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Late last year, Something For Kate frontman Paul Dempsey took a collection of new, carefully constructed songs all the way to Chicago to record his second solo album with American producer/engineer Tom Schick. As luck would have it, Schick had recently taken up a post at Wilco’s Loft studio, a band Dempsey was a major fan of. Between, Dempsey, Schick and Wilco’s considerable arsenal of musical instruments and amps, the consequence was ‘Strange Loop’, an 11 track, 48 minute long aural presentation, showcasing Dempsey’s considerable songwriting and instrumental prowess. Not only did he write every note and lyric but also played every instrument on the record. Judging by the variety of tones on the album, he may have used every one of Wilco’s guitars and amps too. Strange Loop is released today (May 13th). Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips recently spoke to Paul Dempsey about the creation of the new album.

It’s been seven years since your first solo album Everything Is True. What were the factors that made the time right to record your second album?

After the last one, I always knew that a Something For Kate album would come next and it did. We toured that for a while. Then we realised that 2014 was our 20th anniversary, so we committed to an anniversary tour marking that milestone. I always knew there would be another solo album after that but then there was a covers album and my wife and I had another a baby. Life happens and before you know it, shit … it’s seven years. I didn’t intend it to be that long but it feels like I’ve been flat out.

pdemspey2That period when you decide it’s time to make a new album … you have some ideas, maybe even some songs. Do you enjoy that blank canvas period, where anything is possible?

Yeah I do but I sort of feel like that’s always the situation. Even right now … this album is coming out this week but I’m already … there’s some part of your brain that is always collecting loose little things that might be the beginning of a new song. I always have my antennas up and scribbling down ideas, a few words here or there or recording a chord progression into my phone. I always feel like I am working on something, even if I don’t have the time to sit down and give it my full focus. I always feel like I am hunting and gathering.

Where and when are you most likely to write a song?

Good question. Honestly, anywhere at anytime. I do a lot of writing just in my head. I am a compulsive tapper. I will tap on my knees and come across a beat maybe and I’ll remember it or record it into my phone and next time I am near a guitar or keyboard, I might add to it. Other times you get whole chunks in your head and it’s just a matter of picking up an instrument and recording it.

Even though it’s not a Something For Kate album, do you still consult your partner Steph as a sounding board or is it much more of a solitary pursuit?

It’s very solitary. She doesn’t really hear much at all until things are nearly finished. Obviously if it’s for Something For Kate, the three of us are collaborating from the word go. When it is my solo stuff, I don’t want any outside influence or hear any feedback or anyone’s opinion until it’s at a very developed stage, where it feels finished and I am ready for people to hear it.

There are 11 tracks on the album. How many did you have available?

I only write what you hear on the record. I know that some bands will write 20 or 30 songs for a record and then somehow chop a bunch of them. I have always wondered how that works. How do you write songs that you don’t want to put on the record? For me, if I am working on something in its early stages and it is not exciting me, then I just don’t continue from that point. I don’t finish songs that I don’t think are worth finishing, so that when I have written 11 or 12, that is it.

pdempsey1You recorded this one at the Loft studio in Chicago, which is the band Wilco’s studio. Does the city you record in have any effect on the album at all or could it be any studio anywhere in the world and the album would be the same?

Honestly I think it could be anywhere. Although this record was different because I was working in Wilco’s studio and using their gear. Not every studio has the kind of gear that they had, so that certainly made a difference having this wonderful selection of instruments. I have recorded in a lot of studios overseas and I don’t know that the studio has that much impact. It is more just the fact that you are away from home and can immerse yourself in it and absolutely focus on the one thing, instead of thinking about your cat or having to go shopping.

How did you hook up with the producer, Tom Schick?

I was a big fan of a bunch of records that he has worked on so I liked his ears and aesthetic and the way he records and mixes. So we just got in contact with him and he was keen to work together. I thought he was based in New York because a lot of his credits are from there but he informed me that he had moved to Chicago, so that’s how we ended up in Wilco’s studio, so it was quite a coincidence but a good one.

It seems like every track has a different set of gear used on it. Was it a bit like being a kid in a candy store in that studio?

Absolutely. I did discover a few favourite things in there in regard to the drums and stuck with those but there was a hell of a lot of different guitars and amps and mics and stuff.

Did you have favourite guitars that you used on this album?

I’m a real Jazzmaster guy, so there were some really beautiful Jazzmasters and nice Telecasters. Some nice Gibsons as well. I am not usually much of a Gibson guy but Jeff Tweedy has a signature SG and that was beautiful. I played that a lot. There were some beautiful old Fender amps too, Champs, Princetons as well.

Did Tom have any recording techniques that you hadn’t used before?

The thing that surprised me was just how organic and pure everything was. We hardly used any stomp boxes or effects at all. Almost every sound is just a particular guitar plugged into a particular amp. If we wanted anything else, then we might feed the signal through a second amp or some weird little speaker. Reverbs were achieved by going out into the stairwell or double tracking a dry drum kit and a really live, slappy sounding drum kit. So the thing that surprised me was the lack of effects. For a record which sounds like it has a lot of effects on it, it was all achieved very organically. When I first walked into the control room I noticed there wasn’t a single piece of outboard effects equipment in the racks … nothing.

pdempsey3There are some great keyboard and drums sounds on the album, who played those?

I played everything. A lot of the keyboard sounds was this Mellotron sounding thing, the new digital version of a Mellotron (Mellotronics M3000). It has two separate banks so you can layer up sounds. I had a lot of fun with that.

Does using different gear help to differentiate from the Something For Kate sound? Is that a conscious thing?

It does come into my thinking when I am recording and also when I am writing. If anything feels like it sounds too much like Something For Kate, I am inclined to steer away from it. The only way you achieve new things is by by avoiding familiarity. I don’t necessarily work with this great preconceived idea of where I want to go. It is more a case of where I don’t want to go, so I blindly fumble around in the dark and avoid going anywhere I have been before and hopefully it means I end up somewhere new.

What kind of things are you able to do with a solo album that you couldn’t with Something For Kate?

Well, play all of the instruments. That’s a big part of it. With Something For Kate we collaborate a lot and Clint and Steph both have their own individual styles with their instruments, which is great and that’s what Something For Kate is. It’s a real collaborative thing where songs get pulled apart and put back together in all kinds of ways. I love that but the solo records are truly solo records because I am doing everything on them. It just gives me the opportunity to play every single beat and note exactly the way I want to do it. It is totally self-indulgent but very satisfying to write a bunch of songs and to have everything your way.

Because you used so much different gear on the album, will playing it live present any problems?

Well I call them challenges but yeah. I am lucky though, I have put together a really great band. I’ve got Pat Bourke (Dallas Crane) on bass and Shan Vanderwert (Dallas Crane) on drums and they played with me when I toured Everything Is True. Then I have Adrian Stoyles from The Gin Club playing guitars and keyboards and then on other guitars and keyboards I’ve got Olympia. She also sings the most beautiful backing vocals. So I feel like I have a pretty great band and we have managed to reproduce a lot of what is on the record but it’s all interpretive because the record was played by one guy, so all of the songs are taking on a different life.

How many guitars will you take out on tour?

Probably about 4 electrics and an acoustic. Adrian and Olympia will probably have a couple of electrics each. There are different tones that are needed for different things and we’ve got a 12 string electric and Adrian and Olympia both use that.

Strange-Loop-cover-1MBIn the digital age people download music however they like. It might be a full album, it might be a few tracks. Is the track order still important to you?

Definitely. I am still very much an album kind of person and I believe in sequencing the tracks in a certain way so it feels like a journey when you listen to it and it takes you to certain places at times. Even down to having snippets of sounds and music between tracks so it drives your attention in a certain way, so that you are ready for the next song. I think a little bit of sound deign in your album sequence can help the whole thing to sound like a story. It’s important to me. I understand that some people won’t listen to it that way but I still put it out there that way in the hope.

What’s on for the rest of year?

Lots of touring. The record is out Friday (today). Lots of promotion in the next couple of weeks then August, September, I go out on tour with the band then maybe a quick trip overseas and more gigs and festivals. I just want to get out and play these songs as much as I can.

Paul Dempsey Australian tour dates:
Saturday 6th August – Theatre Royal, Castlemaine – VIC
Friday 12th August – The Triffid, Brisbane – QLD
Friday 19th August – The Metro, Sydney – NSW
Thursday 25th August – The Gov, Adelaide – SA
Friday 26th August – Astor Theatre, Perth – WA
Friday 2nd September – The Corner, Melbourne – VIC
Thursday 8th September – Workers Club, Geelong – VIC **SOLO SHOW**
Friday 9th September – Grand Hotel, Mornington – VIC
Saturday 10th September – Meeniyan Town Hall, Meeniyan – VIC **SOLO SHOW**

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