Robbie Melville: “Antelodic is a very gentle sounding ensemble”

When anyone makes an effort to describe guitarist Robbie Melville‘s trio with saxophonists Gideon Brazil (tenor) and Monty Mackenzie (alto), the word ‘unusual’ comes up. Not only because the woodwinds form the rhythm section, allowing for the guitar to be the melodic voice, but mostly because Antelodic would not exist, had the three musicians – and friends, and collaborators in the band cleverhorse – not become parents, at almost the same time. Their soft, soothing cloud of sound and whispery banter was in fact, a musical response to the daily challenges of fatherhood. Hence the name ‘Quiet Sufficient’ of their debut album, which they’re about to launch. What is the story of Antelodic?

Robbie Melville: In the months following the birth of my second daughter Eva, I found it was a good time to do some writing. I was too tired to practise much or at least with any focus, and it was kind of necessary to keep quiet anyway. Gideon, the tenor player in Antelodic, had also recently shown me the opening scene of ‘Jazz on a Summer’s Day‘, with the Jimmy Giuffre Trio, which blew my mind. So I was listening to Jimmy Giuffre a lot and thinking about counterpoint, and playing single notes at gigs to outline the harmony rather than chords. A whole bunch of things really led to the idea of Antelodic. Gideon and Mont, our alto player, also had young families. We were all in the same position. I guess I started experimenting with compositions for the trio, or the concept of the trio, and we all got together when we could just to see if it might be possible to make it work. Not really with the idea of gigging it or recording or anything. Just seeing what the music would sound like.

AJN: The band’s sound relies on the subversion of the ‘traditional’ roles of guitar and saxes, in terms of harmony and melody; how did this affect your compositions? Did the form dictate the content or was it the other way round?

RM: The first thing that affected the compositions was figuring out how to make the saxes work. I was thinking of them as one instrument in a way, trying to write rhythmic parts for the two instruments where one filled the negative space of the other. I hoped this would enable the rhythm and harmony to keep moving, but also give the guys space to breathe. For several of the pieces I wrote a lead sheet, and then it was more of an arranging exercise. Others were composed using counterpoint, where everyone is playing a melody with its own integrity, but the focus keeps shifting from instrument to instrument, in terms of who is playing the main theme. But some of the tunes just didn’t work unless we did utilise the instruments in their traditional roles. So I would say that the form had a very powerful influence on the content a lot of the time.

AJN: What was the greatest challenge you’ve had to face?

RM: Getting the textures to work, I think. I’m not sure what the guys would say. Their challenges have been of a more technical nature, I believe. But getting the overall textures to sit musically has taken a long time. We spend a lot of time adjusting passages, perhaps changing the range that one person’s part is played in, or me playing a chord instead of a single note, or a single note instead of a chord, or one instrument dropping out. Note length becomes a big issue. Making each instrument sit in the right place dynamically within a phrase is also a thing we look at a lot. We enjoy focusing on the details, and we often change the way we perform particular things from rehearsal to rehearsal and gig to gig, hoping to improve the overall sound.

AJN: How would you describe the dynamics among the three of you?

RM: Well, we’re old friends, so the first thing we all bring to the music is a history of shared experience and a huge amount of trust, and before we play we just sit around and gossip like a bunch of old fishermen or something. I suppose I bring the compositions and a willingness to let go of what I’ve written. I like the guys to have as much involvement in adjusting their parts, and mine, as they’d like. It just makes the music sound so much better. Mont probably brings the ruler that sets the standard of integrity. He never really openly says anything. There’s just something about the guy that won’t accept things being just good enough. He seems to be able to demand better from us all without saying anything. It’s a neat trick. I wish I knew how he did it. Gideon is nuts, so he stops us from getting too bogged down in things, and keeps Mont and me in a state of amusement and bemusement. He also pushes things in a positive direction to get the most out of the music. I’m the most passive, really. I suppose most importantly we all trust each other enough to make suggestions without worrying about offending each other or whatever. And we all know each other’s strengths and weaknesses as musicians, so we tend to make the right kinds of suggestions. We can bypass the kinds of concerns that you have to consider when you’re playing with people you don’t know so well.

AJN: If you could get any singer tojoin the band, who would that be?

RM: Only one singer has ever sung with the band. That was Liz Frencham. We did an arrangement of a fantastic ballad of hers, called ‘Lullaby For A Soldier‘ and played it at a gig with her singing and playing double bass. That was fun. Seemed like a bass and voice and perhaps a drum kit might make a nice addition to the band. Everything suddenly became so much easier! There are a whole lot of singers I can think of who I’d love to hear with the band, but maybe I’d pick Krystle Warren, just because the album opens with a song of hers, called ‘Sparkle And Fade’; she seems to be able to fit her voice into any kind of musical scenario, and she’s just quite an incredible singer and all round lovely person.

Krystle Warren – Sparkle and Fade – 13 June 2010 from Studio54 on Vimeo.

AJN: How did parenthood and family life affect your music?

RM: They had very direct affect on my music. This is a very gentle album we’re releasing and it’s a gentle sounding ensemble. I don’t believe I would have been writing this kind of music, or certainly an album’s worth and more of this kind of music, if it hadn’t have been for having kids. Partly, it came about from sheer tiredness. But I suppose that, for quite a few years, there was a shift away from writing anything too… I dont know, ‘mad’, or whatever. There’s a kind of narrow range this music lives in, tempo-wise. I wonder if that’s just where I naturally write things or if it isn’t partly due to the tempo of parenthood in a way, if that doesn’t sound too daft?

AJN: Can you explain the wordplay of the title ‘Quiet Sufficient’?

RM: That title comes from an odd painting. When I was growing up, my family and three other families spent every summer at a beach house in Anglesea, a little pink fibro shack. It’s gone now, sadly. But there was a painting hung on the wall there that was done by a defrocked priest. It was of a half empty glass of red wine – an anthropomorphised glass of red wine – and it was drinking a smaller glass of red wine, and it was called Quiet Sufficient. I used to sit and stare at that and try to understand it, but I never could. One time, about ten years ago, I went down there by myself to do some writing and I ended up getting unbelievably drunk one night, and I was looking at the picture, and ‘a-ha’!, I suddenly understood. I went to bed very happy with myself. But when I woke up the next day, it was gone. I was back to looking at the painting thinking, “What is that all about”? I took a photo of the painting when we were packing the beach house up before it went on the market, and I wanted to use it as part of the artwork for the CD, but the photo wasn’t of a very high quality, so it missed out. But the title seemed to suit this kind of music well, so I just went with that.

AJN: How much quietude is sufficient?

RM: I’ll answer that with my father’s favourite words of advice – all things in moderation.

AJN: What does ‘quiet’ mean to you?

RM: To me, quiet is less about a lack of noise and more about a lack of distractions. A more introspective state of mind, you could say.

AJN: What is jazz to you?

RM: Ah. The ‘J’ word. The freedom to follow your own nose. I mean, it means a whole lot of things, but the way I’ve been thinking of it recently, all my favourite jazz performers – and performers in any style, really – developed a distinct voice, all playing within the (large) boundaries of a particular musical style, but so incredibly differently to each other. Each one so unique. And I guess they did that by being true to themselves, and being fearless.

AJN: What did you learn about yourself in the process of making music?

RM: Limitations can definitely be of assistance in the creative process. Boundaries present problems and therefore solutions that wouldn’t have usually crossed your mind in other instances. Actually, that’s got nothing to do with me, but that’s something I learned from writing for this ensemble. And that had, or has, an ongoing effect on the way I play music, not just in this trio, but in a lot of situations. I guess I’ve learned to enjoy and utilise boundaries rather than be frustrated by them. There are so many limits to the way I play guitar and hear and write music, but I’m a lot more comfortable with that now. I’m always trying to push my own boundaries, but I’m also working more happily within them these days, rather than wishing I could do everything under the sun.

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

RM: The music of The Grateful Dead had a big influence on me when I first started picking up the guitar and feeling like writing a song was a fun way to pass the time, and I was listening to them the other night in the car, revisiting them. Theres a beautiful song they did with a sort of slow, weird, reggae kind of a feel called ‘Crazy Fingers’ and it has a couple of my favourite lyrics in it:

“Who can stop what must arrive now?

Something new is waiting to be born”


“Life may be sweeter for this, I dont know

See how it feels in the end”

I’m feeling curious about the future, I guess.

Antelodic launch Quiet Sufficient onMonday 27 March at La Mama Courthouse Theatre, 8pm. Get your tickets here.