Tangled Thoughts of Leaving is one of the most interesting post metal bands out there. From the far reaches of Perth in Australia’s wild west, their heavily improvised and experimental sound draws from sounds as diverse as jazz, drone, prog and much more. A very difficult band to categorise, their sound has evolved over time, each release clearly distinct from another all whilst retaining the intrinsic characteristics which mark TToL as who they are. Today we’re lucky enough to bring you an interview with their resident piano/synth maestro, Ron Pollard. Ron and I discuss 2015’s mammoth release Yield to Despair, which direction the band is moving towards next, what their songwriting process is like, whom their dream collaborators would be and, you guessed it, a bit about the Australian scene as well. Enjoy!
Thanks so much for taking the time to join us today. Let’s start off with 2015’s Yield to Despair. It took me a long time to appreciate that album, but it has really grown on me over time and now I love it. It had been four years since your previous LP, so were you nervous about how it would be received after such a long wait? And once it did come out, were you happy with the reception?
Yield to Despair definitely saw us veer into a darker and more restrained sound. When we released the Downbeat EP/Single, the reaction was a lot more split than we considered it might be. Looking back, it’s pretty obvious how that might have alienated some people. At the time I remember feeling quite vulnerable about releasing something that showed such obvious discontent for our lives and the world. Over time the album has found its place, and has given us more power as a live band especially. For us, it’s simple: experimental bands should experiment and we didn’t want to repeat ourselves.
That makes complete sense and, speaking of experimentation, I feel like over time your sound has gradually become harsher. You’ve still retained significant portions of melody, but I feel like that aspect of your sound has made way for more drone and noise elements. Is that just a product of what you’re feeling at the time, and what comes out when you’re jamming, or is it more of a conscious process?
Our interest in noise music has grown dramatically over the years. The freedom to compose without notes or without melody, using anti-riffs and purposely suffocating phrases… it’s exciting to open that door. We became pretty obsessed with it for a while, but now it’s just another string to our bow, along with our interests in weird jazz, film scores, wild prog and drone.
As you yourself say, you cover a really wide range of sonic territory, so do you often clash internally in terms of what sound you should be going for, or is that a pretty easy, harmonious process?
Once a new progression or movement is brought in, we discuss the overall intent and then get to improvising with it, recording it and picking parts that we all find interesting.
I have to ask. What in the world does “The Albanian Sleepover” refer to, and why does it sound like the least fun experience ever?
Hah! It’s supposed to sound like a hellish time, but that’s about all I can divulge about that little secret.
Haha, fair enough. You all seem to be in a unique place musically where you’re most likely to be placed into the broad label of “post-metal” because you play heavy instrumental music, but you don’t really sound like any other post-metal group out there due to the other influences you bring in. How do you see yourselves fitting into heavy or any other kind of music as a whole?
We don’t really fit in anywhere and we don’t really bother trying. I guess I think of us as a Heavy Experimental band. We don’t even mean to be a heavy band, it’s just what happens when we get together. As a live band there is no better feeling than losing your fucking mind on stage, and intense music is the best way there.
Yeah it’s pretty hard to argue with that, and the crowd feed off of that kind of energy too, it just helps make the whole experience better for all parties concerned.
Improvisation seems to play a large part in your music, even as you’ve moved away from the more obvious jazziness of your early work. How have you managed to carry that improvisational mentality through all of your releases?
Improvising is important to us, especially as an instrumental band. We discuss our themes and try to funnel that into the writing to get a more direct and raw connection with that feeling. I think we’ll keep adding more and more improv to our live shows just to make sure every show is unique. Our upcoming LP features full cuts of first take improv alongside highly structured and technical movements.
That sounds exciting, so where do you envisage going with your next album and what sort of time frame could we be looking at?
We’ll definitely be releasing a new album this year! We’re about halfway through recording it and it has been a really enjoyable album to make. I think of this album as less conceptual than previous efforts, and more directly inspired by our experiences touring. It features more fast prog which changes things up from YTD. The people I’ve shown the finished parts to tell me it’s our heaviest yet, but they haven’t heard some of woodsy math jazz we’ve got on the way to even things out. Since Paul (Briggs) joined us on guitar last year we’ve been able to write and record a lot more. The whole thing is tracked live this time around, instead of just some passages like on our earlier stuff.
Awesome, that’s great news man I can’t wait to hear it! I take it most of you have full-time jobs – after all, we know that playing this kind of music doesn’t make many people rich. So given you each have your own lives, from the band perspective what do you define as success, and what are your goals moving forward?
Success to us is making records that break a bit of ground, and we’re more compelled to pursue that than we’ve ever been. It takes a while for the skills and execution to catch up to big ideas, and there are stylistic transitions taking place all over all our albums/EPs. From here on we just want to keep on improving, tour as much as we can and keep chasing down ‘that’ album.
Sounds good. Your two full-lengths are comfortably over an hour long. You also have a few EPs, one of which being over 40 minutes in length, which is longer than some LPs out there. What is it that differentiates an EP from an LP in your mind? Also, do you know ahead of time whether what you’re working on will be on an EP or an LP, and is there a significant difference in the writing process depending on which one it is?
Nearly all of our EP’s are quite conceptual or an experiment in one direction for the sake of making things. The Failed by Man and Machine EP has a lot of shorter cuts, and we were obsessed with prepared piano and prepared drums. The Downbeat EP is massive, and if I could go back I’d just put “Demise” on the album as it’s one of my favourite tracks of ours. We’ve only played “Demise” once too, upon request from We Lost the Sea when we played together in Perth last year. Making an album is different. We don’t always think in terms of songs, more like a giant 60-minute composition, and the track splits often get decided later. Using that method forces us to consider the transition of energy between movements and puts a lot of pressure on each part to not let down its predecessor.
Wow, that’s really interesting. It’s definitely an ambitious approach that you have to full-lengths, but I really feel that it pays dividends. How has the ability to frequently release music over the internet, as opposed to the traditional album cycle, influenced your writing process and the way that you operate as a band?
It hasn’t much, at least not yet. We’re still wary of when the vinyl will be flipped over with such long tracks. As for digital, I think we’ll release more improvised stuff in the future and be a bit more prolific on that front. We record a lot more than we used to, so there’s a bit of stockpile forming.
Many moons ago you released a split with the awesome sleepmakeswaves. Would you be open to collaborating with artists again in the future, either in terms of a split or guest spots? If so, what are some artists you would like to work with? On top of that, if a magic genie could let you collaborate with any artist on earth, regardless of whether they’re living or not, who would it be?
We’d definitely be open to collaborating with other artists on splits and joint tracks. The SMW/TToL split was a lot of fun and it’s cool to see that both bands have survived and blossomed in different directions. I think a dream collaboration would be getting some Nick Cave & Warren Ellis action over our noisier stuff especially. A bit of filthy violin and depressive vocal would go great. Other than that, we’d love to do another split with SMW, or perhaps eventually a split with one of the bands that inspired us to grow. Bands/artists like Cult of Luna, Russian Circles, Jaga Jazzist, Ben Frost, Tim Hecker, Sumac, 65dos, Dirty Three, The Drones, The Necks! That’s a ridiculous list though…dreams. If a magic genie could hook up a timeless session I’d probably add Alice Coltrane on Harp/Piano and Mark Guiliana on second drums and then just make an album in a weekend.
Haha that’s quite a list, some fantastic names there. Let’s hope you can make one or two of those work, the world would be a better place for it.
So now I’d like to take a closer look at Australia. The last 15 years or so I feel like Australia’s reputation within the metal community has soared, and we keep seeming to get more and more amazing bands coming out of here. Why do you think that is?
It feels quite exponential. The scene is working as it’s supposed to with the older bands inspiring the newer bands, and every time another band reaches acclaim or tours overseas, younger bands know they can achieve it also. I feel like Australian artists are quite competitive. It’s easy to be disregarded being so far away, so you better stand out. The rise of promoters such as Life is Noise and the Birds Robe Collective has seen way more heavy and experimental bands touring from USA/Europe. It only takes being crushed once by a really good touring band to send local bands back to the drawing board for new material. The exposure is priceless, and I can certainly say that’s true for us.
That makes perfect sense. It’s tough to survive as a touring band from Australia given its small population and geographical isolation from major markets. You guys know that better than most, as Perth is so isolated even from the rest of Australia. Everyone’s got it tough compared to bands in the US/Europe, but how much tougher do you think it is for bands who aren’t from the east coast of Australia?
It’s hilariously unfair how hard it is to tour with Perth as your base. We’re separated from the East Coast by a seemingly endless desert. There aren’t places to play on the way, and if you’re an experimental band there is no love from regional towns. Still though, we’ve toured east 8 times now and it’s getting easier. That competitive, chip on your shoulder ‘Australian Artist’ attitude I alluded to earlier, is even thicker in Perth. The music scene here swings well above its weight, as if in resistance to all the obvious things that hold us back. To the average West Australian, artists aren’t held in particularly high regard. Regardless, the music scene continues to flourish here and more and more bands are becoming stranger.
The general trend seems to be that the internet makes it easier for bands to enter the game, but with more competition and less money to go around it’s harder to survive. So there are pros and cons. What role do you think the internet has had specifically in relation to Australian bands, and do you think it’s much different to what has been observed elsewhere?
I don’t think we could have achieved even half of what we have without the internet. We rely on word of mouth, and the fact that interesting music will find an audience if it’s worthwhile. We haven’t toured the US yet, but we often sell records there just because of people reading and listening on blogs/zines. There’s no way we would have been able to play Dunk! festival in Belgium without a growing audience in Europe thanks to cool people spreading the good word online. The less accessible your band is, the more you need to use the net to find your audience and let them find you. For Australian bands, it’s essential.
So I did some research of Australian bands, where in the country they come from, and the style of music that they play, and I got some interesting results. I found that, generally speaking, Perth & Brisbane had a much higher proportion of alternative/progressive rock bands compared to other parts of Australia, like Karnivool, COG and the like. However, there also looks to be a relatively strong post-rock scene thanks to bands like yourselves and hazards of swimming naked to name a couple. Having toured around Australia fairly often, can you pinpoint something specific or unique about Perth that makes it so conducive to producing the style of music that you play?
There aren’t many post rock bands in Perth. In fact I’m not even sure who would hold the mantle if we ceased. When we play in Perth it’s mostly mixed bills of heavy and experimental bands. Only fairly recently have I observed the emergence of new post rock bands in town. There are heaps in Sydney (SMW, We Lost the Sea, Meniscus, Solkyri) and Melbourne (Fourteen Nights at Sea, Bear the Mammoth etc). So I don’t feel Perth is especially conducive to what we do, but rather the isolation of us, coupled with a lack of formal music education meant we had no concept of ‘wrong’ in music. Growing up, we all looked up to Karnivool and we’re lucky to count a few of the guys as friends these days. They blazed a trail for Perth heavy music, and although we sound nothing like them, we’re very grateful and have much respect for them.
This is a tough one, but is there a characteristic about the music coming from Australia that really stands out to you? For example, a lot of people familiar with melodic death metal might hear a song and go ‘this sounds like it’s from Gothenburg’. So is there a certain sound that you hear and think to yourself, this sounds like it’s Aussie?
There’s no doubt there’s an Aussie modern heavy prog sound, forged by ‘Vool, COG and a few bands have continued that on. More recently, Perth has been known for putting out a lot of Psych rock and it infiltrates all of our indie and doom here. I personally wish people would abandon what they’ve observed to work for others, and instead focus on exactly what their unique artistic vision is. To me, when I think of the sound of Australian art, I look to our luminaries like The Necks and Dirty Three and consider the binds that tie them together. It’s less a tangible musical observation and more about noticing the wooden, broken and burnt tones and expressions of desolation. There’s also a wild and dirty edge to the way those bands experiment, which is massively inspirational and exciting.
Did you want to highlight a couple of Aussie acts that perhaps don’t get the attention they deserve?
Would love to! If you like tight mathy post rock, check out the most recent album from Race to Your Face. If you want ambient noise check out Tilman Robinson. From Perth check out Mt. Mountain, Skullcave and Orphans.
Awesome, looks like I have some listening to do. Thanks again for taking the time to chat with us today Ron, we really appreciate it and wish you the best for all your upcoming endeavours. Before you go, we saved the most important question for last. How do you like your eggs?
This question is hilarious because I’m allergic to eggs. It took me weeks to stop being offended and answer these questions! In all seriousness though, thanks for having me!