Interview: Something For Kate’s Paul Dempsey on the band’s album return, gigs, lockdown and Donald Trump

Something for Kate

It’s been eight years since Melbourne alt-rockers Something For Kate released any new material so you’d be excused for thinking they’d split up as a band. But, this Friday their seventh album The Modern Medieval drops to much anticipation.

Frontman Paul Dempsey says: “I should point out that we have played shows in every one of those past years. We were never inactive, but obviously not having new material out, it might seem that way to people… It was just hard to find the time and the focus to actually really work on new songs.”

A lot has changed in the eight years since 2012’s Leave Your Soul to Science, with Dempsey and bassist/wife Stephanie Ashworth now having two kids; nine-year-old son Miller and five-year-old daughter Lake. Dempsey pursued his own solo career while the band enjoyed an extended twenty year anniversary tour in 2014.

Having never actually split up, they instead simply found the time to get together to work on new music, with The Modern Medieval recorded at Bernard Fanning’s Byron Bay studio. The album was actually finished a year ago but the release was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which had the group locked down in Melbourne in recent months, but finally it’s ready to hit people’s eardrums.

And there’s a lot to unpack on the album, which has an underlying theme that history isn’t always linear and there’s reason for worry which partly, as Dempsey puts it, comes because “the maintenance guy (in the USA) for the last four years has been vandalising it”.

Fresh from escaping Melbourne’s lockdown, lead Dempsey caught up with The AU Review to discuss life, the past eight years, US politics, the secret title of 2001’s Echolalia, the new album, touring and much much more.

Obviously we’re going to talk about the new album coming out this week which is pretty exciting but first of all, I should ask, given you’re in Melbourne, how’s life out of lockdown?

Better than it was during lockdown, that’s for sure! It’s good, the sun has come out as well and you can just see that everyone is just feeling very relieved and very positive. Amidst the relief there is a real mood that we did something pretty amazing together. I think everyone just kind of wants to high five each other but that’s not allowed.

You have two young kids so it must be great for you guys now that you can do a bit more?

Yeah, absolutely. Having the kids back at school means we have hours in the day to get stuff done. Because for more than six months of this year, I feel like I’ve been back in grade three as well.

I also saw on social media a fortnight ago that Something For Kate were able to have your first rehearsal for nine months. That must have been pretty cool?

It was, it was really good. No gigs on the horizon yet. But just to be in a room together and turn on the amps and play it was pretty fantastic. We’re rehearsing again tonight actually and we just can’t wait. You feel like a band again. It’s been hard for a lot of year not knowing when you might be able to get back to it. You start to lose a sense of purpose and just being able to play together, it just totally restored all of that.”

What have you been doing through the period to busy yourself? I imagine making music is reasonably accessible, but it would have its limitations?

We’re really lucky, we’ve got a room in the house full of instruments and recording gear so we can be productive. But as boring as it sounds, I really was just most of the day with our son guiding him through his home schooling. There just wasn’t time to do much else. Even then, when you did find pockets of time, it was hard to get in the right mood.

The thing I’ve enjoyed the most was recording these acoustic duets, reaching out to friends and putting together these little duets. That was something that didn’t require too much for thought, it was a lot of fun and it really just felt like you were putting a little bit of a gift out there for people.

It just felt really good for me as well, just to feel like it was a way of connecting with an audience. It’s obviously very different to being able to see a crowd of people before your eyes, but it did feel like it was that exchange of performing something and then sharing it with people.

I’ve read that you love gigging so that kind of connection, even if it’s physical or digital, it’s still something that you’d be yearning for?

Absolutely. Prior to this year, I don’t believe I’ve even gone for a month in the last twenty-five years where I haven’t played a show. It’s something that I really thrive on and no matter what we’re doing, whether we’re busy with a record or whether it’s Something For Kate or me solo, there’s, there’s always a gig coming up in the next few weeks that I can look forward to. Not having that ahead of you in the calendar and not knowing when it might come back was pretty frustrating.

Well, let’s talk about the record, obviously it’s Something For Kate’s first record in eight years. A lot has happened in the meantime with parenthood and solo work so what happened to lead to you guys making some new material and putting out a new album?

I should point out that we have played shows in every one of those past years. We were never inactive, but obviously not having new material out, it might seem that way to people. But we have actually played shows throughout the past eight years.

But yes we’ve been also busy having families and I did make my second solo record. We had a 20th anniversary tour in there, which ended up taking up like a year of our lives, with all the stuff that went along with it.

It actually feels like we’ve been hectically busy. It was just hard to find the time and the focus to actually really work on new songs, and come up with a bunch of songs that we were really excited about so that just took a little time. We don’t rush these things, because we don’t have to. We’re not a band that lives in that cycle of putting out a record every two years. That’s how things used to be, but we don’t have to do that anymore. We all kind of have other things going on.

For Something For Kate, when the time is right, and we are truly excited and enthusiastic about it, that’s when it all happens. That’s when it all sort of comes together. We make a lot of time for other things in our lives and that’s ultimately what keeps it fresh and stops it from feeling stale or old. Every time we do work on new stuff, we’re genuinely amped about it. We don’t put out anything that doesn’t kind of make the standard we set.

It’s obviously been a reasonable period of time between albums, so I would assume you’ve all evolved and grown as people. How does that affect the new music which is coming out here?

In some ways, it makes it harder. In some ways, it’s a lot easier. It’s harder in some ways, because we do have a high standard for ourselves.

We will clash more about things being as good as they should be or just if we have different opinions about whether something is worth pursuing or not. In some ways, we’ve all become a little bit more set in our ways. But, that’s also a really positive aspect, as we’ve afforded ourselves the luxury of being that way. It’s not like, “Oh we have to hurry up and get a record otherwise we can’t go and tour”. We’re not in a grind. It’s a really positive thing that we’re in the luxury of being in this position.

We’ve also just really relaxed a lot so while I might sound like I’m contradicting myself, we take the creative decisions more seriously. But at the same time, we’re somehow more relaxed about everything as well, because we don’t feel like we’re forcing anything. We’ve never been happier with the kind of space that we occupy.

When we do gigs, it’s just feels so much more natural and relaxed now. We just don’t have bad gigs. We used to have bad gigs where something wasn’t right or something wasn’t perfect, and all that has dropped away now because we just enjoy it so much that even if something’s not going perfectly it doesn’t faze us. We know that we can still enjoy it and just turn it around and enjoy the positive things and not sweat the annoying things.

I suppose beyond the collaboration together, what’s evolved in terms of the writing and the lyrics?

Yeah, I think when I was younger, everything was venting my spleen. Everything was really cathartic. I was the frustrated, impatient, young man. I was just so eager for experience and eager to get out in the world, do things and experience things. It’s almost like this unchecked energy.

As you get older and mature and you store up those experiences and you do start to have more experience behind you, then you are a lot more careful about what you decide to express and how you express it. My writing now is a lot more considered. Hopefully, it’s not just this kind of outpouring. I think I’m even more inclined these days to write characters and to use the story form, instead of everything being this autobiographical thing. There’s a lot more stories and characters. I think what I’ve discovered is that you can actually get even more across that way.

I’ve looked through the track-by-track explanations and it does vary a lot. So is there an underlying theme in the album?

I think if there is a thread that runs through it. It’s probably this sense when you’re a kid and you’re growing up, you had this unstoppable positivity that everything moves towards progress. Everything is a step in a better direction towards a brighter future. I think when you get a bit older and you start to understand politics, society and history. The way history does actually flow and that it’s not always in this upward trajectory, that there’s often big backward steps.

I think for the last few years it has often felt like the things that were the bright beacons that were pushing us all forward were not such bright beacons anymore. There’s a worry, I guess, but it’s not all bad news, because there’s also people in the songs talking about how to escape from that, and how to find the light and how to find the joy in everyday moments. But I think there’s just an awareness throughout the album and it’s reflected in the album title too.

The Modern Medieval is just the idea that history doesn’t always move towards better things and big backward steps are possible. I think we’ve seen a few of them in the last few years.

What are you alluding to?

I think Donald Trump has completely destroyed America’s reputation and credibility. They’re going to have a long time repairing that. I think his ideas and his rhetoric has spread beyond America as well. You’ve seen it in the UK with Brexit, and you see it in Australia. There’s media organizations that are really sowing fear and mistrust. The very concept of fake news, which has only come along in the last four years, it’s actually trying to undermine people’s belief in anything.

“I think social media, for all its positives, has also created a climate where people think they are their own authority and that their truth is the only truth. Now truth has splintered into a million little pieces and concepts of credibility and integrity, especially in US reporting, it’s really scary shit. The way it can sway the path of elections, look what’s happening right now. I don’t remember a time in my life where a President hasn’t conceded to the winner of an election. That’s a backward step.

I don’t want to hijack this and turn it political, but obviously you guys have lived in America as well and with the whole US election situation, this topic is very relevant.

We’ve spent a lot of time in America over the last twenty years and we lived there for a couple of years. There’s a lot to love about America. But, America is an idea and an experiment and it requires constant maintenance. The maintenance guy for the last four years has been vandalising it.

I’ll divert back to the album, but you alluded to it there with the album title. I think you changed the album title a few times, it was “Situation Room” at one point as well as the lyric ‘The Garden Of The Frozen Billionaires’ from the song “Last Resort Town” as well. How did that process go and how’d you land on The Modern Medieval?

The song “Last Resort Town”, for me, is a bit of a cornerstone on the album and almost a summary of a lot of the other ideas on the album. It features both of those things like the garden of frozen billionaires is a line out of that song and the modern medieval is a line from that song. “Last Resort Town” was also thrown up as an album title. I guess it’s just trying to strike a balance with an album title where you either don’t want to sound too foreboding or negative. But any album title you want it to pique people’s interest in a certain way. We decided that “Last Resort Town” was a little bit too apocalyptic. The garden of the frozen billionaires was possibly a little too confusing to some people.

Album titles are tricky. Our third album Echolalia, I don’t know many people know this, but if you look in a certain part of the artwork, that’s kind of hard to find, it’s also titled, Imagine My Surprise When I Woke Up And Found That My Boat Was Missing.

Where’s that come from?

Well, that was the album title. That’s what we were going for a while. A lot of that album was written on an island in Thailand, where boats were a vital form of transportation.

I was actually going allude to that Thai anecdote, because I read somewhere years ago that you wrote 2001 single “Monsters” in 20 minutes on one of these Thai islands. Is that accurate?

It is, yeah. We had been in our rehearsal room in Melbourne, like every day for about nine months. Just working away, you know, throwing ideas around it. It just wasn’t right, we weren’t feeling it. We wrote heaps of stuff, but we just didn’t think it was up to scratch. It was just getting more and more kind of demoralizing and draining. One day we the three of us, we just walked out of the rehearsal room into a Flight Centre.

At Flight Centre they have that whole big wall, which is just a world map. We just pointed at somewhere and just went, ‘let’s go there’. We ended up on an island off the coast of Thailand called Phi Phi. We spent ten days there and it was just the circuit breaker that we needed. As soon as we got there, I walked straight into the water and started floating around face down looking at tropical fish. Suddenly everything just started to come.

Any similar tales of inspiration for this record?

There were a lot of ideas floating around for this record, but they just weren’t getting pulled into shape, because we’re just so busy. We finally early last year, we just committed to two afternoons a week where we’re going to this rehearsal room. As soon as we did that, within a matter of weeks, we had just pulled it all together. It was really good.

I think we’ve got a much more focused way of working these days and that’s just because reality dictates that. We can’t, like I said, we used to have a rehearsal space permanently set up and we’d go there every day, just spend all day and into the night or whatever, just working on music. You can’t do that anymore. We’ve all got families and school hours and things like that. We’ve gotten pretty good working in really tight, focused bursts.

Like a 9-5 job?

Yeah. You’ve just got to use the time where you can. I’m lucky though, because my partner and the mother of our children happens to be my band mate as well. So she totally gets it if I have to go upstairs, into the music room, close the door and work for several hours. A lot of other partners would be like, ‘well, why do you get to do that?’ She knows that we’ve got to get the work done.

You’ve recorded the album in Byron Bay as well which sounds idyllic, like everyone’s dream is recording an album in Byron Bay. How was that experience?

I’ve got to say, it was a dream, it was just spectacular. The studio is just north of Byron. It’s a studio owned by Bernard Fanning and Nick DiDia who produced the record. They’re mates as well. It’s a gorgeous studio, but it’s also just nice to be around friends. We brought the family and it was just a beautiful atmosphere. Most recording studios are dark bunkers but this place is like a pool house with a lot of glass and you can literally see whales jumping out of the ocean, while you’re standing there recording guitar tracks. It’s really amazing.

I’ll quickly touch on a few of the singles. A personal favourite is “Come Back Before I Come Back To My Senses”. I’d love to get your take on that track lyrically?

It’s a relationship song. I was saying earlier that I get I’m often writing characters these days to describe certain feelings. I’m just fascinated that people are weird. People do weird things that are against their better interest, they can’t help it. People sometimes just can’t help doing stuff that they know isn’t good for them. That’s kind of fascinating when you really delve into that and try and create a character who’s doing that. In that song, you’ve got two people who know that they need to stay away from each other but the forces of obsession or desire or whatever, they can’t stay away from each other and they keep coming back.

What interested me mostly about it is, is that knowledge of knowing that it’s the wrong thing. Someone can have that in their head that they know that it’s the wrong thing and at the same time in their head, they’re really excited about it. At the same time in their head, they’re dreading it. How you can hold dread, desire, excitement and fear, and all of those contradictory things in your head at the same time and just be drawn inexorably towards something like a black hole. They’re the strong forces. It’s one of those kind of universal things. Everyone knows or something about that.

The other one is “Waste Our Breath”, which discusses the relationship with social media, which is everyone’s fascination these days. Tell us about that track lyrically?

Decades and decades ago George Orwell talked about Big Brother and a future with surveillance states, where everything is monitored and everything is controlled. We all fought against that happening. We all fought against the powers that be and governments being able to surveil us or or control us. We’ve all fought against that.

But then when social media came along, and it’s just so much fun, it’s just so great, it is, there’s so much that’s great about it, but the trade-off is that we just gave away everything. And now everyone is Big Brother, everyone watches everyone else and tracks everyone else and surveils each other. That’s just what we do now and all the concerns that people had decades ago, that I remember growing up with, when they tried to introduce an ID card in Australia, it was shouted down. But now it’s like we all carry a tracker around in our pockets.

The song explores the notion as well, I’m sure you remember a long time ago people saying, ‘oh there’s this bar, it’s this really cool place, no one knows about it, it’s behind a door, down a flight of stairs’ but that’s not possible anymore.

As soon as anything like that appears it’s everywhere and everyone knows about it, everyone has access to the information. The only thing you have that is truly intimate anymore is your breath. The thing like ‘let’s meet at the checkpoint’ on “Waste Our Breath”, it’s the one kind of privacy and intimacy you can actually share with another human underneath a watchtower and underneath the search light.

Nice, so finally you must be pumped about the album coming out publicly after such a long wait?

Oh for sure, I can’t quite believe it. It was finished a year ago. It was meant to come out a lot earlier than this. But obviously the pandemic threw a whole lot of things in the air.

It’s just a real relief. It’s just been a long wait. It’s a little bit more real when it actually comes out and people have heard all the songs and they can start talking to each other about it, and you start to get a sense of how it’s being received. It’s been years in the making for us so it’s very exciting.

Obviously, you can’t tour immediately to support it but with Melbourne easing some restrictions, is there any preliminary plans about gigs in Melbourne or even touring outside the state?

Yeah we do have some dates in the calendar but we just don’t see the point in announcing them if there’s any chance at all that you might have to turn around and let people down again. There’s dates locked in, but we don’t want to disappoint people by yanking them again.

So we’re hopeful, we’re really we’re really optimistic. Like I said, the mood in Melbourne is fantastic. We’ve just got to keep on top of this thing and hopefully it won’t be too long.


Something for Kate’s new album The Modern Medieval is out on Friday November 20th via EMI Australia. Pre-order the album HERE.

You can connect and keep up to date with the band via Facebook and Twitter.

Header Image: Daniel Boud. 

Ben Somerford

Aussie freelance journalist, sports, music, entertainment, top 10 lists. Take beach pics too.

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