Words: James Frostick
Benjamin Thompson of Brisbane avant-rock group The Rational Academy discusses a new album and touches on the history of the band.
Being in a band is all about fits and starts, it is an unfortunate part of the business and the life of a musician. Creative lapses, industry red tape and line-up changes hamper the progress in between releases and before tours. As frustrating as these stalling moments can be, most if not all bands come out the other side with something positive to show for it. Groups that don’t survive don’t show anything at all in the end.
The Rational Academy is one of those bands that manages to roll with the punches and are still able to produce stellar music. Most people who follow Brisbane music recognise this band as ‘one of the good ones’ because every release and every live show impresses. They have impressed locally and abroad, earning acclaim with early albums compiled of lush, unique songs. This didn’t deter fate from throwing a few hurdles along the way, but so far, each hurdle has been hurdled with The Rational Academy emerging as an improved re-invention of the previous iteration, continuing to hurtle towards new things.
For Benjamin Thompson and original songwritng partner, Meredith McHugh, the modest beginnings of a sonically skewed indie-rock band rapidly evolved into something bigger, a band with a statement sound. Although Meredith departed the band before their sophomore album Swans was recorded and released in 2009, Benjamin has continued the evolution and maintained the dedication to the project that was still earning acclaim. Although The Rational Academy have been particularly quiet over the past two years, excitement is picking up around town after a new line-up was put together with talented Brisbane musicians. The Rational Academy will soon put out their next long-play statement, and I don’t think I’m the only one eagerly waiting. It’s been a long journey since their inception in 2004 though.
“Initially I moved to Brisbane from Toowoomba with a band I had been playing with up there, I guess that must have been late 2003 or start of 2004, says Ben of The Rational Academy’s beginnings. “I met Meredith just through going to shows. I came here, I didn’t have a job so the first thing I did was live off my pay out from my old job and just go to every show that happened. I started to meet bands like Shuriken and I already knew Iron On at that point.”
“Meredith was in a band called Delpino that used to play around quite a lot, so I met Meredith and we got drunk at a show one night and was like, ‘Hey, we should do a band’, so we ended up doing that, my old band had disbanded. That was how it all kicked off, just the two of us. Eventually it kind of took off and killed our other bands as a result.”
The duo and original Iron On drummer Nicola Phoenix, started working on songs that would be released in the form of two 7” records and one full length album, A Heart Against Your Own, which put the band on the map. A band initially following the tried and true indie-rock formula suddenly came out with a series of releases that has been described as ‘cut-up folk’ and ‘avant-garde’. According to Ben, this was a result of a concerted effort to think outside the proverbial ‘box’.
“I think Meredith and I were really into indie-rock bands at that point,” says Ben. “That was our scene in Brisbane, there was a lot of crossover with noise-pop and things like that, which was what we were really into. But I moved to Brisbane to start working with Lawrence English (of Room40 and Something Good) through an Arts Queensland mentoring program. The first thing we wanted to do was – not distance ourselves from that (sound) because we didn’t like it – we just wanted something different out of it. We thought if we work with Lawrence on this, it would bring a whole different perspective to what we were doing. That was the only initial thing.”
“It was like, ‘We are gonna get together in a room, write some indie-rock songs then sit down with Lawrence and try to pull them apart’. That has continued with every record we have made and every line-up with the band, it has always been ‘We are not this kind of band, what kind of band are we then?’”
The successful partnership between Meredith and Ben resulted in a plethora of recorded material (six songs were written in their first rehearsal together, all of them were used at a later point) that would eventually be sculpted into their first album. I say eventually because Ben readily admits they took their time about releasing it.
“We’d been recording since day one – I’ve still got the recordings of our first week,” says Ben. “The first album is us going, ‘Holy shit, we’ve been recording for three or four years – we should probably put something out.’ We sat down with Lawrence and went through about 30 hours’ worth of recordings and see if we can put out an album.”
“A Heart Against Your Own still perplexes me,” admits Ben. “I like a lot of aspects about it, but there are a lot of things where I think, ‘How did this come out? How did this actually get received so well internationally?’ I don’t understand it. I’m really glad it got as popular as it did. People still like it – I think many like it more than anything else we’ve ever done, that’s fine! I just don’t understand that record. It’s a collection of songs recorded over a long amount of time that happened to have the right notes and no drum timing mistakes.”
While Ben is unashamedly truthful about his feelings toward the record, he is correct about the warm reception it received. Many reviews praised the ‘shimmering’ electronic-infused nature of the music, which up until that point had been buoyed by melodic guitar rock.
This is a pretty good start for any band, right? The upward trajectory of The Rational Academy was plain to see. A few BIGSOUND appearances and some touring around the place and things were looking great.
Meredith departed the band in 2009 on amicable terms to live in Baltimore. This put a halt on proceedings and Ben was left to create on his own for the most part.
“It was her idea to form the band, says Ben, cheekily. “Technically it is her band but she lives in Baltimore now, I guess I just stole it and ran away with it. It is her band, technically.”
Ben continued on his own with further help from Lawrence English to create a suitable follow up – one where Ben could flex his creative muscles on an album that he could make sense of.
A second album was created and then shelved for undisclosed reasons, and the next release anyone heard, Swans, followed on a path that had led from this mysterious unreleased release.
“Swans has more cohesion because it was meant to be more of a sequel,” admits Ben. “It was pretty much just me and Lawrence. I think Heinz Riegler (from Not From There) plays one guest guitar part, Mike Cooper happened to be in the country so he played some slide on a song. It was definitely more enjoyable to make, and it definitely has more cohesion because of that and there wasn’t any fighting. It went ok, it got decent reviews, it sold – but to me that record would have made a lot more sense to people as the sequel to the lost record that didn’t come out.”
Ben mentions that he and Meredith had been recording an album with a completely new line-up before her departure, which may have indeed been the second release. Regardless, Ben and Lawrence decided to work as a duo on Swans, bringing in guest musicians when it was required. Once that was finished however, it still left Ben without a solid line-up to make up The Rational Academy.
“We struggled for a while with line-ups, trying to cement it back together, says Ben. “Meredith and I had always been fine with just the two of us, we moved through a lot of different drummers, there was never a locked in person. Sort of as a response to A Heart Against Your Own there was an effort to put together a cohesive band – which is really hard to do, particularly when the band already exists and, perhaps, my idea of the band was already a little bit formed and you can’t fuck with it too much.”
“It didn’t really come together until we threw it all out the window and the current line-up that we have now is the first line-up that has actually worked.”
So three odd years removed from Swans, The Rational Academy now has a solidified line-up. Tape/Off’s Luke Zahnleiter plays guitar, Thomas Roche plays the drums and the most recent addition is Matthew Cook on bass, joining the band approximately six months ago.
A new album has been finished as of July, the wait for release is upon us. I asked Ben what to expect this time around. Each member of the line-up comes from different musical backgrounds, and each have other projects that are stylistically different (Tom performs in a Black Metal band; Matt performs electronic music under the name White Palms). I was surprised when Ben tells me that if anything, the sound of their new album could be more stripped back than before.
“What is different about this record is this record sounds like we do live at the moment, which is the first time we’ve ever done that,” says Ben. “It’s just something we’d never done. We never made a record that sounds like a really good representation of what we are actually doing at the moment.”
“We are actually really happy with what we are doing at the moment, this is the first time where I was happy to walk into the studio and have the guitars, bass and drums really work just in this format. There is no taking home all the guitar files and processing them for hours and turning them into buzz saws to make them work. It is a way more direct record because the line-up has gelled so well.”
Before you start thinking that this is going to be a straight up indie-rock record, keep in might that The Rational Academy has never played music ‘straight-up’. Ben is adamant that the meeting of minds on this record will keep things interesting.
“We all have had to get to a point where we understand that what is actually making the stuff we are doing work for us is the cross-pollination of ideas,” says Ben. “It’s when stuff crosses over that things get interesting. Everyone is coming from really different points on stuff.”
This must all be comforting to Ben as by his count he has seen eight different line-ups in The Rational Academy since its inception. Regardless, Ben is as comfortable as he has ever been with the sonic direction his band is taking. Change is a part of the game, and regardless of personnel, he’ll be trying something new.
“We know every record is going to sound different,” says Ben. “When we listened to A Heart Against Your Own, Meredith and I looked at each other and went ‘Right, we’re fucked, we’ve ruined everything’ and then it went really well. So it doesn’t bother me much anymore. People get older and stop going to shows, new people turn 18 and start going to shows – there might not be a lot of people who remember who we are. It always feels like a reinvention.”
When the album comes out, hopefully we can all appreciate the new approach and give credit to a band that manages to change the game as often as it changes drummer. Jokes aside, I’m pretty sure Ben is hoping he doesn’t have to find any new musicians for a while.