Up Close With Playwrite
On a cold autumn night, lead singer/percussionist, Jordan White, and guitarist, Pat Holcombe, founders of the epic Melbourne band, Playwrite, sat out on the balcony of The Espy to have a long chat. The bromantic pair relaxedly discussed their facial hair, their band’s history, and most importantly, their music.
The band has just completed its first interstate tour – three shows in NSW – how was that experience?
JW: That’s correct.
PH: We went to Wagga once, but we don’t talk about it [laughs]. It was kind of our first show; it was a slightly different band.
JW: It was great. We seemed to get a really good response. It was really nice to play with people we didn’t know, see what did and didn’t work.
PH: It was never going to be as big a crowd as we have at the Toff, but people will definitely come back next time.
It was always packed, but there wasn’t any buzz, we haven’t really pushed for that Sydney crowd so much. People stayed, which is great!
So there was there a pre-Playwrite time?
PH: How far back do you wanna go? Jordan and I played together in high school – many, many moons ago. I played in a band for a couple years and then went travelling. It was a small school, with not many drummers. But Jordan and I are a few years apart so he finished school then did other things.
JW: Yeah but within my first week of school I bumped into Pat.
PH: So a couple years ago Jordan contacted me, had a whole bunch of songs, workshopped them with some musos we got together and that was called Cacophony Society. We did that for about a year, then we kind of stripped that all away, went back in the studio – just me and him – and recorded a bunch of demos one summer over many months. From that, we developed Playwrite.
With such a dense, often rhythmically complex sound, how do you go about writing and structuring songs?
PH: Generally, I’ll come up with the bare bones of the song, which will have aspects of the rhythm already. A lot of the stuff I write is inherently complex; I just really enjoy playing with different time signatures. It’s just something that really works for my ears. So the first thing we’ll do is: I’ll take it to Jordan and try and figure out the rhythm and drums. Because he’s a very talented drummer, we can generally do that before we take it to the band.
How much input do the other four member of the band have into the song-writing?
PH: Well it’s a pretty open and creative process.
JW: Once Pat and I come up with the shell of a song, I’ll have an image. I know what kind of sounds I dynamically want and I hear within Pat’s stuff. That’s the team we’ve developed. In terms of sound, I kind of drive that. Everyone is so musical in the band that they bring their own aspects and take on what our music is.
So who writes the lyrics?
PH: I write the lyrics and melody. And I sing a bit of a song, yes…’Coming Back to You’ [embarrassed].
The band plays with euphoric joy live, not too dissimilar from what Arcade Fire do. Is this a conscious effort some nights, or are all six of you just super-duper happy people?
JW: It’s definitely something that we encourage within ourselves. I think we kind of get frustrated seeing garage bands not get out of the garage. Both Katie and I come from music theatre backgrounds, so we’re both really aware that there needs to be a performance element.
PH: And people really enjoy watching you have fun! It definitely bounces back, it comes around.
On a curious sidenote, what is the significance of the colourful uniform necklaces you don live?
JW: I think the idea of it is that we wanted to have something that made us identify differently. Not necessarily that we’re becoming something else, just that we are six people together.
PH: It ties us together somehow; when we put it on we are the band.
JW: It’s like Captain Planet with the rings or the Power Rangers or whatever.
PH: It’s all the good reasons that people are made to wear uniforms and none of the shit ones.
Jordan, as the singer, do you have any lyrical input or not?
JW: Ah, there are a few songs where I do.
PH: Ummm, all three of those come from different places. ‘Canada’- I just wanted to write about Canada; that was definitely the story I wanted to write. ‘New Zealand’ is not about New Zealand; it is about the idea of escape. There’s another story there…it’s actually kind of about Jordan. It wasn’t about me escaping from him or anything, but it is an idea of escape. Then, ‘Black Cloud’, at the time of the Tsunami, I was just a bit overwhelmed in a way. I’ve been through natural/personal disaster as well. There was so much coverage of Japan. People with so little and there was nothing they could do. We’re sitting here and it’s so hard to comprehend.
It’s a very empathetic process.
JW: As the one who didn’t write it, but has to sing it, I think it is completely empathetic. It’s that barrier between not been able to help.
Where do your influences come from, in any form (music, literature, art or anything)?
JW: I’m extremely visual. I have a background in that. My parents own a performing arts school. My mum’s a choreographer and my dad’s a singer and drama teacher. My parents met doing the original cast of Cats [laughs]. For me, the visual aspect of music, what the fourth wall can create for an audience, is something I absolutely adore. In terms of the imagery behind the band, I’ve taken that on. Artists like Sufjan Stevens and Radiohead, I really admire.
PH: Not necessarily artists, because there are a dozen that I really love. But I really appreciate music that makes me go: “What’s going on in there, I really want to figure that out”.
Well, your guitar work involves a lot of “texturing” and “layering”. The style is somewhat reminiscent of the Dessner brothers from The National. Do you have any particular influences in that regard?
PH: That’s a hard one. Not really. Guitarists… funnily enough I grew up listening to a lot of Bert Jansch, Elliot Smith, Crosby Stills Nash & Young – really good guitarists. Not a lot of that comes through in what I’m doing now though.
A lot of troubled guys! You’re not too unhinged?
PH: No, I think I’m pretty hinged.
What do you think of the comparisons people make of you to other artists, such as Sufjan Stevens, Arcade Fire, TV On the Radio, even Gotye or Bon Iver? Is this a compliment? Or does it detract from the goal you have as a band?
JW: I think we take it with a grain of salt. It’s a compliment, because they’re all beautiful artists. But ultimately, we’re not out to be anything else.
PH: And no one has ever said anything like: “These guys are just like this band”
JW: We focus on having a diverse set. We don’t want our entire show to sound like the same band with the same style.
The EP the band released a few months ago was very impressive, particularly tracks like ‘Animals Housed’ and ‘Black Cloud’. Live, there seems to be an abundance of high-quality material also – do you think an album is in sight?
JW: Yeah we’re hoping to release something early next year.
As a young band, are there any concerns you have in relation to the industry? What do you do on the side?
PH: I do conservation work. I have a degree in Environmental Science.
JW: Freelance design.
PH: But money is somewhat of a concern for us and a lot of bands. It costs a lot to record; you’ve got to make that money back. There is support for live music in Melbourne, but at the same time people don’t want to pay too much for tickets. Also, the support from the venues is half-hearted sometimes – they won’t always give you as much promotion that might benefit them.
Finally, are there any plans on a full-fledged national tour?
JW: We’ve got plans to see a lot of Australia this year, but it’s pretty open. We’ll see.
Coffee or tea?
Beer or wine?
PH: I’ll say beer because Jordan likes wine.
JW: I’m the wino here.
PH: I would drink beer more than Jordan would. Actually, I drink Jameson’s.
Day or night?
JW: I’m a night person.
PH: But then we complain when we have to play a midnight.
JW: For creativity, definitely night.
PH: I like mornings. I write and play well in the morning.
JW: He’s Dayman, I’m Nightman.
PH: We’re a team.
Beard or no beard?
JW: [Points at his face].
PH: If I could, I’d probably grow more of a beard. I have these weird gaps that won’t grow…Maybe I could do a pencil moustache. Last time I had a bit of a beard Jordan told me I looked a bit too Craigieburn [laughs all round].
The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?
Northside or Southside?
PH: Definitely north.
JW: [Nods]. But the south is beautiful.
To check out their upcoming dates and their tunes, visit the Playwrite website
Tagged Arcade Fire, Bert Jansch, Bon Iver, Cacophony Society., Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Elliot Smith, Gotye, Jordan White, Pat Holcombe, playwrite, Sufjan Stevens, The Espy, The National, TV on the Radio