[tabs tab1=”Intro” tab2=”Background” tab3=”The Band” tab4=”Message” count=”4″]
I first met The Jezabels back in February at the legendary KOKO venue in London, as part of the NME Tour. Although there hadn’t been much hype about the band in the UK, I was personally excited to finally meet this Sydney band renowned for their intense onstage energy, emotive drumbeats and steely lyrics. Their 2011 debut album Prisoner was successfully launched in Australia to huge local media acclaim, and has since been certified Gold to date, earning the band the 2011 Australian Music Prize.
On 22 February 2012, The Jezabels blew the stage at KOKO, proving themselves to be one of the tightest and most entertaining bands on the international circuit (small wonder that they went on to support the likes of Garbage in anticipation of a Skunk Anansie support slot later in the year). The crowd’s delight was tangible as clumps of Jezabels fans bobbed up and down in the packed out venue. The Jezabels had landed and they weren’t leaving London without a massive bang! In tracking the band, we have found them to be some of the most gracious and down-to-earth artists, each one blessed with brilliant talent, poise and humility. They are a band with something to say, and say it they do through their trademark pounding sounds and hard-hitting lyrics. To my bewilderment, the band is still struggling to win the hearts of the British mainstream media and public, but if the opinions of Shirley Manson and Skin are anything to go by, it’s surely just a matter of time…
Holed up backstage at KOKO, in what has to be one of the best equipped green rooms in town (piano, sofa, TV, foosball table room, actual floor space), I meet and greet 3/4 of the band that is Heather Shannon (keys), Nik Kaloper (drums) and Sam Lockwood (guitar). Shuffled into the tiny-room-within-a-room, huddled around the foosball table, the three charming (and incredibly tall) Jezabels talk to me about commitment, gender equality, and erm… channelling Philip Seymour Hoffman.
How did you get into music?
NIK KALOPER: When I was about 5, my mum noticed I was just always tapping on everything, so she found some pizza boxes in the trash and gave me a pair of drumsticks, so I could just hit them mercilessly all the time.
Was this a distraction technique of some kind, to stop you hitting the furniture maybe?
NIK: Maybe… We couldn’t afford a drum kit, so just used pizza boxes. That’s like the earliest musical memory I have. When I was 15, I started listening to bands and was really liking music as something to really sink your teeth into, not just as a form of entertainment like anything else. I can’t remember why or exactly how it started at all – it just felt buried in the back of my head.
But when did you start taking it seriously?
NIK: Well, considering the first band I was in was called “Power Flame,” I don’t think I was taking it seriously. But I knew I wanted to be in a band, just to practise being on stage or drumming with other people playing instruments. I guess I was about 19 at that time.
Where did you grow up?
NIK: In California and I moved out to Sydney when I was 15. I lived about the last 12 years in Sydney.
What about you, Sam?
SAM LOCKWOOD: Well, mum forced me to play the piano when I was younger…
It’s always the mums…
SAM: Yeah, it is! I really hated playing the piano at the start, but my mum forced me to and I got to a certain competence in piano. Then I got a guitar for my 15th birthday and since then I really liked guitar. I had a really cool guitar teacher up the road – I’d walk there and he taught me how to play blues and folk music. I always thought that I’d be a musician backing a folk singer, that’s what I used to dream about… I did that for a while in Sydney before The Jezabels but it was actually really fun to play with The Jezabels, so I kept doing that.
And you, Heather?
HEATHER SHANNON: Hayley and I knew each other at school and we used to play little folk songs and stuff on the acoustic guitar. I have been playing piano since I was about 4 doing classical music – I think my grandmother introduced me to the piano…
She was a pianist?
HEATHER: Not particularly – she just liked classical music. So I started learning and I’ve always practised a lot – I’ve played a lot of piano in my life.
Piano is one of those instruments, isn’t it, where if you want to do well in it you have to really keep it going…
HEATHER: Yeah. I went to the conservatorium and I was doing hours a day practicing so I was taking it seriously. It’s always been something that I wanted to do, so I just knew I’d have to put a lot of time and effort into it. And I just fell into playing in a band somehow…
How did you exactly “fall into” this?
HEATHER: You can’t really “plan” this…
SAM: I think the ones that “plan for” it are the tragics… it always happens like this in life: you perform a show, it works for some reason, the manager’s there and they pick you up, and from then on it’s serendipity…
HEATHER: I think when we all first started playing together, we knew we had something that was original. I think we could hear that…
A lot of journalists struggle to box your sound and I read somewhere that you called yourselves “gothic pop”?
HEATHER: Yeah, Sam actually made up that word and wrote it on our Facebook page.
SAM: That was like years ago!
HEATHER: It comes up quite often in interviews.
People quote it?
HEATHER: It sort of just started out as a joke, but then we thought, ”Oh, that’s kind of cool!”
So, Heather, did The Jezabels’ sound start off with you and Hayley?
HEATHER: No, I wouldn’t say the sound started then, but we started the “dream.”
Was that just two girls saying, “We can do it!”?
HEATHER: Yeah, it was totally like that! And we ended up moving to Sydney. We would just spend every weekend after uni trying to find gigs anywhere. We’d find a pub, but they’d be like, “There used to be a stage here but now it’s full of Coke machines, sorry…” We just couldn’t find gigs anywhere. Eventually, we found a couple and played some open mic nights. We just wanted to challenge ourselves and keep playing stuff. And then we met Nik and Sam so we could do the proper full band thing and start playing indie nights and stuff.
So, was there any moment where you thought, “This is a bit crazy actually, what are we doing?”
SAM: It was just a really serious hobby for like 2 years… We spent a lot of time gigging around Sydney when we got together. You can manage a normal life still doing that – you can work and go to uni. But when it started becoming very time consuming going round Australia, that’s when I thought, “Yeah, we can’t do this…”
HEATHER: Yeah we were at uni, working and touring…
NIK: There was about a year in all our lives where we thought we were going to lose it…
HEATHER: Yeah, we had a few breakdowns.
So, what happened in the rough times – Did you just pick each other up?
HEATHER: Yeah, a little bit – there’s support between us. But I think we also saw more people coming to the gigs each time – it was steadily growing.
NIK: Yeah, there was always that sort of carrot on the stick. We started thinking, “Oh wow, maybe we can try and do that and see what happens…”
HEATHER: Then we’d write another song and think it’s better than our last one, and it just keeps going.
Your songs are very catchy but also darkly romantic in a lot of ways. Who’s the main thrust behind the energy and themes of the songs?
NIK: Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
You channel Phillip Seymour Hoffman…?!
NIK: I channel him to drum.
SAM: Which movie?
NIK: Er, Capote…
He’s your main inspiration, is he…?
NIK: For most things, yeah… [band falls about laughing] No, I’m just being a weirdo right now, I’m sorry…
SAM: I like to see us as collaborators when we write because we just get together and write everything together. But I’d say if there was one person who you could say constructs our sounds for most of our previous recordings, it’d be our producer. We all come together and write songs but he…
HEATHER: …he exaggerates us.
SAM: Yeah, he exaggerates what we do and he can communicate really clearly.
HEATHER: He’s a good facilitator for the 4 of us.
So it’s good to have someone outside of your own creative processes?
SAM: Producers are so underrated in the whole recording process. If you really like a CD and you like the artist, but then they go to another producer, you might not like that artist any more.
NIK: And not only that, but that song could have come out a hundred different ways with a hundred different producers.
NIK: I mean, you have chord charts and drumbeats on a piece of paper, all the sounds, the sonic landscape that ends up with the signature of that producer at the end of that day…
It’s true – but producers are getting a little more credit now…
SAM: They are, these days. I think that back in the day it was like smoke and mirrors – like some Wizard of Oz behind the scenes…
Your tracks have great balance and it’s been pointed out that your sound and stage performances are very gender-neutral…
HEATHER: Ah, that’s cool! That’s a nice thing to say.
Is that purely accidental?
SAM: Well, it’s something we can all agree on, because we’re all sort of, not politically-minded, but we like talking about issues and that’s the one issue that we all agree on or we all get frustrated by.
So what kind of frustrations are we talking about?
HEATHER: Gender equality.
SAM: Feminism. Because we’ve got 2 girls and 2 boys, it’s a good thing to talk about.
HEATHER: And questions come up. Like this morning when I was doing an interview, I was asked, “Because there are 2 boys and 2 girls, do you guys argue a lot?” And I was like, “Well, we do argue but it’s not because we’re 2 boys and 2 girls…”
SAM: It’s because we’re 4 people!
NIK: It’s because we’re 4 strange people!!
You probably have a lot of other music-related stresses which are way more important…
So Heather, have you ever experienced any negative treatment from the industry or the media in terms of being a female member of the band?
HEATHER: I think Hayley’s probably really different to me actually, but I only notice really small things but not even so much anymore. I think we’ve been really lucky to work with really open-minded people and I’ve never felt like I’ve been treated that differently. But I guess at the start, it was challenging even just in my own mind. It was when we first all got together, when we were in shitty bars and trying to play shows and a guy wouldn’t give me information because I was a girl.
So there is that element of maybe not being taken seriously?
HEATHER: Yeah, just a little bit. And it’s only happened a few times. I really like being a woman behind an instrument — If I say it myself, I really admire that. I can be pretty gender neutral, right?
You’re kind of an enigma in that sense…
SAM: Yeah, I think there are a lot of bands where they have the one female… token females, really…
HEATHER: Yeah, and it seems like it’s artificial. But I feel like with us it’s different because we’ve got equal parts.
NIK: But it’s not like there was any affirmative action at any point: we didn’t fire the third male to get a second female. It feels great that it did end up working out that way.
And a lot of female-fronted bands are actually doing really well…
HEATHER: Yeah, totally! Seems like there’s a movement.
Do you notice any difference between the crowds in Australia and in other countries?
NIK: I struggle with this question because I don’t notice huge differences in crowd energy or crowds. It’s only small, peculiar things, nothing sweeping. Like, Germans seem to be very happy to give you criticism, actually. [laughs]
NIK: They’ll have the biggest smile on their face when they say it, but they’re just letting you know how they felt about it…
SAM: …“The third song didn’t sound too good tonight. But I really like the fourth song.”
HEATHER: They’re very honest.
NIK: When I look out into the crowd from the stage, I would never have any clue what country I was in, based on what I experience just on stage.
HEATHER: Actually, even within Australia if you compare playing a show in Sydney to Melbourne, the Melbourne crowds always seem to just sit back and watch, and London’s a bit like that too.
They’re a bit like, “Impress me!”
You are one of the tightest bands out there – Is that because you’re on the same wavelength not just with the music, but also in other areas?
HEATHER: Yeah, I think that came first actually because we sucked when we first started playing together. It took heaps of practice, writing and stuff to get where we are today. And I think the reason we kept going is because we got along as friends and hung out. We used to just practise really leisurely, have a few beers and talk about stuff.
NIK: I find it peculiar. It doesn’t feel like a sibling thing or a romantic relationship or a friendship, it’s a weird type of relationship.
SAM: It’s very weird.
SAM: I’d say it’s just below actually dating someone, because you have an intimacy with your partner. But with us, we’re always together and that’s the thing you have to get past. We share a lot of time together, go through stressful situations together – It’s like you’re in an army platoon.
HEATHER: You know what everyone’s farts smell like!
It’s about having a common goal?
Has it been easy to get a balance between private life and band priorities, or is that something you think needs to be learned by musicians over time?
NIK: I think your balance will affect how far you get.
SAM: Yeah, you have to decide 100% band or relationship…
NIK: I mean, 100% band would probably make you go insane, so maybe give yourself that 3 or 4 percent the rest of the time!
SAM: 96% is the formula for success!
Do you think the commitment issue is the main reason why bands don’t work out?
SAM: It is, totally.
HEATHER: I’ve played with cover bands and stuff, and I just remember I’d take any opportunity that I could just to get experience, and I’d play in pubs and markets and stuff. I used to hate it and I was like, “Why would anyone play in a band that sucks? It’s boring.” I didn’t get it. It was because I didn’t get along with the people in the band, and they didn’t challenge me.
So it’s important to challenge each other?
HEATHER: Yeah, musically you have to challenge each other, to keep each other interested.
So how are you feeling about promoting your debut album Prisoner over here?
SAM: We’ve had a pretty successful run in Australia so I feel happy for it to be out and it’s finally coming out.
NIK: Well, it’s too late to even change anything. You can get pretty fatalistic about it. Everything up until we got it mastered was deliberating and worrying and stressing, and after that you just make it as accessible as possible so if people have an opportunity to listen to it, they’re either going to like it or hate it.
It’s been pretty successful back home.
HEATHER: Yeah it’s done really well.
So, summarizing everything you’ve just told me in terms of what you’ve gone through and where you’re at now, what advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago or to musicians who want to do what you do?
HEATHER: Practise a shitload.
NIK: Yeah, practise, practise, practise. And I can’t help but think sometimes that there’s an element of timing and luck in all this as well. Half the problem would be finding 4 people who have the same musical ambitions as each other and if you don’t find that, you just don’t find it, no matter how good you are at playing music. So the fact that the 4 of us found each other and we all just, for some reason, knew that we were going to put the band first, that’s just a luck thing and timing.
HEATHER: Also, we’re all from very different backgrounds and we like lots of different music and I think that’s why it works for us. So I’d say: Don’t limit yourself.
NIK: Yeah: Put yourself out there as much as possible. I couldn’t think of 4 people with more different tastes.
What music are you all into then?
HEATHER: I’d probably say Eastern European classical music.
SAM: I like folk music but not pop-folk music. I like traditional Irish folk music or country music from America, but not Gillian Welch and people like that…
I feel like you’re going to say something completely wild, Nik…
NIK: No, it’s not that weird…. It’s just mainly… Hungarian indie pop… No! I’m stuck in the late 90s: American alternative music, post-grunge and a lot of metal: really rough stuff like Cattle Decapitation and Agoraphobic Nosebleed…
HEATHER: And then Hayley loves divas from the 80s. She loves Abba and Queen, really theatrical stuff.
SAM: So it’s basically North, South, East, West…
NIK: There’s no reason that the 4 of us should have been able to make a song!
SAM: But, it’s about the people rather than what they’re into.
NIK: My drumming motto from my last band was: Play as much as you can, always. And learn from good people, no matter what their musical taste is.
HEATHER: I’ve totally undone a lot of my classical training as well because I just felt like, “I can’t make things up?! But I need to read it on a piece of paper!” and then slowly…
SAM: …Heather’s going to be a late bloomer! She’ll end up making like 50 albums a week…
So are you feeling positive about the future?
SAM: Yeah, I think we’re all on the same page now where we all just want to tour the world and keep making music. And I think we’re at the stage now where it’s starting to become a possibility, but we still have to get through this period. I think another reason we’re so okay with being together and doing what we’re doing is that we’re not too desperate about it. We see the world as a place where what we’re doing is very awesome but…
HEATHER: …this could all be over in the next month.
SAM: Yeah. I’ve always said this but I’m totally happy to go back to being an English teacher, which I was.
NIK: I wanted to be a science teacher.
SAM: I’d obviously miss the travelling but I’ve been trying to maintain that headspace where if it all ends tomorrow we’ve had a really good run.
You really enjoy what you’re doing, but a lot of bands these days feel pressure to produce and don’t enjoy it…
SAM: Yeah, it’s understandable.
HEATHER: It can get like that sometimes, it’s so overwhelming…
NIK: It’s hard, you walk a tightrope. If you pay no attention to the business considerations of your band you won’t have enough money to go on tour. And if you spend all that time thinking about such things then you’re not really going to write decent music if you’re only focused on charts and stuff.
SAM: That’s why our manager’s good.
NIK: Yeah, our manager’s incredible with everything he does.
SAM: That’s another reason we’re successful at all: because of him. Another message for people who want to get into this is to find people who fit what they do.
Yeah: try to avoid that kiss of death from a commercial manager who doesn’t really care about you…
SAM: That happens a lot.
Thanks very much for the interview, guys!
NIK: That was a really great interview!