Full Circle

December 3, 2010: This blog begins as a way to document a solo recording.

December 10, 2011: Group hug with band The Warning Birds before going on to play the main stage of our first summer music festival at ‘Life’s a Beach’.

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Matryoshka Doll

A blog within a blog.

“These are my twisted words” is a great blog kept by Melbourne writer Jack Pilven. I had a chat with Jack last week about our short history as a band, discussed tour craziness and the nightmare that recording can be, among a lot of other things. The following interview is borrowed from “These are my twisted words”. For more, please visit:


It’s been a productive year for Sam Carmody and The Warning Birds. Emerging from Perth in Western Australia, the catalyst for the indie folk five-piece was sparked when singer and songwriter Sam Carmody booked some studio time in late 2010 to record his own solo material. Armed with six songs, Carmody’s initial desire to record a minimalist acoustic collection faded when he enlisted the help of his cousin Ben Thomas along with musicians Tim Bates and siblings Carmen Pepper and Sean Pepper to create a full-bodied band dynamic, complete with strings, keys and guitar. These talented additions soon took on the moniker `the Warning Birds’ and cemented the group’s status as a band.

After spending three months in the studio together, Sam Carmody and the Warning Birds emerged with a sound reflective of their home on the central coast of Western Australia. Just have a listen to their first single `Ghost Town’ for some wistful folk pop that tugs at your heartstrings. Like some delicate shell that’s washed up on the beach, it’s fragile yet beautiful and progresses from an understated whisper to a crescendo of strings.

Don’t expect Sam Carmody and the Warning Birds to remain a well-kept secret for long. In October, they won the Western Australian Music Industry Association ‘Song of the Year Award’ for the rock category and they’re planning on releasing a much anticipated debut album next year. Still relatively in their infancy as a band, they’ve already shared stages with The Panda Band, Tim and Jean and Split Seconds.

I was fortunate enough to get in contact with Sam recently to get the lowdown on how things came about for the band and where they’re heading. Please have a read and then be sure to visit their Unearthed page so that you can stream/download a few of their songs. Enjoy.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself and how Sam Carmody and the Warning Birds formed?

In December last year, I’d set out to do a really low key recording on my own. It came at the end of what had been a pretty volatile year for me. A band that I’d been in since high school had finally unraveled – people graduating from university, getting jobs, getting serious partners – and I’d found myself alone in the boat, so to speak. Also, a relationship that I had been in for years bit the dust. It was such an upheaval. It was like the adult world had come in and just cleaned everything out. I took a break to Europe, then Sumatra, wrote a few morose songs, and when I got home I booked some studio time. I had six tunes, and as the studio dates neared, I got my cousin, Bensen Thomas, to help me flesh them out on guitars and keys. Then I came into contact with Carmen Pepper online. I remembered her from when we’d played on a bill together years before. I listened to some of her recordings and heard her voice again and knew I wanted it on the songs. In the weeks before recording, I ran into drummer Tim Bates in the drive through at McDonalds where he was working. Before I knew it, the studio was pretty full and I quickly had the sense that this was not really a solo project anymore, that a band was forming. Since then, Carmen’s brother Sean has jumped on the bass. The whole thing feels very natural, maybe because there is so much family blood in the band, or maybe it’s because of the strange pressure cooker of the studio where we got to know each other, that a kind of fusion took place. Whatever it is, we fell in together really easily and we are genuinely close friends these days.

The name, ‘The Warning Birds’, has followed me around since high school. A friend and I once used it to name the birds we’d see when we were out surfing. These small birds would circle above us and we’d say that they were trying to warn us there were sharks around. I like that idea, of these birds that scan the surface, trying to read what is below it. I’d like to think that is what we as a band are trying to do, that our music is about trying to say something that hasn’t been said, or that doesn’t get spoken of. It’s what poeticism is for me. Shining a light on parts of human experience that are hidden.

I’ve read that you’re working on the band’s debut album at the moment. Now, to be honest, I’ve only heard `Ghost Town’ and `Boy in the Sea Lanes’, so do you think these songs are a good indication of what we can expect from the finished LP?

‘Ghost Town’ was one of the first we worked on, and it is probably the song that set the course for the record. Dynamically, the song shifts between a minimalist folk tune to something a lot more dramatic and desperate. There ended up being a lot of instrumentation on this one, and by the end of the song it descends into this kind of violence of strings and trumpets. That mix of busyness and minimalism reflects the feel of the record for me: music with a multiple personality disorder.

You’ve managed to team up with Andy Lawson (The Chemist, Little Birdy) for this release. How important was it getting him on board?

Andy was a critical part of the process. In the past, I’d always just mixed with the same engineer and studio that I’d recorded a song. I’ve learned now that fresh ears are invaluable. Andy came with an uncontaminated view of everything, this clear perspective, and helped me see the music anew. He’s also just a really good bloke and a lot of fun to spend long, late hours in a studio with.

Did you always intend on including violinists and cellists on the record? How do you plan on re-creating their textures in a live setting?

At the beginning, I’d only ever imagined it all just being a voice and a guitar, so I’d say everything that came after that – the band that came together, and the other musicians that worked on the record – was all part of some kind of fluky momentum that was definitely never on paper. The more people that put their hand to the music, the better it became, and that element has stayed with the live show. We’ve got the five of us in the band, but we often have violinists Alex Vickery or Madeleine Antoine on stage and trumpet players Sky Eaton or Campbell Ellis. They are all extremely gifted and generous with their time. We’re lucky to have friends like them. 

You describe an almost love/hate relationship with the creative process in your blog, from the anxiety of expectation to materialising ideas when feeling under pressure. Is this a fair assessment of how you work?

I think every musician, or artist of any kind, would have days where they are wondering what they’re doing, and why they would submit themselves to feeling so miserable. Few things cause as much pain as wrangling with a resistant idea, something that doesn’t want to be pulled from your mind and into the real world. But then when you crack the code on a song it feels so good. I think the pay off, that personal satisfaction of getting something down on paper, of capturing what was in your mind, is almost addictive. There’s something of the junkie in that relationship, being bound to something that torments you most of the time but then every now and again makes you feel better than anything else in the world could.

How would you describe the song-writing process in the band? Do you take the reigns or is it a more collaborative effort?

The process has definitely changed. At the start it was much more me directing things. I think now I bring a song into the rehearsal room expecting, and wanting, it to undergo a great deal of change. I’m eager to see what the others will bring to it, and less and less do I feel like micromanaging the whole process. I think in that way I’ve grown up. It’s immature to think that you need complete control over things. I think part of maturing is understanding your own limitations and the value in other people, how art improves with good collaboration.

My own writing has changed a lot as well. When I write now I can hear Carmen’s voice singing verses, or I want Bensen’s guitar to do something in a bridge that I could imagine him doing. The band is formed almost like characters in my head, and when I’m sitting at home writing music, I don’t feel like I’m doing it on my own.

Who are your greatest influences musically or otherwise? 

Typical of most people, my parents’ record collection has influenced the way I think about music. Neil Young. James Taylor. Paul Kelly. Neil Finn. Those writers always got played around the house, and I think it’s made me see music as a songwriting game, where the song comes first and the sounds come second, which is of course not how it has to be, but it’s how I grew up to see it.

The first band I properly followed was Something for Kate. I’ve got every Something for Kate record, and I’ve followed Paul Dempsey’s songwriting almost religiously ever since my brother bought Elsewhere for Eight Minutes in 1997. I was in primary school and my mind was blown. It was like some kind of spaceship had landed in my house. I’d never heard something so weird and smart and beautiful before.

It looks like you spend a lot of time at the beach and at somewhat isolated hangouts. Do your surroundings have any bearing on the music you make?

 Remote landscapes have always figured in my writing, and I think that has something to do with growing up on the central coast of Western Australia. I’ve always loved the literature about those places, and it has such a brutal history that often reads like a horror film. There is something beautiful but also hellish about Western Australia. I’m drawn to that environment, but in some ways, I’m also kind of haunted by it. Truth is, I’m not much of Bear Grylls at all, and I really don’t seek out being alone in nature. I love surfing, have done it most of my life now, but I’m more scared of sharks than your average person. Years of studying books about them, googling South Australian coroner’s reports about attacks, all that kind of weirdo behaviour, has helped me develop a more neurotic relationship with the ocean than is really helpful. I think I’m drawn to those isolated, remote parts of the state because as much as I’m fascinated by them, and as much as I love them, I’m not fully comfortable in those places.

You guys won the Western Australian Music Industry Association Song of the Year award for the rock category in October. What song nabbed you this award and did you know that you were onto a winner when you wrote it?

We won the award for a song called ‘Sally’. After a few months in the studio we had finished the six tracks I’d gone in there with, and we had planned to release an EP mid-year. I was waiting for dates we had scheduled to mix with Andy, and in between the recording studio sessions and the mixing studio I wrote more music. ‘Sally’ was one of those songs that writers describe as simply ‘falling out’. It happened so easily, and I knew I was happy with it once it was down. I think that is an important thing. As a writer, you need to feel the hooks or be moved some way by whatever you are trying to do. If a song you write just passes over you, then you can’t expect it to intrigue anyone else. There is a brief time after you write a song where you get to feel the effects of it. Often you become numb to them pretty quick, and you can start to feel indifferent to a song that might actually be not so bad. The important thing is that for that brief time after you wrote it, it has to do something to you. To me, art is about making someone feel or think something. There has to be some effect, even if it is something difficult to define. For me, if a song makes you feel nothing, then it isn’t working.

A lot of touring has been on the cards for you guys. How has it all been going? Do you have any memorable stories from the road that you would like to share?

The tour shows have been great fun, but they’re good too because musically, they’re hard work. When you play out of the city, you’re given these big slots, like two hour sets, to try and fill. As a new original band that is really hard work, and you need to put a lot of effort in the rehearsal room to develop even what might be a half idea. You’re forced to finish things off because you need songs. I also think country shows are important because they’re pretty real. There is no city politeness or pretension, where people will watch obediently because they are in a way trained to do that. Outside of the city, if a song isn’t working you’ll know about it. It toughens you up.

In terms of memorable stories, one thing that pops into my mind happened last month when we played at this country pub called The Grass Valley Tavern near a town called Northam. It is a about a one and a half hour’s drive from the city. The people out there really know how to enjoy a night out, and by halfway through the set the place was full and people were going pretty silly. At Grass Valley, the stage isn’t raised at all so you’re on ground level. We were in the middle of this song when a girl did a pirouette right in front of me, lost her balance, dropped her drink and tripped backwards over the foldback, taking out my microphone stand and landing flat on her back in the middle of the stage. I caught the mic and sung the next line of the song, trying to be all cool about it. The next line was Carmen’s but it was all too much for her and she laughed through the chorus.

I’m based in Victoria. What’s the live music scene like over in Western Australia?

There is a lot of talk about how strong the Western Australian music scene is at the moment, but I honestly think I’ve never seen it so alive. There is so much talent, and every show we play here there is another band or soloist we see that blows your mind. I don’t know what is going on but it is a really strong, diverse scene. As music goers, we are pretty spoilt over here, I think.

Any plans to play East Coast shows any time soon?

We’d love to tour the East Coast. A few bands that are friends of ours have been starting to venture to Melbourne and Sydney and it looks like a lot of fun, and of course an important step. We’ll be putting out a full length record next year and I think that might be a good time to come and say hi.

Thanks for your time Sam

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Ghosts on Film

Our first ever film clip, filmed and edited by Norwegian genius Agnetha Berg

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ABC Studios, Bunbury

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Finally a shot of all of us, taken during the shoot for the ‘Ghost Town’ music video. The aim of this clip was to have us trekking around a small fishing town in Western Australia – a favourite destination of ours (as mentioned in a previous post, my family has an old, structurally-questionable caravan up there) – trying to avoid other people from getting in shot to accentuate the deserted feel of the song. We didn’t actually have to try too hard at all. There was literally no-one around. This shot was taken by photographer and videographer, Agnetha Berg, at a beach known simply as ‘Back Beach’ – away from the small harbour/lagoon, the coast bends around a peninsula, effectively placing this beach at the ‘back’ of the town. It was flawlessly beautiful. Not a hint of wind around (in a place famous for it). A gold, then later, purple, sky. And there was no-one else to see it; just kilometres of beach to ourselves. We loitered there for a while, until the sun was gone, as much to savour the moment than for anything to do with a music video.

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I like this pic of us. All those months ago, fresh out of the studio. Just like we’d washed up somewhere and we’re wondering what on earth to do next. Seems to fit where we were at the time. Symbolism of the conch shell? No idea. Feel free to offer one. Image courtesy of Markela Panegyres.

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Figures in a Landscape

Last Friday – a cold, bright afternoon – we packed two cars, mine and Sean’s, and headed a couple of hours north of the city. It was six of us in all. The band: Bensen, Carmen, Sean, Tim and myself. And there was photographer and designer, and now videographer, Agnetha Berg, or Aggie as we call her (Australian’s have a habit of butchering good, ‘foreign’ names, and the Norwegian pronunciation would have always been beyond the five of us). My family has a dilapidated old caravan on the coast in a small cray fishing town. We have been going up there for years, from when I had only just started high school. It’s not much of a holiday destination, the caravan, that is, but I quite like the town. It’s beautiful in an incredibly ugly sort of way. Flat and dry and monochrome, like the wind and sun have stripped all the height and life and colour out of everything. The town wraps around a big lagoon that is fringed by reefs, and there is an island, not much bigger than a football field, that sits off the northern point of the bay. The houses there have been put together lovelessly; anti-architectural masterpieces. And the town’s main street has half-a-dozen shops with customer service of the “your money pays for the meal, it doesn’t get you a smile” variety. But the endless sandy beach that runs south of town is home to the clearest water you’ll find anywhere. It’s simply a no bullshit kind of place. Bleak and depressing and pretty and refreshing all at once. I always knew it would end up in a video of ours one day.

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