Google Port Macquarie, Australia and you’ll wonder why anyone would ever leave such a paradise. A gorgeous coastal town just a few hours from Sydney, it’s known for its extensive beaches and koala bears. It’s also a popular retirement community.
But I guess if you’re a raucous indie garage rock band trying to make your way, a retirement community isn’t the best place to ply your trade. So with two members already based in Sydney and two members in Port Macquarie, Royal Chant technically call themselves a “Sydney” band.
Royal Chant isn’t new to the scene by any means – they’ve been releasing (and releasing, and releasing) on Bandcamp since at least 2009 and we featured their excellent single – Just Trying To Meet You as Record of the Day last March.
The band’s new record – The War Cry of Failure proves again that their sound is really hard to pin down. They’re kind of like a morning-glory muffin – sure there’s a shit-tonne of stuff in there, but it’s delicious.
I’ll admit, this might be a lazy way of reviewing an album, but I just want to get the point across that if you love any of the bands I’m going to mention – you’re going to dig Royal Chant.
The lead track – Dick Move has a Pixies/REM feel to it, while Sisters on Fire sounds like Grandaddy (minus the keyboards). The beautiful ghost of Dramarama haunts songs like I Pretend You Believe, Sight For Sore Eyes and the aforementioned Just Trying To Meet You and the rest of the way you’ll hear traces of Pavement, Adorable, Teenage Fanclub, Guided By Voices and Yo La Tengo.
Hmmm, maybe in Port Macquarie time stopped in the 90s? Well if Royal Chant is the result, I’m packing a bag for paradise!
Mark Spence: Vox/Guitar
James Carthew: Guitar/Vox
Ryan Stuart: Bass/Vox
Josh Thompson: Drums
How did you become Royal Chant and what’s with the name?
Originally I had a band in the USA called Sickboy. It actually kinda sorta did alright, mostly on college radio (we had a song that might be the closest I will ever get to a “hit”), but I was pretty much a disaster for most of it so that made our live shows rather disappointingly chaotic. Not rock & roll chaotic, just shit. Anyways, I wind up here in Australia and keep the band going with a new line-up, and it sorta does OK here too. We land ourselves a good manager whose first item of business is changing the name, which actually makes sense because over here they use the word “sick” in phrases like “fully siiiiiick mate!”, and it basically sounded like the type of band that would be a soundtrack for a skatepark brawl. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I always thought of us as a bit more wounded and fragile, and not something that inspires prepubescent boner-jousting rage. So, we start the search for a band name and since most of the members of the band at the time were completely apathetic that job fell mostly to me.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever had to deliberately come up with a band name, but unless you have one already up your sleeve (basically a band name searching for a band), it pretty much sucks. Lots of dead ends and heaps of rabbit holes, and there’s always that one guy in the band who keeps pressing you to go back to the first crappy-but-not-too-crappy-I-
If you keep searching though, hopefully you’ll eventually hit upon a vein that feels like it’s getting somewhere. I wound up going after literary & drama terms, and then various forms of poetry, and after everything I wanted sounded either too lame or was already taken I happened to stumble upon an old convoluted French form of poetry called a Chant Royale. It’s a mind-numbingly complex and archaic form of rhyme, and almost entirely forgotten unless you like your poetry the same way people like steam trains for public transport, so I just swapped it around and came up with Royal Chant. It is indeed both exceedingly pretentious and haphazardly careless, which makes sense.
I’m the only remaining original member, and we’ve gone from the original 3 piece up to 4, then 3, then 2, and then back up again. I’ve been onstage as a front man on guitar, as well as singing from behind a set of stand-up drums or from behind a kit. We’re pretty malleable, which kind of suits the restless & shambolic nature of the songs. Essentially though, we always find a way to take the stage and put on a show.
Tell us about the scene in Port Macquarie?
Apparently before I got here there was quite a healthy scene, but when I arrived the only genres that were flourishing in any sense (and I use that term loosely) would be covers bands, roots/reggae/shitty white blues bands, and solo guys & gals, also playing mostly covers. So, when we started off we mostly played in Sydney, and most people still know us as a “Sydney band”. James & Ryan live together in Sydney, which means that I am travelling alone back and forth, but now that Josh is on board behind the drums at least I have someone to share the car ride with. We try and fly as much as possible too. That makes all the difference in the world, but will send you broke pretty quick.
Right now though, there is actually a cool little scene happening around Port. We’ve now got a proper venue in town called The Pier, which hosts touring bands that are doing the hard yards, and there’s finally some young garage bands sprouting up keeping things healthy. I run the Open Mic Nights on Tuesdays, and I’m always pushing for kids to start or keep writing their own songs instead of just chasing the small town praise by trying desperately to sound like whatever rubbish is on the radio. We still play in Sydney heaps, but at least now we can play the occasional Royal Chant local show, and I’m always throwing things together under our Designer Mutts moniker.
What music has had an influence on your sound?
I did not live in a musically rich nor diverse household. Like most kids we had a copy of Thriller on vinyl in the house, and our collection was supplanted by albums by Alabama, The Oak Ridge Boys, and Wham!, (the last courtesy of my sister.) She was also a professional dancer so I could claim to have had some early avant-gardé exposure courtesy of The Art Of Noise, but I was mostly surrounded by the Bangles and New Kids On The Block. I was rarely in charge of the radio dial, but I did have a Def Leppard t-shirt.
After that horrific start to things, the first things that hit me were the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Velvet Underground, along with early R.E.M. and U2. I got in to Guided By Voices in high school, but then forgot about them until a few years ago when someone compared us to them, and then I went back and just buried myself inside their catalog. I didn’t get into Nirvana until the 2000s, and even then that was the only “grunge” band I even remotely liked. Pixies and Husker Dü, along with Paul Westerberg and Julian Cassablancas, just another crop of great writers, all whom I still consider under-rated despite the acclaim they’ve all received. Anything catchy with some lo-fi heart is usually my cup of tea.
The other thing is that I went to uni pursuing dual degrees in English & Music (Jazz Performance, Drums), so a lot of my time was spent either reading or doing some pretty intense listening & transcribing. Most of my conversations about music concern either the lyrics, the songwriting in general, or the drummer. Saying that Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Tony Williams, & Elvin Jones are influences might be true, but it’s hard to translate to what Royal Chant does. It’s there, but it’s only really obvious in our live show, with our “anything goes” approach….
Tell us about your live show…
Well, it can get wild, but no matter what we hope that our sincerity and passion comes across. There have been some truly savage frontmen and women over the years, so let’s face it: you’re not going to out Iggy the actual Iggy Pop. If anything I have a habit of somewhat sabotaging the songs in an effort to make sure people get it, maaaan, so I have to deliberately calm the fuck down and just get on with things so people can respond to the song and not necessarily the show. People think we’re taking the piss a lot of the time, but that always struck me as odd since I’m usually being dead serious. Other than that, we’re happy to play on any and all stages, both plugged & unplugged, and we’re deliberately trying to fuse a blue-collar work ethic to these grand designs. Hopefully that keeps us from being wankers. I don’t know if it’s working, but I’m hopeful.
How does the songwriting process work?
Usually with me having a song and then showing it to everyone else, and then it gets mangled a bit with everyone doing their own thing. The latest line-up of me, James, & Ryan has been the most stable and rewarding, so I’ve been going into the studio to do drums, guitars, & vocals, and then leaving them alone with it for a while before coming back to see what they’ve been up to. It’s been good for me to step away from being in complete control, and let chaos and other ideas enter the fray. James has stepped up his songwriting as well, and he was originally supposed to have 3-4 songs of his own in our new LP. The only thing was he couldn’t quite get the vocals how he wanted them, and then we ran out of time and money and had to leave them off. It feels good knowing that we could essentially release an entire EP of James’ tunes, because dammit: democracy works!
We were in Sydney together these past few weekends and I showed them some songs and fragments I had and everyone picked up guitars and jumped in with things. I’ve usually got a song I’m working on, and if not I’ve always got some random lines hanging around. I guess I try to keep writing at all times, no matter what, because if you keep doing this long enough it really starts to feel like a trade in the best sense of the word. I’m a songwriter, therefore, I write.
What influences the band lyrically?
At one point or another, the following people have had a lyrical influence over me, for better or worse: Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Michael Stipe, Thom Yorke, Robert Pollard, Nick Drake, and Gareth Liddiard. I’m not saying it’s healthy, and I can get a bit too far underneath their shadows, but hopefully I’ve come out the other end with my own writing voice.
Also the poets John Keats, John Donne, Shakespeare, Allen Ginsberg, & Philip Larkin stand out.
I guess the other thing would be just reading in general, and that means anything and everything. I don’t care if it’s the back of a cereal box or a tome on ancient grains. I’m reading that shit.
If you could pick any time to travel back to for music, where would you go and what year would it be….
Maybe NYC right around the New York Dolls, Ramones, CBGBs era? It seems like it was an incredible vortex of diverse creativity and characters, before the overt myth making really took over popular music. Or it could be a hell-hole that’s been glossed over in the history books.
What tunes are currently on heavy rotation for you…
“Goodbye Horses” by Q Lazarus, “Rusty” by Arrester, “Like A Friend” by Pulp, “Naked With You” by The Burning Roaches, “Hold On Hope” by Guided By Voices, “Walk This Way” by Run-DMC/Aerosmith, “Chips Ahoy” by The Hold Steady.
Any guilty pleasures – like 5 Seconds of Summer?
Well, James spent the car ride home from our last gig extolling the virtues of Jewel’s debut album, so surely that has to rank up there. Ryan likes “funky” bass stuff, and I have a thing for getting a bit tipsy and putting on good/bad 80s hair metal.
If you could open for any band right now who would that be and why?
You Am I has just released a new LP and they’re back on the road, so that seems like an ideal fit for us, both musically & lyrically. We always get old punters coming up telling us how much we remind them of The Clash, so we seem to have found a niche for people who like pub rock but want something a bit savvier.
If you could only bring ONE record (you can all answer if you like) in the tour van/bus/plane what would it be?
Bee Thousand, by Guided By Voices. It’s got a lot of songs (which is a plus if you’ve got to choose one), and some amazing hidden gems mixed in amongst a beautiful arc of an album.
When you’re not playing and have some time off, where could we find you…
Reading (ideally in bed, with nothing to do for 2-3 days and it’s raining outside), or else surfing or playing tennis. This past year we’ve started to go bowling since I found out there’s a bowling alley right down the street with cheap beers, but maybe it’s secretly for the fashion.
What’s up for the rest of 2015 and 2016?
Just playing shows and waiting for a few reviews of the LP to roll in, hopefully boosting our profile a bit and getting some buzz. The bad news (and this is some exclusive dirt right here): Ryan is moving back to America, which means that we would be without a bass player…..if not for the fact that we’ve already found his replacement. (His name is Adam, BTW). So yeah, that will suck, but it happens. We’ve had line-up changes before and we’ll probably have more for as long as we do this.
We’re all heading over to the States in April/May, so we’re planning on doing some shows on the West Coast this time since our last run was on the East, and then we’ve been writing songs as usual so we’ll see what happens next. My guess would be a new EP sometime in the middle of 2016? I don’t know why, but I truly love that format in its own right. Hopefully a few decent shows around Oz and then I’m not looking too far beyond that. Writing, recording, touring. Not much has changed in the formula hey? Well, except the money….