We chatted to the Melbourne three-piece, Loose Tooth, about their new record Keep Up.
Touring can be a daunting prospect for a band at the best of times. Given they’re simultaneously undertaking their first international sojourn and are opening to no less a musician than their Grammy-nominated label boss Courtney Barnett. Loose Tooth could be forgiven for being a bundle of nerves when we meet a week into their European visit and ahead of their show at Manchester’s picturesque Albert Hall.
The reality couldn’t be further than the truth as the three of them languidly lounge on the sofas of their dressing room, models of relaxed easy-going charm with a relaxed air that only the bond longstanding friendships can bring about. Watching them on stage later that evening, it’s clear that that sense of unity hewn from shared experiences and adventures carry doesn’t stop at the dressing room as wide smiles and inter-song one-liners give a sense of a live show love-in that the audience are all invited to.
It helps that they’ve got a suite of songs that belies the fact that they’ve only just made – and since released – their debut record, a collection that sounds like a band assured and confident both in each other and in their collective abilities. That assuredness, say the band, comes from the way the record took a natural and carefully-measured gestation period that allowed them to shape it in their own way. “I think we really took our time with it,” explains bassist Luc Dawson with characteristic softly-spoken thoughtfulness “and started recording it maybe a year ago. It’s been on the bench for quite a while, and we were just told not to rush it.”
Guitarist Nellie Jackson, doubles down on Dawson’s assertion that not rushing the record helped its creation but then adds as a caveat that it was a delicate balancing act as “at the same time we needed to have this sense of ‘you’ve got this studio time booked in, and it’s time to move things along a bit’”. Luckily, the band hit the studio well-prepared – Dawson has a mantra that during the recording process things should never take more than two takes to nail down, reasoning it by bluntly stating that “if they do you don’t really know what you’re doing or you don’t know your song” – allowing them to hit the ground running and focus on putting Keep Up to tape rather than fleshing it out in the studio.
Well, for the most part at least. Having described the process in terms that made it sound like the model of precision, Dawson at once undermines his own point and draws knowing laughs from his bandmates as he remembers how “we still wrote a song right off the bat while we were in there!”
“it was a representation of who we were at that time and we recorded it with no pressure surrounding it “
The album comes off the back of 2016 EP Saturn Returns and all three band members talk candidly of how, in hindsight, that record acted as a development tool to help them arrive at the full-length record they’ve now made. “The EP was good because it was a representation of who we were at that time and we recorded it with no pressure surrounding it, which was great,” says drummer and vocalist-in-chief Etta Curry, adding that “in a way it presents more of an introduction to us, whereas the album was something we gave more thought to in terms of the next stage and what we were doing.” It’s a view shared by Jackson, who admits that “our sound has developed into what it was destined to be, whereas that EP was perhaps more the sound of us figuring things out and working out respective strengths and the way that we write songs together.”
Play the two records side by side and it quickly becomes apparent that Keep Up ditched the fuzziness that permeated Saturn Returns for a sound that instead is based on harmonies and melodies and an overall clarity which, thanks to its garage-rock stylings, didn’t feature on Saturn Returns – or certainly didn’t feature as strongly. Listening back to that debut EP prior to recording, Curry admits the experience left her surprised, disclosing how she “couldn’t believe how fuzzy it sounded and it inspired me to be able to say ‘we’re definitely not in this direction any more’. It gave me a few tips in terms of what sort of tones I was looking for when I went into the studio. We’re now more confident in our songwriting and that became apparent through the use of less distortion.”
While there are undoubted doses of the band’s trademark spunk peppered throughout the new record – ‘You Say’ sits somewhere between The B-52s and Life Without Buildings; ‘All The Colours Gone’ and ‘Butter Knife’ motor along with a propulsive edge – with the cleaner sound also comes greater sense reflection. Album opener (and lead single) ‘Keep Up’ sees a call-and-response between Dawson’s dreamy contemplative imagery of sad faces pressed against the windows of regional trains and reminders to “just get on with it”, and Jackson and Curry’s direct, peppy vocals that belie their warning of the dangers of aimless listlessness (“You will not be happy ‘cause you don’t know what you want”). Elsewhere ‘Asteroid’ – the best song Pavement never wrote – melds an insidious catchiness to nostalgia and pining for a life once lived (“constellations and comet tails, like when we were young”), while ‘Moon Shine’ frames lovesickness through a dreamy haze.
This added contemplative element comes in part, according to the band, from the varied topics they’re now writing about. Dawson discloses, to knowing laughs from Curry and Jackson, how Saturn Calls was “predominantly about Etta’s terrible relationship, which was wildfire in terms of writing songs”, whereas Keep Up was more balanced and more representative of their collective lives at that time, summarised by Curry as “a point in our lives when we were writing the album was a more reflective period and that’s apparent in the songs.”
“I think it’s more natural to write the songs first, and then at a later time to sit back and relax. I think the record documents that natural feeling of growing up.”
The band concede that writing the album during a transitional phase in their lives played a part, with all three members making – or being on the cusp of making – the journey from 20s to 30s that sees an individual having to poignantly leave a particular chapter of their life behind while embracing the possibilities of the next. “I think I’ve found myself feeling that now’s a time for just getting on with my life, and we naturally wrote these songs and reflected after the recording,” says Jackson “it’s not like we went in with preconceived ideas, and when afterwards we had the chance to reflect it was then that we perhaps realised some of the things that influenced the record. I think it’s more natural to write the songs first, and then at a later time to sit back and relax. I think the record documents that natural feeling of growing up.”
But if there have been changes in their writing processes, their sound and even their lives, there’s been one constant throughout – their closely-woven friendship. Curry and Jackson have known each other since Kindergarten, with Dawson having been part of their social circle for many years too. All three readily admit that it’s helped their creative process, creating an environment where they all feel supported and are able to bring ideas to the table without being torn to shreds.
But it’s also helped their touring, as evidenced by a recent five-week tour across their native Australia as part of a large-scale, multi-band communal adventure where they all travelled on the same bus. Despite low points such as multiple breakdowns and a memorably fruitless 9-hour trip to a cancelled gig in Coober Pedy (a mining town in Southern Australia so hot most of it is located underground), all three claim that there wasn’t a cross word between them. “It saw us all tested to the absolute extremes of our nature, recounts Dawson, “and we got through it without any issues and we were fine the whole time. Our personalities complement each other well.” Jackson concurs, adding that “I think it makes things so much easier, especially when we’re touring. It’s intense enough having to get yourselves together and spend all this time in each other’s pockets. We were only saying last night how intense touring is, and if we weren’t all best friends we’d all be having a totally different experience.” Curry shrugs and says with a firm, matter-of-fact tone “We probably just wouldn’t be here…”
Maybe that’s why their international forays have been such concentrated bursts of enjoyment and fun, with crowds feeding off their on-stage energy to create wonderfully feelgood experiences. It’s not gone unnoticed from the band’s perspective either, with a little help from audience members – “I had a girl come up to me after the show in Glasgow,” recalls Jackson “and say to me ‘you guys look like you’re really good friends and we can feel that when you’re playing’”. But in the same way that all three are enjoying themselves, so too are they aware of how fortunate that they’ve been so far, with Jackson openly admitting that “we’re the 1% of the bands in the world that get to do all these amazing things”. Dawson is also quick to point out the influence of their touring partner, and the label that Barnett and wife Jen Cloher (who’ll spend the majority of their set later that evening proudly filming them) have set up, saying that ‘they’re probably the best at helping you get through the door, more so than any other label. They’re not greedy.” Jackson chips in with more accolades, candidly explaining how “It’s a credit to Courtney that she’s allowing bands to come from Melbourne and play overseas. Without her we wouldn’t have been able to do this, so it’s a testament to how she still holds that flame and makes sure that the opportunities still exist for others. It’s a testament to how unselfish she is.”
“it felt really special to be part of a music community that has long had an influence on the rest of the world.”
The day before, the trio had watched Barnett alongside a star-studded cast that included St Vincent, Patti Smith, and Nick Cave (alongside a surprise cameo from Kylie Minogue) tear up All Points East festival, and the importance and magnitude of the occasion wasn’t lost on a band following their Antipodean predecessors into the overseas market. “we were commenting yesterday while we are at the festival how amazing it is that Courtney was one of the highlights, Nick Cave had top billing, Patti Smith covered a Midnight Oil song, Kylie came on…” says Curry ” it felt really special to be part of a music community that has long had an influence on the rest of the world. Even though we are in the middle of nowhere and quite backward in a lot of ways there are still some really amazing art coming out of that, and it’s really nice to be part of a community in Australia that has far reaching tentacles.” But in the same way they’re keen to praise their label for giving them the chance to come overseas, the band are similarly quick to wax lyrical about their experiences so far, with the kind of wide-eyed wonder of people still enthralled with what they’ve achieved. “To go to these shows with Courtney where she draws 2,000 people a night and they all turn up super early to see us is a really lovely thing,” says Curry of the large crowds they’ve been able to play to over the course of the tour “they’re engaged in what you do and they’re watching you – they might smile or dance or whatever, and it’s a lovely feeling.” “Leeds was crazy,” laughs Jackson, remembering their first UK show “and we couldn’t even see properly because of the lights, but every so often they swing them over the crowd and it’s a real ‘Holy fuck!’ moment.”
Never ones to stand still, Loose Tooth are already looking for the future – Dawson admits to getting depressed if left idle for too long. With an ambition matched by accomplished songs at odds with their relative youth as a band, you get the sense that this is the introductory chapter of a very bright future.
“We just want to make people happy, and I hope it does that – whether it’s musically or lyrically” says Dawson of Keep Up, and watching them almost instantly win over a full house a couple of hours later you already get the sense that it’s very much mission accomplished.