Following their release of the superb new album High and Low and Back Again, we caught up with Fendahlene to dig deeper into the project, their creative process as a duo, the effects of a tumultuous 2020, and their hopes for the future. Here’s the conversation in full.
* * *
Hey, thanks for the interview! For those who don’t know, how would you describe the sound of Fendahlene, and how long have you been playing together?
I always find it difficult to categorise or neatly summarise our sound, because we have quite a broad range of influences and love lots of different types of music. But I suppose melodic guitar-based rock summarises it pretty well. Some songs will have a more bluesy-flavour, some might have an alt-country feel, and others a heavier punk/indie sound, but the common denominator is strong melodies and harmonies.
We formed in Sydney in late 1994, which sounds like ancient history now, but it was a great time for music, coming out of grunge and on the cusp of Britpop. Before that, we’d been in a few high school bands so we’ve been playing together for ages! One of those bands was called The Arthur C Clarke Mystery Band, a name I still love.
High and Low and Back Again seems like a rather poignant title for this particular time in our lives. What can you tell us about the album – what ties the songs together, and what do you hope people take away from it?
The songs are all fairly personal, and they all deal with how we’re feeling about the state of the world at the moment, and our place within it. They trace a journey, from songs such as Burnt Out or Cookie Cutter Life that express frustration or doubt about our place in the world, to songs such as Speak Out or A New Thread that reaffirm that the power to effect positive change is within all of us. That’s the key message I hope people take from the album – we’re all in this together, we’re all going through this stuff together, but we all have the power to make things better.
What inspired the opening song Burnt Out, and what’s the writing process like for a song like this?
That’s an interesting question. For us, the writing process differs from song to song. Some seem to arrive fully formed out of nowhere, others begin with a riff, others from a lyric idea, and others, like Burnt Out, can go through various iterations and stages of development before arriving at the final song. The key though is finding that spark, whether it’s a particular lyric idea or a riff, that sends you off in a particular direction.
Burnt Out started from a lyric idea from our friend and co-writer, Clare Catt. It was originally somewhat of a love song, about waiting in a bookstore or library, surrounded by “dusty pages” waiting to catch a glimpse of someone. Over time “dusty pages” came to refer to simpler times, to the printed word, a contrast to the modern world of social media and instantaneous communication. From there, Burnt Out transformed into a song about the way we have so much data, entertainment and information at our fingertips these days, and are instantly, globally connected, and yet we fail to truly connect in so many other ways.
It’s perhaps also worth mentioning that the last song on the album, Dead and Gone, is effectively ‘Burnt Out Part Two’. It came from the same original lyrics of Clare’s. It explores the same themes, and the lyrics seemed to fit really nicely over an acoustic guitar riff we had. So the two songs act like bookends at either end of the album.
Which song from the new project means the most to you personally, and why?
For me it’s probably the title track, High and Low and Back Again, because it feels like a step forward for us, both lyrically and musically. The lyrics are quite personal, but at the same time the message is universal, so I think it works well. For Ashley I’d probably say Can’t Feel This Way. We’ve been working on that song for years, Ash in particular, trying to find the right way to ‘express’ it. It was one of those songs that was a struggle, I mean there was enough there to keep plugging away at it but still, after all that, getting it down for the record the way we did means the world to him.
Great vocal and guitar sound on this record, and superb production. What would you say are the main ingredients for getting a recording to sound so vibrant and live yet professional?
I think that there are a number of factors. To start, we spent a lot of time before the sessions doing demos and pre-production, working out the arrangements as best we could, so that when we went into the studio we had at least a rough idea of how we wanted the finished product to sound.
I also believe playing all the basic rhythm tracks (guitar bass and drums) together as a band, live in the studio, is super important for capturing the essence of a band playing together, bouncing off each other.
We then built the tracks up from there, overdubbing guitar and vocals and then keys, piano, percussion or whatever to add colour.
Finally, it was useful to listen to the mixes and live with them for a few weeks. For a number of songs, the first mix became the final mix, but for others this extra time gave us the chance work out if anything needed to be changed or improved.
Has live performance been an important part of your journey as a band, and if so – how have the events of 2020 impacted you, and what are your hopes or plans for when things start back up again?
In the early days live performance was crucial. It was everything. For nearly 10 years we were regulars on the Sydney live circuit, playing up to 3 or 4 gigs in a good week, which helped us improve our playing chops while workshopping new material in front of an audience. Even now we get together, we can start playing a Fendahlene song from back then, even if we haven’t played it for years, and the muscle memory just kicks in.
2020 has had a huge impact on us, as well as everybody else in the industry. We’ve an album’s worth of new material designed to be played live, we’d love to be out there playing again, but obviously can’t. I mean I’ve only seen Ash for 10 minutes in the last six months, even then I was talking with him from a first story window! We still haven’t been able to book a new publicity shoot. On the flip side, by being forced to change our album strategy, we’ve learned so much about the industry and have met and become part of a hugely supportive online community of indie musicians.
You had a couple of years hiatus between projects, due to distance. What was the main difference you noticed when it came to jamming and creating together once again?
Well, initially the main difference was the country. In Sydney, we knew the scene, all the venues, the street press, the rehearsal spaces and studios, whereas in the UK, very little. We had to start again with a blank slate. We booked some rehearsal time at Premises studios in Hackney, just to get ourselves back into it. Of course the physical environment of the studio was exactly the same, I mean we could have been in Sydney, so we fell back into writing and jamming as if we’d never had a break.
The other key difference was that it was now just the two of us, whereas in Sydney we’d had Ben, our drummer. The way we wrote changed slightly, when once we’d write and jam with the full electric set up, and figure out arrangements through a long process of jamming and talking about it constantly at the pub, other gigs, pretty much every time we saw each other. Now we’re down to two, we’re often on acoustic guitars and so there’s nowhere to hide, so to speak. It forces us to pay much closer attention to the arrangements and to the lyrics, which I think is a positive thing overall (although jamming and drinking beer is still a blast).
Given the pop-rock style of many of your songs, are there any unexpected or unusual influences that either of you can mention?
We both have very broad taste in music and so there are probably a lot of bands that we love, but whose influences aren’t necessarily apparent! I love lots of what is probably loosely categorised as alt-country or Americana, like the Sweethearts of the Rodeo-era Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco, through to modern day bands such as Hiss Golden Messenger and Waxahatchee. I also love blues and heavy late 60s/early 70s blues rock – if I could play guitar like Peter Green you’d probably hear more of that influence coming through!
I know Janis Joplin has had a huge impact on Ashley. For his seventeenth birthday we all got together and bought him Pearl on vinyl and he became an instant super fan. Otis and Sly have influenced him in different ways, and has always had a thing for TRex and those particularly overblown 70s songs like Lonely Boy by Andrew Gold.
Of course, we are Australian, so there’s a huge array of Australian acts from the 70s until the present day that have had a huge influence on both us, such as the Hoodoo Gurus, Powderfinger, You Am I, and Midnight Oil, to name a few.
If you could sit down for a chat with anyone at all, past or present, who would you choose – and what would you ask them about?
For me it would have to be John Lennon. I have been a massive Beatles and Lennon fan all my life, and I would love to get John’s views on the world today. I think he’d be dismayed at the current political situation but, from a musical perspective, I‘d be fascinated to hear his thoughts about the music scene today, such as what bands he likes, what he thinks about streaming and what he thinks about advances in recording technology over the past 40 years. For example, would he use auto-tune?
For Ashley I’m pretty sure it would be Keith Moon, both the person to chat to and the subject of the discussion.
What would you change about the mainstream music industry if you could?
Because of things like Spotify and social media, it’s easier today to get your music our there than when we started. And what we’re finding is that there’s just so much good music out there, but the mainstream industry persists in acting as a ‘blocker’ to some extent, and devote their attention to a small cluster of acts, many of which are manufactured. So when you turn on mainstream radio, you hear the same handful of songs played ad nauseum, which is frustrating because there is so much other better stuff out there.
I think what I am saying is that it would be great if the mainstream music industry – including commercial radio – stopped treating music, and musicians, as a commodity or a product to be churned out and instead treated it more like art, to be widely enjoyed.
What’s next for you?
The vinyl version of the album has just come out and so the immediate priority will be promoting that, hopefully with some live shows in the coming months if restrictions are eased. We plan on some shows as an acoustic duo and some as a full band throughout the UK and Europe.
Meanwhile, we’re constantly writing new stuff. I’d say the next album is already half written, so as soon as possible we’d like to get back into the studio to start demoing the new material.
* * *