Sam Bentley's band The Paper Kites just released their second album twelvefour, a bold and beautifully expressed exploration of nighttime moods and shadowy thoughts. Sam was kind enough to answer a few questions about the new record, the band's creative identity, staying up all night, and what things have been liking moving forward from their first album.
In what ways did the experience of making your second full-length album differ from the first?
Well our first album States was done at home in Melbourne, so we sort of had the luxury of going home after each session and people could just not come in when they weren't recording their parts. Doing twelve four in Seattle meant that we we were all together all the time, away from home all with the same focus of making a record, which I think was much better all being in that headspace. It wasn't like there was much pressure on delivering an amazing critic defying second record because it wasn't as if the first one was a world wide smash or anything.
We didn't feel like we had to meet any expectations or follow up on any acclaim, so I think that let me just write whatever I wanted to write and it let the album be whatever it wanted to be. I know everyone always says that, oh 'I just didn't care what people thought' and then write their best record or something – and this record seems to have clicked with people that have heard it more than anything we've done before, but I don't think it was a result of me not caring It was more that I wasn't really trying to impress anyone other than myself and just trying to write songs that I really liked - and not stopping them if I thought they were going in a weird direction which was thankfully probably due to the tiredness of working in those hours and not being so analytical. I've actually listened to the record heaps I always wonder if that's weird? When bands listen to their own record a lot - but I was really happy with it.
You’ve had a bit of a shift in sound since we last heard from you. Was this a conscious decision, or just something that happened organically?
I don't really think it would be fair to say it was 'organic.' I believe everything you create, whether it's concious or not, has a degree of intention and influence behind it, and in getting a little older – even two years older – you still change. Your headspace is a different place and maybe you start to enjoy different films, or start enjoying music you hadn't previously, or you get to travel and see a bit more of the world, meet people, read books – all of that stuff completely effects what comes out of you.
There were actually some wildly different demos that didn't end up making it on the album because I think at the end of the day even though I was pushing for a few of them they just didn't work with some of the other songs we wanted on it. I think the sound was heavily influenced by the time of night but probably a mash of the music that I'd been listening to... I actually find that the films that I'm watching actually effect my writing too – I think it's probably the colours and such; There's actually a lot of colour references splashed across the record and even the neon sign cover was very much something we wanted to push, along with the sound of the record – feels kind of lush and seductive but still very lonely.
Working on twlevefour, you travelled to Seattle to work with the acclaimed producer Phil Ek. Was it intimidating to work with someone with a reputation like his?
Phil is a pretty intimidating dude in general especially on first meet – the first thing you'd notice is he's a giant – he's this towering figure with this Seattle grit attitude which I really came to enjoy, but we definitely had our clashes throughout the process. Phil is pretty renowned for the beautiful organic sound of the records he produces, but he also has a reputation for saying no to a lot of bands so I think initially we were surprised that he wanted to work with us.
We'd sort of said for this record we did want a producer that was going to push us and be able to make those hard calls when we were unsure but I really don't think I personally had given a lot of thought to how that would actually feel – and it was very testing! Christina [Lacy, fellow Paper Kite] and I had a rough time getting our vocals down, purely because Phil would shut down a session if he wasn't really feeling that it was sounding sincere or it wasn't making him feel anything – which I found really hard at the time because we're used to just slamming it out until we get it. But he'd just say 'you're not getting it – let's move on!', so we'd go home feeling really bummed because we felt like we were awful singers! And when you feel like you know your voice and someone is asking for a type of performance you don't actually think you can actually do, it's annoying.
But in hindsight I loved that, because I totally agree with him that if you can't feel it or believe it then what's the point? So we worked really hard on our vocals and when we got it we'd know it because he'd bring us back in say 'this is what I'm talking about – that's how you have to sing it'. I really enjoyed working with him – he definitely pushed us to be a better band.
There’s a special meaning to the album’s title. Did the late-night writing sessions affect you more as a lyricist or as a composer?
Probably both, if you've ever stayed up from 12-4 or even all night you'll know that once you get past the tiredness it's a beautiful time of night – but a solitary one too. It's hard to not feel a little melancholy and pop on Frank Sinatra's "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning" – but I think the sound of every song on the record was very much a result of writing within those hours. You could still listen to the album during the day and not think twice about when it was written – it still translates fine any time of day but I really wanted certain songs like "Neon Crimson" and "Too Late" to really sound like those lonely early hours. Definitely lyrically though just as much as the music, I always place a lot of importance on lyrics and trying to say things the right way, there's a lot of time and space at night to decide what you're trying to say.
Do you ever feel restricted by the genre labels that have been applied to you as a band?
Not really, people are always going to put labels on your music because that's the only way they can feel like they can understand the music you make – which is fine but then often they feel hard done by when a band pushes their sound and they end up feeling somehow betrayed because now they don't understand a band that they thought they had in their box of 'yep I get everything they've done and everything they'll ever do'.
For us it's always been whatever we want to do, albeit perhaps not as reckless as that sounds – it's always been discussed very thoroughly before we cut down our album tracks and decide what the record will sound like. There has to be a level of respect for where you've come from, and your fans, but I would like to believe that there can be a mutual respect from your fans for you as artists evolving in your interests and hence your music. It's not always the case but I would like to believe that the people that love music and call themselves music fans are pretty open minded – there's always that small percentage for us that are like 'anything outside of woodland is awful' – but then I'd argue those people are not so much music fans and more a fan of an idea – they're just buying in to one side of the Rubik's Cube. Every record we do is it's own thing but I don't think I've ever felt restricted as a writer in any way.
You seem like quite a communal band. What’s the band dynamic like creatively?
Well we're all good friends and were for a while before we were playing music together. We all have always got along really well and have a lot of fun on the road – it probably doesn't come across like this on stage but the guys are actually some of the funniest people I know – very rarely a dull moment in the tour van, and we settle any disagreements over who gets to sleep in the comfy bed or who has to go and do a food run over playing various games.
But when it comes to making a record it feels like we are probably 5 of the most creatively opinionated people ever, and we all certainly have our own ideas of the sort of music we should or could be playing with this band. So it's always hard as the writer when I bring the songs to the guys with my own idea already formed of how I think the record should sound, and then have to try and push my concept on to four other people. It's quite common that songs I really want just don't click with the others and it's super frustrating and really hard to emotionally detach yourself from these songs that you've become wrapped up in.
So we definitely have our clashes, there's endless speeches about why we should or shouldn't be doing something, and if you've ever had to passionately argue your point against people that are arguing theirs you'd know how exhausting it is. But that's the way we work and the bottom line is we all care about the music that we make, and how it makes us feel, and putting out the best record that we can and that's the process we have to go through to get there. I wouldn't really have it any other way though, everyone gets heard and everyone's opinion is respected and I don't think music or any labour of love should be something that was easy to do.
twelvefour is out now via Wonderlick Recording Company/Sony Music Entertainment Australia. The Paper Kites are performing live at Sydney's Metro Theatre on Friday November 6.
Watch the video for twelvefour single "Electric Indigo":