Interview: THE OCEAN PARTY

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The Ocean Party return with a new album this month even though the dust had barely settled on their 2014 effort. Light Weight is the fifth album from the group that thrives on the continual cycle of writing, recording, touring and repeating. I spoke to the band when they performed in Brisbane last month and got an insight into how the band operates and how they keep up the pace.

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It doesn’t feel long ago at all that I was writing about a new album from The Ocean Party. It was at the tail end of 2014 that Soft Focus dropped and I hailed it as the Melbourne-based bands most cohesive and complete work to date and that it would be hard to top. The record came out quickly after 2013’s effort, Split, so it wasn’t hard to believe that the band had a decently sized work ethic – even still I wasn’t expecting to be hearing new tunes this quickly.

The Ocean Party’s fifth album Light Weight is released today (again through Spunk Records), barely a year since the six-piece make Best Of lists for their previous work. Much ado is being made about the quick turn around and while most bands wait years between LP’s it’s not entirely surprising to be hearing from The Ocean Party again. The group, consisting of Jordan Thompson, Liam Halliwell, Curtis Wakeling, Lachlan Denton, Zac Denton and the bearded chap known only as Crowman dabble in side projects, all of which are documented extensively online. Six songwriters (six good songwriters) could make light work of amassing new material and it seems like they have. The jury is still out (the jury in this instance is me) on whether or not the album stacks up (the singles drip fed so far are positive indicators, though) but I had the chance to chat to five of the six about the album and how their processes combine to make things work. I sat down with Lachlan, Zac, Curtis, Liam and Jordan while they were in Brisbane for BIGSOUND 2015 and asked them where the hell this album came from.

“I think it was just a pretty constant thing,” Jordan said in regards to thinking about the genesis of Light Weight. “We don’t finish one then think ‘alright, let’s do another one’. We were always going to put one out.”

The amount of creativity spread across The Ocean Party’s various side projects is astounding. From Liam’s bizarre pop leanings as Snowy Nasdaq to Zac’s earnest indie style in Ciggie Witch, the group can draw upon any member to contribute songs to The Ocean Party mix. Initially, a lot of my talk with the group revolved around the distinction between an Ocean Party song and one that doesn’t make the cut. For a band that incorporates songwriters of such differing styles and tastes, they manage to create a unified feel through all of The Ocean Party’s albums so far, but how do they do it?

“I think when everyone is involved and everyone is comfortable with the parts they play – we know when it sticks,” Curtis informs me.

“I think it’s more so when something doesn’t gel,” Lachlan adds. “So if you bring a song and everyone can feel that it’s not kind of working then it might not work. I think I’ve taken songs to Ciggie Witch that hasn’t worked with Ocean Party and it might be a similar thing for everyone else’s projects.”

The process, as explained to me, seems to revolve around a group consensus when it came to feel. The Ocean Party lads are experienced when it comes to working as a unit, making a lot of the procedure intuitive. Each member feeds of the others in a cohesive setting, making a fluid and amorphous creative unit that absorbs elements placed in front of it, discarding elements that don’t seem to fit in the scheme of the project at hand.

“I’ve written songs and you can tell when they are not Ocean Party songs from the get go,” Liam informs me. “If it doesn’t fit the theme musically I’ll just finish that and make it my own thing. But I feel like I’m consistently the last one to bring a song to Ocean Party, but I like that. Lachlan always comes in with a heap of songs first and that might inform the way I write a song. A lot of the songs on the last album are influenced by the songs that everyone else wrote for it. I’ll have an idea of how I want a song to sound and then not overcook that myself, I’ll bring in an idea because there are six of us and we can work on it together.”

“We build from the bottom up as well,” Jordan chimes in. “Bringing a song doesn’t mean a fully fleshed song, it might just be a very sparse idea and being able to tease it out amongst six of us really makes it an Ocean Party Song.”

Five albums in and you’d be forgiven thinking that The Ocean Party has the process locked down to a fine art, an almost automated process. While the group is familiar with each other and can rely on each other creatively, thinking that it all just gets easier over time disregards the nuance of The Ocean Party’s evolution. Initially regarded as another jangle-pop outfit from Melbourne, a lot of The Ocean Party’s early work was under-appreciated simply because they were unproven as songwriters; they were new. Now, with a few well-received albums under their belts the group has the attention of a larger audience, but this doesn’t mean the group has set itself into a rhythm of banging out album after album like clockwork – the turnaround does little to dissuade those connotations but if you listen to each album in order you can hear the growth in their song writing, increasing in complexity and changing in style and nuance over time. The group still sound like they are trying to push the boundaries of their sound and style and that would be hard work.

“It gets harder (over time) because I think the sound is getting more minimal sometimes,” Curtis admits. “There are so many parts with people contributing; sometimes it gets hard to slot everything in.”

“I think moving forward – this is how I’ve seen the band since the last two albums – it’s not so much a situation of, like, a ‘band’ but rather six people who are producing a record together,” continues Lachlan. “It’s not so much where someone has to play a vital part with what they play in the song, just the mere fact that you have six people in a room all writing songs that are working on structures and the general make-up of the song – we all play so minimally a lot of the time on records these days because we work on it in a different way.”

“I think we are streamlining what we are doing. We are touring a lot more now than we have ever been. A lot of it is moving towards where we do a bunch of things together at once but we also work on stuff in our own time via the World Wide Web. In that way we’ve become more adaptable to not being in the same space at the same time.

So at this point the process is no longer a mystery. The Ocean Party takes their career one album at a time, creating as unified a piece of work as possible, with contributions drawn from all six members and then refined by group process and okayed with group consensus. As I mentioned earlier, I felt that Soft Focus was the first album where the process had paid off to the point where the album felt cohesive an whole, so I turned my questioning toward Light Weight to see what I could glean about the overall feel of this new record. From early listens, the album seems to boast a subdued tone, one subtly belied by the traditionally upbeat and melodic instrumentation that is a key part of The Ocean Party’s sound. The juxtaposition between the songs superficial sunny disposition and the realness underneath is one of the more captivating elements of the work – was it done on purpose?

“There’s a sound running through it,” concedes Liam. “There’s a mood for sure. It’s darker, I’d say.”

“It’s never really discussed but it’s felt,” adds Jordan. “I don’t think we’ve sat down and asked what the mood of the album is going to be. Everybody knows when we are going in the right direction.”

The talk shifted slightly to how The Ocean Party’s sound is misinterpreted by many, missing the intent of the work as created by the songwriters.

“I think the tone of our albums, for the lack of a better word, get more serious as time goes on,” starts Liam. “I don’t think we’ve liked the way our sounds been described in the past, thematically and stuff.”

“I think the big thing for me is that there’s always been a cynicism in a lot of our writing that has not been taken up by the press or people listening to the record,” continues Lachlan. “It’s been taken on this face value thing where we just seem to like having barbecues and getting pissed and being on the dole and having a great time. It’s very cynical and I don’t explicitly want my cynicism to come across but I would have thought it was pretty obvious at times and I guess it’s not to some people.”

“I personally like the juxtaposition of really bleak lyrics with sunny sounding music. We put out a song not long ago and I read a review that said it was a breezy song. I thought it was a punk song, you know? Obviously I am grateful that anyone takes notice of the band, but we are a serious band in a sense and I think we all take it very seriously and we want that to come across.”

What about lyrically? Six songwriters theoretically mean six life views on the table. I asked if Light Weight carried a singular lyrical theme or was the album bringing in a range of issues to dissect through song.

“I wouldn’t say lyrics are something we connect up on massively,” says Lachlan. “I think our lyrics are more just our own output and it’s what we’re thinking about. My stuff is more political now than what it has been in the past but I think stylistically our lyrics are just being conscious of making our point more thoughtful.”

This sort of commentary is evident in Light Weight‘s lead single ‘Guess Work‘, which carried a critical tone set to a bright backing track complete with keys and harmonies. I wondered if the band had ever had to collectively reel an idea back that was proposed by an individual member or if they managed to get behind every idea put forth lyrically. As more attention is being paid to The Ocean Party are they, in turn, paying more attention to the impact of what they say and want to put forth?

“That’s never crossed my mind at all,” admits Jordan. “I don’t know if it has crossed anyone else’s mind, but I have never thought of that. I feel the same way about writing songs now as I did before.”

“For me it kind of has crossed my mind but not in a way where I am trying to sculpt or tell people what to do,” adds Lachlan. “It’s a conscious thing for me where I don’t want to write a song that is just about nothing. I want it to have a purpose. I haven’t had any interest in writing a love song since the first album. There’s enough of that out there. It’s conscious in different ways.”

“I think we all trust each other to a level where unless something that sticks out,” says Jordan. “I don’t think any of us would tell someone not to say something – we might ask them what it’s about and want to understand it more.”

“That’s the idea of the Ocean Party,” Liam interjects. “That’s become more and more the idea of The Ocean Party where it’s six different personalities and that’s what makes our albums interesting in my opinion. I can’t imagine anyone throwing a big curveball in and saying something that would offend the rest of us because we spend all of our time together anyway. It’s really unlikely that we’d catch somebody off guard.”

So, five albums in and things are running smoothly. I wanted to know if the rapid process was draining and if the group ever considered waiting a little bit longer to let creative juices flow and ideas to gestate. The Ocean Party doesn’t owe Australia any music, we’ve been spoiled by the rapid release of quality material coming from the band for long enough now maybe the band feel like they can take some more time on the next go around. In hindsight it was a bit of a silly question, I could already sense the answer coming once I opened my mouth.

“The touring is the break for us because we don’t write when we are touring – it’s like a holiday,” says Curtis. “It’s a cycle.”

“We don’t see ourselves as being a buzz band, we never have been a buzz band and probably will never be one,” adds Lachlan. “I’m sure someone might think we are in a sense, but we’re not the band that comes up overnight. It’s nice to have a slow incline of people appreciating our music. I think we’re all in it for the long haul.”

“We get that break from writing but we also thump out all of the last album and get it out of our system,” Jordan chimes in. “It’s a low incline of development and growth as musicians and writers. That’s more important than our incline in any other respect.”

So, breaking it down this is what The Ocean Party is as a creative unit: it is a band that draws upon the ideas and creativity of six members that share a bond of trust and confidence in each other’s abilities. It is a band that prefers to work cohesively on a body of work (an album, let’s say) and make it as good as they can without worrying about the roles that each member plays (it’s all about the music, man). The group thrive on working in a cycle where they can express an idea to its fullest extent to the point where they are okay with letting it go and turning to look at what’s next. It’s a band that enjoys nuance and depth, exemplified primarily in the dichotomy between sound and words. It’s a band that prefers to work the slow incline consistently, revealing growth at each step rather than holding back and banking on big follow-up records. The Ocean Party is a band that thrives on the perpetual motion of creativity that is afforded each member. The Ocean Party is humble and grateful for what they have been able to do, even more grateful for the way they’ve been able to do it.

“We are happy to just put out records every year,” says Lachlan. “One might be a complete dud to someone – we aren’t going to have that issue of being Courtney Barnett and having to follow up a record that’s been really successful overseas or in general. That would be a really daunting thing.”

“We aren’t touring non-stop, we live pretty normal lives. It’s like: write a record, put the record out, tour the record and so forth. And it works and we have pretty relaxed lifestyles to do that, we don’t have to tour all year. It just works for us, and I have to say we are very lucky to have Spunk put out our records.”

“It’s just a different way of thinking and working,” adds Jordan. “We’ve had to wait a couple of months for this album to come out and that’s been excruciating. We want to get it out, have it done and move on so having to wait years to put out the next thing, it doesn’t sound like the way I would work.”

“The other thing is that we are all really happy. If at some point we became unhappy with things then we might think about changing it up. But right now we are happy with how things are going.”

So Light Weight is now out and the band are gearing up to tour the hell out of it. But it wouldn’t be The Ocean Party if they weren’t already looking beyond. What’s next?

“We’ve already started recording the next one,” says Curtis.

“I’ve got four or five songs ready to go for the next one and some of those won’t make it,” continues Lachlan. “There’s talk of doing a record early next year of stuff that won’t make a proper record. Maybe we’ll put a record that’s almost similar to cleaning out the closet in regards of all the stuff that isn’t going to make the next album. That’s an idea because with having six songwriters there is so much material that won’t see the light of day – maybe it will see the light of day in a different project – but I’d like most of our stuff to be heard in some form or another.”

The wheels are already in motion, The Ocean Party train is already chugging forward and it’s only just arrived at the station. Don’t make the mistake of waiting to catch the next train because you know it won’t be a long wait, be sure to appreciate every album that comes by from the crew – like I said, we are pretty spoiled having a band like The Ocean Party on the circuit. It’s best not to take them for granted.

Light Weight can be purchased now through Spunk Records. For information on The Ocean Party’s national tour, click here.