SET MY HEART ON FIREKITES
I have no recollection of when or where I picked up The Bowery, Firekites‘ debut 10 track LP released in 2008, but it eventually became one of my favourite Australian records. Its acoustic lightness, basic construction, yet intricate simplicity meant that it was perfect for university study, long nighttime drives and ambient chill out sessions of all occasions.
I found that the Newcastle band’s uniquely unobtrusive sound could be appreciated in mindful concentration, or I could let it sink into the background and leave it to connect with my subconscious – the latter of which seemed to apply to me the most. As a result, I didn’t become obsessed with Firekites (as I’ve been known to do with some of my other favourite musicians), but I simply loved their music with a deep fondness which has lasted many years.
Six years after their first release, the band, led by frontman Tim Mcphee, have unleashed their follow up project, Closing Forever Sky. This Firekites interview is about the creation of that record, but if you listen (or read, rather) closely, you might be able to pick up that it’s really about something more.
MEETING TIM MCPHEE
We met Tim outside Cambridge Hotel in Surry Hills. He approached us with a friendly, open demeanour which translated into him being more than generous with his time and energy. He was in town for the evening with his wife Tiff, running a few errands, seeing a gig that night. For most of the afternoon, we sat discussing what was essentially the past 10 years of Tim’s life – a time which has involved creative projects in music, retail, TV, film and photography.
I got the sense that he was an incredibly creative guy, the kind that you generally enjoy being around should any of those good vibes spread like free wi-fi signals.
His visceral creativity is palpable and almost as if in a perfect example, after the interview Tim contacted me to tell me about a dream he had the following evening, in which our chat took place in a park surrounded by a shark infested lake overlooked by a murder of crows.
Maybe I’m not as imaginative, but that’s not the reading I got. I just walked away thinking that Newcastle’s nicest guy makes the nicest music.
These two records sound quite different to me, the listener. Does that ring true for you?
They kind of unfolded in a very different way, with different players involved and a completely new rhythm section. The Bowery began as a few acoustic demos that were layered upon over time…
With Closing Forever Sky we really we wanted to push the arrangements and further elaborate on the sounds. Only a few collaborators that played on The Bowery ended up in the live band because everyone just had so many projects on. So we had to pull in a few people to play the live shows and they’ve now all become a big part of the new chapter. That in itself has definitely shifted the tone colour of the record without a doubt.
Whilst there are only two albums in this six year bracket, we’ve written so many other songs.
How does that happen and why does that happen?
To summarise, it’s just life, you know. We’ve all pursued a lot of travel. Almost all of us have our own businesses and we collaborate on other musical projects. We’ve actually been working on this for such a long time.
It would have been a solid four years. Which really is unbelievable now I look back at it. The time just disappeared.
Did the sound of this new record sound like this four years ago?
We never set out to try and pursue any kind of specific sound, though from early on Closing Forever Sky had a much darker undertone. The Bowery has a really bright, shimmery, uplifting energy that I think was the direct product of the excitement and disbelief that all these songs were coming together almost effortlessly.
This record we worked a lot harder to realise the songs. Whilst nearly all of them were born from live room jams, getting them over the finish line really was a journey in itself. They’re just far more expansive tracks. Although elements were conceived live, they were very much arranged and completed in the studio.
Tell me about the artwork, which you art directed.
Over the last few years I’ve been shooting a flower series in my back garden – its almost a jungle. It was a deceased estate that had been left to run wild for years… It’s full of ancient rose bushes, camellias and hibiscus. I’ve been obsessed with these particular red roses… shooting them at night under low light. I essentially wanted to create a montage of seven images shot from the garden, over the ocean and the sky above my house.
I assume that those locations are special to you…
Absolutely, the whole record was written and recored in the house here in Merewether. I’m a massive fan of this area. You know, I think the house itself and its vicinity to the ocean ended up being a big influence on the songs themselves.
So you’re a pretty artistic guy then…
I guess. An appreciator of the arts, for sure.
Tell me about your musical journey yourself.
When I was thirteen I witnessed a Rage special that featured The Birthday Party. It scared this shit out of me. It felt like I was watching a live horror film or something… It totally freaked me out until Sonic Youth’s ‘Bull In the Heather’ video come on. I was completely mesmerised by both bands and their extremes… I had been listing to lots of The Cure at the time but these two bands seemed so much more dangerous and interesting. Around the same time brother introduced me to weed and my best mate started teaching me some basics on the bass… and so it began! We started jamming every chance we could and formed a band.
Best part of my teens was spent out in the suburbs writing songs, drinking my mother’s wine and missing a little too much school.
It was the best! The band turned into an instrumental project called The Instant, heavily influenced by Sonic Youth & Fugazi. We put out a record in 2006 on Speak & Spell, played a bunch of shows. Without a doubt the high point would be opening for Dinosaur Jr And Lou Barlow. Standing in from of J’s wall of Marshall’s was really something else!
Firekites came much later, during somewhat of a at a lull with The Instant. I had been writing a heap of ideas on the acoustic with no where to put them. I had discovered the American Analogue Set, The Album Leaf and The For Carnation. I updated my old 4 track to Pro-Tools, started demoing the acoustic tracks and Firekites began. So it’s been all about out Firekites the last while, but The Instant has recently re-formed, we’re working on a new record.
I’ve since been writing & arranging quite a lot for TV and film too which has been heaps of fun. I finished a massive project earlier this year – 140+ tracks for a new TV series called Barinia.
Firekites began with you and a fellow musician Rod Smith. Is he still involved?
No he isn’t. He was involved in the early stages of Closing Forever Sky a few years back. I guess we naturally went our separate ways during the course of the record. It has turned out to be a really positive transition for both the band and the music. Things change, people change…the music goes on.
How much a part of your life has this project been?
This became a really big chapter in my life for a few years. It was an extremely challenging record to finish and get over the line. It was a lot of work. Every step of the way there seemed to be major curve balls and hurdles to get through. There were times when I didn’t actually think we were going to finish it. But we did.
Is Firekites part of your day to day?
Most definitely, though it’s more like night to night. Abicus [Tim’s retail store] definitely takes the majority of my week to week, but that’s what puts food on the table, you know? Making records certainly does not! Ha!
I’m sure there are a lot of fans out there that wouldn’t be so happy about that.
Having said that, I’ve spent major blocks of time on both of these records and other projects. A big part of my life is music.
The life you’re living seems to take things as it comes.
For sure, I do like having a mixed bag of happenings on the plate, though I do feel like I’m spreading myself a little thin sometimes. But between the music and the store there is such good times involved. At Abicus there are so many great records to put people onto, we work with some super inspiring designers, we have great staff – that stuff is really important to me. I do love having focused blocks of time to work on music and its a real treat when these opportunities come along.
They wouldn’t happen at all without the support of my wife Tiff. She the best! Sure it would be great to have a little more time to make records, but at the end of the day, it’s Abicus that makes the records possible in the first place. It’s all good… I’ll just take it as it comes.
Your 2015 Sydney Festival show is going to be the first live show for the band since 2009…
That’s a really long time between drinks but that’s just a matter of circumstance. Sydney Festival asked us to play this one off which is an opportunity we couldn’t refuse. It’s been a catalyst for this new production space that we’ve found which is absolutely stunning. There’s a pretty big live band for this show too, there’ll be seven players on stage. It’s shaping up the be a treat!