In rounding out my series of interviews with the three artists partaking in a special triple bill for this year's Adelaide International Guitar Festival, I speak with Harry James Angus of bands including The Cat Empire and Jackson Jackson. He'll be performing alongside Tinpan Orange and Roscoe Irwin in a night of music that the Adelaide audience will not be disappointed with! Angus chats with me about the festival and his music in particular.
Thanks for chatting with me Harry, how has your afternoon been?
Oh it’s been good, it’s been quiet; if I wasn’t chatting to you, I would just be chatting to myself.
Fair enough! I guess, from me end, this interview is kind of momentous for me in a way, having interviewed both Emily and Roscoe over the past month about this International Guitar Festival show! Kind of like it’s all coming full circle!
[Laughs] Do you think I’ll have anything new to add to what they’ve already told you?
Well I don’t know; we’ll see how we go! It’s been good though, because I’ve had those interviews to draw from in getting this one together! Considering I’ve got the others opinions on this triple bill, it’s only fair to get yours as well; it’s a pretty sweet show that’s been put together for the Adelaide International Guitar Festival isn’t it?
Oh it’s fantastic. The whole Guitar Festival is really cool; I was just looking at the programme. What a stroke of genius having Punch Brothers there in particular, which is a band are just…it’s just such a great idea to have them at a guitar festival. The great thing about this is that it’s not a guitar festival! I mean, it is, but it’s not like all the other guitar festivals; you don’t have to be a 13 year old shredding in your garage to appreciate it. It is music that anyone can enjoy and it is celebrating the guitar in all its forms, instead of just it being electric guitar shredfests that you’d usually get at these types of things.
It does traverse many different genres, so there’s something there for everyone…
Definitely and another thing I love about it, and you’ll see this coming through with our show…I mean, I’m just playing by myself and I don’t claim to be one of the best guitarists in the country by a longshot, but the other two bands in Tinpan [Orange] and Ross’ [Irwin] band…some of the guitar players really are the best in this country. Instead of seeing them tapping and playing “Smoke on the Water”, we’re going to see them being musicians in an ensemble, doing what they really do best.
Do you have any idea if and how you’ll feature Emily and Ross in your set?
I probably won’t because I play in Em’s band, I play in Tinpan Orange, and I’ll also probably get up and play with Ross. My stuff, I’m kind of the opener for the show, will be a little more low-key and intimate. I’ll probably start small and work my way up to a larger combination.
What can fans be expecting from your set; mostly Little Stories material, or will you be incorporating other pieces from your various other projects?
It’s mainly song from my album Little Stories. Maybe a couple of new ones and a couple of songs that aren’t on that album; those are the songs that I like to play when I do this kind of thing. It’s a story-telling thing and I sit there and twiddle away on the guitar, you know? It’ll probably be the lowest volume thing that’s ever been at a guitar festival! I came to the guitar maybe five years ago and what it represented to me, especially after playing with bands like The Cat Empire and Jackson Jackson which are high-volume… the way I came to guitar, it was almost like a meditation or a prayer. It was a quiet instrument for me and the things that I wrote for the guitar are they’re kind of semi-classical, in a way. That’s my take on the guitar, I guess.
That’s really cool. The fans love you for your ability to mix such a wide variety of music with great moments of story-telling. As a writer, I find that when I try and put pen to paper and churn out stories, I can’t escape clichés and the usual tropes. As a song-writer, how do you manage to keep your material from veering constantly back into those well-worn themes?
Yeah, well I can only speak for myself, but with these songs… A lot of these songs are like an unfolding, musically and lyrically I guess, I think the reason they are is because when I write a song, I always start with just one idea. It might just be a line of words or a melody or a couple of chords and then it’s kind of like everything unfolds and I think it’s quite similar sometimes with writing. I’ve heard a lot of novelists talk about how they never plan their story out; all they need is one character and if they really know their character well, they know who that person is, then the story just happens because it’s just a matter of, ‘What would that character do?’ and ‘How would that character speak?’. It’s kind of like that, it’s like, once the story starts, you don’t know where it’s going to go necessarily, but once it’s finished, you look it and you think, ‘Oh this is a story!’.
That’s a cool way of looking at it. I always find it interesting, when I’m talking to different songwriters, to see where they pull their influences from, especially if they’re writing quite personal songs as well.
That’s another thing entirely; I mean, with the songs on Little Stories…not to say that I wasn’t trying to put personal experiences in it, but I was very consciously trying to approach it like a fiction writer. Writing songs about other people and other people’s stories in the way that someone like Randy Newman might do. Even Bruce Springsteen does a lot of that. They’re stories about other people, and I find that more interesting that just writing about myself! You know, of course, they’re a lot of me in there, and of course, when people write about themselves, they’re really writing about a much more exciting and glamorous version of themselves usually. The line is always blurred.
This is true. Now, when I interviewed Roscoe, he sang your praises pretty highly when we were talking about your working relationship; apart from the obvious connection between yourself and Emily [Lubitz], what is it about working with these two artists that is so great?
Well, it’s amazing that Ross and I are both at this Guitar Festival, considering that we have both been trumpet players for some time! We probably first came across each other in high school, when we were about 15 or 16, and we’ve really always been together throughout various projects. The amazing this is that it’s never been a competitive relationship between us; we’re two trumpet players of the same age who were two of the ‘exciting’ young jazz guys in Melbourne and we never competed. We always shared and we’ve just had a great run together. We’ve gone from knowing each other as trumpet players, to both having our own journeys in arranging and composing and song-writing and that stuff. I think we’ve both shown each other all the possibilities that there are outside of jazz, which is where we both started; it’s been a journey we’ve shared together the whole time.
It’s cool to see that you’ve kept such a strong bond since high school, through to being professional musicians.
Yeah it is, and having both played in The Cat Empire for such a long time has really held us together too, because we’ve travelled together so much; that’s a band that’s been going for almost 12 years now! Obviously, we’ve known what each other have been up to, because we’ve been in the same band!
True! What else have you got planned for the rest of the year, once the Adelaide International Guitar Festival passes? More writing or touring?
Not right now, it’s kind of a quiet time for me. I’m supposed to be writing new material for the next Cat Empire record and yeah, so that’s what I’m doing. It’s great, I just sit at home and play the piano and write songs! I haven’t been able to do for a long time.
Awesome! How are you finding being both a full-time dad and musician? Emily gave me a little insight into the lifestyle you all lead, but I always find it interesting to get the dad’s perspective!
[Laughs] It’s great! I can’t say that being a dad has really helped me in any way; it’s probably hindered me in that, as you can hear, it’s hard to get a quiet moment in this house! The thing that’s just been amazing is just the lifestyle we lead…because Em and I are both travelling musicians; we’re kind of like this travelling caravan! That’s the way it feels sometimes. With Em, Louis and I, because that we’re travelling and going to festivals and concerts and cities and meeting new people…Louis is definitely a baby who is not scared of strangers! He’s being constantly handed over to strangers when we walk out onstage! It’s just a great lifestyle, really, we get home and he gets really bored and emotional and as soon as we get on the road again, it’s like a great big adventure! Everyone else is working 9 to 5 and learning to be life coaches or personal trainers or stockbrokers and we feel like we’re old-fashioned hippies!
That’s so cool! It just sounds like he’s another musician in the making!
Thanks for chatting today Harry, it seems to be a pretty busy day for you!
It’s a pleasure.
We’ll catch you at the show, it sounds like it’s going to be amazing.
It’s going to be a good night; I’ve done a few shows in my time where it seems like a bunch of friends getting together and playing together, and they’ve always been great shows because the audience can feel something special. That it’s something we don’t do every day and that we’re enjoying ourselves in a different way to usual; this is going to be one of those shows.
Awesome! Best of luck with it all, I’ll see you next month!
Thanks a lot!
Harry James Angus, Roscoe Irwin and Tinpan Orange will be performing at The Space Theatre on August 10. For more information, visit www.adelaidefestivalcentre.com.au.