Eskimo Joe’s new album, Ghosts of The Past, finds the band returning the more stripped back feel of four-times-platinum Black Fingernails, Red Wine (2006), after the more elaborate orchestration and experimentation of 2009’s Inshalla. Produced by Matt Lovell, who produced Black Fingernails, the first single is “When We Were Kids.” I spoke with bass player/vocalist Kav Temperley a few days after the band returned from what was, by all accounts, a pretty kickass set that the Splendour In The Grass festival.
You just played Splendour. That must have been cool.
It was amazing. We were really lucky to play from about six to seven, so we played just as the sun set. You play to this amphitheatre and you can see it filling up with people… Kanye West got helicoptered in, Kate Moss was hanging backstage…
You’ve travelled such a long distance since I first saw you guys at the bar at the University of Canberra in the late 90s.
Yeah. We’ll probably be back at the uni bar one day.
The press release for the new album says this album is a return to your rock roots.
It’s definitely a rock and roll record. We had an idea of going into the studio with two people on guitar, bass, upright piano and drums, and to just have that treatment. If you listen to The Pixies’ Doolittle, they can make everything work on those instruments. They can make everything work, and they don’t need anything else. It’s all there. And that was our intent. And when you start doing that, you end up having a much more rock and roll-sounding record. That’s just the nature of it. The last record had all these moments which were kind of almost like Toto’s “Africa” or something like that, whereas this is much more down to The Police and The Pixies again.
Or at least Toto’s later, post-Africa stuff!
Yeah! There ya go!
So it was a conscious decision to do something different to the previous one?
Yeah. For us it’s always about kicking against whatever we did before, and the last record was eclectic. You had Led Zeppelin rock things but there was also Peter Gabriel kind of moments on it. It was going all over the place, and we just really wanted to make a very uniform-sounding record, where if you press play you know exactly what record you’re listening to. That’s kind of what happened with Black Fingernails, Red Wine. There was nothing premeditated about it. The album before it, Songs Of The City, was kind of eclectic and we just wanted a very uniform-sounding record, and that’s what we’ve done again, and this is what it sounds like. All of my favourite records, like Harvest by Neil Young, it doesn’t matter what’s on the record, it sounds like the same session. The same musicians in the same room, performing a different song. That, to me, is what always works best. But then, the ‘white’ album by The Beatles has always been one of my favourite records, and even though that sounds like the same band playing a bunch of different styles, it’s still a very eclectic album, and at the end of the day it still sounds like the white album.
Also the nature of your songwriting is such that you can augment your songs with more instrumentation and orchestration or you can play them more stripped back.
Yeah. Our thing has been about getting the structure right first. We spend a lot of time trying to make the songs work on an acoustic guitar. If that works, our theory is that you can kind of do anything to it and it will work. We didn’t do so much of that on Inshalla. I did a lot of fucking around with creating loops like on “Foreign Land,” and then writing over the top of that. That’s just because I like to keep it interesting for myself and I don’t want to be stuck into a formula. But this record, I know it sounds really stupid but we really sat down to write an Eskimo Joe record. I think we’re old enough now that we don’t have to cringe at that thing that Australians do, like, “Oh no, we made a record that sounds too much like ourselves!” This time around we were like, “Fuck it. Let’s just make a record that sounds like us. So we’ve embraced it a bit more as opposed to kicking against it.
You did an intimate acoustic tour a few months ago, and you’re planning to incorporate some of that vibe into your next full-scale tour. How? What form is that going to take?
I have no idea yet! When you do those really small shows, you have an instant rapport with the crowd. You can fuck up and go “Oh shit. How did this song go?” and someone yells out “The first lyric is…” and you go “Thank you!” and start it. Everyone feels like it’s their band, like they’re a part of the whole thing. I really like that. The tours we did for the last record were, like, the Horden Pavillion and shit like that, which is just the polar opposite of that experience. It’s like creating an action movie. I do think that there is a place for the action movie. If I pay to see a band, I don’t really want to see the dudes next door. I want to see a fucking rock and roll band. Something that’s going to transport me to another place. But at the same time, there’s something so good about connecting with your audience. It’s just about finding that balance – creating moments in the set where it feels like an action film as well as moments where it feels real and genuine. Where there’s no trickery, basically, between you and the music.
I saw Avenged Sevenfold recently and they had a great balance – they’re a really tight live band who are great performers, but in between songs they’re noodling with blues riffs, they’re joking with each other, joking with the crowd… it really makes it feel like that particular concert is unique, not just another performance of the set.
Well, not dissing the current electro thing going on, but that whole vibe is probably quite far away from that performance rock and roll thing that Australians are so good at and enjoy so much. Not saying Cut Copy are bad or anything like that, because they are really great at what they do, but that’s definitely a trend of where bands are at at the moment. But I think that as Australians, one of the things we’re really good at is being a real rock and roll band. That’s why bands like Jet and The Vines and Wolfmother have hit it big overseas: because they get it: that AC/DC thing. Hopefully we’re not going to be defined by just that style of music overseas for the rest of our lives, but I definitely think there’s something in the Australian that responds to that.
“When We Were Kids” is a really affecting song. On the one hand it implies a kind of nostalgia, but on the other it looks to the present, and to coping with not being that kid any more.
Totally. That’s exactly the experience I was going through when I was writing that song. I’ve got young kids now, and that whole thing of, “Officially I’m not a dude in my 20s any more…” I’ve kind of moved to this other place, and I’m not like an old person yet but I’ve definitely entered some other realm, y’know? (laughs) So “When We Were Kids” is about that, but it’s also about how as a guy you push things to the knife’s edge when you’re younger, and then as you get older you wouldn’t do that. You approach things in a completely different way, and there are pros and cons to it.
And “Love Is The Drug” has a late 80s alternative kind of feel.
That wasn’t really meant to be a big song. We’d pretty much written the record, and had worked really hard to get to that point, and we had this song that was more like just a bit of a ditty. I was going to put this acoustic Bowie thing in between songs on the album, but the more we played it, the more we realised there was something to it. It was almost like the gods of music had said “Here you go, boys. You’ve worked so hard, here’s a single.” We didn’t really think about it. And because all the dynamic elements were so familiar to us, we just got into it and it worked straight away. We had a gig at a festival in Perth and we don’t usually do this but we were like, “Fuck it, we’ve just got to play this song live.” It just works and it’s really fun. It’s just one of those songs where once we were on the right track it came together so quickly and easily.
What basses did you use on the album?
I’ve gone to Warwick. I never thought I’d be a Warwick player because I don’t really like metal basses or anything, but they’ve re-made these Star basses. They’re these hollowbody things and they sound awesome. They’ve got a perfect combination between being a solid-sounding instrument and having that kind of woody hollowbody tonal character to them as well. So we put them all over the record and I’m using them live now and they’re fantastic.
What about amps?
I’ve been playing an Aguilar for a while. The Aguilar head, I love it. It’s got a real 70s sound. There aren’t a lot of knobs on it but it’s just got so much tone, and I think it totally kicks ass over the Ampeg stuff, which is kind of your standard. But the Aguilar is where it’s at. I’ve got this 4X12 cab as well and it’s got this really cool kind of 70s fat tone to it. I love it and I find it really hard to feel comfortable with another amp.
What came first for you – songwriting or playing bass?
Playing bass. I started when I was about 12, then at about 14 or 15 I taught myself to play guitar and sing. I was a much more technical bass player when I was younger, because I used to play all the Primus basslines and all the things you used to do when you were a kid. And then the better I got at songwriting and singing, the more I refined my basslines, to the point where now I can’t think of anything worse than writing technical stuff! I just want it to be really solid and cool.
Ghosts Of The Past is out now