We had a chat with Pete Bernoth, who handles the keys and trombone for The John Steel Singers, last week to suss out their spot on the upcoming Blurst of Times festival in their hometown of Brisbane as well as the making of their new album Midnight At The Plutonium and how much stamina it takes to keep up with a Cocker Spaniel and a Dachshund.
How are you preparing for the Festival? Does the band have any rituals to ensure a great show?
I think rehearsal is the only ritual we go through; we started rehearsing last week and it’s all sounding pretty good. We’ve got a bunch of pals getting up on stage with us which we’ve done in the past couple of shows – John Steel Singers is now technically a seven piece whenever we can – and then whenever else we can we get like ten people up on stage and make it as big as possible.
We thought it was hard to do it as a six piece, getting everyone organised, but getting ten people into a room is proving to be nigh near impossible. We’re working with rad musicians so whatever happens, happens. We try and be as tight as possible without losing the rougher edges we’ve always had, just because we like being free to do whatever the fuck you please out on stage.
Have you run into any trouble with these large set ups before? On stage collisions?
There was a show a few years ago where someone was on Tim’s (Morrissey) shoulders (or Tim was on someone’s shoulders) and when they came down it broke the head stock off his guitar. No collisions though, my keyboard stand tends to collapse on me and I just have to pick it up, but it has always managed to happen in songs where we’ve got jam sections that we can extend as long as we want.
If someone breaks a string, it generally happens to be in that song which is great – they can just run off stage, change the string and the rest of the band just keeps on going; when we get back, we just go to the next part. We’ve been lucky, but shit goes wrong all the time – we generally just laugh about it. Some drunks in the front row helped me fix up my keyboard stand, I think they probably enjoyed themselves – keyboard wranglers.
Who are you most looking forward to playing alongside at the festival with up and coming acts like Methyl Ethel?
I haven’t seen those guys yet! I’m going to be stoked to see them, so hopefully we aren’t clashing. Kirin J Callinan is going to be the one I’ll finish the night with and hopefully be sent into oblivion.
What’s your favourite aspect of playing a festival, especially in (it’s basically still) Summer?
We’ve done a lot, festivals are always so much fun, I think I’m over camping at festivals, but even that has made for so much fun. Get settled in for two days and you’re always underprepared and it adds an element of, not necessarily fun, but you look back on it like, ‘That was stupid shit – why did we go down to Victoria with no sleeping bags?’.
It’s great to hang with bands you haven’t seen or never met before; it’s generally a really friendly vibe and you can chill, hang out, go out into the crowd and wander around. This one’s gonna be pretty fucking cool wandering between venues, you’ll keep running into the same people. I think it will be a good thing for Brisbane; that valley crawl is really great and I think this is going to work really well, as well as getting people moving between venues it should be a lot of fun.
Are you planning on releasing or playing any of the new material from your upcoming album?
We’ve played a couple at the last few shows that we’ve done. As with everything The John Steel Singers do, the album has been delayed just because of disorganisation. I think we were expecting to have it out by now, so we started playing it late last year. We’ll see how we go, with the limited amount of rehearsal we’ve got in getting some extra tracks in there, but I think maybe we’ll just be aiming to get it all together for the album tour later in the year.
I did see your recent picture on Instagram showing the whiteboard checklist for the album production, is there someone in the band that is super organised or is it a group effort to stay on track?
That was Miro (Mackie), our producer, and Tim. We’ve always done it with every album. Well, maybe not the first, but we’ve had the checklist up for maybe eight months or something like that. It took a long time to tick all the boxes. We weren’t working on it constantly though; it was a couple weeks’ stint in the studio, then just nights and a few days, whenever people could get in and get stuff done, it’s always a long process for us to get shit that everyone’s happy with.
We got there and we’ve had it ready for a little while now so it’s just getting it together and ready for release. We’ve had the longest time to be settling into a regular life instead of touring all the time so I think after almost 10 years people have kind of dug getting into a routine, which is going to get thrown all out of fucking whack when we go on tour again, but it’s been nice we’ve had some time to just chill and be with family.
You mentioned a few years ago it could get pretty hectic managing the work / band / life balance, has that gotten any easier with practice?
It’s gotten a lot easier to balance life but then when you throw the band back in there it’s just as hard; even organising photoshoots if someone’s working it’s always fun. We’re kinda used to it now, we always assume Scott‘s (Bromiley) going to be unorganised so someone will text him – we’ve got a little routine that kinda happens that’s still ramshackle as fuck, but somehow pulls together.
You recently released “Can You Feel the Future” and “Weekend Lover” before that with both singles feeding off a much more funk and vox orientated vibe than previous hits, is this the new direction or experimentation?
It just happened; the demos of a lot of the songs from the album are from when we were finishing the last (Everything’s A Thread), which is almost three years old. What we listen to when we’re doing the album beforehand dictates where we’re going with on the next album. We were listening to a lot more groovier shit and then just jamming, not thinking about ‘This is what we’re trying to do’, but once we started jamming and coming out with this kind of stuff it was like, ‘Right, we’re going to do a more groove orientated album and get Scott playing some fucking ridiculous basslines’. That’s what we’ve ended up with.
“Can You Feel the Future” is an eight minute long track; what prompted such an epic playthrough? Was it a case of pass the parcel with each member adding a little extra each time?
It started off at 12 minutes, so we cut down a fair bit. That was in the works for a really long time; Tim recorded a loop, I can’t even remember, but we turned it into a song with the working title “Loop School”. After a while, Scott remembered it and we brought it back and worked on it. When we were on tour in the UK we had five days off, so we hired a house in the country in Wales, all idyllic and shit; we were all exhausted and we’re trying to work on music and that was the one track we actually achieved something on. The rest of it, we kind of were too tired and being in each other’s pockets too long, there were a few little arguments so we just stopped and had drinks and it was all over with. It is how every argument The John Steel Singers ever got into ends – in alcohol.
The studio you recorded in, you named your new album Midnight At The Plutonium after pulling all nighters in it?
The studio actually got named after the title track; we must have come up with it in our old rehearsal room before it was shutting down, so we sat up and did a bunch of nights just recording jams and a fair few of the new tracks on the album came from that. Just listening back to what we’d done…it was three hours, we just had the ProTools running and recorded everything and listened back, picked out bits that we liked and came up with names on the spot. Tim said “Midnight At The Planetarium” and I thought he said “Midnight At The Plutonium”, so that’s what we called the track.
We couldn’t really find a rehearsal space, not that we looked too hard, we just decided that we wanted to get our own, and we were gonna build a rehearsal room in a little warehouse. The idea snowballed until we built a functional professional studio and that’s gotten named ‘The Plutonium’ after the track.
That is a good effort, building your own studio to record your album.
I think it was money really well spent; there’s been a lot of really cool bands going through the studio, it pays for itself and we can use it whenever we want – although we kind of give preference to people who actually pay and sometimes we have to wait until we can use the thing – but it’s all worked out well. I think if we did it again, it’s probably the best decision we’ve made in our career; we had some money and thought that was a good way to spend it. No regrets.
Apparently there is some sax in the new album as well as Jeremy Neale’s guitarist Liam Campbell and even Jonathon Boulet on some percussion, is this the most people who you have collaborated with on a project or is it standard practice?
This is definitely more than what we’ve done, definitely with vocals. We got Johnny Boulet on “Weekend Lover”; I think on the radio edit that got released, it starts fading down as soon as his solo at the end comes in, which is a pity because it’s fucking excellent. Once the album drops you’ll be able to hear Johnny soloing, just doing his complete genius shit at the end of that track.
There has never been much ego in The John Steel Singers, it was just like, ‘Well, people can do shit way better than us, so we should get them in and make this track fucking wicked instead of fucking about for ages trying to learn a solo’. I could never ever hope to do something as insane as what Johnny did and I imagine he did it in just a couple takes. I think there was this [thought of], ‘This would be so sweet if Liam shredded on this shit,’ so we asked if people were keen for it and that was how it happened.
You have to tell me about Arrow, Harvey and Boots and the inspiration behind the “Weekend Lover” video clip promoting RSPCA?
We’ve done clips where we’d kind of try and act and be in it and we weren’t all that keen on trying to go through that shit again. Thinking of cheap shit, Arrow is Tim’s dog and Harvey is Luke’s dog, so one of them would have got [the] footage and slowed it down. It was like, ‘Alright, that’s a pretty good idea.’
It started off with just the dogs and then Luke and Scott built the narrative around it. It was a pain in the arse running after a dog holding a camera; Luke did most of it and he was going through a pretty bad flu at the time, just sprinting after his dog in the park. Then we went down to the beach and we’re all wearing the grey shirts and black jeans on a really hot day just sprinting in the sand, I think in every shot that we’re in it’s just me running out of stamina and pretty much slowing to a walk because they’d just bolt to the water.
It was a pain but also super great; it’s good to hang out with dogs, they’re much easier to deal with than actors, I assume, so it was pretty good. I think everyone else in the band can run, but I haven’t grown up enough and become an adult yet to care about that – one of these days I’ll start, but it hasn’t happened yet.
– – – –
THE BLURST OF TIMES FESTIVAL – April 16th
THE BRIGHTSIDE | THE ZOO | THE FOUNDRY
Tickets on sale via Oztix!