Ten years ago, Sodastream were riding the crest of a wave. Their folk-pop duo from Melbourne (via Perth) had had their fourth album, Reservations, shortlisted for the Australian Music Prize back home and with the support from Fortuna POP! had built a following in Britain and Europe too (“they played an incredible gig at St Giles Church” recounted label head Sean Price in the sleevenotes for Be True To Your School, a compilation of the label’s early years “400 people held absolutely rapt.”) only to abruptly call time on things. Until now. New album Little By Little marks their return, with international tour dates not far behind. Singer and songwriter Karl Smith gives us a bit more detail on their layoff, why it’s the time for a comeback, and what the new record will entail.
I suppose the place to start after such a long layoff is where have you been, and what’s made now the perfect moment for your return? Has it been borne out of a major event/change of heart or a gradual arrival to a point of return?
Well it’s been ten years so we’ve been to a bunch of different places. When we called time on the band back in 2007 we were just burnt-out from the yearly cycle of writing, recording and touring. I needed to rest, regroup and fall in love with music again. I studied writing and then focused on that for a few years. Pete joined a couple of other bands and he made some great records: Luluc (now on SubPop) and Khancoban.
Turned out I couldn’t stay away from music very long, so in 2009 I formed a band called Lee Memorial with some friends. We only put out one album and a few singles but it was the catalyst that got Pete and I playing together again. We asked Pete to join Lee Memorial when the bass player moved away. Later that year the other guitarist got busy with other projects, and then the drummer stopped making it to rehearsals too. Suddenly it was just Pete and me in the practice room. And that was a bit weird… and not really Lee Memorial. So we picked up the acoustic guitar and double bass again and started playing around with an album that we had left unfinished. It felt natural getting back in the swing of things.
Despite your 2007 Australian Music Prize nomination, Sean Price has often described you as the unluckiest band he’s ever worked with citing the ecstasy of you playing to a packed out 500-capacity venue in London immediately followed by the writing-off of your car on your return home as a prime example. Is that something you’d agree with in the previous phase of your journey to date and do you feel there’s a sense of unfinished business on your return?
Ha ha. There have definitely been times when it felt like that. The highs were amazing. The band took us to places we’d never dreamed of. But the lows were pretty heartbreaking too. There was Pete’s nasty bout of pneumonia, getting everything ripped off in Turin, and blowing up our new Mercedes van outside Madrid. We even went through about 4 vans on one tour, so yeah… at that stage we did feel a bit cursed.
When you travel constantly there are always things that go wrong but perhaps we pushed things a little harder than we needed to. When you’re young you can get caught up in the lifestyle a bit and that can derail things. You take risks that you’d never take now. So who knows? We are a little older and a tiny bit wiser so we’ll see how things play out. However, on all of our tours, both good and bad, we met some incredible characters and connected with the most generous people who just did what they did out of a love of music. That was what kept us going for so long. We never made a lot of money but it was the sense of community and shared creative passion that drove us.
You’ve released a solo album in recent years – did you find yourself having to compartmentalise songs into the two projects and if so, what in your own mind characterises a Sodastream song versus a Karl Smith solo song?
It’s never really that deliberate to be honest. I write every day whether I’m working on an album or not. It’s just part of my regular routine. I’m that weirdo on the train singing into my phone because a melody has just popped into my head.
The songs tend to arrive in batches and I’ll generally work on 5 or 6 of them at a time. Sometimes they arrive fairly well formed, while others are more of a mood thing and need to be shaped into something cohesive.
Pete and I are always working on new songs so we just play around with them as they crop up. It’s when it comes time to record that we spend time thinking about where each song fits. I often don’t finalise the lyrics until after we have worked on a song… this way the lyrics evolve more naturally and if I want to add in a reference to another song so there’s some shared imagery in the album, there’s still space to do that.
How do you feel you’ve changed in both your songwriting and your working processes and how do you feel any changes that have occurred over the past ten years have manifested themselves on the new album?
Pete and I have been playing together for so long now that we don’t have to discuss how we’re going to approach a song… We just start experimenting and see where it goes. That level of understanding is a special thing and it does really help the process. But playing in other bands over the last ten years has also brought some fresh ideas into the mix. We’re more inclined to think about the bigger picture when working on a song, rather than just jumping straight into bass and guitar parts.
The biggest change over the last few years has been the amount of time that passes between writing and recording sessions. Juggling kids and other commitments these days means that we have long stretches where we’re not rehearsing. Instead, we listen back to demos and mixes. I have hundreds of scratchy demos filling up my phone. I guess the other major difference is that I tend to spend more time on the lyrics than I used to. Some of my early lyrics were more stream of consciousness, and while I do still enjoy painting pictures with words, I’m more focused on storytelling now. I’ll wait for weeks, months, sometimes even a year for the right lyric to present itself. They can be pretty stubborn sometimes… but there’s always another idea to pursue when one is hibernating.
While something like ‘Moving’ could have fitted right into your previous output, songs like ‘Letting Go’ and ‘Tyre Iron’ there seems to be a newfound urgency at odds with previous work on an album like Reservations. Was there a conscious decision to tweak your musical direction in some way and if so has it turned out on record as you might have imagined?
Actually, those three songs were all written at the same time as the songs on Reservations. At the time, we had way too many songs for one album so we planned to release a more up-tempo album to follow up the low-key Reservations. That obviously never eventuated but the ‘unfinished album’ became our kick-off point for Little by Little. We began playing around with those songs back in 2013 and then the new ones slowly got added to the collection. I think ‘Habits’ was the first new one to make the cut.
We never really set out to drastically change what we do but the musical experiences of the last ten years have definitely made their way into our sound… and I think that’s a good thing. It was great to have familiar faces like Marty Brown (drums and production) and J. Walker (guitars) on board, while new collaborators like Jenny Thomas and Tom Lyngcoln brought some fresh colours.
The last few years have been pretty tough for both Pete and I, as they have been for a lot of people. Getting older is challenging in so many ways and I think the music on the album reflects that. There is a lot of heavy stuff in the media and the world is in a precarious position right now. People are anxious about what lies ahead and everywhere you look the old social and political structures are falling down. So I think that sense of urgency is coming from that. It’s not a time to be complacent. Whatever you’re doing these days, whether it’s art or engineering, technology or social work, you have to engage with the world at every level or risk allowing things to get even worse.
When I was young I either wanted to fight everything or run from everything, depending on my mood and how bad my hangover was.
Do you feel there’s a lyrical theme running through the record and how do you feel you’ve approached topics on this record differently compared to how you would have done ten years ago?
The album doesn’t really have a theme as such but that sense of urgency (or maybe purpose is a better word for it) that you were talking about earlier is present in all the songs.
When you have little children your days are so busy and chaotic, but you also have a lot of time spent sitting in silence in the dark, either waiting for them to go to sleep or not wanting to move because you’re scared of waking them up. It’s in these moments that you think about yourself and your place in the world.
When I was young I either wanted to fight everything or run from everything, depending on my mood and how bad my hangover was. You know… we’re all total narcissists at 22. And that’s all fine and good for kids. You take on the world and eventually get banged around a bit by it. But as you get older you just want to walk through it – stand tall on the things that matter and just keep moving ahead. You relish all the tender moments and you don’t linger too long in the dark.
What’s on the horizon next following the album’s release and what are you most looking forward to?
Well, it’s going to be fun to hit the road and play some shows after such a long break. We’ve got some Australian gigs to launch the new album and then we’re heading over to London for the Fortuna Pop Twenty Years of Trouble celebration at the end of March. We’ll follow that up with some concerts in Italy and then return home to start working on the next album. We’ve got a swag of new songs we’re keen to get working on, so we’ll start on them and plan out the next chapter.
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