Words: James Frostick
Renowned Melbourne post-punk unit Constant Mongrel are winding the gears ahead of the release of their new album Living In Excellence next month. In true Constant Mongrel form, the record carries a weighty sound, burdened with wry critique and self-reflection. It’s an album that casts an eye over the world and its troubles, while also acknowledging the inherent failings and hypocrisy of white, middle-class living. We’re premiering the first single from the record – the title track – plus a chat with the band!
It’s serendipitous that this piece comes out at this exact moment. Parliament is in shambles and if there’s anything that exemplifies the established system’s greed and self-centredness it’s a leadership spill. While not an overtly political group, I have no doubt that the members of Constant Mongrel would have some thoughts on the topic. The public outcry surrounding the matter is going largely unheard by the party in charge, with the power players too caught up forming inter-party alliances to, uh, do their jobs. It evidences a real disconnect between the governing system and the population – the upper crust is too caught up living their best lives to consider the fact that others are barely living. Constant Mongrel’s forthcoming album Living In Excellence isn’t a tribute to this stale power dynamic, but rather an indictment of the hypocrisy at the belief that we’re the lucky country – isolated from the world’s woes, too blessed to be stressed about issues beyond our own piece of turf.
The term ‘living in excellence’ is a falsehood. The vast majority of people aren’t living in excellence, and those privileged enough to be are usually wholly unaware of the societal status quo. White Australians live in a bubble of security and ignorance – blissfully oblivious to the struggles of those in their own country and further abroad. Although several enlightened individuals work their butts off to rectify this, the increasing amount of ineffective lip service paid to the cause prohibits real progress. The folks in Constant Mongrel acknowledge their place in this system, and the record dedicates time and thought to addressing topics such as modern fascism, racism and religion, as well as white guilt and self-loathing – all with a sprinkle of the band’s tongue-in-cheek humour.
The single, ‘Living In Excellence’ is a perfect encapsulation of all of the above. Sonically, it showcases Constant Mongrel in full creative flight. The tune is full of taught and heavy sound – what seems like a holy mess of staunch rhythms and clatter seems to snap into place with ease, creating a poised pandemonium that lifts and carries. It’s urgent post-punk at its finest – shades of The Fall and Wire, but with nuance drawn from a deeper well of influences. Have a listen here:
Living In Excellence will drop fully on September 21, but I was fortunate enough to chat to founding members Tom Ridgewell and Hugh Young about the creation of the record, the double meaning behind the name and what topics informed the record’s content.
Take me through the genesis of the album! I understand the songs emerged over time – at what point did you realise that the collection of songs you had would work as a long-form release?
Hugh: We had maybe three or four songs that we’d been playing live for a year or so before recording, so the majority was written for the record. Although we put a bit more time and thought into this one it probably wasn’t as premeditated in realising we had a collection of songs that would work. It was more; we set a date to record and formed songs out of riffs and ideas we had in order to reach that deadline. I find I work best when the proverbial whips are cracking.
Were there any new wrinkles in how you were assembling songs that were novel to you?
H: In the past each of us would usually write riffs and bring them to the band to develop during practice. There was still some of that, but we also went away and formed full songs individually. Funnily enough we kept our tradition of writing a song during recording, which turned out to be this song ‘Living In Excellence’. For me in writing new songs I took myself away from punk to come up with riffs or hooks, listening to a lot of jazz and hip hop for bass line ideas especially.
It’s been three years since Constant Mongrel’s last release and a lot has happened in that time. Living in Excellence seems to draw thematic nourishment from the world’s happenings – what events have occurred in the past three years that have fed into the framework of the record?
Tom: Heaps of people were born and less people died.
H: It has definitely been a while. In terms of the themes and the way they formed into the record it wasn’t something preconceived. I don’t know if any particular events influenced us, but conversation always does around the usual things like religion, misogyny and self-entitlement. Some of the things are messed up about Australia. Also Tom started a Cafe business, Amy has been busy with Terry and Andrew is an academic writing heaps of papers on Architecture history. Just to keep you up to speed.
Living in Excellence is a false mantra, especially as a label for this collection of songs. Where did the idea to name the album such come from?
H: It was when we were recording the record in Brunswick. We were walking back to the studio after a lunch break past these two seedy looking guys who were having a smoke on the street, eyeing us off. One of them said, “How are we guys? Living in excellence I see?” and we just thought that was a great name for the record and encapsulated everything about the record.
T: I’d say he was a bit of ‘street poet’ with a snide remark at our seemingly middle-class appearances. I really liked the idea of him mocking us and us not knowing any better until we thought about it more. At the time I smiled and said yes and had a nice feeling having interested a stranger. Then the rug was pulled out with the doubt I felt later when I realised his sentiment. Or maybe he was just a nice guy. That’s an underlying theme of this record. People’s intentions are sometimes blurry and that can create funny, sad, violent, ironic and critical situations. That’s what I hope we can communicate.
In reality, how would you describe the times we’re living in?
I feel like humour plays a part in Constant Mongrel’s overall package. Would you agree that’s the case? And, if so, how do you go about weaving it in in such a way that it enhances the message?
H: Definitely. The bands name is a joke. It started as a joke. But I think it’s important to have humour in punk music. If it were all excessively serious and not self-deprecating in any way then it would go against the very fabric of punk being anti-establishment. This record will probably be conceived as being more serious in its themes but there is a lot of self-mockery.
What are some sentiments or messages on Living in Excellence that you hope resonate with listeners?
H: Basically LIE stands for Living In Excellence but like the acronym suggests, those who believe that to be true are probably kidding themselves. It can be interpreted a few different ways. Perhaps the idea that social life, fashion, status, money, consumerism all fuel the incontrovertible arrogance and sense entitlement that smothers and plagues modern Australia. But it’s also a pot-shot at ourselves as middle class white’s living in a comfortable bubble so separate from most of the world. It’s open for interpretation so I hope the listener feels something or anything really. That’d be nice.
Sonically, can you point towards any outside forces that played a factor in informing the sound of Living in Excellence?
T: In going into recording we gave Tom Hardisty (who recorded the LP) a bunch of references for what we thought our direction would be. I think we’d looked at bands like Blitz, Crisis, Flux of Pink Indians, but also some harsher and heavier contemporary Trap stuff and some Jazz like Ornette Colman and Alice Coltrane. We also particularly enjoyed listening to ‘You Sexy Thing’ by Hot Chocolate, ‘Emperors New Clothes’ by Sinead O’Connor and The Happy Monday’s while recording.
H: We wanted the LP to sound tough and warm.
Process wise, were there any techniques or habits you actively avoided or sought to incorporate this time around?
T: We avoided taking second best this time around. The choice to splurge and record in a proper studio was a huge factor in this. As a band we have taken rushed approaches to a lot of things, so this time we really slowed everything down. I know Hugh worked on his vocals for a while after the instruments were recorded, which is something we have rushed in the past.
How would you say you’ve grown or evolved as songwriters between Constant Mongrel releases?
T: Musically I think CM has reached a different place. We are heading in an interesting direction in terms of adjusting the traditional pentatonic (blues) scales – it’s long and boring to explain, but there are patterns in music (not arrangement or sonics but in tonal structure) that I personally have come to find in an organic way through playing with the band. The next challenge was to make exciting music out of it – I hope others like the result!
Lyrically, I think Hugh has gone to another level with his songs. He is both direct and poetic on this record. I have a minimalist approach with lyrics but hope that what I have put forward can give the listener some kind of emotional response or a laugh, I think I may have grown up a bit recently just in general so maybe my songwriting has too.