Sometimes the best music is just under your nose, as in literally right under your nose on your desk hiding in a CD spindle. That’s what happened with Melbourne’s Black Cab, after receiving a promo of Call Signs mid last year. It was largely forgotten about until I saw the video for the first single, the chugging, distorted rock epic “Church of Berlin” which made me hunt out the album and give it my full, rapt attention. Thematically based around a traitorous spy in East Berlin at the height of the cold war it had hooks, electronics and weirdness in equal measure. After seeking out their previous two albums, Altamont Diary (2004), which used the infamous Stones concert of 1969 as a central theme and the psychedelic sitar rock of Jesus East (2007), it was obvious that Call Signs didn’t exist in a vacuum and Black Cab were something special.

Black Cab are ostensibly vocalist/programmer Andrew Coates and guitarist James Lee, although they’re joined in the studio and on the road by Steve Law on keyboards, Richard Andrew on drums, Alex Jarvis on rhythm guitar and Anthony Paine on bass. Some eleven odd years in their career it wasn’t until July this year that the Cabbies made their first foray to Brisbane on the back of their smooth electro-pop single “Sexy Polizei” which features the beguiling backing vocals of Australian singer-songwriter Monique Brumby. With Calls Signs recently being given an European release we talked to singer Andrew Coates about their visit to the sunshine state, the allure of Germany, covering alternative classics and future recordings.

Black Cab came up to Brisbane for the first time in July for a warmly received show. Did you enjoy the experience?

We did, it’s the first time we’ve done something like that in Australia; it was three shows across three days in three cities. We did something similar over a fifteen day period in Europe three years ago, which is the only other time that we’ve done that sort of concentration of shows and travel, but we enjoyed it. All the shows were pretty well attended, particularly Melbourne. We’ll keep working on Brisbane.

It will be good to see the audience grow.

Yes you’ve got to make the effort because there’s people who like interesting experiences and I guess we’re a bit different from a lot of the bands. I think it’s fair to say that we probably won’t go anywhere else except from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Other places are just too expensive to get to, you end up losing money and it’s exhausting. Doing three cities in three days seems to be just right; we might do exactly that again towards the end of the year.

Black Cab - Australian bandSo not coming up here wasn’t a conscious decision or anything, it’s just how things worked out?

Yes. We’re all in different bands, with different lives and we’re a bit older, we’re not free and single anymore, you can’t go on the road for two weeks. That means we prefer to fly and due to that you’ve got to focus shows and be a bit smarter about what you do. It certainly wasn’t a conscious decision; I mean the live aspect of this band has grown slowly. We started with a studio record, it was just a project that wasn’t really intended ever to be a live thing, but we started playing live and that got more enjoyable. Also, I think, for the guys in the band, now that the live interpretation of our recorded works is much more loose and interesting and everyone can contribute. It’s certainly not a conscious decision and I think I’d like to see if we could come and play at places like Brisbane a couple of times a year, make it a bit of an event and just keep building our profile that way.

That leads into my next question that there seems to be two sides to Black Cab: the studio side with samples, programming, synths and also acoustic guitar and then the live side you’ve got a real drone-like, distorted rock feel. So the studio side came first and the the live show evolved afterward?

Yes, certainly for the first record. For the second record we were trying to get more of a band feel but it didn’t quite come off. I think Call Signs is an example where a lot of it isn’t able to be played live; they’re just moments or little atmospheres. There are some tracks that are generally a lot harder and heavier live because that’s just the way it works out. It seems to be that the guys in the band like making a lot of noise, and a lot of those tracks end up evolving into something else. Often when we play a track for the first couple of times it doesn’t quite feel right, then it kind of finds its place.

In Brisbane you covered two seminal rock acts in your encore; The Velvet Underground (“Sister Ray”) and Joy Division (“Transmission”). Both of those songs are influential to a lot of people, do you remember when you first heard those bands?

For me, Joy Division was pretty important when I was growing up. They were the first band that I enjoyed that very few other people did, that was early ’82 or ’83. I first got excited about Joy Division along with The Smiths. You felt that when you were enjoying them and discovering them you were part of a small club, which made it a bit more exclusive. There was something about that band that was just spoke to me in some way, and in a very different way of say New Order. The Velvet Underground came later and they’re even crazier. If you consider all the bands who listened to Joy Division and went off and started bands, well The Velvet Underground are probably “ground zero’ aren’t they really? There are multiple movements in terms of music, content, approach, style, and the fact that no one at the time liked them, in fact most people hated them. The only people they seemed to inspire were other musicians. We like doing covers though; we’ve done quite a few covers over the years.

Did you ever play any covers that didn’t work?

Well, we must have played The Stooges’ “Loose” about ten or fifteen times, then we were doing a live to air down here in Melbourne with Triple R and we got to the first chorus and we forgot how to play it, so that was the end of that track. There comes a time for us when a cover no longer delivers what it should be delivering so it either gets abused or it gets dropped. We’ve done Suicide’s “Rocket USA”, that’s a track that we play quite a lot and in fact we’ve been doing that on top of a Died Pretty cover called “Mirror Blues”. Ron Peno is more available in Melbourne so for the last couple of gigs we’ve been doing there we’ve had him step up and do the first half of “Mirror Blues”, which we readily admit was a direct rip of Suicide, and basically just morph it into the Suicide track “Rocket USA”. We didn’t do that in Brisbane because we were Peno-less.

Black Cab - Australian bandHow did you and Ron collaborate initially with “Ghost Anthems”?

We did a festival down in Red Hill outside of Melbourne a number of years back. We met Ron who was performing with The Darling Downs his band with Kim Salmon. We just got talking backstage and he professed his love for what we were doing and we professed our devotion to him. I grew up with a lot of the early Died Pretty records so for me he’s a bona fide rock legend. He offered to do a song so we took him up on it — I don’t think he expected us to take it up but we did. We wrote a couple of tracks; one that had some heroic pauses, which is very much a Died Pretty thing, he chose one and wrote some lyrics; in fact he just jammed some lyrics because he doesn’t really write per se, he just sort of sings sounds and then those sounds morph into words. It took us a while to get the right recording take that everyone was happy with but it was great working with him and it’s fun playing with him live.

Is it strange when you’re singing “Ghost Anthems” instead of Ron as you did in Brisbane?

Yeah, that tour was the first time that I’ve ever actually done it; Ron will be very upset that I’ve done it! We probably should have told him, it’s his song and we weren’t going to use it.

This can be off the record.

No, that’s alright, he won’t mind. It’s a good sign that the band really like playing it live, they really enjoy it so that basically meant that they all looked at me and said “Off you go!”, but I can’t do Ron’s moves.

Another artist who you’ve collaborated with is Monique Brumby, who’s pretty far removed from the shoegaze music scene. How did that come about?

That was through Simon Polinski who mixed the single and who is going to be doing quite a lot on the next record, hopefully. We wanted to get a bit of a female feel with the backing. We were originally thinking for some black soul sister kind of thing, just for a change and he suggested Monique, who we would never have thought of in a million years. She was very organised, and she just free formed some great backing vocals and she’s got a voice that’s sort of Patti Smith-esque, it’s quite an indie voice actually. We’ve done another track with her were she’s doing lead vocals which we might release as a Monique-Brumby-being-abused-by-Black-Cab type single in the future. Given her vocals it’s not a Cab track anymore, it’s something different but it’s interesting and good. We just gave her some vocals and she just nailed it and wrote some new vocals on the spot so she’s a writing monster.

There’s talk of “Sexy Polizei” getting the remix treatment. If there’s any Black Cab song which is made to be remixed, it’s that song.

A lot of people down here want to remix it, and you’re right, it’s a track that you could do some really interesting things with, so we’re hoping for that to happen the next couple months – five or six remixes [Now available at Black Cab’s Bandcamp]. We really did that single to try and help with the tour so people had a reason to talk about us. There’s also a German language version of that track which we did for a laugh, we got it translated and got Monique to sing some German backing vocals, I don’t know what people in Berlin will think about that. Calls Signs has just been released in Europe and some of the tracks have been played on some of the indie stations in Berlin so we figured we would do a little German track on this new one. They’ll probably die laughing when they hear it and file it as a comedy record.

The song’s content, about a homicidal German police officer, isn’t your typical pop song lyric.

The delivery was meant to be fairly low key. It’s probably the most dancey thing we’ve done and Simon’s production style really suits that style of music. The other tracks we’re doing at the moment are definitely weirder. The next series of recordings have some stuff that’s incredibly weird, and some that you wouldn’t say is “radio friendly” exactly but they’re interesting. We’ll just try and complete this other series of recordings that we started in January. We got a bit off track from where we’re meant to be, the thinking was that we’d do a track a month but we’ve done one in six or seven months.

So will “Sexi Polizei” be on an album eventually?

That’s a good question; we’ve questioned what an actual album even is these days. We put that single out as a download only, it doesn’t exist in a physical form.

Allowing for it as free download in both MP3 and lossless format was very generous.

Yeah we might do that with the rest. There’s a lot of ways to release tracks now — if people want to pay a buck for a track then they can do it, in fact they can do it and you get the full buck. I don’t know how much you get for iTunes — fifteen cents? We may just do that: “We’ve finished the track and it’s mixed. Enjoy!” and just throw it out there, to help keep up our profile. I still think it’s a good thing to have that final product that you can touch and feel, but maybe that product becomes something that’s really gorgeous to look at and a really desirable thing in its own right.

Do you have a theme for the new material or is it more disparate in nature?

I don’t think there’s a theme. We’ll just make some weird music that sounds good. Jesus East didn’t really have one.

I was wondering if having a concept for an album, like with Altamont Diary and Call Signs, made lyric writing an easier process?

It really does. I don’t find writing lyrics very easy. I find singing sounds is easy but the process of assigning words to sounds is difficult; it can be a real slog at times. It’s very easy to write a bad lyric or a bad line. A theme can help you move out of yourself into something/someone else, so lyrics come a bit more easily. I don’t really like writing songs because I don’t play an instrument but I’ve got to stand up there with the lads and do something. The voice is an instrument as well as a way of telling a story. I enjoy that part of it but I find song writing doesn’t come easy to me; I wouldn’t call myself a song writer.

You’ve been writing with James Lee for a long while haven’t you?

Yeah, but interestingly with Steve even longer. Steve and I started a band in the early ’90s that James joined in ’94 called Foil. Steve and I started making horrible noises in 1990.

Steve was your foil in Foil then?

He was. Steve and I we just like making weird sounds and then I added a few bits and pieces and we brought some other guys in. At first we made some pretty terrible live music but then we started pulling it together and we became a more aggressive unit. Just about that time Steve got more into techno and had a successful career as a techno musician and Foil kind of faded away around ’97. Then I took some time off and went to live in the States and that’s when Altamont Diary started to form.

Given Calls Signs’ geographic setting I assume you spent some time in Germany.

I backpacked there in ’89-’90. I actually saw the Berlin wall when it was still there. It was half pulled down but there was a bunker and the air shaft that you could still see in no man’s land right near the border. I walked across into East Berlin for a day with a day pass, which was a pretty powerful experience. In 2007 we toured there and did a lot of driving through Germany, but Germany had changed a lot since my first time and we didn’t actually make Berlin unfortunately because our van broke down before the gig. We were stuck about 100 kilometres outside of Berlin where a whole bunch of people were apparently waiting to see us.

With all the German name checking on Call Signs – “Church in Berlin”, “Dresden Dynamo” and now “Sexy Polizei” which mentions Düsseldorf, have you ever considered approaching the German Tourist Board for a grant?

No we haven’t, although we got an Aus council grant to do the tour in 2007 so I can’t fault the generosity of government organisations. But no, not from the German side. I don’t think they want a bunch of hairy old Australians coming through Germany like a bunch of pillaging Vikings.

Final question: the last track on the album, the ballad “Sword and Shield” has got a great lyric, I was just wondering where the inspiration for that song came from?

That’s a really good example of a theme helping with the song writing. The whole song writing angle was this notion that firstly patriotism is a repulsive thing and secondly to set that around a regime that is revolting – the East German regime. It has also got a certain coolness about it too because there’s this sort of weird other worldliness of East Germany in the ’70s and ’80s which was different to other parts of Europe; it’s got a certain chic-ness to it. So that was interesting. The idea is of a spy or a government official who is deliberately selling out their own country. “Church in Berlin” is very much about that, “Rescue” less so. Some of the more atmospheric tracks like “Dresden Dynamo” are trying to evoke that dread. That last track is actually a book end, as it has the same chord structure as “Church in Berlin”. One is a wall of sound epic and the other is the coda. “Sword and Shield” is really about this guy who is waiting to be executed or arrested or whatever, and he’s looking back on what he’s done and he’s got no regrets, even though he’s done some terrible things. So that was the vibe and I’m quite proud of that one, it’s the first time I’ve done a narrative track that has got more than three words in it. Most of the tracks I try and do with the barest minimum number words that I can possibly get away with. I reckon I’m cutting my loses!

You can find more about Black Cab at their Facebook page.