FRACTURED AIR

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Time Has Told Me: The Moles

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Interview with Richard Davies.

Who knows what can be included in the palette? It’s always an adventure. The idea of The Moles — anonymous, spies, double agents, elusive, ambiguous — always makes a Moles record an excuse for imagination first.”

—Richard Davies

Words: Mark Carry

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This year marked the release of legendary Australian band The Moles’ first comprehensive retrospective collection, courtesy of independent label, Fire Records. ‘Flashbacks and Dream Sequences: The Story of The Moles’ contains the band’s two studio albums; debut full-length ‘Untune The Sky’ and follow-up ‘Instinct’ (the latter was heralded by The Sea And Cake’s Archer Prewitt as being “as close to perfection as any Beatles or Beach Boys record and it stands on its own as a classic in my book”) and a whole plethora of b-sides and rarities, culled from various EP’s and singles.

Led by Richard Davies (who later would join Eric Mathews and form Cardinal), The Moles were formed in Sydney in the late 80’s and unleashed a resolutely unique sound of orchestral pop, psych, garage and indie gems that inspired many bands (such as The Flaming Lips) and wowed audiences worldwide. The original band line-up consisted of Glenn Fredericks, Richard Davies, Warren Armstrong and Carl Zadra, friends from law school who were fans of Flying Nun, The Fall and The Go Betweens, drawing their name from a reference to ‘Wind In The Willows’ and spy novels (John Le Carré and Graham Greene).

A series of EP’s were released at the turn of the 90’s – ‘Untune The Sky’ and ‘Tendrils and Paracetamol’ – that would eventually see the release of the band’s first full-length release in 1992 (also titled ‘Untune The Sky’). The Moles re-located to New York, where they released a pair of seven inch singles (packaged together as the Double single EP). A move to London followed that lasted a year (that would include recording a John Peel session and many great gigs) and in 1994, the original line-up of The Moles split.

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‘Flashbacks and Dream Sequences: The Story of The Moles’ is out now on Fire Records.

http://www.firerecords.com/

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Interview with Richard Davies

It’s wonderful to ask you some questions about the music of The Moles, Richard. Please take me back to the late 80’s in Sydney where The Moles began? I would love for you to discuss the music scene happening in Sydney during this time. Also, can you recount your memories of forming the band The Moles, and who played with you in the original line-up?

Richard Davies: The Sydney music scene was a no-goer. It was crap. Lots of crappin’ covers bands doing songs not worth covering. Not organic in any sense. Really, a drag. There were a couple of good bands, one called Crow, and The Moles. (We weren’t “good” but we were good). Not much going on at all. Had to get out of there to do anything of interest!

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One of the great hallmarks of The Moles is how richly diverse and utterly compelling the songs are; belonging very much to the here and now, packed with such a freshly innovative sound. I would love to gain an insight into the creative process and particularly, your song-writing please? I feel that you must have a myriad of ideas and inspiration ceaselessly surrounding you, and writing non-stop. Would that be the case?

RD: I must say your questions are particularly celtic. It seems I can’t help writing. Also I like impact in music, intensity. Not intensity that comes from relentless distorted guitars and screamed vocals. That kind of intensity is reductionist – although done with wit, like say, The Stooges, it has artistic merit as well. So, I am restless, and I like surprises.

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Growing up and indeed during the formative years of your musical-upbringing, what records made a biggest impact upon you, Richard? Were you heavily immersed in music from a young age? I’d love to know what instruments you first learned to play? 

RD: I played nothing properly until I was about 20. I twanged on a terrible Korean guitar, the brand was called ‘Kapok’, which is kind of like the sound it made, when I was 15. Just one string, aping Beatles basslines and Johnny Cash lead guitar. Upon reflection that was more sophisticated than I imagined.

My Dad, Welsh old-school chain smoking WWII veteran, would come in and say “Put down that bloody twanger”.

When he wasn’t telling me to leave the bloody twanger alone (and I mean guitar by that) we would both listen to Simon and Garfunkel, The Bee Gees, and even The Beatles at a stretch. He would drink scotch on New Year’s Eve and shed tears to Handel’s Messiah, though he was an atheist. I never had the chance to ask him to explain that discrepancy. I inherited a couple of records from my sister Anne, Sam n Dave, The Exciters’ “Tell Him”, and one early crackling Parlophone vinyl single by The Beatles.

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The debut full-length album, ‘Untune The Sky’ was released in 1992, after a string of EPs. The album opener — and my first taste of witnessing the indie-pop brilliance of The Moles — ‘Bury Me Happy’ is a scintillating and heartfelt slice of indie-bliss. Do you have any particular memories of writing this song, and indeed recording the track in the studio? It’s such a perfect opening to a remarkable record. 

RD: When I was in my early twenties I was a slow learner on the social front. A little behind the pace. Now I realize my shyness was likely due to my deafness, which is quite profound. My friends would go to the student union bar and chug beers and try to pull girls. I would smile a lot and sip Coca Colas. I think that environment and my quiet reaction to it was what that song was about.

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What was the recording process like for ‘Untune The Sky’. What was the set-up like? I imagine a lot of the tracks were recorded in one or two takes, as there is such a raw and immediate feel to these takes. 

RD: Most recorded very quickly. We were bootstapping it. That was the only way to make a record, nothing deluxe for The Moles and their ilk. In one studio, the engineer was very upset that we wanted to try a thing called an “over-dub”.

Since there was no window from the control room to the recording “area” I should have appreciated his concern. There were some rats in the studio however.

He complained that a band should “come in, do a cover, and get out”, and not screw around or waste his time with stuff like writing their own songs or recording overdubs.

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Is there a song you’re most proud of from ‘Untune The Sky’, Richard?

RD: ‘What’s The New Mary Jane’ is, as has been described, the crown jewel of the recorded output of The Moles, although I’m partial to ‘Accidental Saint’ and a few of the others too. I like ‘Wires’ and ‘Curdle’, they get the job done.

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I love the aesthetic and flow to the record, and how the songs are formed from such a vast sonic canvas.  Also, I love the hidden details embedded in the songs, for example ‘Curdle’ which contains some audio-recording/found sounds during the intro. How important was this aspect to the music-making process for you? 

RD: Who knows what can be included in the palette? It’s always an adventure. The idea of The Moles — anonymous, spies, double agents, elusive, ambiguous — always makes a Moles record an excuse for imagination first.

I love the concept. The name and the idea is a license. There’s an element of a well that never runs dry.

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The instrumentation, which is really daring and adventurous is another reason why the record sounds so ahead of its time and resolutely unique. Were there particular techniques you employed during the recording sessions?  I love the addition of brass on tracks like ‘Surf’s Up’ and the worlds of sound that are so effortlessly unleashed. Was the song-title an ode to The Beach Boys’ album? (One of my favourite moments of ‘Untune The Sky’ arrives on the chorus refrain of ‘Surf’s Up’ where you sing “Let the waves roll over me”). 

RD: ‘Surf’s Up’ was about a recurring dream I had for many years of taking a nap at the part of the beach where the waves roll onto the sand, and the water is warm, and it is very calming and soothing. It always helped me wake up refreshed and enthusiastic.

The Moles are music-and-ideas-first by necessity. They never did and never will depend on business strategies, tactics, log-rolling, posturing, name-calling, back biting, and petty fighting, which seems to happen to even the most aesthetically “pure” bands the longer they are around.

The only thing The Moles possess now that they never did before is connections — to powerful and imperious musical neptunes who cast their mighty tridents upon certain objects, and in certain directions, and lo, I’m answering these questions for you.

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I must say the album centrepiece for me, must be ‘Lonely Hearts Get What They Deserve’. The backing harmonies and piano/organ sounds are breathtakingly beautiful. There is a vivid sense of loneliness etched across the sprawling canvas of sound. Also, your vocal delivery is immense, charged with raw emotion. I would love for you to talk me through the construction of this song and your memories of writing/recording it? 

RD: That was the first song I wrote that was ‘complicated’. It was complicated musically, and emotionally. It was the second or third song I tackled. It came out of a troubled period with a girlfriend in my early twenties, the usual thing that people get mixed up in with relationships, finding out what is involved in being in love beyond the first few weeks. I had it written in a little brown notepad along with ‘Bury Me Happy’ and ‘Accidental Saint’, which came out of the same period. It was an intense time, more happy than is reflected in the song.

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A short time after the release of ‘Untune The Sky’, the group re-located to New York, where you released a couple of seven-inch singles. Following this, you moved to London and gathered critical acclaim from all corners. Was there a feeling of dismay, following the release of the debut record and despite receiving unanimous praise, commercial sales wouldn’t follow? Did The Moles tour a lot during your stint in the UK? What were your impressions of the music world at this time? 

RD: The Moles, at the time we were praised, were working in factories, a candle factory in London on the 11.00 PM-7AM shift. I was stealing tomatoes off street stalls to add to the pasta for dinner.

A bloke from Spiritualized’s record label said “Mate, we shall set you up, I’ll shall give you 70,000 pounds.” Well, OK…

“Come down to the office and we’ll get you sorted, yeah?” Well, alright.

“See that bloke over there? That’s Brett Anderson mate…” Well, OK…

I was already 28 and knew, despite my sensitive artistic nature, that the joke’s on all of us. No-one gets off free. I’m no more of an angel than anybody else, no less of a shyster.

I have received kindly compliments and salutations from all kinds of artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians, and poets. I also remember, back in those days, standing at a bus-stop in Stoke Newington in the rain. A filthy crotchety old bastard, the kind that only London can produce, was standing next to me and he thought I was too close to him with my umbrella, and he said “Yer, you’re no good at all, you’ll ‘ave a coom-down mate.” That’s the first and only thing he said to me.

It’s all part of the fun.

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This year marked a special retrospective release of The Moles, entitled ‘Flashbacks And Dream Sequences’ containing a treasure chest of bonus material from various EPs and singles. It must be a lovely feeling for you to see this musical document of The Moles been given the light of day? Looking back on the music of The Moles today, does your perspective of these songs change for you, in any way? 

RD: When I play Moles songs, I am putting on the cowl. There is a particular attitude. It fits me better than most other incarnations. It is the most natural habitat.

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Following The Moles, you of course went on to create utterly timeless sonic creations, alongside Eric Matthews in Cardinal; a collaborative project with Robert Pollard (Guided By Voices) under the name of Cosmos, and your own outstanding solo records. Do you feel there is a common thread inter-woven in all these works? With the virtue of hindsight, in what way do you think the chapter of The Moles led its way into the musical projects that followed? 

RD: At this stage The Moles feel like where I am most comfortable.

 


 

themoles_firerecords

Flashbacks and Dream Sequences: The Story of The Moles’ is out now on Fire Records.

http://www.firerecords.com/

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Written by markcarry

September 9, 2014 at 10:21 am

4 Responses

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  1. Great Interview – thanks! I have always loved ‘accidental saint’ so glad it is one of Richard rates too

    june42

    September 10, 2014 at 4:34 pm

    • Thanks so much for the comment and reading the interview. Best wishes and thanks again.

      admin

      September 10, 2014 at 4:55 pm

  2. i am so happy that the moles are back this was a very interesting read and i am surprised and elated to hear that richard is most comfortable in his moles shoes. the moles are my favorite rock band definitely. so interesting. very excited to hear the new works and to finally get my hands on “instinct” vinyl which is so hard to find anywhere any time.

    george clanton

    September 15, 2014 at 10:01 pm

    • Thank you for the wonderful comment, George! All the very best.

      admin

      September 15, 2014 at 10:10 pm


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