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September 2012. By Greg Phillips

ohmercyAustralian Musician’s Greg Phillips gets an armchair view of Oh Mercy rehearsing their brand new album Deep Heat ahead of an extensive national tour beginning in late September 2012.

Word to the wise! If you’re looking to find the same Great Barrier Grief-style Alexander Gow, writer, performer of sensitive, personal, breezy pop songs on the band’s brand new record ‘Deep Heat’, forget it . Step away from the car and put your hands in the air… Alexander’s gone dancin’!   Yes indeed, with Oh Mercy’s new album, recorded in Portland, Oregon, under the production command of Burke Reid,  the band has gone retro, tapping into 70’s blaxsploitation grooves and glam rock pizzaz.

Rehearsals are in early stages, with the band merely trying to work out how to interpret the newly recorded tunes for their upcoming shows. Gow played all of the keyboard parts in the studio and today at an inner city Melbourne rehearsal room, is discussing the licks with Annabel Grigg, who’ll be playing those parts on tour. The Nord keyboard is misbehaving and they can’t quite nail the flute solo on the title track ‘Deep Heat’. “We’re just trying to get the Nord to do what the piano and lots of other keyboards did in the studio after a hell of a lot of manipulation,” explains Alexander. When Gow and producer Reid were exploring pedal sounds and distorting, fuzzing and phasing every sound that had a heartbeat, they weren’t necessarily thinking about the implications of playing these sounds live. “Some people think it’s a really important thing to only record things they are going to be able to reproduce live,” said Gow. “Albums I love, by people like Scott Walker, they weren’t thinking about how they were going to play an album in a pub when they were writing.” What Gow did know was that the album needed to be fun to play live, it needed to be groove based, with stripped back instrumentation, focussing on drums, bass and vocals …  then coloured by whatever weird and wonderful sounds they could conjure. “If we’re going to go to a pub in Wollongong and play to people after being in a car for ten hours, you’re going to want to hope that the songs are fun to play. Touring definitely has shaped the way I write. I think all of these songs will hold up, even on the brink of exhaustion and all of that kind of stuff. This album is one that we can all really enjoy playing. It was kind of exhausting emotionally with the last album because it was so honest and biographical. It’s hard to get up and sing every night, all these really earnest songs, especially when you’ve got shitty foldback and been in the van for ten hours. I think this one is going to be a bit of party.”

Deep Heat is a completely different beast to Oh Mercy’s previous recordings and that will be reflected in the shows too. Significantly, Gow will not play guitar on this tour. “There’s very little guitar on the album,” said Alexander. “So we only needed one guitar and I’ve gladly popped that down. I enjoy playing the guitar and I have my own naive style, but I don’t think it’s a big loss! It’s good because I have been able to lend Eliza and Annabel all of my guitar pedals to mess with their sounds. Eliza has never owned a guitar pedal prior to 4 weeks ago. You might have noticed here today, we’re really working on Eliza and Annabel’s sounds with the stomp boxes. It’s new territory for them and new territory for me to try to manipulate keyboard sounds and purposely we are re-amping the keyboards as opposed to putting it through the PA. Eliza has her delays and octaves and phasers and all of that kind of stuff happening. It’s a completely different soundscape to past records.” The other consequence of Gow being guitarless on stage is that he now has to give more consideration to his stagecraft. “It’s weird,” he said while contemplating the issue. “I’m hoping I’ll just figure it out, once I throw myself into the deep end. But yeah, I’m definitely thinking about that. What do you do with your hands? I don’t know! I don’t want to be the guy with the tambourine either.”

In addition to introducing a cache of new pedals to the band’s live arsenal, the other main change for Oh Mercy is the inclusion of a software package to help produce some of the album sounds. “We’re using a program called Mainstage to reproduce some of the weird percussion stuff we recorded. We have spent the last four rehearsals trying to get our heads around that program. We’ve got the laptop and the interface underneath it and it takes 4 stereo tracks, 8 in total out the back of the interface straight into the PA. We’ve never used backing tracks before. I felt it was really important to have the percussion stuff in the live shows because it adds to that sense of  joy and groove, the things that make people want to move. Otherwise we’d have to bring another four people on the road with us. I draw the line at having the guitar or anything like that through a backing track. I don’t mind when other people do it, I just wouldn’t personally. So yeah, trying to get our heads around Mainstage and there are lots of sax solos and flute solos and we’ve been trying to work out how to reproduce those.” All of the members in Oh Mercy seem to be relishing the opportunity to step outside of their comfort zones for this tour. “Eliza who has never owned a pedal has gone to using about 8 on her board now and it’s the same type of thing with Annabel,” said Gow.  “It’s not a subtle difference either. Annabel previously only used the piano sound straight into a  and then into the PA, which gives you a very crisp sound. This time we are going completely opposite in that we are running it through an amplifier and stomp boxes and stuff like that.”

While Deep Heat was always going to have an element of experimentation, Gow and Reid had some specific ideas from the outset as to how this album should sound, even down to the drum mix. “With every song, we packed down the mics after we had recorded and moved the  drums to a different part of the house and re-miked them again, so as not to have the same sound twice,” he explained. “There are certain things I dislike about the drums and we avoided those things. On the other side of the coin, Burke had a lot of fun making the drums sound they way he wanted. We were referencing a lot of that late 70s glam stuff so the snare is more of a thud and it’s not a big aggressive stadium kind of rock and roll sound. It’s more of a tight, punchy, 70s disco inspired sound. There are no cymbals on the record because I hate cymbals  and so does Rohan, the band’s drummer. There’s a hi hat and that’s a wonderful instrument but I can’t stand hearing rides and crashes and stuff.”

Hearing the band run through the title track ‘Deep Heat’, it’s obvious Oh Mercy’s shows are going to be a joyous groovefest. While most of the tracks on the album will get a run, many of the older tunes will also get a new sonic paint job. “Step one is just employing the attitude of the album to the older songs, which is no rhythm guitar or piano playing, which only leaves the groove makers, the bass and the drums. We’ll dumb it right down to bass and drums, then we’ll see what we can set up with bass and keyboards through the guitar pedals and see how interesting we can make it,” Gow said of the plan. Cliff, fill-in guitarist for Simon Okely, who is on a six month sabbatical is giving the new tracks a more voluminous shape in rehearsals  too. In the studio Alexander played all of the guitars but wants a different sonic result for the tour . “Guitar tones are probably a different thing altogether from the recording to live. I am all for di-ing guitars in the studio and making it the thinnest, weirdest sound you can get. We used the Roland Jazz Chorus a lot on the record but sometimes they don’t cut it live so you have to reinterpret your sounds a bit for the stage.”

Oh Mercy’s Deep Heat tour pedal collection

elizabassEliza (bass):
Line 6 Echo Park
Ibanez Phaser
Boss CE-2 Chorus
Boss ODB-3 Bass Overdrive
Electro Harmonix Octave Multiplexer
Boss TU-2 Tuner


cliffguitarCliff (guitar):
Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler
T-Rex Squeezer
Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer
Ibanez FC10 Fat Cat Distortion
Seymour Duncan Pickup Booster
Ross Phaser
Boss CE-2 Chorus
Morley Wah
Boss TU-2 Tuner

annabelkeysAnnabel (Keys):
Line 6 Echo Park
Electro Harmonix EH4800 Small Stone Phase Shifter
Boss TR-2 Tremolo
Boss BD-2 Blues Driver

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