There are a plethora of bands in Melbourne all attempting to carve a career for themselves in our effervescent and often unrelenting arts scene. Very occasionally an artist will come along and knock you flat with the incredible beauty and subtle genius of their sound. Local bands The Twoks and Elephant Eyes are two of these groups whose love of jazz improv and pop melodies never cease to amaze and inspire.
Their music defies standard pop production and is difficult to classify, however their penchance for experimentation and sweet, laid back rhythms makes for an engaging listening experience both live and with their recorded work. The AUreview had the pleasure of sitting down with Xani Colac (vox, electric violin) and Mark Leahy (vox, drums) of The Twoks and Kate McMahon (vox) of Elephant Eyes to find out what it’s all about. Read the ensuing chaos below:
AU: How did your bands meet?
KM: I have a bad habit of writing ballsy emails to bands. Our band Elephant Eyes is really new and all of my old bands and music has been in folk and I’ve started this new band that is not folk, it’s more indie rock stuff and all of a sudden I realised that I didn’t have any contacts in the right genre and I was all oh crap who are we going to play with? One of my favourite Melbourne music people is Ainslie Wills and we’ve been working on a few things and she introduced me to The Twoks music and I liked it so I sent them an email saying – ‘hey we’re a band, wanna play?’
XC: And you didn’t just leave it at one ballsy email either you followed it up which was great. I kind of thought – okay they’re just putting it out there, but then it was like – oh no you’re genuine.
KM: Yeah that’s right cos then I saw you were having your EP launch and you didn’t have any supports listed and I was like ‘hello – that so should be us’ and then it turns out that we have mutual friends that are awesome Melbourne muso’s and we bonded over that.
XC: Yeah the Melbourne scene – everyone knows everyone
AU: So Kate, when you say your band’s new – how new is new?
KM: This is our 5th ever gig and our 4th gig in Melbourne. The idea behind Elephant Eyes has been around for a long time and we rehearsed really solidly for 4-5 months before we launched it. Everything had to be perfect before we launched it. Even though we’re new we’re still a tight act. We all studied music, we’re in 2nd year uni at the moment, so we’re all pretty perfectionist when it comes to honing our sound.
AU: How would you describe your sound?
XC: We describe it as art pop. It’s different and everyone says oh your music is different, it’s unique but it has that thing where you can’t really say what genre it’s in and that’s something that people find to be really difficult, they ask what style is this, what do I call it? It perplexes them. We go with art pop. Mark plays drums and I do violin and send it through loop pedals and do solo things in the middle of it which isn’t really a traditional pop song.
KM: It gets quite tribal in places
XC: Yeah I love industrial kind of dance rhythms and tribally beats. I always say to Mark what if you play the toms in this bit, cos I love anything that gets your body moving. But then I love writing lyrics and heartfelt lyrics about where I am in my life and that kind of thing to.
AU: Have you been classically trained Xani?
XC: Yes. I started when I was 7 and was learning by ear and learnt the classical stuff and when I was in primary school I did a bit of Irish stuff and then it was back to classical and in year 9 I got really into jazz and improvisation. Then I went on to study at VCA with a lot more jazz and improvisation for 4 years and then I did my masters and started concentrating on my music. All of my influences started coming together – the classical, the Irish, Argentinian and everything else. So it’s been 17 years of violin. I may pick up a new instrument now and give that a whirl for 17 years.
AU: Do you rehearse much? There does seem to be a big element of improv in your sound…
XC: Well the way we do this is that we rehearse the songs up to a certain point but we don’t like playing songs the same every time. We let things happen the way they happen.
ML: Yeah we don’t like being to set down to how the songs are. I like to be a little bit frightened onstage and not know exactly what’s going to happen. That’s why I don’t rehearse very hard (laughs).
XC: We rehearse probably once a week but just the main structure of the songs. We do a bit of improv in rehearsal but it’s not the same, it doesn’t have that magic, it feels a bit weird
ML: and if it does have the magic than it’s a bit wasted when there’s no one there. You can’t really tell each other how awesome that improv jam just was (laughs).
XC: Well you can and be all we really should’ve recorded that. (laughs) I write a lot of it, Mark writes to, and I’ll take what I’ve done to him and we go from there. Even with the songs we’ve already rehearsed and recorded when we get together we go let’s try this one a little bit different and then we throw it all up in the air and it becomes a different song and it’s never the same live.
ML: Which makes it funny for people who buy the records after the show as they don’t recognise the live versions compared to the studio work.
XC: Some people like that having the live show different to the recordings, others don’t they want the recording to emulate the live show, it’s a balance but we like to be different. I’m often disappointed when I see a band if they just play the music just how it’s been recorded.
AU: How long have The Twoks been playing together?
XC When was it – I think June 2009? The Twoks have been going for quite a few years in lots of different guises. It started as drums and violin instrumental music and then we got another drummer and became a trio with bass and then it went back to drums and violin and then Mark and I were playing with another bass player and he kept going to Germany and then we were like – that’s it we don’t want a bass player who’s only there sometimes so we’re a duo now and have only really been doing this since the start of this year and that’s when we really felt that we’d found our sound. It’s been hard to go – this is what we are, but now we’re confident that this is what it is and we can tell everyone that this is our sound.
AU: That can be my goal for this week – making up a sub category genre of indie to define your sound
XC: That’d be great. We’d love one.
KM: Can you do that for us to?
AU: I only get one genius moment a week but I’ll see what I can do. Something along the lines of experimental post-jazz-gaze-pop sounds appropriate.
AU: So Elephant Eyes – how do you define your sound?
KM: Well we like to use this little catch phrase that we’re Joan As Police Woman mixed with Radio Head. I guess they’re just the two biggest influences for us. I’m pretty Joan obsessed. She is like the end of the female singer/songwriters for me. She epitomises all of us, although maybe Fiona Apple is kind of up there as well. Joan I think is kind of gutsier and that’s what I really like and is what I wanted to bring to this music. I’m sick of all of this sweet little girl pop. I was in that scene and I’ve just had enough, it was time to grow up and say NO I’m a strong woman, not a la-la-la cute little thing and it’s not representative of the way a lot of the women I know are, we are so much ballsier than that. In terms of genre and stuff though there’s just so many clashes. It’s indie-ish but we’re not as straight edge. We’ve all studied jazz and have those influences. We like our different time signatures and throwing a bit of soul in there as well. Me and Stu are both from folk backgrounds and Sonny and Hugh both play in funk bands. It’s a bit of a mish mash really and all of songs are a mix of genre’s too. They go through a bit of weirdness. We don’t have guitar either so people get a bit weirded out.
AU: Do you have recorded CD’s?
KM: No. We’re looking into recording a single at the moment and thinking about where we’d like to get that done. Because we’re such a new band I want to wait a little bit longer before releasing an EP to be absolutely certain that these are the songs I want to record for it. As time goes on you tend to discard some of the earlier work and I want to have a bit of time before recording an EP. It’s been a slow burn with this band in a way. I decided 2 years ago that there would be no more solo act and I needed to figure out exactly where I wanted to go so I studied and took a full year of listening to all the different influences at school – jazz, rock, pop – so I could finally go this is the sound, this is the sound I want. And then time was spent building up the band. I wasn’t in a hurry to gig either. I wanted to get the sound right first so we’re not in a hurry to record an EP, we want to make sure everything is perfect before going ahead in the studio. I don’t want to put anything out there that I would want to take back later.
ML: Sometimes it can be nice though to see the progression though. The journey of how far you’ve come.
AU: The Twoks are getting ready to launch your 240 Volts EP soon, with Elephant Eyes supporting, are you all looking forward to the gig?
KM: Yeah it’s gonna be awesome. We’re driven to make it as good as it can be and work to make it successful and not just be all – everyone will turn up and we’ll play – we want it to be special and an amazing experience.
XC: It’s going to be special for us. Just from going through that journey of finding our sound and now we have an EP ready to go that is our sound. The thing is every time I’ve recorded with the band and I get the disc and it’s ready to go the band members go away and then I’m left with this disc that isn’t representative of what we sound like anymore. But hopefully this time we’ll have a disc that is representative of who we are at this moment.
AU: Who are your personal influences?
XC: Well I love heaps of stuff. In terms of influences I adore Bjork and Sigur Ros, Camille and Imogen Heap. Imogen Heap is a big one. In terms of Imogen I like her albums but her live shows are something else. Her live show is brilliant I love it and Camille as well, I love her live and I love her albums. I love jazzier things too. I pretty much like everything except heavy metal and hip hop.
KM: I don’t like heavy metal and my new housemate plays heavy metal 24/7
AU: I’ve never understood it as a genre
XC: I’ve been to a few heavy metal shows. I did a few gigs with Mammal and I appreciate and like heavy metal music as a lot of things can be quite intricate and amazing but as soon as they start screaming it’s gone. I’ve talked to people who really love it and what they adore about metal is how much emotion and frustration and aggression is expressed in such a primitive way. For me I don’t get it, but I can see why other’s do.
KM: You mentioned hip hop, I don’t mind Aussie hip hop. We just wrote a new song that’s a trip-hop song, which I really like. I love trip-hop, which is related to hip hop. There are just elements in it that I really like. I guess some of the issues they talk about can be sexist and overtly sexual and aggressive which I don’t like as much, I think that’s what turns me off it. It’s exciting that it’s a new genre though. It’s cool that we can watch Aussie hip hop develop. God knows what it’ll turn into.
ML: I love it. I love hip hop music. I’ve kind of gone through phases with it but I really like the beats, the percussion is amazing, but that’s a drummer thing. I really like the lyrics too.
XC: Yeah Mark’s amazing. He knows the lyrics to so many songs. He’ll be watching a band go wow did you hear that lyric and I’ll have no idea what he’s talking about.
KM: I only ever seem to hear lyrics the second time around. I pay attention to the melody and the lyrics come later.
ML: Well for me it’s because I’m not quite that clever musically. It’s because I’m a drummer. (laughs)
AU: Which is a good way to sell yourself.
ML: Well you know light and shade – I’m very shady, I dumb it down for people. But seriously Xani’s influences are quite feminine and she introduced me to a lot of those artists she mentioned and I’ve grown to love them a lot. I relate to some of the classic songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. I went through a phase with The National, I really like them. I’ve grown up listening to a lot of male musician’s, but before I worked with Xani I was never around those artists. Kate mentioned Joan before and I’ve never really listened to her at all.
KM: Give her a go. To start off with you should listen to her earlier stuff – the Real Life album is a good place to start. It’s pretty accessible. You should start with the earlier stuff so you can see the transition. A lot of the newer stuff is kind of cheesy in a way, but it’s dark mixed with cheesy so it’s uplifting – like I’ve lived through some heavy stuff but I’m not going to let it make me a different song writer and be all Elliot Smith about it. I love him but I cannot listen to him in winter it makes me to depressed. I love his chord progressions though. His double tracking was also nice.
AU: What have your live experiences been like?
XC: We’ve played some interesting gigs. We’ve been in lots of normal venues – pubs and clubs but we did this one show at a fetish club and it was so much fun. We want another gig at the festish club
ML: It was fun because it was an environment where if you are a grown man out and about wearing a nappy than you aren’t going to have any inhibitions if you like the music you won’t be afraid to scream or clap or dance. People were so free there. I really enjoyed it.
XC: It was a really fun vibe. We ended up staying around afterwards and dancing for awhile.
KM: How did you get that gig?
XC: Someone who booked events at the fetish club was at another gig and saw us and liked it
ML: I went to the sound check and I’d brought all our stuff and all the windows were blacked out and boarded up
XC: We didn’t know it was a fetish club beforehand
ML: Yeah after around 10 minutes or so I kind of realised that it wasn’t going to be an average night. They made Xani read out a funny script about being tantalising before the show
XC: Yeah I had to read out from a little piece of paper and the last line was prepare to be tantalised
KM: That may have been some one’s individual fetish – they wanted to be tantalised by a red haired violinist.
XC: That was great though because from that gig we met a couple who were dressed as gladiators and they really liked us and wanted us to play at their wedding. So we played at their wedding, it wasn’t as adventurous as we expected.
ML: It was more like tasteful fetish.
XC: We’ve done a lot of outdoor gigs. We’ve been to New York which was good fun. We love just doing anything that’s different. Our music can be adapted to any situation so if it’s a corporate gig and we have to play covers than we adapt them so they don’t sound like covers. Our music is spontaneous and we love the spontaneous gigs.
ML: I agree.
KM: Our first gig was pretty cool. We played at the Cornish Arms with Autumn Gray so it was pretty awesome to be playing to this packed out room with our friends and family. Although the sound guy was shit which was a bit disappointing. It’s tough as a female vocalist, something to do with the frequency, a lot of sound people don’t have the skill to bring the female vocal above the band. It’s one of those things, we’ll have to get our own guy eventually. I’m looking forward to the sound at the social club.
XC: I saw Joan at the social club. She was amazing.
KM: She was at the Athenaum last year. We were in the third row I could almost touch her. Which was a special moment. But anyway I think in terms of gigs we’ve been taking things slow but the gigs we’ve played have been well populated at decent sized venues. Each gig we’ve played we want it to be an event. We want it to be special and not have to do lots of little crappy gigs. Me and Ainslie Wills are working on some collaborations at the moment for future gigs that will kind of be like creating an event based on co-wrtiting stories from interviewing the public based on the areas that they live in. It’s why we’ve been able to make that transistion quickly as we’ve made sure that each gig we’ve played is special and each time we move up to a different level. We played on Friday at the Evelyn with Playwright and it was a packed out awesome show. Playwright are a popular band and it was good and cool being a new band to be getting a response from new people and seeing the audience develop. It’s been good to see that happen at each gig.
AU: Future plans for the bands?
KM: We’re gonna record a single in the next couple of months and release that hopefully at the end of the year and then maybe a little tour with that and keep developing songs and exploring differnt genres. I really wanted to do a trip-hop song and we’re working on that. We do a cover of a Portishead song – All mine and get a trumpet and trombone onstage and we love experimenting like that. There’s so much rhythm and I want a song with that in it. To be able to explore that in the band will be pretty fun. Changing time signatures and genres and being tight about it is really fun.
XC: Basically I’m trying really hard to get into the habit of booking out the whole year, which I’ve pretty much done, asides from December. In August we’re going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and will be playing a few shows over there. In September we’re playing the Melbourne Fringe Festival. In October we’ve got a residency at Rainbow and in November we’re at Bennett’s Lane to art pop it up. My goal for us is to get into the summer festivals. They’re so good and I reckon that’s where we should be. We just need to keep builidng up the buzz and getting the right people to see our shows, so hopefully that can happen for this year. I want to record another EP at the end of the year and keep making sure that every year is more succesful than the last. That’s the dream – living the dream and doing the day job and eventually not having to do the day job anymore.
Catch The Twoks and Elephant Eyes live at The Northcote Social Club for the 240 Volts EP launch on Friday July 29th