Robbie Melville: “I’d struggle in a lot of ways to call cleverhorse a jazz band”

Cleverhorse-promo-ANo, cleverhorse is not a jazz band – which only goes to show the limitations of jazz as a term to describe music, not to mention the futility of labelling music altogether. Actually, their music is a fascinating merger of genres, creating an electric and electrifying sound-scape of different sonar textures. Their latest album, 50: Fifty is a collection of ambient, cinematic tracks built around an interesting concept: half of the album features stylised, well-structured compositions that are interspersed with shorter improvised pieces. The band’s leader (and main composer), Robbie Melville, explains all this, just before heading to Bella Union for the live launch of the album. How did you come up with the idea of the album’s duality?

Robbie Melville: That’s an idea that sort of spilled over from the first cleverhorse album, Goodnight, Mr. Monster. On that album we split up the band tracks with a few compositions I had written for string quartet. The strings also appeared on a few of the band songs just to give them a different kind of sonic colour. The overall idea there was to stop anyone who listened to the album becoming fatigued with the band sound. It was probably a silly kind of thing to worry about, but that was how I felt at the time.

On 50:fifty I had written several compositions that were five or six minutes in length. I thought that it would provide a contrast and more of a musical journey if we had a bunch of shorter tunes that also had their own distinct character. I like albums like that, particularly The White Album by the Beatles. Every song on there is so individual and different to every other song, but they all hang together so well. Also, in my general listening I almost always listen to albums rather than single songs. I still really enjoy the album format, even though it seems to be becoming a thing of the past. So the idea of the album’s duality was to provide light and shade, or different points of rest and movement throughout the entire album, assuming it’s listened to in one sitting.

AJN: How do these different musical approaches (the structured and the free improvisational tracks) compliment – or contradict – each other?

RM: The structured tracks were pretty heavily arranged, both in the composition stage and then by the band during rehearsals. The short, improvised pieces, on the other hand, were devised as a kind of playtime in the studio. With these pieces, one person would enter the tracking room and put down an improvisation. Nobody else in the band was allowed to hear what they were doing. A second person would go in, and they had to overdub onto what the first person had put down, but without having listened to it first, and so on.

There were two motives behind this approach for the improvised pieces. Firstly, I was concerned about the downward spiral that can occur when you are recording. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture and focus on the minute details of your sound, phrasing, dynamics, and all of those details that you have to let pass by when you’re just playing and don’t have the opportunity to listen back. And it’s easy to get lost in those details in a negative way. I knew the improvisations would be a lot of fun, so whenever things started looking like they were going to go downhill during the recording process, we tried one, and it helped us to get our energy and sense of fun back.

Secondly, as mentioned earlier, I wanted a contrast to the longer, composed pieces. I think the two approaches complement each other. The thread binding it all together is that it’s always us playing it with our particular approach we’ve developed over the years of performing together.

AJN: Can you describe the dynamics of the band, while working on a piece, improvised or not?

RM: When we’re working on a piece I’ve written, I usually bring it in to the band and at that point I let go of it, and sit back and watch them tear it apart in often very unexpected ways. The way I hear it in my head is sometimes a long way away from the way they hear it and play it. I like that. I trust that the songs are better that way. Gideon Brazil and Monty Mackenzie (ed. the bands tenor and alto saxophonists) have been switching around the registers of their parts a lot lately from the written part, so what has been written as a lower harmony for Gideon, for instance, becomes the melody. That can sound really great sometimes. I try not to interfere with what anyone is coming up with. They change notes here and there, and try out different feels. It’s enjoyable to witness. Sometimes they ask me for direction, but I try to dodge that as much as possible, which I’m sure is annoying sometimes. They also suggest ideas for me sometimes too, and that can help shift me away from my natural inclinations, which is usually very healthy.

AJN: What should we expect to hear on 12 February?

RM: We’ll be playing all the written tunes from the new album, three or four from our first album, and several new tunes. Though this is the latest album, it’s taken about five years from the writing stage, through the rehearsing, recording and mixing stages to the actual release of the album. I haven’t stopped writing in the meantime, so we have a few new things to present on top of the 50:fifty material.

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AJN: Do you have an ideal listener in mind, when you write music?

RM: No, it’s not something I think about at all. I’m just trying to get sounds out of my head.

AJN: Your music defies labelling and genre-specific definition. Is this deliberate?

RM: There is a lot of music these days that is not really genre-specific, or rather, encompasses several genres at once. Like many musicians, everyone in the band is influenced by a large variety of music from all over the world. So, no, it’s not intentional. That’s just the way we hear things and play them. We’re just trying to be honest with ourselves.

AJN: How would you describe it to someone who has not listened to it?

RM: I’ve had a lot of trouble describing the music of cleverhorse. I know what it isn’t. The closest label we could find to hang on it was ‘contemporary instrumental’, which doesn’t say a whole lot. Lately I’ve been thinking, due to the cinematic quality of a lot of our music, that it could be best described as soundtrack music from a film you’ve never seen.

AJN: What does the term ‘jazz’ mean to you?

RM: Well it immediately brings to mind the tradition of jazz and swing in America, which is a tradition of creativity, but it also brings to mind the European jazz aesthetic and the sound of modern jazz. It also makes me think of the history of all that music, the relationships between all of those incredible musicians, and those kinds of lines of connection or influence you can see happening over generations. One example would be Charlie Christian to Wes Montgomery to George Benson. I’d struggle in a lot of ways to call cleverhorse a jazz band. Though we’ve all spent a lot of time with that music, listening to it and playing it and thinking about it, I don’t think that’s really what the music of cleverhorse is about, though it does share some key elements of jazz, such as improvisation, extended harmony, ways of phrasing melodies and so on.

AJN: To what movie would you like to re-write the soundtrack score?

RM: There’s a 1992 film from the Czech Republic by Ildiko Szabo called Child Murders. The soundtrack is actually a real favourite of mine, so I wouldn’t want to re-write it because I think it’s crap or anything. There’s a lot of space in that film. I like space. A lot. It’s a brilliantly and subtly scripted, acted and directed film. The cinematography is amazing. It would be an interesting film to compose for. It’s a very dark story. My second pick would be Dead Man, another film with a lot of space, but Neil Young did such an amazing job!

AJN: If you could pick any artist (no limitations, whatsoever) to joincleverhorse, who would that be?

RM: This might sound cheesy, but cleverhorse is very much founded on ties of friendship, and I wouldn’t really want anyone else to join the band (even if it were Keith Jarrett) if they didn’t have some sort of history with us. We just played a gig at MONA the other day where Matt Boden sat in. That was a pretty happy 15 minutes. So maybe Matt. If you put a gun to my head and I had to pick someone, I’d go for another stringed instrument, Greg Leisz. Definitely.

AJN: Which song best describes your current state of mind?

RM: There’s an Egberto Gismonti album called Em Familia from the early 1980s, I think. It has a song on it called ‘Choro’ which is both beautiful and totally bonkers at the same time. The world looks a little bit like that to me today.

Album Launch

The album will be launched on Friday 12 February at Bella Union at Trades Hall Carlton, from 8:30pm. Tickets are $20 (or $15 concession) from the venue’s website, or at the door on the night.

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