One miserable bastard... The grim irony of Vietnamese restaurants and their neon signs... A 200 year old cello... Wise words from a grandmother... Hungarian wedding dances... Groovy drumming... A station wagon and a six pack on the road to Tibooburra and the border...
Along with the vagaries of love, death, the occasional tin whistle - and what David Bridie calls a shit of a year - its taken a lot for My Friend The Chocolate Cake to make Good Luck. So much so that their singer, lyricist and keyboardist calls it our first serious statement as a band.
Conceived of as a part-time project late in 1989, My Friend The Chocolate Cake have evolved slowly, surely, and now, formidably.
Back at their beginnings, Bridie and cellist Helen Mountfort were happy to take time off from their main concern, Not Drowning, Waving - to just go out and play with friends similarly inspired by Penguin Cafe Orchestra, novelist Tim Winton and arguments after reading The Age newspaper.
Their concerns were local, human and intimate, landscaped into atmospheric, wryly Australian pop music. But Chocolate Cake's approach was always deceptively modest, bittersweet and frayed with unexpected intensity: characteristics that have never left this quintessentially Melbourne group and their acoustically focused sound.
Their self-titled debut was released to acclaim in 1991, followed by Brood in 1994. Along the way, My Friend The Chocolate Cake became an accidental success story in an industry Bridie characterises as obsessed with instant gains. A lot has changed in that time. Not Drowning, Waving are no more. Helen Mountfort is one of the countrys most in-demand session musicians (from Nick Cave to The Underground Lovers through to theatre projects). And Bridies resume is ridiculously varied: he has worked on everything from film soundtracks to production for Christine Anu, Monique Brumby and Archie Roach to coordinating World Music events like Sing Sing.
In 1996, with the release of Good Luck, Mountfort, Bridie and the rest of Chocolate Cake are looking forward to a tour of the UK, then Australia, to promote the recording of their lives. As Bridie says, Its a real attempt to make a record that fully realises all the qualities this band has got. Its also the first time weve been able to make something thats not under the fragmented light of NDW. Mountfort agrees. Now that Chocolate Cake is both her and Bridies main songwriting vehicle theres an inevitable intensity and focus.
All of Chocolate Cake have matured and grown together. Its a more united front and you can hear it. We've developed this thing and we know what it is.
Their usual blend of acoustic instruments - predominantly cello, violin and piano - has been complemented by increasing use of electric guitars, bass and keyboards on Good Luck. Along with a the bands sublimated aggression and a knack for straight-out pop songs like Lighthouse Keeper (the first single), My Friend The Chocolate Cake have also developed their powerfully shadowy and reflective music to new depths.
The groups songs and instrumentals have previously suggested influences as wide as Celtic folk, neo-classical sounds and a literate, mundane eye you'd more usually associate with the likes of Billy Bragg or Paul Kelly. But these flavours are all melting into an accomplished, studio-defined sound that reaches out into something distinctly modern, cool and textured, from Brian Enoish ambiences to a less-dislocated Portishead.
This acceleration into textured atmosphere has become one of Chocolate Cakes most potent qualities. Both Bridie and Mountfort are grateful for producer/engineer Jeremy Alloms (Massive Attack; DIG; Vika and Linda Bull) guidance on Good Luck, for the way he pared back the instrumentation and encouraged experimentation with everything from microphones through to sound affects. Bridies singing, in particular, has been pushed.
Mountfort observes that when you start off as an artist you tend to throw everything at something to make it better. As you get more confident and older, you learn to say no to that, to not be afraid of exposing things. So it's with a certain edge that Bridie says, If people think weve got a dicky name or we havent got grungey guitars, thats cool. Theyre missing the point.
‘We just wanted to make a record that would stand up for itself and make people take the band seriously. That’s why we wanted to open with something as dark as the song Good Luck, to not shy away from it, but then be able to do a Hungarian instrumental like Vandorlo or a real ‘70s pop number like Lighthouse Keeper,’ he laughs.
Or as Mountfort puts it, trying to explain what Chocolate Cake can now achieve within songs as much as between them, I love it when you think youre somewhere in a song and it takes you somewhere else.
David Bridie: vocals, piano and keyboards.
Helen and I like dark music, and the cello is a dark instrument. So is the piano the way I play it. Im not much of a Billy Field. - D.B.
Helen Mountfort: cellos and backing vocals.
I think I mostly use music for reflection. Other people use it to bring them up or dolly them along. - H.M.
Hope Csutoros: violin and viola.
Shes a vivacious, passionate Hungarian woman. Her strong personality is part of the character of the band. Hope is a real focus in our live shows, riding the moods from subtle harmonic touch to ripping the shit out of her strings. A very talented musician. - D.B.
Andrew Carswell: mandolin and tin whistle.
A gem of a man who really loves his music, and who always brings these musical lines or ideas from way out of left field. - D.B.
Andrews influence on Chocolate Cake is incredibly subtle and incredibly strong. - H.M.
Andrew Richardson: acoustic and electric guitar.
An old school buddy of mine, who plays with real finesse and most importantly always provides breakfast on tour - D.B.
Greg Patten: drums.
Hes a bit of a groove drummer, which might seem a bit odd for us, but it's brought a whole new dimension to the band. And he hates a beer. - D.B..
with special guest (we cant afford to be a seven piece)
David Abuiso: double bass, electric bass and piano accordion.
Davids one of those great musos does everything from wedding receptions to this Rebetiki music thats like Greek blues played by the Velvet Underground. - D.B.
** All comments from David Bridie or Helen Mountfort.
The traveller wanders alone in the town....
Bridie: "Its the name of a Vietnamese restaurant. I was having a shitty day, feeling down. Id dropped my daughter off at creche. And I just had this ironic lyric in my head, but I didnt have a moniker or anything to hang it on. Then I drove by the sign for this restaurant. And I thought, Yeeeep. I also had this vision in my head when I was working on it of someone alienated and in a foreign place searching for something - it could be drugs, it could be love, it could be meaning."
Mountfort: "David wanted something without his piano on this record. Its such a rhythmic instrument and so the definition of a note is strong. With strings theres less definition when the note changes - the bow pulls across a string, so the change of note is physically smoother. It freed Davids singing a lot to have that experience"
Come and be my lighthouse keeper,
protect me from the kitsch parade
Come shelter me when all around
is hollow, plastic and ready made.
Bridie: "Its a tried and true metaphor for friendship guiding you through the rough times. Its a very 70s sounding song too, with a mandolin line that reminds me of Nile Rogers. We wanted things like this on the record to balance the darkness."
Mountfort: "We seem to have an authority in reflective pieces. But Im happiest with Lighthouse Keeper of all the up songs weve ever done. Hope and I did our disco-string thing on it."
The swollen tongue and the blistered soul,
You lost your way your untouchable.
Bridie: "This was a song John Phillips (ex NDW) and I wrote. When Greg Patten joined I knew Chocolate Cake could do it because hes got such a great groove feel to his drumming. It was inspired by a drive up to Tibooburra, which is right where the borders of NSW, Queensland and South Australia meet. I went on my own. Just loaded up the clapped-out Falcon station wagon and gunned it! Me and a six pack in the outback - I was the happiest man in the world. The lyric in it - I dont want to go no further - is a bit of a reference to Voss, the Great Inland Sea, Patrick White, all those things. It was like if I go any further Ill die. The landscape is not meant for us out there. If your car broke down youd be dead within a day if no one found you. I was actually in Tibooburra when it rained, the first time it had there in 16 months. The whole town partied. All roads were impassable within an hour of the rain starting, and I was stuck there for three days."
Mountfort: "Andrew Carswell added the tin whistle at the end of this. Hes so fantastic. We dubbed him The Outro King on this record because he was always coming up with something amazing. I love it when you think youre somewhere in a song and it takes you somewhere else."
100 FLOWERS IN BLOOM
Bridie: "Thats a composition of Helens. Theres a beautiful melody to it, an intense brooding quality I really like."
Mountfort: "I wrote this for the soundtrack to What I Have Written. Its a really black film, and that piece strongly comes from its mood, then theres a dark grindy bit where the strings go crazy that weve added on for the record. When we mixed this we imagined making a dark video clip with plants that looked like Triffids, all nightmarish, like a 100 flowers in bloom but quite grotesque. You can see how much more weve done in the studio on a track like this, the little piano chords, the reverb notes caught deeply Down, all the sounds that make it moody and spooky."
THE KITSCH PARADE
Well all go down disgracefully.
Bridie: "A lot of people think this is about a party. Its actually a bit of a Kennett reference. Its got a 70s vibe again like Lighthouse Keeper, and its based around the four chords that Pet Shop Boys say are the key to any great pop song. Theres also a bit of Milan Kunderas The Unbearable Lightness of Being in the concept of kitsch. In Victoria theres this whole casino, Sunset Boulevard vibe taking over. So its an outwardly happy lyric. But Victoria is a pretty disgusting place to be at the moment. And the divide between the north and the south of the river in Melbourne, between the poor and the rich, is really evident."
Mountfort: "I love the James Bond strings in the middle. And Davids singing. Hes really extending what he can do with his voice all over this record."
Bridie: "Hope wrote that with Helen. We used to do a Hungarian wedding dance and this is our attempt to do something like it from our own perspective. Its got a lot of Hopes character in it."
Mountfort: "We play this as an encore and the audience loves it. Hope gets to show off. All that Hungarian gypsy stuff is in her blood. Shes such a great performer."
TALK ABOUT LOVE
We walk together arm in arm
in faith and blind devotion.
Bridie: "Its an attempt to write a song of great beauty. Its quite personal, but its also a universal concern - that the real test of love is when everything fucks up. But Im better at writing the songs than I am at living them in my own life. I actually had a lot of fear about the lyric. Now its going to be our second single. I have to say Ive been writing songs for 15 years and Ive very rarely written love songs. Im just not 100% comfortable doing it. But people tell me this moves them. And Im very happy weve persuaded the record company to release a song of this tempo and feel, and to do a video clip for it. Its stuff like this that really distinguishes us and what we do."
Mountfort: "The textures of the instruments and how they fit together have become really important to us. I think the film music collaborations that David and I have done, and the way weve grown to understand how cello and piano work, the relationship between them and a vocal, is all significant."
The sky tonight its a deadly one,
it hardly lets us breath
like Ash Wednesday
Bridie: "It was one of those really fucked up Melbourne nights. I could have gone out, but I didnt. I could hear all these police and ambulance sirens. I wanted to get that bobbing feeling. That monotony. A feeling almost like an old Blue Nile record, but not as pretty, just something that sits on a slow, simple, sparse musical feel, a listless feel which has that sense of sapped energy."
Mountfort: "I play the electric cello on this, using a flange and playing fucked-up chords. I was seeing the heat rising up off the pavement, and making notes that slide from pitch and back onto pitch. I wanted that shimmering quality. Its there in Andrew Richardsons E-bow as well."
CELLO SONG FOR CHARLIE
Bridie: "Theres some lumpy bits in the cello parts that Helen really liked. Because it made the music human, she said. It was written for her elder brother who died last year. He got her into playing the cello originally."
Mountfort: "Melody was the main thing with this. Its like a duet with mandolin and cello, a love duet. I wanted something with a nostalgic feel, something that captured the mood of mildew, memory, my grandmothers house."
YOUR SHIP HAS GONE
Way out to sea.
Bridie: "This is just a jaunty little pop song I wrote a while back. My grandma had the phrase, wait until your ship comes in. When I hear this I think about how we seem to have two types of shows - these theatre shows that are really subtle, and these wild drunken affairs that always seem to happen when we are in Brisbane playing, and everybody is up against the stage. We play this and it rollicks."
Mountfort: "It seems downbeat, but theres a black humour to it. Whenever David tells the story about what his grandmother said and then announces the song title, people just laugh. Besides, its more a sweet, sad melancholy that influences our songs. I think thats what Chocolate Cake do really well. Its actually a mood that is quite uplifting. Its like classical music. You listen to the slow movements of Beethoven, its very moody and sad and depressing, but once its finished you feel uplifted and exhilarated."
five nuns afloat in the South Pacific sea.
Bridie: "That was inspired by an Eno track called Here Come The Warm Jets. Everyone kept saying you cant have it on the record. But I didnt listen. I liked the crashing drums, the layers of melody, the piss-take vocal with Robbie Craw. You always have one trump card on a record where everyone has to indulge you, and that was mine."
Mountfort: "Thats a bit of fun really. A bit of relief in the studio. On every other song on the record you really had to earn your right to play. On this everybody played as much as they could to make up for it."
Bridie: "Andrew Carswell wrote it. Hes the most amazing musician and he comes up with these lines that come right out of left field."
Mountfort: "Andrew’s piece from whoa to go. His presence in the band is subtle but extremely strong. He uses a lot of Eastern or exotic sounding intervals in what he plays."
CANT FIND LOVE
Ive been looking,
Ive been searching...
Bridie: "I wrote that with a longtime buddy, Mark Prendergast. Its a song for mid 30s blokes. I really wanted to develop that John Cale piano line and the vocals to it. It was recorded under the influence of Jamisons whisky, and live down, sung at the piano as I played it. And I dont normally do that."
Mountfort: "This is the second song on the record with love in the title, which is really quite amazing for David. The overall mood of Davids songs is usually personal, but hes actually writing about characters mostly. On this record, though, his writing has got more personal."
Bridie: "A good way to end the record. A melancholy little instrumental."
Mountfort: "G-B is the chord progression. Its an appropriately humble name for a simple piece. Originally a lot more people were playing on it but we stripped it right back. We did that a lot on this record. Stripping back always to the best elements. Jeremy Allom would say that adding things might sound better now, but it will last longer if you dont. I found that an interesting perspective."