It was a cold, rainy September evening when Australian Musician’s Reza Nasseri caught up with half of The John Steel Singers (we warned him to take an umbrella – ed), who were supporting Tame Impala later that night at their sold out show at the Palace, Melbourne.
First, let’s clear this up! There is no John Steel in the John Steel Singers. I’ve read two completely different explanations in interviews as to why they chose the name and both reeked of fibbery, so I’m not inclined to ask again. I am chatting to the Brisbane band about their debut album Tangalooma, which was produced by former Go-Between and legendary Australian songwriter Robert Forster. I began by asking vocalist/guitarist Luke McDonald how far Forster’s influence extended into the recording process?
Luke McDonald (vocals, 12-string guitar): His influence extended pretty heavily, even before we began recording with him as we’re all huge fans of the Go-Betweens and we all sort of grew up on them, which is a very Brisbane thing even though I’m from the Sunshine Coast. It was the sort of music our parents used to listen to, so it influenced us before we’d even met him.
When we finally did meet him it was a ‘starstruck’ moment for us, as we were all acting out of character and embarrassing ourselves in front of him. He ended up liking one of our EPs, so when the time came to ask him to produce the album for us, he was keen to do it. During the recording he had a lot of creative input and tapped into the energy of each song and his biggest contribution was making us ‘feel’ the music. That was his whole focus. His approach was to scrap technique, as long as it feels right then it works. It was a really great influence to have on us when writing, arranging and recording a song. He was more excited about the music than everyone in the band combined and the energy he brought out was an awesome help to the album.
Can you explain your own personal live rigs to us?
Luke: I have a Cargill 12 string which is a custom made guitar, and it’s really strange in that it doesn’t sound like a normal 12 string. It very much has its own sound. When we first started the band I really liked the unique tone the 12 string brought, then I started experimenting with how to make a 12 string not sound like a 12 string. I’d come from a background of playing 6 strings in the past and now that’s all I play. It also makes breaking a string a hell of a lot less dramatic when you have eleven strings on standby (laughs).
We didn’t want that typical Rickenbacker sound either. We wanted something different so we tried to push for the weirdest sound possible. The guitar itself is a real monstrosity. I donﾕt know who made it or where it came from, but I think it’s just pieces of all these different guitars put together.
What do you plug into?
Luke: I have a Vox AC30 at home but Iﾕm borrowing an amp tonight, and pedal wise I have a custom booster pedal that’s not actually working (laughs). I use a Boss Super Overdrive for distortion, because I wanted a pedal that didn’t completely overthrow everything else. Every other distortion pedal I’ve tried just sounds like too much for a 12 string, so I’m using the super overdrive with the drive set pretty low.
Tim Morrissey (vocals, guitars, keys): I have lots of very cheap things. Actually the most expensive thing I have, which I don’t play through very often is an Orange AD-30 head, then I have two Danelectros which are actually the only guitars I have. All up I have three of them, two re-issues and one of the new Longhorns which looks like a body board when you turn it over, but right now one of them has a snapped neck and is getting repaired. Pedal wise I have this ridiculously heavy Pedal Train board that takes up most of my luggage weight when travelling, and on it I have an old 80s Digitech two second delay, which is really good for making noise. That goes through a few distortions, a Timﾕs Guitars Human Fly, an Electro Harmonix Worm, an 80ﾕs Ibanez Delay, a 909 Tubescreamer, and a Blues Driver.
Scott: And a sweet tuner pedal (laughs). I have a Yamaha PSR 290 from memory, which has about 600 orchestral voices which makes it pretty versatile in that respect (laughs).
Tim: A lot of our instruments are like ‘My First Instruments’ that your parents buy you.
Scott: It’s part of our charm.
Well all that stuff is back in right now so you can get away with it.
Scott: That’s right, like Casio keyboards and other things. But I’m pretty avid with Yamaha, though. I think it’s a Stevie Wonder thing, I dunno I just love him. Right now I just plug from the Line Out into a DI, but I wouldn’t mind getting some pedals to mess with the sound a bit more.
Tim: You have a (Boss) Metal Zone (laughs).
Scott: Yeah I have a Metal Zone back from my guitar playing days.
I think every guitarist has had one of those at one point in time!
Tim: I like the fact that one the guitarists from the band Deerhoof who have done so many albums with heaps of crazy guitar stuff only uses one of them. The guitar playing on those records is so amazing.
Scott: I’d like to start messing with some Ring Modulators but I just don’t have any money at the moment.
There are a lot of different instruments being played on Tangalooma. Do you try to incorporate a lot of those sounds into your live show, or do you simply keep the songs stripped back
Scott: Out of necessity with this tour we’ve had to strip everything back, but that doesn’t mean much considering we have two keyboards onstage, horns, guitars and everything else shared amongst six people. When we used to play shows in Brisbane we’d bring everything we owned onstage, like Glocks, Harmonicas and Tubular Bells.
Luke: We’ve sort of re-invented the songs for our live shows and that keeps things interesting for us as well as our audience.
Scott: It’s probably more beneficial for the audience, because they donﾕt have to wait while you tune up a Sitar.
Luke: Or a 62 string Autoharp (laughs).