I’d heard murmurings of a Melbourne band who subscribed to the “let’s give them a real show” theory of concert performance – glitter, paint bombs and bubble wrap – along with a huge wall of chanting sound. When they visited Brisbane’s Hangar I poked my head in but the place was so rammed I couldn’t see jack but people came streaming out with huge grins on their faces and glitter on their shoulders which I took to be a good sign. Tracking down their debut Daughter of Sunshine seven track EP proved that they also song writing chops — from the catchy techno-rock of “War”, “River” with its hypnotic organ and “Pills” and “Temple” being more straightforward (straightforward being relative with Rat vs Possum) indie pop. Chris Berkley got to speak to co-lead singer/screamer Daphne Shum about their glittering prizes, the band’s initial formation and the choice of going more pop for the EP.
I’m wondering if, when you pack for a Rat vs Possum show, there are kilos of glitter and paint bombs and stuff like that that go into the luggage?
Not paint bombs, I think that’d be a bit of a security issue. We never really discussed the glitter. Sometimes I’ll show up to the gig and then one of my bandmates will have all this glitter and it’s kind of gotten to the point where somehow one of us will just kind of have some. I think it’s Matt in the band who brings it but I never expect it and then I’ll be like “oh cool, glitter again”.
It’s this cosmic thing where somehow you all know that it’s one of your turns to bring the glitter?
It’s a big fixture in our lives now because it’s all through our houses, sometimes I will take something out of my handbag and all this glitter will come out and it gets everywhere.
It’s a reminder of the band wherever you go because I’ve only seen the photos of you guys covered in the stuff. Did Rat vs Possum start out as a band to play at peoples’ parties, is that where the glitter and the fun begin?
Pretty much yeah. It started when I was putting together a show with my old band, and I asked Matt (Kulesza) to play a solo set because he had these songs that he’d written and he didn’t want to play them any more, and he was like “I’ll go and write new songs”. He wrote them all in one weekend and it was pretty much a joke band at the beginning. The songs were just really private jokes about our friends and about those kinds of things, the kind of private jokes that don’t make sense when you try and retell them so I’m not going to go into that.
How messy, literally and musically then, were those early Rat vs Possum shows?
They were pretty fucking terrible. Really messy and shambolic but we had a great time. I liked the band enough to join it, I was the fourth person to join. I could see some potential in it and it was very fun but maybe for people who didn’t know us and weren’t in on the jokes, it was not fun to watch and possibly horrible to watch.
So you saw the fun bus leaving without you and thought you had better get on it did you? Better to be a part of it?
Yep and at that point we always had our friends coming up and playing tambourines and percussion and back then it wasn’t something we took seriously at all and it sort of evolved towards becoming something we took more seriously. It was pretty gradual and unintended, it just kind of happened upon us.
So at what point, Daphne, did you realise that you had a proper band? That Rat vs Possum was going to be a more serious thing?
I think around the time of our residency at The Tote in Melbourne in July 2008. We were still a bit rough at that stage but a lot of people came to the residency shows and we started, it sounds really clichéd, but kind of getting in the zone when we were playing; when you know exactly what you’re playing and you’re proud of it and you’re completely unselfconscious and just giving yourself wholly to musical expression. Then, secondly, not long after that we started recording in 2009 that’s when things crystallized.
I guess you sort of commit to it more, you can’t play to your friends forever, you have to widen the audience, if you will?
Yeah, if we had just kept playing to our friends forever I think we would’ve broken up. Not in a bad way, but more a case of “okay we’ve executed that, let’s move on now”. But then it kind of evolved beyond our control, in a really pleasing way.
Where did the predilection for chanting the lyrics in Rat vs Possum songs come from? Were they there from the start or was it just because it was easier to remember them?
We’ve never deliberately made it so that all the songs are like that. I really don’t know. Matt was kind of the principal songwriter at the beginning of the band for the first six months because they were all originally his songs but now we’ve written lots of songs together since. I think he was just constructing song structures and I’ve never been in a conventional rock band or anything like that. I think it was just a product of us all coming from really different musical backgrounds. I don’t think we would know what it would be like to be in a normal rock band; I come from a really DIY background for example.
Do you think it’s also easier to build up a song when there’s chants? Especially if you’re doing it live, it has a place to go, it’s not all over in a minute?
I think so, and also because there’s a lot of vocals in the songs that they’re not verse, chorus, verse songs, so the vocals and the lyrics are there not so much to help expression, not like a lyrical expression thing but more just to have vocals as sound almost. I don’t know how to explain it.
Almost like another instrument?
Yeah and that focus on repetition and the repeating of words before they lose their meaning, or repeating a phrase throughout it – kind of like a really inane catchphrase, like “I think I love you but it might just be the pills” (from “Pills”), or something like that.
Have you seen anyone with that slogan on a t-shirt yet in Melbourne?
No, I haven’t, I kind of hope not because I don’t want to be known only for that.
You guys at Rat vs Possum seem to have relished the chance to create the Daughter of Sunshine EP. Did you think of it as a separate entity to what you were doing live?
Definitely. We knew that it was going to be really hard to recreate the live sound so we chose not to and because we didn’t want to work with loops in the studio so there’s no loops on the album, everything is played from start to finish, and we wanted it to be a really lush kind of hectic pop kind of album and we just decided at the beginning that a band’s live show and their recorded sound doesn’t necessarily have to be identical.
I’m glad you used the “P” word – the pop word – because I was going to throw that out there, and I hope it doesn’t offend you Daphne, but it’s actually surprised me quite a lot how pop the Rat vs Possum CD ended up being.
I really liked that aspect of it and I really love pop music, all kinds of pop music and the aggression in the live show is definitely in the vocals and in the drumming. With the live sound the drums can get really full on and that’s hard to replicate when recording and I thought it would be insincere of me to sing the way I do live in the studio because I really strain my voice on stage and really scream and shout and I just didn’t feel sincere doing that in the studio setting, I wanted to do a bit more proper singing, I guess.
Your inner Mariah Carey came out, didn’t it?
Yeah, that’s it, all the little vocal trills.
The production’s really crisp, it’s almost like a hip-hop record in terms of the sounds. I kind of expected the CD to sound like the whole lot of you guys standing on one side of a room and having it so that the microphone was on the other side, but it’s quite a headphone record, really.
We initially contemplated recording everything live and then just doing a few overdubs but because we wanted so many tracks and so many noises like toys and jangly sounds we soon realised that idea wouldn’t sound very good. It was actually a home recording though, even though the production’s quite lush, it was recorded at our producer’s house.
Well he’s got a way.
He’s very talented, yeah.
Interview broadcast on 27/05/10. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3 FM) and via the Internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).