Interview: Purplene's Matt Blackman on the Return of Sydney's Indie Trailblazers

From its inception in the late ‘90s, Sydney-via-Newcastle band Purplene blazed a modest trail through the Australian indie landscape, before eventually disbanding in 2005. In the 13 years since their dissolution, however, the band has taken on a somewhat mythic quality to its passionate fan base, while members have gone on to play with notable groups like Firekites and Charge Group, as well as the short-lived Palace of Fire (which featured Wolfmother’s original rhythm section, no less).

Their final, Steve Albini-engineered album was reissued on vinyl in February, and now the band is about to play its first shows in more than a decade. So we chatted with singer/guitarist Matt Blackman about the band’s early history, their experiences recording in Chicago, and how the band perceives their own legacy.

Given that some people who will be reading the article might be unfamiliar with Purplene, how would you explain the story of the band in just a few sentences?

Purplene - Purplene

We were a bunch of mates who came together a couple of years after high school, in Newcastle—an industrial working-class town, north of Sydney. There was a bit of a scene around the university and a few small pub venues and some great local bands. We used to just go and see bands together, and like most 18, 19, 20-year-old kids, we were pretty psyched about forming a band and didn't want to do anything other than that.

I guess we just fumbled our way through trying to make a sound for ourselves, and trying to sound a little bit different from what else was happening. And then, however many years later, nine years later, we pulled up stumps. There's the nutshell.

I'm looking forward to explaining to Americans what pulled up stumps means. [Ed.: A term from cricket that means to stop or quit.] What were your individual histories around music, what was it that brought you together, and what was Newcastle like as a scene at that time?

It was a pretty strong hardcore scene in Newcastle at the time. Bands like the Angry Earth Mothers, No Reason... I guess a lot of those bands were probably pretty heavily influenced by the D.C. hardcore scene. They were the most exciting bands that we used to go and see. There was very much a cool, DIY aesthetic happening. And I think that's something that appealed to us a lot—it kind of always did.

We were just really heavily emotionally invested in the indie guitar scene, probably primarily American, but also local, in Australia—in Sydney and Melbourne. I'd say we didn't really have any hugely clear ideas about what we wanted to do, just that we wanted to do it.

Let’s face it, the scene was certainly not big. It was a tiny, tiny scene in Newcastle. The first thing you do when you're a band and you start playing in Newcastle is you try to work out how you're going to get to Sydney, so that you can start actually playing shows that people will actually see you at, and you can start expanding what you do and not just play to the same group of mates every week.

Purplene - "Swords Down"

Did you play music in high school, then?

Yes. Personally, music for me was really the only pursuit in my life that I really took seriously and had a knack for. I mean, I bombed out of high school in every subject except for music. And I came in the top five percent of the state in music, so I got this extraordinarily low overall score but did well in music. Crap in everything else.

Was guitar your instrument in high school?

Drums were actually the first thing that I played seriously, but piano was my first instrument. I got taught piano as a kid. I think I was having piano lessons at the age of six. By the age of 12, I decided I wanted to play rock music, so I played guitar and drums. But mostly self-taught. I got one or two guitar lessons, but everything else was just self-taught.

And then I found myself experimenting with synthesisers a bit later on, and organs. So, I guess, piano was my first instrument, and still the instrument that comes most naturally to me.

I have to really try a bit harder with guitar. I've got to sit down and find where the shapes are and find what the chords are and really think about it. I can't just sit in a room and go, Alright, I want to go here, here, and here, and get that straight away. But I can do that with piano, because I just know my way around it. I've always had a piano in my house and I always sit down to it, and it’s my go-to instrument of choice when I like to tune out and get in my own zone.

As a young guy in Newcastle, in your late teens and 20s, what was inspiring you then to play guitar? What did you hear that made you want to play more?

Actually, I saw The Cure tour the Wish album in ’92, when I was in Grade 11. And it absolutely blew my mind—because, on that record, there's three guitars. All their previous records were predominantly synth-based with a couple of little noodly, single-note guitar riffs here and there. But, this was just—I don't know—for a teenager, I found it pretty overwhelming, seeing a band with that sound and that ability, to still sound minimal with such a massive sound. They didn't overcrowd the sound.

In high school I was really into R.E.M. and The Cure, and The Pixies, and indie stuff everyone was listening to in the late '80s/early '90s. And Velvet Underground and a whole bunch of stuff like that. And then found myself getting into Superchunk and Sebadoh and the kind of Sub Pop and Drag City sort of scene, a little bit later on, later '90s.

When I think about it, most people I know were listening to the same kind of stuff. We would go down and pre-order records just on word of mouth from people, and they would arrive at the record store, and you’d go home, and you’d unwrap your CD, and it would be literally the first time you’d ever heard that band. You’d never heard anything of it before.

It was so exciting, though not always rewarding—sometimes it’d be a pile of shit and you just go, 'Oh, why did I blow 30 hard-earned dollars on that thing, from my crappy part-time job pulling coffees at a café?' But, quite often it was thoroughly thrilling and rewarding.

Around the time that Purplene formed, I remember three specific bands that we all really bonded over, and that was Ride, Pavement, and Swervedriver. I can sort of see a lot of that in early Purplene stuff now that I go back and revisit it. It was generally just a Wall of Sound kind of guitar thing going on, but we were also really attracted to the kind of rough-around-the-edges, unrefined aspect of Pavement and Sebadoh. And there was an honesty about that that we really gravitated to. I certainly did, lyrically, and from a songwriting perspective.

I was never really into balls-out rock 'n' roll music that was just like, Check me out, riff-master. I was always into trying to explore more complex thoughts and emotions out of music, if it was at all possible.

What was it like to try and find equipment at that point? When you went, “OK, I want to play guitar in a band and I want a half decent guitar," what was the process like?

Well, what was quite common then was for us to get in the car and drive to Sydney. There was a bit of a guitar store circuit—a couple of really good guitar stores out in Coogee, by the beach. We would drive down, specifically, to just go and drool over a guitar at Sunburst Music. And then we’d go down to Jacksons Rare Guitars in Annandale and look at all of these guitars on the wall that we would never be able to afford. That's kind of what we had to do in order to get gear.

And eventually, the first proper guitar I got was from Jacksons actually—it was literally the cheapest guitar on their wall, and luckily enough, it was a late '60s white Jaguar. Which... pretty soon after that, I remember them increasing in value quite a lot.

Exponentially.

I think it was maybe two-grand or something like that, and we got a few guitars from there, and Adam got his bass from there. And we just—you more or less had to go to Sydney to get gear. My first amp was from the local classifieds in Newcastle, and it was a Peavey Bandit 65.

Excellent.

Champagne piece of equipment right there.

So, you guys have been a band, putting oneself in the timeline, eight or nine years, and you come to the time to make the self-titled record. You’d already had the previous group of songs released on the Quietly Suburban label. How did the songs for the self-titled record come together? What was inspiring you at the time?

I think a lot of us were really enjoying listening to quite sparse music by that point. We’d kind of had enough of having our faces torn off by loud guitar music. And we were really into music with a lot of space. I remember, specifically, at the time, being blown away by Labradford’s album, Fixed::Context—that was a bit of a mind-blowing moment for me, just hearing the space that that was recorded in. I just felt like it was just dripping with character and atmosphere.

Similarly, there were a couple of Low records that we were listening to that Steve [Albini] had also recorded, that were right up our alley in terms of what we were listening to at the time. Stuff like Yo La Tengo—just in terms of how we wanted to execute it. We didn't want to come out and just do a big strumming, riffy kind of record. We wanted to make it a bit more brooding and dynamic. So, I think that probably informed the songs. There was a bit of a break too, between the last recording we had done. We had been trying a lot of stuff out, and I’d been writing a lot of songs on this new guitar that I had, which was that Gibson Howard Roberts Fusion.

Purplene - "The Battler"

Yes, I was going to ask about that.

It’s really kind of dull and woody sounding, and it provided the direction for a lot of those songs.

Interesting. So, you went from Fender offsets, which are quite bright, to something like the Howard Roberts, which is duller, but has a lot more resonance?

Well, in a way... That was the theory—I've since been told by a few people who know guitars pretty well, that it’s not a very good guitar. The sustain is a bit wonky on it. It doesn’t actually have the beauty and the precision of a 335, or a lot of the other jazz guitars, for instance. And this particular one, it’s always been a bit dull and doesn’t have tremendous amounts of sustain on it. So all I was left with was this woody vibe that just—I don't know, I just tried to make it work, and it just... It sort of found its way, sliding into the overall sound.

How did you come to have a Howard Roberts?

My house got broken into, and I had a bunch of gear flogged [Ed.: "stolen"). And so, I ended up being given more or less a voucher at a very average music store in Sydney, which was clearly one that was somehow connected to the insurance company.

Purplene

They said, "You are hereby permitted to go to this guitar store and buy a guitar up to the value of X." And that was just one of the only ones that was in there that wasn’t horrible—and, as it turns out, it may actually be horrible after all, according to other people’s input. I've only just found that out after 12 years of using it.

What led to the decision to record with Steve Albini in Chicago? It’s obviously no small exercise for a band from Australia to do that.

He was our favourite record engineer. It was just a thing that all of us were very excited about doing. We just felt, Well, what do we have to do to make it happen? And we just approached him. He’s a very utilitarian kind of straight up-and-down business dude. He’s an engineer—he’s not a big-time producer who’s looking for fame and glory. He wants to record bands that... not just bands that he likes, but bands that he knows that he’ll have some kind of affinity with.

His main goal is to not record bands who are going to want something that he can't deliver. And so, we sent him over some music. There was obviously nothing in that where he saw alarm bells or any reason why it wouldn't work out. So away we went.

And when you're a band who likes one another’s company and likes making music together, and... We had always, and have always, been the kind of people who have not just relied on the music scene to help us pay rent and eat. We’ve always had our own income from working. And so, we were just thinking, what better thing could we do than save up a few pennies and go and make a record with the sound engineer of our dreams?

Yes, do it right.

And that's the thing, it’s not—it’s something that is going to last an eternity and it’s a piece of work that, once it’s there, it’s not going to do anything but cause us pleasure through the rest of our lives, to be able to have done that. So there was not really a huge risk involved with it.

How was it to travel from Australia to Chicago at that time? Had you been before?

Well, we spent a bit of time, or rather a lot of time rehearsing and demoing the record before we went, because we didn't want to waste any time stuffing around.

You want to get it right, absolutely.

We just did a massive long-haul flight. It was the first time any of us had been in the States before. We landed at O’Hare at 6 a.m. or something, and we just went straight to the studio at 8 a.m. in the morning, which is an ungodly hour by any studio standards.

We buzzed into Electrical Audio well before anyone was awake at the studio. And Steve buzzed us in, and then he—we just sat around for about three hours, from memory, and eventually, he woke up.

That's great, what a first impression.

And just came out in his torn jeans and crappy shirt, and hair all over the place, just straight out of bed: “Hey. Hey, guys."

And that kind of set the mood for the whole thing. Super casual. We just sort of went through all the song lists and how many tracks we needed for each song. Then from that, Steve decided which tape machine to use and what kind of tape. We decided to use 16-track instead of 24 because we weren't using that many channels. And then we just got down to business.

How many days did you spend tracking, all-in-all?

It was six days tracking and four days mixing. It doesn’t sound like much, but in retrospect, we could have done it heaps quicker.

We actually went off in between recording and mixing and played a few shows. We played a show in Chicago and one up in Detroit, plus one in Champagne. And we borrowed a bit of gear from Electrical, a couple of amps, to go on tour with.

Actually, that reminds me of a funny anecdote. I asked to borrow, I think it was a Fender Twin or one of those variants, and it was an amplifier that I guess Steve was not particularly fond of. That was confirmed when he said, “Yes, you can borrow it—and when you're done with it, just push into the lake."

So yes, six days mixing was based on what we had estimated, based on previous sessions in Australia. We knew it would be quicker than those experiences because it was Steve’s own studio. But we had never been in a situation where the sound engineer had a complete drum-room mic setup tuned and mic’d within two hours and ready to go. It was just done. We were expecting to be fucking around with drums until pretty much the end of the first day—it’s what we were used to.

So, little things like that, just when it’s your own room, and your gear, and your own drums, and your own everything, you just know how it all sounds and how it should sound. And what mics are going to work through what and everything’s already pre-patched, and everything works, and all your mics are fixed...

We could have gone through it a bit quicker, but it was good because it gave us a bit more time to spend on things. Because we’ve never been the most precision-gun players, we used a bit more time to do a few more takes and get it right.

What was the gear that you were using in the studio? What did you take and what did you borrow?

We took guitars, a bass, and Rosie [Matt Rossetti]’s cymbals. And that was it. So, we borrowed—we used the hand-built bass rig that Electrical had. I'm not sure what that is. I played through a tiny Fender Pro Junior, and a Traynor head. And I think Dave played through the Twin and also a Pro Junior.

What guitars were you using at the time? You had the Howard Roberts?

I had the Howard Roberts, and I had an SG at the time. Dave had a Gibson Les Paul Junior. Adam had his vintage P-Bass. I think it was a vintage Ludwig that we were playing on, and it was an old 1920s or '30s snare drum. Which sounded just like a firecracker—it sounded amazing.

And Rosie’s cymbals, which Steve really liked because they were quite mellow. He’s got a really nice ringy but mellow ride cymbal that was commented on a few times, that he thought that was really nice.

So, you walked away from the trip with what became an 8-track record, which was released on Spunk Records. Did the public reception for the album meet your expectations, or exceed it?

It did exceed our expectations, because we were always a pretty small band. We had a pretty modest following and I mean, we toured Perth maybe four or five times, and went to Melbourne a lot, maybe three or four times to Brisbane. We just did this little circuit. And then, when this record came out, we got a little bit of radio play, and we’d never really gotten any radio before. “Swords Down" got a little bit of mileage, and then we got a couple of really great videos made, which didn't really help enormously because it was pre-YouTube, but it still kind of helped step things up a little bit.

And then, when we did our launch shows, the Sydney one especially was the biggest show that we ever really did. It was really, really good turnout. And all these people came out of the woodwork for it.

Purplene - "Love Western"

It was just an exciting time for us. But, yes, in terms of what led to disbanding, I just think we—I personally felt like I wanted to do something a bit different, and I was really tired of having to do the Newcastle trek. By that stage, Dave, the guitarist, had moved back to Newcastle. And Rosie had always lived up there, with the other two of us still in Sydney. We were having to keep going up there to rehearse, and by that stage, by 2005, we’d been together as a band since 1996 and living in Sydney since 1998.

So, by that stage, it was seven years of commuting, hauling gear and, honestly, I was a bit over that, and I just wanted to live where I lived, and worked where I lived too... It’s weird the way bands break up—I think it’s always just a weird series of instinctive decisions. There was certainly nothing gnarly, no relationship breakdowns or anything like that.

I remember at the time, people being quite surprised that you’d disband at the peak of your goings-on, but subsequently, that's always been viewed with a lot of respect.

Yes, right.

They had the good grace to do this thing when they felt it was time.

I've always been interested in exploring multiple projects. I was always in several bands at the time anyway, rather than just flogging the same thing forever because it’s starting to get momentum. I guess I've always been quite restless to remain interested in what I'm doing as well—and to feel a certain vitality in every project.

Purplene

The minute it starts getting a little bit ho-hum, or a little bit arduous, or a little bit too much like work—and by work, I mean not fun work. There's fun work and not fun work. But, yes, it’s good to mix it up and remain passionate and excited and with a sort of childlike enthusiasm about what you do creatively.

In following from that, how do you view Purplene as part of your overall creative, dare I say, legacy?

I have been really intrigued. I hadn't actually spent much time with Purplene as a thought, for probably more than ten years. It feels really quite strange going back and revisiting all these songs. And I'm immensely proud of, especially, the final record we made. It was like we had weeded out most of the things that were irking me about our sound, and what we were doing and our songwriting. It’s certainly, the most interesting sounding Purplene record for me.

I've got really fond thoughts about Purplene for that sense. And also, in terms of who we were at that time and what we were into, and what we were exposed to, and what we were trying to do—with pretty rudimentary skills and knowledge. I'm pretty pleased with what we managed to do at the time. In terms of the context of everything else, I feel like it has certainly informed the way I’d go on to write guitar music with Charge Group.

In many senses, that final Purplene record was where I felt like I was getting a grasp of how to write a song for the first time. I listen back to “Ruining It for Everybody" and the earlier Purplene EPs, and a lot of the material sounds like a bunch of unrefined, unedited ideas. And the songs just meander on and on and on, and have a million different changes.

And every song has about five or six different riffs, that all could be their own riffs of their own song. So, my point was that I kind of feel like that the self-titled record was, in a way like, “OK, now I know what sort of songs I want to write." It was like the platform from which to start, in many ways, for me.

So, I guess the final question is: With the record now having come out, does it surprise you that people are still interested, in 2018?

Yes, massively. Because I quit Facebook about three years ago, I've been quite surprised to hear that there's a bunch of people who are hugely enthusiastic about this re-release, and about the band. We certainly didn't have any kind of social media presence at the time, so you don't really have any idea, apart from the people who turn up at shows, whether or not people like you. And we certainly never sold enough records to know... To be able to know financially, that people like you.

So, it’s really quite nice to be able to make that realisation.


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