this year.
What else have you got happening?
I am very excited to be part of the upcoming Paul Kelly tour, his Making Gravy tour. It’s another exciting prospect … the shows are special playing venues like The Domain and Music Bowl. Also I am playing some shows with The Stems in October. Even are doing the Scene and Heard Festival on the Gold Coast and Newcastle as well, so I have actually got more Even shows in the next two months than we’ve had in the last 12 months. I am looking forward to getting back into it.
What are you most proud of in your music career?
Oh God, that’s a really good question. I’d probably say just having enough confidence to commit my songs to tape. Given that music is a confidence game, everything is subject to people’s taste and whims … and with Matt and Wally, just having the collective gumption to release music and play it live. There is a whole list of things I am very proud of but I guess maybe just having the opportunity to make music with Even. I like to take pride in everything I do I think. I’ve just been fortunate that I have had the chance to release music. There are so many musicians I know for whatever reason, haven’t had the pathway to put their music out, so I think I am proud of the fact we got to do that.
25 Years Anniversary Tour
Thu Sept 26
* With guests Laura Imbruglia and Rinehearts
Tickets via Moshtix
Friday Sept 27
* With guests Immigrant Union and Rinehearts
Marrickville Bowlo, NSW
Tickets via Oztix
Sat Oct 12
* With guests Immigrant Union and Rinehearts
Jive Bar, Adelaide
Tickets via Moshtix
Sat Nov 2
Scene & Heard Festival, Brisbane QLD
Tickets via Scene & Heard Festival
Sun Nov 3
The Forum, Melbourne (with The Dandy Warhols) *Sold Out*
Wed Nov 6
Enmore Theatre, Sydney (with The Dandy Warhols)
Sun Nov 10
Scene & Heard Festival, Newcastle NSW
Tickets via Scene & Heard Festival