Separately frustrated with the strictures of the different variations of country music that their respective bands had hitched their wagons to, Wellington musicians Michael Keane and Harriett Ferry found a shared desire to fashion something new. Four years on, So Laid Back Country China ’s second album sees their adopted ‘canyon rock’ genre growing in depth, breadth and popularity. Holly McGeorge caught up with the pair in a Wellington bar.
Explaining the origins of that mouthful of a band name, songwriter Michael Keane quite accurately describes the music of So Laid Back Country China. “At first we used it to describe how to play something to an earlier drummer. It kind of came out because it’s long, a little bit confusing and a little bit country. It has a sort of fragility to it.”
Previously a member of Wellington act John The Baptist, Keane was finally able to fully focus on his own project when the alt-country quartet officially broke up in mid-2014. He’d been writing songs for it since 2011, releasing the first EP ‘Winter’ as So Laid Back Country China soon afterwards.
Singer and keyboardist Harriett Ferry had signed up in 2012. She too had a background in country music, having previously played with John The Baptist member Shaun Blackwell in a band called Big River Chain.
“We wanted to tear [country] song structures apart and create a huge live sound, as well as writing music that was reflective and truthful to our day to day lives,” Keane remembers of their shared goals when first collaborating. Both the band and its sound soon grew with the addition of bassist James Bennett and Kane Tippler on drums and percussion.
‘Winter’, recorded and produced by James Goldsmith at local Wellington venues Meow and Puppies, was followed by the band’s debut album, ‘With Knees of Honey in Goodbye Canyon’, in May 2015.
Again just over a year on, the quartet (and engineer/producer) have independently dropped a third album, this one called ‘Sin Cristales’. Again with the enigmatic titles.
Keane explains that the new album’s name also goes back to 2012, when a South American Twitter account – that typically posts pictures of children kidnapped by drug cartels – shared early demos of the band with the comment, ‘It’s like falling out a window without the glass,’ in Spanish. He thinks about it for a moment, but concludes he can’t repeat the Spanish words.
“What stuck was ‘sin cristales’. It has been a piece of imagery in my head and it tied in with me stopping drinking and a few other things, so that was the base of the material.
The title carries on from canyon rock [a genre they have assumed which possibly helps explain some unlikely critical comparisons to Calexico], although we want to move away from that, with the glass and having a kind of falling imagery.
“I always think of canyon rock as a really immense and cavernous sound, but with a quite specific slow pace movement, not necessarily just soundscapes but the feeling of travelling and gliding… a big sound,” he emphasises.
Again the band decided to work with Goldsmith and recorded in October/November 2015 at Goldsmith’s Blue Barn Studio in Wellington suburb Mt Cook.
“James gets us and our sound. He often throws a spanner in the works and changes things, and it works for the better,” Harriett enthuses. Sometimes that meant him stripping out recorded parts, and sometimes it meant compromising with Wellington’s wild weather, a favourite part of the process for Keane.
“It was one night when the rain was falling horizontally and we were waiting for it to disappear so we could track. James was great to capture it all and I am really glad we did it that way – it captured the feeling we were going for.”
While the band’s roots are clearly in country, their music sits more in the broader field of cinematic post rock a la Mogwai, Mono, or, to keep it local, Napier’s Jakob.
Ferry is unsure how best to describe their sound. “We wouldn’t know, as we bring different influences to the band. Our drummer listens to a lot of Pink Floyd and Tool, classic drummer stuff, we really love cheesy country but we can’t do that ‘cos we’re not American. I like [German modern composer] Nils Frahm and Tom Waits as pianists. Michael listens to guitarists like William Tyler, Robbie Basho and Neil Young.”
Producer James Goldsmith is no more certain. “I used to describe them as prog stoner country band when I first worked with them on ‘Winter’, but since then they have really evolved. The songwriting incorporates elements of post rock and alt country, as well as more traditional folk and country elements. So I’ll tow the line and say canyon rock.”
In the recordings, Keane’s voice booms and croons, sometimes reminiscent of The National’s Matt Berninger, at others touching on Ian Curtis’s legendary and appealing darkness – with insecurity and shakiness. Ferry’s warm and pure voice provides the ying to his yang, suiting the contradictory atmosphere of the music.
In many ways, ‘Sin Cristales’ sits on a bipolar scale, an album that pulls the listener in many directions, gives conflicting emotional musical and lyrical cues. Lyrics are deceptively short, repetitive and tell their stories mostly between the lines, conveying emotions around very vague outlines of snapshots in time – feelings of inadequacy, resignation, detachedness yet longing, lust (in such a matter of fact fashion that sounds like it’s nearly lacking passion), melancholia.
Hollow body guitar chords ring and sparkle from a base that’s dark and moody here. Frantic prog rock guitar riffing breaks out over pedestrian drums and piano there. It’s cold but warm.
“We just wanted to do what was right for each song and for the album. A couple of songs didn’t end up on the album because they didn’t feel right. We certainly didn’t have any reference points. Although Blood had a very Bill Callahan [Smog] slant, originally as an acoustic song, which isn’t what we were going for, so we broke it apart a lot,” Ferry points out.
“We would have liked to have had more than seven songs but really wanted to make sure we gave it its due, letting it find itself and respecting each song for what it is and not trying to push any influences onto it and letting it breathe.”
Given their pattern to date it’s no surprise that Keane is more keen to move on to the next than dwell on the merits of ‘Sin Cristales’. There’s a hint of addiction in his creative process. “We want to do this all again. We want to write another album, gig and do all the stuff you do after the album is done. I just want to record more. Make people listen to it, release singles.”