Verge Collection on new album Flaneur, coming of age and being a ‘poor man’s Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever’.
With a liberal dose of self-deprecating humour, a tweet hit the ether all the way from Western Australia recently, declaring ‘We’re that poor man’s @rollingblackoutscf [Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever]’. While it’s an obvious touchstone, with Verge Collection’s sound not being a million miles away from the ‘tough pop’ moniker their Sub Pop-signed Melbourne contemporaries attached to their sound, to denounce the Perth four-piece as little more than second-rate coypists would be as inaccurate as it is downright unfair.
For starters, if Rolling Blackouts’ worldview is an expansive mix of road trips and widescreen vistas, then Verge Collection is happy to tackle matters closer to home with a deft mix of relatability and humour. Their rollicking breakout single ‘Our Place’ discussed the conflicting emotions of seeing your peers get ahead of you while wanting to hold onto the shared bond, as a former house-sharer finds independence but is reassured that while they now live a different life they’ll always be welcomed back to the fold (“sit out the front of our place, and we’ll clear a space just big enough for you”). Subsequent singles ‘Class Of ’09’ and the beautific lilt of ‘Postcodes’ respectively took swipes at the retrospective canonisation of school years and modern app-based dating where the focus is on proximity rather than connection (“Hey baby what’s your postcode?/Sounds creepy but I’d like to know/Twenty minute drive is just too far…”).
But if those early singles had – at least in part – a tongue wedged firmly to the inside of a cheek then debut album Flaneur comes from a much darker place, right from the get-go. If ‘Our Place’ presented the diverging lives of friendship groups as a bridging of the gaps in geography and lifestyle, then album opener ‘Feelin’ Old’ is a tale of isolation and existential crisis (“I don’t feel like I fit in no more,” sings Ben Andrew, the song barely out of its first verse). Elsewhere, beneath the deceptively upbeat and jaunty musical facade comes tales of ill health (‘Sleep It Off’), mental health blips and attendant struggles (‘Black Dog’), the young person’s inability to get on the property ladder (“Long Comedown”) before culminating in the record’s closing cinematic ballad about loss and final farewells (‘Last Ciggie’).
Here, songwriter Ben Andrew unpacks the the journey towards making a record of far greater complexities than its jaunty exterior might suggest, and of capturing the period of dissatisfaction and soul-searching that the move to young adulthood can oh-so-often induce.
Having had something of a breakout single at home at the tail of 2015 in ‘Our Place’ and then following it up with an EP the following year, was there a catalytic moment that made you feel as though you were ready to make an album, or was it down to something as prosaic as reaching a point of having enough songs?
I think it was a bit of both, we’ve had enough songs since the band started that we could have used to do the album, but it just got to a point where we had enough money and it felt like the right time to attempt it. So I like to think of it as a personal challenge.
Having made both, which is has presented more of a creative challenge: trying to condense your aesthetic into a concise EP, or trying to make something as consistent and cohesive as a full-length album?
In think I treated the EP as like a cheese platter or sampling board of what we could do as a band. That was definitely easier because we just picked what we thought were our best tracks. Having to make something that holds your attention to some capacity for half an hour is a bit harder.
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight how do you feel you’ve evolved as both songwriters and musicians since ‘Our Place’ and what elements have you always tried to maintain as you’ve developed?
I’m not quite sure I’ve evolved, from within it doesn’t feel like the band is too different to where it began, but maybe it is from the outside looking in. I think I’m more confident in what I can do and have a better understanding of my limitations as a musician. And I think the main thing I’ve always focused on is being lyrically relevant to my own life and peers and trying to say something in a way that hasn’t been said before.
While some of your earlier songs poked fun at some of the more ridiculous aspects of growing up – dating apps, nostalgia for adolescence etc – Flaneur seems to tackle the subject matter with a greater sense of darkness, despair and millennial ennui. Is that something you’d agree with and to what extent do you feel the finished album reflects your own state of mind when writing it?
Yeah I was probably in a pretty dark place. I also, at that time, wanted people to take the lyrics a bit more seriously and was thinking that maybe I had been too subtle with the earlier songs. I personally think ‘Postcodes’ is a pretty dark and sad song, the character in it is a bit pathetic in his quest for true love and to me that’s pretty grim.
Are your songs exclusively recollections of personal experiences or are they, to some degree, also intended as some sort of wider discourse surrounding the plight of young Australian adults at present?
It’s a bit of both. A lot of it is personal experiences, some of it is other peoples experiences, a small amount of it is partial fiction, but I’m super happy if it gets people talking about their own issues.
While the album’s subject matter hints at inner turmoil then musically it’s incredibly upbeat. Was that a conscious juxtaposition built into the songwriting or something that happened organically during the process?
It’s something we’re very conscious of but it’s happened quite organically. I’m not amazing at playing guitar, so when I write, I write really simple chord progressions so that I can play and sing at the same time and they tend to be mostly open chords. But also so many of my favourite bands from my teenage years were into that sort of thing. Like The Smiths, The Cure, Depeche Mode, they’ve all got that poppy jangly guitar thing with mopey lyrics, I’m really into it. I also think its funny to see people dance to it.
There seems to be a rich seam of coming of age albums emerging from Australia at the moment. From The Goon Sax, via Alex Lahey, Fraser A Gorman and Julia Jacklin and on to Courtney Barnett there’s a collection of albums documenting the journey through young adulthood. Do you feel that your record fits into that mould and do you think it’s a subject that lends itself well to the Australian school of songwriting and the way it manages to find the extraordinary in the ordinary?
I don’t think it’s an Australian thing at all, I think the best coming of age album of all time is Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ by Arctic Monkeys, it just has a different feel to the way you’d want to write about it in Australia. Even America with all the emo music that was coming out when I was a teenager was pretty spot on for a whole bunch of people. I love all the aforementioned artists so I’d be wrapped to have my name alongside them. Ruby Fields, Hugh Fuchsen, The Fruity Whites, Peter Bibby, Pist Idiots, Dumb Punts and Good Boy are all awesome artists worth checking out that are writing about the growing pains of life.
On reflection, do you feel as though you made the album you initially intended or wanted to?
I wanted to make an album with 10 songs as quickly as we physically could, in a shitty house to document a big part of my life and move forward and we’ve done that.
Do you view the album as a collection of your own observations or one that you feel has an underlying takeaway message, and if the latter what do hope above all else that that is?
I have my own takeaway from it, but I’m too invested in it that other people probably wont see it the same way. It probably has a lot of messages in it and I’m sure active listeners will pull something out for themselves which is awesome and totally how music is meant to be. I hope that it just brings people some level of enjoyment or entertainment.