If you’ve followed Heavy Blog over the bast few years, you’ve likely noticed our affinity for Australian post-rock quartet sleepmakeswaves. We highlighted them in our Taxonomy on modern visionaries in their genre; listed their latest album Love of Cartography as our sixth favorite album of 2014; and even wrote them a Love Letter. With their latest album Made of Breath Only on the horizon, William France – one of our very own Aussies – spoke with bassist and keyboardist Alex Wilson about the upcoming record, the band’s politics and crowdfunding.
First off I just wanted to get a little bit of information about you. What inspires you to be a musician knowing that it can come with weird work hours, financial instability, being away from family for long periods of time, and what you personally get out of playing music?
Alex Wilson: It sounds like a cliché but I suppose it’s the opportunity to do meaningful work. I’m not one of the musicians who had success with his bands just coming out of school and went straight into a career playing music. I did a lot of other things before that; I spent a lot of time at university, I worked a lot of crappy jobs, I’ve been in offices, I’ve worked on construction sites. That context makes me realize that what I’m doing is where I’d ideally like to be and it’s what I’m ultimately the best at. So my decision to be stoic in the face of all the difficulties you’ve described is made easier by a deep-seated conviction that it’s the right thing for me to do. I can draw on my feeling of dissatisfaction from the times where it’s a hard day as a musician, which does happen sometimes, you can remind yourself that ultimately, every role or career in life has struggles, and these are the problems I’d rather be facing.
With you being the last remaining member of the original Sleepmakeswaves lineup, have there been a lot of those struggles that you mentioned during the ten years or so that you guys have been a band?
AW: I think as our band became more successful it required more from all of us and that was the impetus for people deciding to step off. It was never particularly based around creative differences or personal issues or anything like that, it was more that people tick off their bucket lists at different rates, and there were people that were in the band and are now no longer, who felt that their trip was completed, and with the prospect of sinking more years and hard work into doing it, made the rational decision to concentrate on other things. Goals in their life that they wanted to meet. It is slightly strange for me as the last remaining member, having done this for ten years since the band started as a tiny local act. There’s one half of me that kind of feels a little ashamed that it’s kind of like this Billy Corgan sort of role, but on the other hand, looking at our history a bit more objectively, I don’t think we’ve really had that much of a revolving door compared to other bands that have been around that long. Ultimately, it’s a natural thing that people will come and go. I think the more important thing is that we’ve stayed artistically viable and have kept a happy atmosphere to our band over the years. I think that probably means more to me than holding the one line up together despite everything that happens.
Right. More of a central ethos that everyone employs.
AW: A central ethos that everyone employs… I think there are a couple. There are a couple of core ideas. The first one comes from the fact that half of our existence as a band, the first five years, from about 2007 to 2012, we were nobodies. And that was actually fine with us; we never expected to be anybody. So I think our ethos is informed by a long stint of just literally doing it for the love of the music and the personal satisfaction that it gave us without needing to pay any regard to an industry who we didn’t think cared about us at all anyway. I think that core idea encourages a sort of humility in us, a graciousness about the situation we’re in and again, that stoicism about the tribulations of it because everything we’ve done, I suppose, we feel proud of. The other core thing is the creative side of things; we value our uniqueness in the Australian music scene as a band that does something different in that context. In that way, we’re lucky to be free of those expectations to write songs that have a chorus or conform to a particular song structure or something like that.
Or that go on Triple J.
AW: Exactly, exactly. And so I think we really value and are very protective of that creative autonomy and the right to choose to experiment and set our own parameters. I think the last thing is just the privacy of the live show. We kind of feel like the studio is great and we love making good records, we’re very proud of what we’ve done, but the bullshit will be exposed when you walk on stage, you know? And we come from backgrounds of punk and post hardcore and heavy metal, and the bands we grew up loving were bands that really delivered the goods in terms of tightness and energy on stage. I think that sense of live authenticity and being able to create a moment that’s not manufactured in the digital realm, but is something that exists in the real world. That’s tremendously important to us. We actually only really discovered that we had the capacity to do that probably about the time that we started really touring. Which is about that half-way point I mentioned earlier in the band’s evolution.
So you mentioned earlier that you guys spent a long time as a local band, and one thing that I guess I’ve come to realize, is that they spend five to ten years playing shows and paying their dues before they somehow suddenly blow up. Case in point being Ne Obliviscaris who had a lot of time playing around Australia before they became a global name, especially because of the whole Patreon situation. Do you think this is something that’s inherently different about being a musician in Australia as opposed to say, America or Europe?
AW: I’m gonna give that a cautious yes. I don’t want to generalize too much about the experience of musicians in Europe and the US, but what my observation is, is that because there’s a higher population density, it’s easier to reach that critical mass tipping point, where you’re beginning to be seen as legitimate by fans and industry representatives because of what you’ve created. I think there are richer veins of touring and band support and industry stuff that exists in those places for most styles of music. I think in Australia we have a very creative vibrant scene for heavy, progressive and experimental music, and I truly believe we can hold our own in terms of the creative output, but in terms of the structural underground creative economy side of it, it’s like night and day. I think it’s just a reality of being an Australian band that you will spend a lot of time in that place; you’ll have a long, slow lead up. The bad side of that is a lot of bands probably get disillusioned, and will pack it and say “Well fuck it… it’s just too hard.” The positive side of that is, when it’s your chance to be in the spotlight, you’re ready. You’ve been doing this for a while, you know what you’re about, you’ve played a bunch of shows, you’re not trying to pull together a live presence from something that’s not there. At least that was the experience that we had; we felt that when the good opportunities came out way, we were solid enough as a unit; it was like “Okay, let’s do this.”
Do you think that sort of opportunity comes around more than once? Did it come around more than once for you guys?
AW: I guess opportunities come in different ways. A good example is when we started early on, we released our EP back in 2007, and that actually went unexpectedly well on the internet. Through net labels and stuff like that. There’s still a big swath of fans out there that know us mainly through that stuff. The thing is, we kind of undersold and underestimated ourselves a little at the time, and we just sort of noticed it happening. We didn’t realise that at that time, we might have been able to capitalize on it more than we did, but instead we sort of just went along trembling away, playing the odd show in Brisbane or Melbourne, travelling interstate, having a good time. Just generally sort of being that local band mentality. The opportunity also arose in another way around 2012 when the first international tour offers started to come and we had our first full length which had just started to pick up momentum in the industry. At that point I think we recognised what was going on and were able to see the moment a little better. So I wouldn’t say that opportunity exists endlessly, and there’s obviously a tremendous amount of luck involved, but it’s not like you get one shot. You’ve just gotta be able to recognize what’s going on around you and be able to seize it, I suppose.
Moving towards your new album, Made of Breath Only, I understand that the concept is based around climate change. Could you tell me a little about that?
AW: Yeah, so climate change is something that bothers all of us very much. I wouldn’t say it’s the exclusive theme of the record but it’s definitely a big part of it. I think the reason that we chose to create an aesthetic around Arctic and Antarctic landscapes, and the visual side of that showing the ice breaking and falling away, is that to us, climate change is not only a tremendously important issue in of itself, but it’s also very symbolic of the kind of atmosphere we’re experiencing, particularly in our generation at the moment. It’s this real sense of precariousness to existence. A lot of the comforting narratives that existed for us growing up are being pulled away and there’s a really dark, harrowing underbelly of human nature and civilisation that’s been exposed. At the time that we were thinking about this — and we considered this kind of stuff for a long time; it was part of the reason we named an album And So We Destroyed Everything – in the writing process for Made of Breath Only, we as a band experienced several personal losses and bereavements and I think just became creatively obsessed with this idea of loss and impermanence. By referencing ‘breath’ in the title, we’re trying to draw attention to the idea that there’s an inherent fragility and temporality to human life. Our time here is finite, and that is something that we can understand both on a personal level and in a wider sense of what’s happening to the environment around us. I guess for a record that’s very technical and very heavy and very dense, in the title we’re trying to encapsulate some of the emotions that were channeled into the music and i suppose, give the audience the opportunity to see if they can relate in the same way.
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And so with the concept of a post rock band or having a ‘progressive’ ethos, to use the word again, does that then extend into your personal lives as individual members?
AW: Do you mean politically progressive?
I mean as a whole. Because writing an album about climate kind of denotes that one would be mindful of the impact on the environment as an individual and also a species and so I guess I’m curious as to whether than then extends into your personal lives in an every-day context.
AW: Yeah, look, I think that we don’t have any over-arching intention to make Sleepmakeswaves a political band but we are all as individuals, people who really value trying to be engaged with the world around us. And I think coming out of the DIY independent scene, and the kind of backgrounds we have as people, I think we have an inherent skepticism toward certain ideas that were told by certain people in power trying to sell us a certain vision of progress that involves endless growth, one that involves eroding a lot of the very real connections that exist between human beings and their environment, and replacing that with things are commodified. The balance that we’re trying to tread at the moment is to give a sense of depth in that way, without banging out listeners over the heads with our political beliefs. One of the things that I really value about our group is that people can have their own personal relationship to a song with no words. There’s no content in there dictating how they relate to it. So I think maybe what we’re trying to do here is leave a few markers that people might choose to follow, and a few pieces that they might put together in a certain way. But they could also put them together in an entirely different way, and I suppose I am quite open to that possibility as well. So while we do really value taking these actions in our personal lives, I think we’re also wary of mandating anything down to our fanbase from high, saying “You need to think like this.” If I could say one thing just personally in this interview, I would be tremendously happy if people were to make more of their decisions according to evidence that has been reviewed by professional experts in their field, rather than believing some of the comfortable narratives that appeal to their emotions, but might actually be an avenue to be exploited by the powerful in the end. That’s probably about as far as I’m willing to go [laughs].
No, no, that’s fantastic; very well articulated. Talking more about your new album — you guys have gone down the route of crowdfunding a second time, based off how successful your previous campaign was. How do you feel about the inevitable change in the music industry, where we’re seeing bands bypass labels for loans to fund albums or tours, and are relying directly on their fanbase instead?
AW: I’m very grateful in terms of our band and it’s progress, and I’m tremendously grateful for our fans having faith enough in us, that when we say “Hey give us tens of thousands of dollars in order to try to create a great product for you.” they’re like, “Oh yeah, I trust these guys. They’re good for their word and their track record is solid, so I’m on board.” I’m very grateful about that. I also think there are some opinions out there that are a bit too extreme in their anti-crowd funding perspective, viewing it as a form of begging. Ultimately that doesn’t hold up; that denies the agency of fans who contribute to campaigns and get value out of feeling invested in a process, or getting some sort of material reward for it. In a wider sense I actually think it’s really great that the industry is in this very real period of economic change that there are options open for artists who are capable of doing great work or aiming to do great work, with a bit more financial support, and they don’t have to change their process to meet commercial standards. And they don’t have to go begging to the industry instead; I think that’s all a positive. Having said that, I think we always feel a certain amount of ambivalence around crowd funding. I think in an ideal world, we would prefer not to do it, despite being tremendously grateful for the fans that have done it, and it’s always been our hope that the band will grow enough where we can just give the fans what they want without requiring this level of earlier commitment from them. I also think that even though the general crowd funding initiatives are a good thing, they’re also liable for abuse. I won’t name names, but there are several bands, quite bigger than us, that have run crowd funding campaigns in a way that looks disingenuous to me. I feel it can sometimes lead to artists having excessive expectations of what they require for their own creative process, and I think that probably accounts for some of the justifiable blowback that sometimes occurs around these things. But that’s just my personal opinion and ultimately I think it comes down to how the listener decides to spend their money and whether they think that a band is worth supporting. There’s not really much more factual information that I can add; it becomes a bit of a matter of interpretation at that point.
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Oh absolutely. So I assume that we could never see you guys heading down the Patreon route in order to fund the band’s endeavours?
AW: Yeah look, I don’t think that’s something that is on the table for us at the moment. I think it’s quite a legitimate avenue to take. For example, I love watching so many content creators on YouTube who sustain themselves by making really fascinating, high value stuff via Patreon. But ultimately, I think that we are able to take a different avenue in order to make our band financially viable. I guess on one level, It might be as simple as us not wanting the stress of having to provide continuous content to fans in order to justify their ongoing subscription. Because we’re not going to be touring all of the time, and we’re not going to be making records all of the time, and a lot of us go off and do other things in the down time between records. So for us it makes more sense to approach the fans to pre-order when we need their support, rather than requiring them to fund the day-to-day existence of the group. That’s probably the way I’d look at it.
I think that makes more sense, in honesty.
AW: Every band is different, and a lot of the choices that would motivate whether you would decide to do something like Patreon or not would come down to the expectation of the individual members as well; what they require from, and let’s be honest, the business that they are working in in order to support them. I think for us, we all have different things that we do when we’re not on the road or making a record that means that’s not a pressure point that we have to address with that method. But yeah, thanks, I think it works for us for sure.
I think as well, having multiple avenues of supporting yourself, while it can be difficult as a musician, seems like it kind of falls under the definition of what an artist does, purely in terms of creation and expression.
AW: Yeah, I think the way that I choose to view the situation that I’m in, is that it’s a very fortunate privilege to spend a significant amount of time doing music, and to be able to get some financial reward from it. But let’s be honest here right, it is only the most successful who will be able to buy themselves a house based off their record sales. For me it’s just realism that there’s gotta be other things. I think that’s just a simple fact of the matter. We’re always looking to see how far we can push Sleepmakeswaves and what we can achieve artistically, and what kinds of cool experiences that we can have by going to cool parts of the world, but at the end of the day in order to financially support every single thing we need to do in our lives, it would have to be a different band. It’s that simple, I feel. I think that’s the approach we work from, and I think it comes back to those core values or ethos you mentioned. That humility aspect; to be grateful for what works, rather than embittered by what is difficult. At the end of the day the fans don’t give a shit about how hard your life is. I’m being really honest here; they don’t. Most people will rightfully think you’re having a great time, getting to do what you want to do, and they just want you to make great music that they can enjoy. I think that’s a really healthy assumption to work from. While I think that the industry could definitely work better for artists, and value artists more, which is a whole other conversation. As a band, we’re not comfortable entering down that particular avenue of discourse which is like, woe is me, it’s so terrible to be an independent musician. I mean, it is hard, but most things that anyone does in life is pretty hard; it’s going to have challenges. So in that way, it’s just a question of “What do we do to make that labour worth it?
I couldn’t agree more! It’s been a really interesting time spent chatting with you today, thank you very much for allowing me an insight into the life of Sleepmakeswaves.
AW: No worries, man, the pleasure is all mine. Looking forward to the article.
Sleepmakeswaves’ new album Made of Breath Only will be released on March 24th via Bird’s Robe Records in Australia and Monotreme Records everywhere else. You can pre-order the album here.