Wednesday, 31 July 2013

#20. Dancing In The Station (Xmas #5)

Matt Neal: guitar, vocals, percussion.

Lyrics & music by Matt Neal.
Written June 24 & October 2, 2012.
Recorded at the Port Fairy house, October 2, 2012.
Produced by Matt Neal.
Mixed by Brendan Hoffmann and Matt Neal.

Every year for Christmas, I record a song for my fiancée. So far that’s five songs, of varying degrees of quality.

Her favourite one remains the first one I did back in 2008 when we’d only been officially going out for about a month and a half. I have to agree, it’s probably the best of the five.

It was a particularly nerve-wracking experience to give her the song. I’d written plenty of songs about people before, but I’d never written a song for anyone before. There’s a fundamental difference between writing about people and writing for people – in the former case, you’re usually writing for everyone except the person it’s about. With the latter, the song is for the ears of one person and one person only. I didn't intend for anyone else to hear these Xmas songs, but, fuck it, why not? I’m proud of each of them and certainly not ashamed by them. And this blog is nothing if not complete, as one of my friends recently pointed out.

Here we are, rockin' it '80s style.

Setting aside the horrific pangs of fear that come with laying your soul bare musically and presenting it to your beloved as a gift, the Xmas song tradition has become an annual songwriting and recording challenge. Each year, I try to find a new way to express something about our relationship, and each year I try to top the previous year’s effort (or, more accurately, the 2008 effort).

This song is the fifth Xmas gift for my fiancée and the only one to date that’s not literally about her – the sentiment of it being a love song is about her, but unlike previous Xmas gift songs, this one has little if anything to do with our relationship specifically. Instead, this happened to be a nice and lovey yet generic kind of pop song I just happened to write and serve up as a gift. The feelings are real but the intimate connection of the previous songs isn’t there (I think it might be my fiancée’s least favourite of the five Xmas gift songs).

You can tell from this photo that my feelings are real.

But this song just had to come out. I’m not sure why. It was one of those things where you’re strumming away, stumbling along with a melody, la-di-da-ing the chords, and suddenly, you hit a chorus, find a melody, and words form:

“And we’ll be dancing in the station every day”.

I have a recording on my phone of this and you can hear me fumble on the first pass of the chorus, just making up sounds as I go along, but by the second time around, those words are there, clear as a bell.

I had no idea what the line meant, but I knew I had to craft verses to fit it – the idea and rhythm of the phrase “dancing in the station” seemed too good to ignore. So the first verse is about thinking of your beloved returning to you on a train and dancing with joy when they arrive. The second verse is about that beautiful scene in The Fisher King where the hustle and bustle of New York’s Grand Central Station suddenly turns into a dance, and the fantasy and wondrous fairytale quality of that sequence (this actually inspired a regular dance to be held there on New Year’s Eve for a while I think). And the final verse is set in a space station, with the idea that you and your beloved could be the last two people alive after the earth is destroyed, just the two of you, floating in a space station.

The song was recorded at my parents’ “weekend away from the farm” house in Port Fairy, where I regularly go to songwrite or record. As I don’t have access to a drumkit there, I usually just program some drum loops. On this occasion, the loops I programmed initially sounded too fake, and I couldn’t quite get that country-fied Johnny Cash-vibe “train beat” to work. So I constructed a beat by sampling items around the house – the “kick” is slapping a box containing half a slab of beer, the “snare” is tapping a table, and the “shaker” is shaking a basket full of plastic clothes pegs.

As with many songs where the melody, chords, rhythm and  words just roll out, I can’t help but think I’ve completely plagiarised a pre-existing song. But I have no idea what.

On a final note, I’m particularly proud of the fact I used the word “fairytale” as a verb in this song.


This train is on my mind
and I just can’t seem to stop thinking about what’s inside
And I miss you all this time
and I just can’t wait to see your face at the end of the line.

And we’ll be dancing in the station every day

At the chime of New Year’s Eve
I wanna show you the magic New York make-believe
When the trains and bustle cease
I wanna take you by the hand and fairytale you off of your feet.

At the end of all mankind,
we’re gonna jump into a shuttle and leave this mess behind
and in space we’ll float entwined
and we’ll stay like this forever in a ship in the endless sky.

Monday, 22 July 2013

#19. Crazy Invitation – The Extreme Sprinklers

Harry Fahey: drums.
Matt Hewson: bass.
Jade McLaren: vocals.
Matt Neal: guitar, backing vocals.

Lyrics by Jade McLaren & Matt Neal.
Music by Jade McLaren, Matt Hewson, Harry Fahey and Matt Neal.
Written in 2004.
Recorded live at Rosco’s house in Melbourne, 2004/2005?
Produced and mixed by Dave Wilson.

As mentioned previously, The Extreme Sprinklers wanted to be the next Ween. We were keen to try our hand at any genre possible and didn’t see any reason why we shouldn’t. I even had this crazy notion that we could release an album where every song was a different genre and that such a move could even being a selling point (I might still do this one day, just to see what happens).

While it meant that the Sprinklers took a while to find its own sound or style, it also gave myself and singer Jade McLaren carte blanche in the early days of the band to try to write anything we felt like in any style we wanted. Having such an insanely talented rhythm section – Harry Fahey and Matt Hewson – who could play anything just made it all the easier to genre-hop.

So we did a funk song.

Here we are, looking pretty funky. PIC: Glen Watson.

Here’s Harry:
“I always felt a bit guilty playing this at gigs in case anyone really loved it then waited for the rest of the funk set... and waited...."

This could have been true of anything we played – reggae, blues, country, punk, rap-rock. Our early setlists pretty much featured one of each.

Crazy Invitation was largely Jade’s baby. He took the melody to Hewy, who crafted some cool jazz-influenced chords for the verses. For some reason, neither of them bothered to write a chorus, so I came up with one and the song was done.

That's Hewy's handwriting at the top, mine at the bottom. 
Hewy rather helpfully tabbed out what an "A half-diminished seventh" 
was just above the chorus I wrote. Which is good because I genuinely had no idea.

Here’s Jade:
“I wrote it about an outrageously hot girl who once smiled and beckoned for me to come dance with her at The Whalers. I was way too shocked that this gorgeous girl was interested in me and I ran away. Days later I think I started to write some lyrics about what I wished I had done. I eventually worked up the courage to go talk to this girl where she worked but, alas, she had left the day before to go work overseas. I still like the chorus melody … I just remembered that (Doc) came up with the chorus. Ha ha, (it’s) the only part of the song I like.”

Sadly, we never did a proper recording of this song. Harry laments the fact we never got Hewy to come up with “some kick-arse horn parts” for a studio version.

He continues:
"This was a good song (from) Jade and Hewy. I don't know why we didn't spend much time workshopping it. In hindsight, I could have listened to what Hewy was playing and tightened up that verse kick a bit. I don't remember having much planned for this apart from '1, 2, 3, go!'.”

Here we are "workshopping" stuff in Extreme Sprinklers HQ. PIC: Glen Watson.

Meanwhile, Jade laments his performance on this recording, taken from a gig we did at an awesome party in Melbourne.

“This particular version is horrible and embarrassing as I’m so drunk and just over-singing like a demented Christina Aguilera,” he said.

Jade impersonating a demented Christina Aguilera. PIC: Glen Watson.

To be fair, we’re all pretty drunk on this recording. Some are just handling it better than others. I think my solo (if it could be called that) is one of the most lacklustre and lame solos ever committed to tape, while Hewy called his own playing “terrible”.

On a side note, after playing this particular party, we all slept in an empty house next door. Having been told that the accommodation was “taken care of”, no one thought to bring any bedding. As a result, we ended up sleeping in a dilapidated house with carpet underlay and cardboard as our only bedding. There were spiders everywhere and plenty of evidence of mice. I’m not even sure if the toilet worked properly. We were so drunk we didn’t really give a fuck until the next morning, when the surroundings only compounded our hangovers. I think someone may have been having a laugh at our expense.

Although, it’s possible it wasn’t after this party and was in fact after another similar party. None of us can remember for certain.

Good times. Good times.


What's this crazy invitation?
*Your hips are something something (?)
*The something something something (?)
Whoa baby, what's that smile that you're making?
What's your motivation
'cos you're swimming through my mind?

What's this crazy invitation?
My hands are celebrating
running down your thighs.
Whoa baby girl, your eyes are implicating
that, baby, I'll be making
that little body mine.

I say "yes", you say "let's go".

What's this crazy invitation?
Your body's devastating
*something something something.... (?)
Oh baby, I've had a little too much
but you're responding to my touch
so give us some room, woah, to dance

****I've got no idea what Jade's singing here... and neither does he.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

#18. Clichéd – 21st Century Ox

Dion Barker: bass.
Harry Fahey: drums.
Matt Hewson: saxophone.
Brendan Hoffmann: electric guitar.
Matt Neal: electric guitar, acoustic guitar, vocals.

Lyrics: Matt Neal
Music: Matt Neal, Dion Barker, Harry Fahey, Matt Hewson and Brendan Hoffmann.
Written early 2001.
Recorded at Motherlode Studios, Warrnambool, 2002.
Produced and mixed by Harry Fahey and Tony Peel.

Thanks to an alphabetical coincidence, four of the last five songs in this blog have been 21st Century Ox songs, but this next one will be the last Ox track for a little while.

In fact, I wasn't even going to include this song because I don’t like it. It was only on the urging of my fellow former bandmates that it gets a guernsey here.

So I asked them to tell why they liked what I consider to be a piece of whiney emo rubbish.

Brendan Hoffmann (left) and Dion Barker at the original
Motherlode Studios during the recording sessions which included Clichéd.

Here’s guitarist Brendan Hoffmann:
“I like Clichéd, good song. You're just worried about the long-ass notes you had to hold for ages - a challenge for anyone! (But) I was always paranoid that that song was about me! If it was, I think you had the right idea, i.e. writing songs about people in the band beats writing songs about yourself. You were always a good lyricist as far as I was concerned. I think we were both young and perhaps insecure about our creativity at the time (but) people don't really listen too much to what people are saying in their lyrics, just the passion behind it.”

Here’s bassist Dion Barker:
"Clichéd was one of my favourite songs to play and one of the songs that I thought had the most commercial potential. I'm sure I remember (drummer Harry Fahey) talking once about every song being like something that occupies a three dimensional area of space, which can be filled with sounds and frequencies, but that a good song leaves just the right amount of space empty too. It's about getting the recipe exactly right so that it all comes together. I think Clichéd is one of the songs that we did that really well with - there's some really full-on, all-in type parts and then it pulls back and transitions really smoothly into the verses and outro.

Dion lays down some bass tracks at Motherlode as producer Tony Peel looks on.

"Aside from that, I just really enjoyed playing the song - the drum and bass lines are really tight and that's something that Harry always made sure of - he's an awesome drummer! We were very lucky to have him! As for the lyrics, sure - they are pretty emo and depressing, but they are a very real example of what a lot of people that age or any age, for that matter, go through! Yes, it's very much a cliché, but it's also very true and real. The words flow really well together and paint a very real picture that I think we can all identify with in one way or another."

And here's Harry:
“I love the groove of this song. Simple pop rock groove, not overdone, and the verse dynamic is sweet. Dion is right; in hindsight I’d say this has more commercial appeal than anything else Ox did.”

Musically I don’t mind this recording – I like the chord progression, the band dynamics, the use of the acoustic guitar subtly throughout, and Matt Hewson’s tasty sax garnishes. I recall I was trying to write a Muse song. Rhythmically, it’s a mash-up of Cave and Uno – or at least, that’s the effect I was going for.

This is from back when Muse were really young... and still rocked.

And if Matthew Bellamy could get away with chorus lines like “come in my cave and I’ll burn your heart away” and “you are nothing to me”, I thought I could write something dark and emotional too, but I totally misfired there. Where Bellamy’s lyrics were directed outward to another person, mine were woefully and lamely directed inwards to a manufactured world of self-pity. Self-pity and being emotionally damaged were big in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, a hangover from the grunge era.

The only saving grace in the lyrics is the opening couple of lines – at least I was aware of how clichéd and pathetic it all sounded. But that probably doesn’t excuse my lyrical angst or my need to whinge and whine and ‘woe is me’ (and don’t even get me started on the thin, flat vocals, which had to be rather obviously auto-tuned in at least one place). “The fragile flowers sway”? What the fuck was I thinking?

"I was thinking, like, you know, flowers are, like, fragile and stuff."

But this song was something of an epiphany. Prior to this, most of the songs I was writing (that weren’t joke songs) were bad angsty teenage poetry set to music. In Clichéd I acknowledged I had a problem - that I was becoming a cliché - and acknowledging that you have a problem is the first step to rehabilitation.


I'm becoming a cliché;
everything I do and say
just proves it more and more.
Dress in black just to suit your soul,
let the darkness assume control…
I don't care anymore.

Help me in here, happy in nowhere,
happy in nowhere, am I happy here?

Free me please

Sleep in a room built of loneliness,
my own antisocialness
will keep them all away.
Moods that swing like a pendulum,
I'm up and I'm down again -
The fragile flowers sway.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

#17. Chinese Whispers – The Extreme Sprinklers

Jade McLaren: vocals.
Matt Neal: guitar, bass, drums.

Music and lyrics by Matt Neal.
Written in September/October, 2001.
Recorded at Studio Study-o and The Shed, Warrnambool on November 11, 14 & 24, 2003 and July 8 & 26, 2006.
Produced and mixed by Matt Neal.

On a rainy night early in 1999, I wandered into the Jazz Blues Restaurant in Warrnambool. I was putting off the 20-minute drive back to the farm, plus I could hear music coming from the venue, which hadn’t been open for very long.

The lighting inside was low, with most of the illumination coming from red stage lights at the rear of the club. They lit up two men – one a short, skinny white guy with dark hair and a casual grace with an electric guitar, and the other a burly Maori-looking fella with an acoustic guitar and a husky yet booming voice that was impressive on first listen.

This is apparently the only photo of the Jazz Blues Restaurant on the internet.

I ordered a coke and took up a seat in one of the many booths that ran along the wall opposite the bar. The place was practically empty – aside from myself, the two musicians and the two bar staff, there was only about half a dozen people in the club, and known of them were paying much attention to the music.

A song ended – something familiar that everyone knew, performed pleasantly and enthusiastically – and I clapped in appreciation. This triggered the other punters in the bar to applaud belatedly, as though it was an activity they hadn’t been bothering with prior to my arrival.

After a couple more songs, the duo took a break, headed to the bar to collect a drink each and then made a beeline to my booth. They introduced themselves – the electric guitarist was Danny Grigg and the guy with the big voice was Andy Shirtcliffe. I told them that they sounded good and we made polite conversation until one of them asked if I was a musician in a way that suggested this was an obvious assumption to make.

They sounded like this.

I mumbled some kind of affirmative, saying by way of explanation that I’d played in a couple of short-lived bands but was mostly just a bedroom guitarist these days. One of them suggested I get up and play a couple of songs while they took a break. I was reluctant, they were mildly insistent, and soon after I found myself on stage with Andy’s guitar, singing a couple of sings (the only one I can recall was Smashing Pumpkins’ To Sheila, which I had learnt a few weeks prior).

It was only the second time I’d ever performed solo and I was scared as hell, but Andy and Danny clapped with vigour after each song and after I’d finished what I was certain was a terrible set, they were very encouraging. They told me the bar was starting an open mic night the following week, and that I should come along and play.

So I did, and every fortnight after that I was there at the Jazz Blues Restaurant. Andy and Danny continued to encourage me, and they probably didn’t realise it, but they taught me a lot and gave me a hell of a boost in confidence. As the weeks progressed, I moved from lowly opener to special guest of the house band on regular occasions, joining them on stage for the final numbers when the place was pumping, belting out some mundane but enthusiastically played rocker like Wild Thing or an amped-up drunken version of Tainted Love.

The house band at the Jazz Blues Restaurant (l-r): 
Brett Holbrook, Danny Grigg, Anthony 'Slippers' Porter,  Ben McDowall and Andy Shirtcliffe.

During that 12 months or so at the Jazz Blues Restaurant, of which I was social club member #0001, I learnt a lot about performance, singing, song selection, engaging a crowd, playing guitar, and jamming with other people. If not for the ongoing encouragement of Andy and Danny over that time, I doubt I would be the musician I am today.

All of this has nothing to do with this week’s song, which is a simple 6/8 ballad about unappreciative and uncaring friends – the very opposite of Andy and Danny. But I relate this story about the Jazz Blues Restaurant and Andy and Danny because Andy died last week after a long battle with cancer.

I feel bad that I never told Andy how important his support and friendship and encouragement during that time was to me. He helped me believe that I could be a musician and probably didn’t even realise he was doing it. Andy was just friendly and kind and supportive and it was exactly what I needed.

Around this time (1999), Brendan Hoffmann and I started 21st Century Ox.

After the restaurant closed, I only saw him occasionally, but he always greeted me warmly. He was such a charming and wonderful guy with a voice I’ll never forget. And I wish I’d said thank you before he passed away.

So this song is dedicated to Andy, even though it’s not about him and has nothing to do with him. But I played bass, guitar and drums on it, produced it myself, and did it all with an unwavering confidence that I this was something I could do on my own. Jade asked to sing on the track when I showed it to him, and he did it justice, far better than I could ever do.

But that perhaps misguided confidence and belief in my musical ability stems back to Andy and Danny. They were the first guys who enthusiastically encouraged me musically, and for that I’m very grateful.

RIP Andy Shirtcliffe. Thank you.


I am running 'cross the divide only to be hit from behind
All the secrets come back different, Chinese whispers, voices unkind

It's a given that I've given up reaching out and caring for you

Vision blurry, prey or quarry, we're so friendly, at war all the time
All the secrets come back different, Chinese whispers, voices unkind

PS. I'd like to point out again that the song is nothing to do with Andy - it's just the song I happened to be up to alphabetically this week, and I wanted to pay tribute to the man. Also, apologies for nicking the photos to whoever I nicked them from.