Latest release: The Internal Dialogue
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Melbourne heavy metal trio Contrive have been mighty busy of late, getting the word out about their new album The Internal Dialogue, the follow-up to their 2005 full-length debut The Meaning Unseen. Drummer Andrew Haug – also known as the long-running host of the nationally broadcast Triple J radio program The Racket – talks to Brendan Crabb about enlisting Devin Townsend to mix their new record, being an unsigned band, thoughts on the future of the music industry, his radio program’s success and more.

Q: The new album sounds a lot more personal than your debut – a track like ‘Spirits Alive’ is indicative of that. Was that a conscious thing?

A: I think we’ve always been a deep-thinking bunch of people and even reflecting that in our music, you see some of the undertones of some of the songs on The Meaning Unseen, I think it’s kind of extended from that. Yeah, ‘Spirits Alive’ certainly is a pretty obvious song, dealing with family loss or any loss of someone close to you. I think that song is pretty self-explanatory when you listen to it lyrically and musically as well. So that’s what kind of inspired us for that, but we’ve always been a band that likes to think a bit more about things in a deeper sense than just singing about goblins and dragons (laughs).

Q: Has there ever been the temptation for Contrive to write a song about goblins? (laughs)

A: (Laughs) Side projects, maybe yes, but not on our standard material, no (laughs). Highly unlikely.

Q: The new album was mixed by Devin Townsend and I understand you travelled to Canada to work with him on the record.

A: Yeah, I’d been talking to Devin for several months, just trying to find a break in his schedule that doesn’t seem to end. It worked out great that I could lock in a trip to Wacken and then fly from there to Vancouver and just nut out the mix for two weeks straight. We couldn’t be happier with the result; I think he did a stellar job and I think it helped that he actually enjoyed the music as well. I mean, obviously he gets a lot of things he gets offered to do, and he told me he tends me to generally pick the things he likes. Obviously we’ve been long-time friends, he enjoyed the last record and was definitely keen to work with us. So we couldn’t be happier with what he did and the fact that he actually liked it just made it even more personal and fun and he just did a great job with it.

Q: Fredrik Nordstrom mixed your first album as well. Is it difficult as an unsigned band to approach these kinds of people who have such strong reputations within the heavy music world to work with the band?

A: To a point some say yes, but I personally look at all of these people as people that are doing a business and obviously they’ve got to put food on the table for their family and whatever. It’s only a matter of just touching base and seeing what they say. All they can say is no (laughs). So some people are surprised about how we supposedly score these kinds of things, and it’s not really that at all. It’s just, “alright, let’s just see if he’s available” and that’s just one phone call or an e-mail and let’s hope that they are. If they say yes, great, if they say no, let’s go back to the drawing board and think of something else. I’ve never been sort of intimidated by that whole, “Oh my God, that’s so-and-so”. There is a big element of admiration for what they’ve done in the past with bands that you listen to and you think, “damn”, but at the end of the day, it’s still a business in a lot of ways. It’s like, try your luck and just see if they’re around and lo and behold, it’s done alright for us so far.

Q: Do you think more Australian metal bands should save their money and enlist the services of these kinds of well-established names to help them achieve a better overall finished product?

A: Well, I think it’s up for them and whoever they want to go to. We just go with the people that we really respect and like the work they’ve done. Maybe (with) the next record we do it might be someone over here that we know that could do a great job. It’s just… Obviously we don’t know until we get to that bridge, but for any band, go for it – why the hell not? I mean, okay, if you’ve got the budget – which is everything, everything costs money and nothing’s free (laughs), then give it a shot. It may turn out that they might like what you do and say, “yes, let’s do it”. Again, it’s like anything, you’ve got to knock on the door and hope someone answers. If they don’t, go look for another door and do the same thing. So I don’t think bands should be put off from that, they should just go out there and do what they can. And yeah, with the unsigned situation, we’ve never been signed and I don’t really see that likely ever happening, considering what’s happening with the music industry itself now. Labels are becoming completely, I wouldn’t say extinct, but the industry is sort of in freefall, so I think a lot of people are a bit scared to know what’s happening next. So yeah, signed or unsigned, just give it a shot – that’s all you can do really.

Q: Any interesting stories from working with Devin and also, did you get to meet Ziltoid? (laughs)

A: (Laughs) Ziltoid was sleeping above my bed every night basically. He was my guardian angel (laughs) watching over me and protecting me from Devin’s excruciating gas. It was great with Devin, he’s been a long-time friend for well over ten years. It’s funny, when a lot of people ask me, “what was it like working with him?” Well, he just did what he did and I just sort of sat there watching movies with him while I was literally kind of doing nothing. He was doing all the work, ‘cause that’s what he does. There were obviously parts where we were discussing songs, but most of the time it was just hilarity, watching Some Kind Of Monster pretty much every day for two weeks straight (laughs), quoting Lars (Ulrich). It was like hanging just with a mate where it’s constant stupidity, but there are times to knuckle down too. I’d love the experience all over again, I tell you that much – but not the gas (laughs).

Q: You experimented with Japanese taiko drumming on The Meaning Unseen. Were there any non-conventional styles you tried to incorporate into your drumming on this album then?

A: I did use some taiko stuff on this record, but it’s a little bit… I wouldn’t say it’s more prominent. Even on The Internal Dialogue there’s some taiko on there, which I use as sort of samples now when I use them live. I guess the more experimental stuff we’ve done on this is definitely the electronic side of it; adding in a lot of keyboards and trigger samples. This is stuff I didn’t think I’d even be ever considering to do in our music two or three years ago. I’m very influenced by Lucius (Borich) from Cog and obviously seen him over the years playing; being a mate he’s always showed me his drums and we talk about gear. I’ve always seen what he’s got and I’m thinking, “shit, that’s like a spaceship”, you know (laughs). I’ve never really been a technical kind of guy in terms of sort of technology, so I just kind of got drawn to that. I thought, “okay, we’re a three-piece, we’re constantly being told that we need another guitarist”, which is not going to happen. So I figured, well, you know, it’s a three-piece band, it does give you give more room to really move and it makes you work harder too, trying to fill the sound I guess. But we’re not so much filling the sound because it’s empty, we just thought, “well, we’re not butting heads with another instrument, let’s just see what we can do with adding this to it’. I kind of delved into learning a bit about it, kind of got my set-up sorted out and then we got stuck into some keyboard parts. I reckon we could definitely say that there will be a lot more other stuff added on; I don’t think we’ve over-done the electronica, so to speak, on this record at all. I think there’s good subtle sounds and noise and I think we’ll just continue with that and just develop what we think fits for the music when we’re writing it. So none of it’s planned; Paul (Haug, guitars/vocals) actually came up with some great keyboard stuff on I think it was ‘This Time Last Week’ or ‘Spirits Alive’ and it really worked. Same with ‘Confusion’s Way’, the little piano part in the middle. It obviously makes it harder work for me, making sure that I hit the damn things and they do set off live (laughs), we’ve had some moments of course. But again, it’s a challenge and I think it just adds that extra element to set us apart from most bands.

Q: On the live front, Contrive have had some high-profile international support slots during the past 12 months, including Opeth, Devin Townsend Project and Testament. I was at Testament’s Sydney show and it seemed like you were up against a rather apathetic audience that night.

A: (Laughs).

Q: How difficult is it to be an Australian band opening for an international band with a passionate fan base whereby a lot of them just don’t want to know you, or any other Aussie act for that matter?

A: Honestly, we’re so used to it, it’s just what the Australian audiences are like. They’re there to see the headlining band and we don’t always expect a great response. I mean some other bands I see get rousing ones. So I don’t know, if they’re into it they’ll applaud it, if they’re not, well, they’ll just wait for the band and again, we can’t force anyone to like what you do. You’ve just got to get out there and make the best of the opportunity that you’ve been given and enjoy it. That’s kind of the approach we all take – let’s just get in our bubble and do our thing and I guess if there’s applause that’s kind of a bonus (laughs). So yeah, it’s always tough; I think Australian audiences can be a little bit unforgiving sometimes and sometimes they can be forgiving if there’s things that go wrong. Who knows, but again that’s definitely why we want to try and tour overseas and maybe see if there is a difference, maybe it’s the same everywhere else if we go and play. But again, we won’t know until we try and hopefully make it a reality down the track. We just get out there and do our thing and that’s all we can do and that’s it (laughs).

Q: It is difficult. For example, for mine we’ve got two of the best death metal bands in the world on our doorstep in the form of Psycroptic and The Red Shore, yet a lot of people don’t seem to want to bother to give it a chance. You always champion the Aussie scene on your radio program – do you sometimes feel like you’re fighting a losing battle when you do that?

A: A little bit. Some weeks I feel like a broken record, telling people “support the scene, support the scene” and then you hear about gigs and ten people turn up. I think the punters have got themselves to blame a lot of the time, because they don’t know what they’ve got here, or they know what they’ve got here but they’re just choosing not to take interest in it, which is really sad. But I also think there’s too some great bands in this country, but some of them just sound too much like the bigger bands. Most of the people here, the punters will just generally look at the bigger bands as being better. That’s probably another angle you can look at it too – okay, you sound like Meshuggah, well why do we want another Meshuggah when we actually have the real one? So you know, there’s a lot of angles to it, but again you’ve just got to keep flying the flag and hope some people salute it and take notice. That’s what I’m there for on the radio, just to keep pushing it and yeah, let’s just hope people take notice, otherwise I’m just a broken record as per usual (laughs).

Q: I agree with the “carbon copy” argument, but then you look at bands like Alchemist and Psycroptic who have distinctive sounds, yet a lot of people here still don’t take it at face value. Despite this, both of those bands for instance can go overseas and headline successful tours. It must be disconcerting, even for the ones who actually have something fresh and interesting to say.

A: Yeah, true. I think it’s just the attitude in general and honestly, I don’t think it’s ever really changed over the years. I’ve been involved in the Aussie scene, just going out even before I was playing an instrument. (I’ve) just watched it sort of deteriorate over time, but now there’s more bands than ever and it’s more segregated than ever. So it might appear healthy to others, but we’ve got healthy pockets of scenes, but we don’t have a healthy scene as far as a community sense of it. It’s just, “you’re in your group, you’ll stay in your corner and the other group will stay over in theirs”. There isn’t much camaraderie, I feel and that’s pretty sad because I think there’s a lot that people can get out of it. I’m more interested in the multi (band) bills of different styles. Going to a death metal gig where there’s six bands (who) all sound the same, after the first band you’re going to get the picture that’s what you’re in for the rest of the night. If that’s what you like as a listener, great, you’ll be loving it. But for diversity, I think bands need to start joining together a little bit more. You don’t necessarily have to like each other’s music, but I think it’s just giving the punter a feel of different styles that are out there that they probably might not be noticing or might be stuck in one scene and maybe that will give them a chance to break out of that and discover different styles.

Q: The most prevalent example of that would have to be within the death metal scene – there seems to be so many cliques within that, especially given the recent boost in popularity for deathcore.

A: Yeah, I think it all boils down now… If anything, the fashion’s what has taken over the segregation. You look at The Red Shore – it’s just death metal, totally death metal. If you didn’t see a picture of those guys, you’d probably be picturing dudes like Cannibal Corpse – long hair and beefy-looking dudes with no necks (laughs). But then people see… That’s what’s crazy. That scene, it’s huge but you get a band who will pull 100-200 people and they’re playing the same style, it’s just that they’re wearing different clothes and one’s getting 700 punters at their show and the other’s getting 100. But you’re like, “it’s the same music”. That’s what’s really funny now; it’s moved into the fashion sense, as opposed to the music. I mean, Red Shore and Psycroptic – I think they have played a few shows together, which is great. I’d just be curious to know what punters of The Red Shore think about Psycroptic. Would they see them as, “oh, that’s just true death metal and Red Shore are deathcore”. I just think the labelling has just got so out of hand. That’s what creates this segregation I think. It’s just gotta stop, Mr Crabb (laughs).

Q: (Laughs) Indeed. On the topic of your radio show, you’re heading towards a decade in that role. Is it difficult to maintain the same enthusiasm for the task, week in, week out?

A: Actually, it’s not. It’s an absolute privilege and probably the highlight of my week, to be honest (laughs). I get in there, I leave all the crap at the door of whatever day I’ve had and you just get pumped into it. Every week, it’s like, when I look at that clock and it’s almost ten o’clock I get goosebumps, I’m ready to go, nervous, let’s do it. Hoping there’s people out there just as excited about listening to it as I am about presenting it. As far as music, well, I can’t keep up and I’ve accepted the fact that I can’t now. There’s just way too many bands within the scene, which as (Cradle of Filth’s) Dani Filth said is drenched. I just have to pick the best of the bunch and hope some of it sticks with some people. Even if it’s stuff I’m not into necessarily, I think I have a pretty good ear for what’s good. I just think that there’s far too many clone acts at the moment that hopefully will just wither away (laughs) and the ones that are making their mark will hopefully stick around. I think the drama is just the amount of music today is just way too much and some of it is absolutely hit and miss.

Q: You said as much on your show recently when referring to Triple-J’s Unearthed competition – there are some gems, but there’s some very poor material being recorded and released as well.

A: What did I say? I think I said there’s some great stuff up there and there’s some horrendous stuff (laughs).

Q: Speaking of new music, what new releases have you been enjoying lately?

A: I always draw a blank when people ask me this one, but I’m actually starting to work out my top ten (for 2010), but I don’t want to give away too much about what that is yet, until that’s (announced) on the last show of the year on December 14. What have I been listening to? Good question. Usually working during the day it’s a lot of old stuff where I don’t have to distract myself listening to new stuff. When you’re listening to a new record, you really want to focus on it as opposed to just playing it the background. New stuff? I love the Spiritual Beggars record that came out a couple of months ago. Intronaut is awesome and the Sahg record is great. I’m drawing a blank now, but wait for the top ten, that’s all I’ve gotta say, once I put that together. This year has been a pretty strong year across the board with different styles of stuff coming out. But again, I’ve just had to dig deep to really pick out the best of the bunch, ‘cause there’s been way too many releases this year. Overload, dude.

Q: Well said. Along similar lines, who’s the best Australian band you’ve heard recently that Loud readers have likely never encountered before?

A: Oh man, that’s another good question, you’ve stumped me on that. Some of the stuff I get sent, especially on Unearthed is like generally one-man bands. I think it’s Quantum Mechanism (who) I really dig, that’s like a one-man band. A lot of those out there, people just sit in their studios doing their own little projects but obviously not get out there and laying live. I mean, that’s always the test. Bands people have never heard? You have stumped me on that one; I’m trying to rack my brain. Adrift for Days from Canberra (Editor’s note – they actually hail from Sydney) are pretty good, long, drawn out doom. I can’t think of any more to be honest, but I’m sure I’ll think of a bunch more when you hang up (laughs).

Q: Final question – any famous last words?

A: I just want to thank those people who have paid attention to what we do with Contrive and supported what we’re into, or taken the time to take notice of it. It’s a tough scene out there, there’s a lot of bands out there, great bands, doing their thing and we’re just another one of those out there just trying to tread the boards. So again, thanks to those who have taken the time to give us their time. Stay metal.