The rise and rise of Melbourne’s British India has been something to behold. They’ve gone from their first release in 2005, the rough and ready Counter Culture EP, to 2007’s incendiary debut Guillotine, and from feted Triple J acts to top five chart placings with second album Thieves. We stole some time with guitarist Nic Wilson and drummer Matt O’Gorman about the genesis and recording of Thieves, the importance of recognition by peers and their humble beginnings covering Blur songs.
The Zoo, Brisbane mid 2008
The Zoo is filled to capacity with a sea of teens and twentysomethings. There’s no dominant subculture as indie kids, alternative rockers, normals and even emos all mull around the packed venue. British India enter and swiftly propel themselves into a new song and the crowd metaphorses into one visceral organism. In all my years of seeing acts at the Zoo I’ve never witnessed a crowd lose it quite like this. British India are white heat raging. Even near the outer edge of the main viewing area, normally a safe haven, hands are thrust upwards while bodies are bumped and grinded. If we get out without a fracture or major abrasion we’ll be doing very well.
An hour earlier Webcuts was in the decidedly insalubrious backstreet of the Zoo waving our horribly out of date tape recorder under the faces of one half of the band, uber-talented lead guitarist Nic Wilson and staunchly reliably drummer Matt O’Gorman (singer/guitarist Declan Melia and bassist Will Drummond are the other half). Thieves was being recorded in Sydney but the band was implementing the commendable work ethic of playing gigs in various parts of the country during their weekends “off”. Released thirteen months after Guillotine, Thieves would refine that album’s garage rock and indie rock features by developing the band’s pop hooks without sacrificing any of their energy or anger. Melia’s lyric writing would also evolve displaying surprising maturity and depth with topics of celebrity, commercialism, youth culture and suicide not your average choices for most 22 year old songwriters.
British India’s perma-touring and Triple J approved recordings were rewarded when Thieves reached number five on the Australian charts and garnered an ARIA award nomination for best independent release (they lost to Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu). Having recently released the second single from Thieves, the thunderous “God is Dead, Meet the Kids”, the band are again in the midst of an all encompassing Australian tour which will also take them back to England for a second round after sold out shows late last year. While their band name will do them no favours when dealing with the notoriously fickle UK press they at least have the perseverance, songs and looks to stand a fighting chance.
Back to the alley…
As with Guillotine, Harry Vanda was once again in production chair for the new album. Was that an automatic decision?
Nic: I think it was an unspoken decision, especially with the second album coming out so quickly after the first. We couldn’t imagine working with anyone else.
Matt: He’s just the best producer, especially for us. We get on so well.
Nic: I think just because the first and second albums were quite a close progression, it wouldn’t have made sense having someone else do it. Thieves is a continuation of the first album.
Are any of the songs on Thieves cuts that didn’t make Guillotine?
Nic: No. We only put one previously released track on Guillotine because it was only ever on released on vinyl. So we thought we may as well chuck it on there. We don’t like when bands do an EP and then the entire EP ends up on the album. We just like to write really. There was plenty of stuff lying around. We believe that if was good enough to be included on the first album it should’ve been there and if it wasn’t good enough then it shouldn’t have been.
The saying goes that bands have their whole lives to write their debut album but only six months to write their second. Was that true for British India?
Nic: That’s true for anybody. We matured a lot in that year and we had time to write what I like to think of as, which is a cliché too, a mature album.
Matt: It certainly helped playing live a lot. We’re playing live almost every weekend. We never really had that break we’re it would be just writing. We’re always sort of playing so we’re always fresh with ideas.
How does the songwriting process work, do songs start off as jams?
Nic: Normally one of us will come with a fragment and we’ll keep kicking it around until it starts looking like a song really.
You’re obviously a band which utilises riffs a great deal. How important is it to get a good riff going?
Nic: Very important normally with us. That’s usually the fragment. It can also be that the melody comes first and the riff has to come later, which I normally find a lot harder. It’s a lot easier creating a riff than having to create a riff. Riffs are pretty important but not as important as melody. We believe in melody above everything else.
At what point are the lyrics written?
Nick: Declan likes to do them the very last thing, the night before he records them. He just likes them to be as relevant as possible when they are finally captured. Normally Dec and I are the last people in Sydney when we’re recording, so we normally kick around ideas the week or night before. I like doing it that way.
Do you think coming from Melbourne has influenced your songwriting? Would the songs be much different if you came from Brisbane instead?
Matt: I think it did at the start but as we’ve kept playing…
Nic: I don’t know. I don’t think we think of ourselves as Melbourne songwriters or anything like that. It is true that whatever we’re surrounded by does influence who you are and who we are influences our songwriting. Maybe if we were brought up in Brisbane we’d be different people who would be writing different music but that’s a big hypothetical. I’d like to imagine it doesn’t affect us but it might.
You once played with Gaslight Radio a few years ago and I hear some similarity between the bands. Were they an influence?
Nick: I don’t really know their stuff.
Matt: We always get the odd influence question “Have you heard of this band? You sound so much like them”, when we never have heard of the band.
Nic: We’ve got weird influences, it’s very eclectic.
Matt: It really helps that most of the time we’re all listening to different things while writing. It’s not like we’re all stuck listening to the same album, everyone’s going through different periods which really does help with songwriting and even putting the guys onto different music that they may not have heard before.
You started off playing Beatles and Blur covers. Care to reveal songs in particular?
Nic: We tried “Tender”. We did the entire Let it Be era. We did so much Beatles. We were all into George Harrison solo stuff as well. We attempted a lot, but some sounded better than others.
The working titles for some of Thieves’ tracks displayed a sense of humour and wordplay (“Death from a Bruv”, “Funeral for a Trend”, “Cocaine Christians”),
Nick: This album is probably more commercial than Guillotine, and that was a conscious thing. We wanted to make a commercial album. We like pop music. In the choruses the titles are so obvious you just don’t want that to be the title.
Matt: We’ll come in with these titles and it’ll be a fight with management or whoever who’ll say “you can’t call the song that!” .
Nick: They’ll say “What has that got to do with the song?” It’s got everything to do with the song.
You mentioned Thieves is more commercial sounding. Will it feature the Australian Philharmonic orchestra perhaps?
Nic: Ah no. The commercial side — well it’s like Guillotine but a bit warmer, and a little bit fuller. But it’s not Guillotine with strings. We entered this knowing more so what album we didn’t what to make, than what album we did want to make. I think we got that from watching so many bands who we love making horrible decisions on the second album — too many slow songs, or too many songs or…
Matt: …or taking a long time to do it.
Nic: Which is another reason we trying to make it a year to the day. (Ed — Nearly. Thieves was released thirteen months after Guillotine)
Is the current break-neck schedule making up for the three years between forming and the first album?
Nic: Yeah, although that was more of stuff beyond our control. Problems with management and the like. That sorted itself out and the album finally came out.
Was the live and acoustic “Sitcom Mattress” a one off?
Nic: That was a definite one-off. We literally wrote it that morning. It was filmed at six in the morning and we’d written it about three hours before. The time that we played it was the first time we managed to get all the way through it.
Matt: We could see you guys laughing through it as well
Nic: (laughs) Because there’s this stupid lyric that Declan changed at the last minute. It’s about a sitcom actress, you go into her room and she’s killed herself and he’s describing the room. There are McDonalds wrappers and all this sort of shit, and he says the room smells of, it’s supposed to be semen and he sang “ce-ment”. We were also playing it in two different timings. I didn’t realise what was wrong until I watched it back, he was playing 3/4 and I’m playing 4/4, or something.
Do often write acoustically like that?
Nic: No not really. I write on acoustic but we don’t sit around with acoustics. It wouldn’t get the vibe I think.
You received an AIR (Australian Independent Record Labels Association) award for Best New Independent Artist in 2007. How are important is industry recognition like that?
Nic: It’s good. I never won anything, in school, either academic or otherwise. So it was nice.
Matt: You have an idea on how the band goes over, although being in the band itself is a bit different. But certainly when things like that happen it ads to everything. It’s great.
Nic: It was a nice one to get. It would be well cool to win an ARIA but it was a nice thing to win the independent thing. ARIAs are unfortunately dominated by label major bands and AIR is some sort of sanctuary for us guys who don’t necessarily believe in the major label way.
Five years ago when you first started out did you imagine you’d be getting these rewards and research the level of popularity you have?
Nic: I’ve always dreamt about it. The nicest thing about the last eight or nine months is to been able to cross things off that you’ve always had a dream of doing. It’s still a very long list. It’s been a great last year. I never expected it. I never expected success which I think a lot of bands do and it’s a cold reality check at the end of the day sometimes. But I’ve always been grateful for what we have achieved and if it all ended now I’d be happy…To an extent.