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CityCalmDown_June 2015_credit_McLean Stephenson_RESIZED
It seems that the time is right for Melbourne-based electronic rockers City Calm Down. Turn your radio dial to Triple J on any given afternoon and if they aren’t playing hip hop or ambient pop by hipster beardy guys, then you can bet your life they’ll be spinning a fair chunk of synth-based pop/rock. The synthesiser hasn’t been so front and centre in music since the 80s when bands such as New Order, Simple Minds, Depeche Mode and Ultravox reigned. Although City Calm Down formed way back in 2008, their 2013 highly acclaimed EP Movements and more recently released album In A Restless House, combined with celebrated live shows at The Falls and Sugar Mountain festivals, have finally drawn the kind of attention that the talented band has always deserved. Taking 3 years to work on the album, the quartet were able to sift through approximately 60 songs to drill down to the eleven quality tunes which sat perfectly together for this project. Ahead of their biggest national tour to date, Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips spoke with City Calm Down’s keyboard player Sam Mullaly about the creation of the album and the gear they used to achieve their goals.

When first time you really noticed synthesiser sounds on radio or TV?
My background is really more jazz stuff from when I was a kid. I played saxophone in a big band and still play sax, so it wasn’t until later. I know when I was in year 9 and 10, my brother would play bits and pieces. The first band that I really got into was very early Presets stuff. That was the thing that kicked it off for me. I remember doing some research into what a synthesiser was and thinking they were pretty cool and wanting one.

Many people have said that the New Order/Joy Division influences are quite obvious. Do you remember hearing that music for the first time?
That came a little bit later. I wasn’t searching for that sort of stuff beforehand. My first exposure came to it via more modern stuff like The Presets and then what followed was a bit of a dig into what influenced that modern stuff. I definitely got into New Order, Depeche Mode, Tears For Fears … not just me but quite a few people in the band.

It’s such a keyboard based sound. Are the songs generally written on keys?
The approach has changed a little bit. We try and take out a lot of the production value stuff and mainly look at the melodies and the chord structure supporting that first. We found that you can often make a song that sounds really good but it may not have the substance there to keep you listening. It also seemed to take a lot longer when we were focussing on the production side, whether that be the keys or getting the sound right. So you might invest a lot of time in that and you reach the end and find that you have a song with not much substance. The short answer is yes, we used to do that and then we have been conscious of removing ourselves from that or spending very little time on sculpting the sound. We might just start with chords on a keyboard or guitar but the nature of the instrument is superfluous it is more about just getting the chord structure fitting with the melody first. Some of the ideas will come from jams where someone will start playing chords. Other times it will start from people who have been working on individual songs and home and will send them through. On those occasions, I guess there is a bit more time spent on the sound palette of a song.

From what I have read, there wasn’t total agreement about which songs should be on the album and that producer Malcolm Beasley played a bit of a referee role. Is that a quality you deliberately seek in a producer as well as his ears.
I think so, yes. The nature of the band being four core members of City Calm Down … we tour with quite a few more musicians but the core writers are the four of us … so sometimes it makes it a bit difficult if you are split two and two on something. Malcolm’s role was important, not necessarily where we would be evenly split about a song but even just to calm someone’s nerves about it. We all do respect his ears a lot as much as we respect each other’s opinions. You don’t find in many people, that kind of camaraderie where you trust what they say and it really matters. I know for me in particular, I remember getting on the phone to him a couple of times and saying this song doesn’t feel right to me and he would say, just trust me, keep going with it, stop stressing about it. So that other set of ears was definitely something that played a role in forming the final 11 tracks which made it on there.

Looking at social media photos of the band, it would seem that most of your gear is analogue. Is that still the case?
Yes all the stuff we use live is analogue. The core synth in it is the (Roland) Juno 60, it seems to get used in the vast majority of songs. It’s funny because it is probably one of the less expensive and more common synths but it is so versatile and has such a lovely sound. I have learned over the last couple of years to be able to push it in some weird and different ways that I wasn’t able to in the start. Even with a slight modification on it, you can get such a vastly different sound. A lot of people talk about the organ at the start of the track Son. That’s not an organ, it’s the Juno 60. The vastness of sounds you can get from that machine is incredible. So that was really the core workhorse of the synth set up. Then we have a Moog Voyager that does a lot of bass and lead lines and textural bits as well, so it used a little less in a live scenario but on the record it is used a lot … pretty much in every song to do all of our textural based stuff, a lot of white noise and distorted growling sounds. A lot of the sounds get labelled as a ‘Chemical Brothers’ sound because it really does get a lot of that growly, textural filler happening. The other one we have is a Studio Electronics Code, which is a bit more of a rare one. They are made in the UK and are an absolute beast. They are more of a slot component synth, so you can put in different voices and filters. It is almost like a rack unit in one contained box. To me that one sounds very fat and warm like a CS80 kind of sound, huge chords. It has discrete analogue on each voice, so you can detune each voice until it gets that fat sound happening. That’s used for a  lot of the bigger chords. It is the main synth used on Border on Control. I managed to get this sound, almost like a Hammond Organ with a rotating Leslie speaker. The control over each individual voice is insane.

All of those 3 synths run through a Strymon El-Capistan delay pedal. We started off with one of those and found it amazing. It has its own inbuilt reverb as well, so we got another one and now we are running 3 of them. Each synth has its own Strymon pedal. Then it runs into all the di’s and gets split into our ears so everyone has all of the synths in their ears and then out to the desk.

Performing at Sugar Mountain (Courtesy band's Facebook page)
Performing at Sugar Mountain (Courtesy band’s Facebook page)

Has using all analogue gear proved problematic on tour?
Once recently we arrived in WA at a festival and they didn’t have any risers, so we were setting up in a rather quick time. The good thing about the Studio Electronics Code is because it is in a box, it’s controlled by MIDI so there is no built-in keyboard and everything is contained within two boxes which are stacked on top of each other. So set up time is really quick. Everything is already plugged in and loomed, you just plug it in at the back and off you go. But we were setting up and the Juno wasn’t working. All the ADSR controls, all the filter controls, front board panel controls were gone. We had about ten minutes to play around and try fix it, look at all the connections and figure out if there was anything that could be reconnected or soldered. We didn’t end up being able to fix it but I was able to assign the filter to the mod wheel, so I was playing one handed and using the mod wheel to control the filter. I was speaking with our synth tech and he sees many of modern synths to be just as prone to problems as the older stuff. If something goes on a Prophet 08 for example, you have to basically replace the boards. It is not very often you can just pick up one piece and replace it. Compare that with the Juno 60, they were all made with cards that you slot in. They’re quite cheap to maintain, so there is just as much chance of something going wrong with the newer synths than the old. So to go back to the whole analoque vs digital thing, it has proved in some instances to be a bit tricky. I think it really does begin to show when you get to bigger stages, which we are only just getting to do now. Chatting to bands like Rufus, they recently changed all their gear from lap top based MIDI controlled stuff as it didn’t stack up once you get to a bigger set up. They said it seemed a lot thinner. So that’s the other element that people comment on with the analogue gear, is that the sound is so big and full, which is something we try to bring to our show. So for me it is something worth doing. The other guys complain sometimes about having to lug around all this stuff. There are pluses and minuses to everything and you have to weigh up if it is worth it to you. You can probably hear me swearing and saying otherwise when we go on tour and something is completely busted but I think we’ll probably end up getting a second Juno to tour with just in case.

What’s on the gear wish list? Is it just the second Juno?
I have actually thought about this recently and I thought, holy shit, have I kind of within reason come to the end of what I need? There are always things you can add but in terms of a) having to carry more gear around and B) having to spend money, at the moment there is not too much we need. Between those 3 synths we have a lot of things covered. I would never say no to a (Yamaha) CS-80 but that is well beyond my means. I think as a band we are looking at getting more in-ear modules but I know that is not very exciting!

In A Restless HouseWhen you were coming up with keyboard sounds for the album, which may have required several synth sounds and piano sounds at the same time. Were you also conscious of how you were then going to play it live?
Yes and no because if there were certain elements which were really integral to it, then it would be given some consideration. On the other hand, I think it is nice and something I personally like to strive for more, and think I am getting slowly more backing from the other members of the band, is to have a live show which sounds different to your record. I was reading a book by David Byrne and he was saying that you will never get your live show to sound as good as it does on the record. If people want to hear that they can just listen to the record. What they are coming to see is something different, a live interpretation of what they like about those songs. I think the need to replicate exactly what is on the album is a bit defunct. If there are certain things that can’t be redone, you have to think about how am I going to do this so that it sounds better or more interesting? Plus you get sick of hearing those songs the same way. You write them, record them and play them over and over. Sometimes during a tour or on the next tour, you just begin to do some things differently and it keeps things fresh.

You have the national In A Restless House tour beginning March 31 and running through until late April … then what?
After that we have already started writing the second album. Our label is keen to capture the momentum we have got. We have also proved that we are quite slow writers and need a lot of time and have a lot of songs before we can arrive at what we consider to be a record that works as a whole. We are looking at going across to the UK and then maybe play some festivals around September but basically locking ourselves down to do a lot of writing, working towards our second album. Maybe release some singles toward the end of the year and take those around to showcase.

Check out tour dates and more at band’s website:

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