Interview with Bart & Friends

Pam and Bart Photo Credit: Andrew Bulhak

Hello Bart, Pam, Mark, and Louis – Wow, it’s so amazing to be interviewing you all as the indie super-group Bart & Friends! Before we begin with the Q&A, let me give a brief overview of each of your musical histories for those not in the know:

Bart Cummings was in the Australia-based The Cat’s Miaow and Hydroplane, among other bands, in the 1990s and also ran the Library Records label.

Pam Berry has been an inspirational icon of the indie music scene since the 1990s, singing and playing in numerous bands like Black Tambourine, glo-worm, The Shapiros, and The Pines, and was also the co-founder of the music fanzine Chickfactor.

Mark Monnone co-founded and played bass in the influential and long-running Melbourne, Australia-based The Lucksmiths, which disbanded just last year. Mark also runs the Lost And Lonesome Recording Co. and has released the back catalog of The Lucksmiths as well as the recent Make You Blush EP by Bart & Friends.

Louis Richter played guitar in The Lucksmiths since 2004 and formed Mid-State Orange several years ago.

Bart: When you put it down on paper like that we do read like a bunch of overachieving clever-dicks. We’re actually all fairly lazy, truth be told.

Wow, I wish I was that lazy!  It is quite an interesting musical pedigree which is now all concentrated in the form of Bart & Friends.  I didn’t realize it, but Bart & Friends has actually been an on ‘n’ off project for you since at least 2001 when you released the mini-album I Was Lonely ‘Til I Found You.

Bart: Ah, 10 songs about cars & girls came out in 1998.

Cool.  What spurred you to rejoin forces and collaborate again as Bart & Friends?

Bart: In 2008 I started to get the itch to make music again. I hadn’t done anything musical at all really since playing a show in London with The Pines in 2001. Mark was helping me paint my house and I asked him if I wrote some songs would he play on them. He called my bluff and said yes, so I kinda had to follow through with it which meant starting from scratch, buying a guitar and learning how to write songs again.  By early 2009 I had a few songs and we started recording what eventually became Make You Blush.

Looking back now, did you think that Bart & Friends would be a one-off project or was it always the plan to get together again and release more material?

Bart: When we were recording I was Lonely,,, I took the approach that it was going to be my last recording which was why I did so many covers as I thought I wouldn’t get another chance to do those songs. In the past it was definitely a one-off project with no plans to do anything in the future.

Tell us more about your latest EP, Make You Blush,  that was released this past May.  It contains a whopping 8 tracks, so shouldn’t it be called a mini-album instead of an EP?  Bart and Pam, do you sing on all the songs?  How would you describe the musical style?

Bart: I’ve always thought of it as a single with 7 b-sides, but anyway, each to their own. Pam and I sing lead on 4 songs each, no duets. Our musical style? Concise melodic pop songs. Prior to writing the songs I knew I wanted Pam singing and musically for it to include phased guitar and analogue synth as well as the usual jangly guitar.  I tend to avoid situations where I have to try and describe my music to someone.

How did you work out the logistics for recording this EP since Pam has been based in London for over a decade and everyone else in located in different parts of Australia?

Pam: For my part, technology was my pal.  Bart mailed me the rough mixes of the songs he wanted me to sing on, my husbeau Mike put them into our Akai Porta Studio, and he recorded me singing my parts in the kitchen. I emailed Bart the .wav files so they could put me in the mix however they wanted.

Bart: Even for those of us in Australia it’s not easy.  It’s usually a case of having to pick a day two months in advance when we’re all free to do the recording. We don’t really get an opportunity to rehearse the songs before we record as I live out in the country and the others live in Melbourne.

The Make You Blush EP was recorded and mixed by James Dean (of Tugboat) in Melbourne.  What sensibilities did he bring to the process?

Bart: I think the Make You Blush sounds quite different to anything I’ve done before and I’d put that largely down to James. He’s a bit of a Factory obsessive so he tends to favor delay over reverb.

Mark in Brooklyn Photo Credit: Gary Olson

The EP is available via the Lost And Lonesome Recording Co.   Is there any other way to purchase the album, like on iTunes or other distribution?

Mark: Yes!  iTunes, definitely, as well as lots of other digital hucksters like eMusic, Yahoo, etc… In Australia, the CD is available in a few shops in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane. There are also a few lovely mail-order labels scattered around the globe who carry the EP, like Fraction, Hands & Arms, Pebble, Vollwert, and Apple Crumble. Darla Records is our U.S. distributor, so you can maybe even find a copy in any record store in the U.S. who knows its salt.

Is a Bart & Friends full-length in the works at all?  That would be such splendid news!

Bart: We’ve nearly finished recording 9 songs and it will probably be around a similar length to Make You Blush, so the debate of whether 15 minutes of music is an EP, mini album, or album will probably continue. Not that I’ve got any definite long-term plans, but it’s likely that future recording will operate around a 4- song format. It’s what I feel most comfortable with and I think it works best for what I’m trying to do.

Going back to the inception of Bart & Friends and the mini-album I Was Lonely ‘Til I Found You in 2001, was the line-up the same as it is now?  Is the musical style similar between the mini-album and your recent EP?

Bart: I think one of the key cornerstones of earlier Bart & Friends was that it didn’t have a fixed lineup or musical style. On the first album, 10 songs about cars and girls, the lineup changed on each song. I’m the only continuous member, although Mark did play drums on I was Lonely…

I see the new EP as the first release of a new era and quite separate to the older incarnations. I did toy around with the idea of coming up with a different name for the band, but didn’t want to have to endlessly refer to it as Bart from The Cat’s Miaow’s new band.  By retaining the Bart & Friends name it alleviated that slightly with anyone that would be interested in what I was doing, hopefully remembering the name, although I tend to think it should be called Bart & Friends of Mark Monnone. Musically, having Louis handling lead guitar definitely adds a different flavor to what I’d done previously.  I play even less on the recordings we’re doing now and see my role mainly as songwriter within the band rather than musician.

The Bart & Friends framework also allows the lineup to be loose and casual. The new recordings have Jeremy (the Zebras) on drums and Scott (Summercats) guesting on vocals. The songs I’m writing at the moment are being written with Pam’s voice in mind.

Bart, I’ve been an avid fan of The Cat’s Miaow and Hydroplane for a long time, but I was never sure of the “differences” between the two because both bands share some members and the sound isn’t radically different between The Cat’s Miaow and Hydroplane.  What is your view on the contrast between the two bands?

Bart: One band wanted to be Phil Spector and the other wanted to be Joe Meek. There was a certain amount of overlap in the musical styles, the main differences were mainly how the bands operated internally. It was the same car, just different drivers.

Hydroplane - Failed Adventure

Bart, some The Cat’s Miaow songs that I’m into are “Faded”, “The Phoebe I Know”, “Revant de Toi”, “I Can’t Sleep Thinking You Hate Me”, and the wistful, but hopeful take of the classic “Born on a Train” by The Magnetic Fields.   I’m also particularly fond of “Beloved Invader”, “These Things You Read”, “Now I Know Everything There Is To Know”, and the drawn-out drones of “Failed Adventure” by Hydroplane.  I still have “Failed Adventure” on vinyl and when I first played it, I thought the record player was on a too-slow speed.  LOL  Are the albums and singles by these bands still available to purchase?

Bart: Thank you. I was pretty gobsmacked as well when Andrew played me “Failed Adventure”. Actually, I don’t think I even play on that one or any of the Hydroplane song you’ve mentioned. I swear I was in the band though.

You’ve pretty well picked Cat’s Miaow songs that we recorded multiple versions of. The bulk of the Cat’s Miaow’s recorded output was compiled onto 2 CDs. A Kiss and a Cuddle has 42 songs on it and covers the first 2 years of the band from 1992-1994.  Songs for Girls to Sing has 36 songs and compiles the bulk of the singles we put out 1995-1997 and includes 4 bonus live songs from one of our very rare live performances at a party.  They are both available from http://libraryrecords.yolasite.com/.

There is also an EP of remixes The Long Goodbye that Darla Records put out which you could get from them or iTunes. The version of “Firefly” on this is really good, it’s recorded live in my bedroom where we used to rehearse/record.

Hydroplane’s 2nd and 3rd CDs you might find with a bit of looking, but good luck with finding the first one.  It’s long out of print and quite rare. The singles pop up on Ebay every now and again and tend to for about $15.

Bart, you ran the label Library Records from 1998 to 2003.  What was that experience like and why did you have to shut down?

Bart: I really enjoyed the initial stages of a release, talking to a band about releasing some songs and getting artwork, but the follow-up of distribution and promotion is not where my strengths lie to put it mildly. I shut it down because it was becoming a “time-draining money pit” on top of an already exhausting day job. From memory, from about 2000 onwards the indie pop scene I had been involved with was really winding down and sales were getting smaller and smaller. I’m still happy with all the releases though, the singles particularly.

The first Bart & Friends mini-album included 21 (!) bonus The Cat’s Miaow tracks.  Why were those songs included on the Bart & Friends release and not distributed as a separate album?

Bart: I don’t think the bonus tracks were of a quality to justify their own release. Adding them to the Bart & Friends CD allowed people to have access to them without anyone having to pay to manufacture or purchase them. Ideally they would’ve been included as bonus tracks with Songs for Girls to Sing but there wasn’t room.

Pam in Liverpool

Pam, what’s the scoop about Black Tambourine these days?  Earlier this year the band released the compilation album Black Tambourine which gathered all of the band’s songs along with 6 new tracks.  What was the impetus for releasing that album?  Is the band back together with the intention of creating a new album in the future?  That would be amazing!

Pam: We released the album to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the start of Slumberland Records. As we reckoned it would probably be the last thing we ever release, we wanted to make it special with extra liner notes and pictures and songs – including two alternate mixes of previous songs and four newly-recorded songs that we liked playing together 20 years ago but never got around to recording back then. We recorded the new songs last year much the same way as the Bart & Friends songs, with the fellas recording the music overseas and sending me the files over the Net so I could record the vocals in London. We don’t have any plans to record anything else, I’m afraid!

Pam, I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time and have followed you through your musical incarnations of glo-worm, The Shapiros, Veronica Lake, and The Seashell Sea in the 1990s.  The allure for me has always been your vocals which are clear, smoothly wavering, and mysterious.  What drew you into the music field and when did you realize you wanted to be a singer-songwriter?

Pam: Thanks! I always liked singing in school as a kid and sang with groups at school assemblies over the years, though I never thought about being in a band until near the end of college. Being in Black Tambourine and singing on a record for the first time was a thrill, but wasn’t really planned – after graduation, when my college boyfriend and some of our friends decided to start a band, they asked me to sing and I thought it would be a good time. I had moved to London for six months after graduation to do some travelling and see some bands, and during that time Black Tambourine recorded an instrumental song for the first Slumberland compilation 7-inch without me. We went into the studio not too long after I moved back and it was so fun I couldn’t wait to do it again.

Pam, you co-created the music fanzine Chickfactor with Gail O’Hara in 1992.  I started up my own music fanzine, Stratosphere, around the same time and have since posted the once-paper contents online.  Tell us a bit about those intoxicating days in the early 1990s.  What was it like creating your zine and being involved in the tight-knit indie music scene?

Pam: It was fab to have an excuse to talk to musicians I revered! Though to be fair, Gail did a lot more of the interviewing and reviewing for Chickfactor, I was always busy/lazy and so crap with a deadline. If we had waited to get all my parts done I doubt a single issue would have seen the light of day. But I have many fond memories of all-night fanzine stapling sessions, driving up to NYC for Chickfactor shows where a million bands would be on the same bill, trading fanzines and music through the mail, it was all good. I miss it!

I hope this is not too intrusive a question, but was your decision to move to London music-related at all?  What else is going on in your musical world at the moment?

Pam: I certainly wasn’t disappointed to move to the land of fabulous music and I had always hoped to get back to London again, though I never expected to end up living here permanently. I saw some amazing bands play that first time I lived here in ‘89! But I didn’t end up moving here again for anything music-related. In the end, amour brought me over, my husband’s English and long-distance dating had become a drag. At the moment I’m super-busy wrangling two young daughters so I don’t get up to as much music as I’d like. A few months ago Joe Brooker and I played a Pines gig at the London Popfest, it was the first time in years we’d played together. Besides the Bart & Friends recording, I’ve been recording and singing out a bit with the Gregory Webster Trio but I don’t tend to play live much anymore. I’m recording something for the next Hangover Lounge EP, but I’m not sure what that’s going to be like yet, I’ve never done anything solo!

Bart: Playing a show with me a few weeks ago was obviously so scarring, you’ve erased it from your memory!

Pam: Ha! That was really fun, I think in my sleep-deprived brain I assumed everybody knew about this most recent outing already. Der… I blame the children. I would play out more often if Bart would swing through London more on his way to playing glamorous international popfests.

Mark, you run the Lost And Lonesome Recording Co. with Jane McCracken (of The Foots) and, starting in 2006, Nathan Nott with the goal of spotlighting artists in the Melbourne area.  When did you start the record company and who are some of the artists you’re repping?

Mark: L&L started out in 1998. I’d just returned home after The Lucksmiths’ first US and European tours, and having made a lot of friends amongst the great bands we played with, I was full of crazy ideas to help them out in Australia, just so we could get them all to come out and tour. The Aislers Set from San Francisco and The Salteens from Vancouver, Canada were both amazing live bands and their music was already recorded and ready to release, so, along with The Foots’ CD, we had our first three releases ready to get started on.

Jane McCracken and I were already good friends from the Melbourne band scene, and since we often got together to watch Marx Brothers films and brainstorm wondrous concepts, starting our own label seemed like the perfect progression… As well as her solo stuff, Jane’s band The Foots had self-released a couple of tapes and were working on their new CD — putting it out on a “label” seemed like the professional thing to do.

It certainly helped that I was good friends with other label people like Chris Crouch from Candle Records and Mike from Drive-In Records; from those guys I saw that helping bands release their music seemed like a noble enough way to while away the hours. But, as Jane started getting busy raising her family in the early-mid-00s, the label slowed down quite a lot, until Nate came on board (as well as Stanley Paulzen from Fred Astereo running the mail-order, and Marty Donald from The Lucksmiths doing all kinds of artwork-related things), and we started getting to work on releasing CDs by bands like Still Flyin’, The Ladybug Transistor, The Lucksmiths, The Bank Holidays, The Zebras, and The Pains of Being Pure At Heart. And now, having the opportunity to work with Bart is really cool; as well as being one of my great musical heroes, he’s also way beyond relaxed about releasing CDs… I had to twist his arm to press more than a hundred copies of Make You Blush!

Mark, Louis, Marty, and Tali of The Lucksmiths Photo Credit: Kate Vale

Mark, you were a member of The Lucksmiths for 16 years, and Louis, you started in the band in 2004.  What are some of your best and/or craziest memories from being part of The Lucksmiths?

Louis: God, I have too many to choose from, and I was only around for a little while. On the last European tour, we played a festival near Barcelona, and we managed to finagle a day off so that we could relax and stay at the festival house-thing the night before. The place was on a cliff overlooking a Perfect Beach, and I remember going for a swim in the Mediterranean and looking back up at the cliffs where they were testing out the sound system with our album Warmer Corners (to really put it through its paces, of course!) and thinking “look at us! This is the life!”. Then again, another one of my favourite nights ever was when we played the Clarendon Guest House in Katoomba, near Sydney, to about 40 people, and then played ping pong in the basement until the wee-est of hours. Jeez that was fun.

Mark: Yeah, nothing beats a good, late-night ping pong marathon! Other tour sports activities stick in the mind too: putt-putt golf in Canberra… aqua golf near Sydney… watching the Australian cricket team train in Wellington… playing at the awards ceremony at the World Frisbee Ultimate Championships in Christchurch…

One of my fondest non-sports-related tour memories (although, at the time I’m sure it kinda sucked…) was from back in the day when we were still a three-piece, and on our first international tour. Being a tad novice at booking our own European tours, we decided it was best to book all our flights before we had any shows organised… And thus, arriving in Hamburg, it turned out we had a week free of any public engagements and not a soul to help us out with a floor to crash on. Broke as hell, of course, we were fortunate that Tali White had brought along his two-man tent; a patch of grass between the Hamburg Ikea and a major freeway seemed the ideal place to set down our camp and spend a few days in relative obscurity, while sorting out our next move. Scraping together our final few Deutschmarks, we managed to stock up on canned spaghetti (which, at dinner time, we slopped onto Tali’s ATM card and then into our mouths) and bottles of wine to help us sleep whilst crammed tightly into the tent.

Marty Donald was the main songwriter of The Lucksmiths, but Mark, you also penned some tunes.  Is that an outlet you’d like to explore more?

Mark: Yeah, I guess so. I’ve been writing songs since I first picked up a guitar when I was twelve, so it’s not really a new thing to me. The Lucksmiths was always about Marty’s songs, which I’m glad about. He has a unique, well-honed lyrical style that played a large part in shaping our sound. Tali’s and my songs (as well as Louis’ on the last album) were always the extra condiments to a well-rounded meal. The songs I’m writing these days show up very occasionally at Monnone Alone shows. That’s my three-piece band, by the way (Four-piece, when our bongo dude shows up…).

Tali, Mark, Louis, and Marty of The Lucksmiths Photo Credit: Nathan Vale

Mark and Louis, even though The Lucksmiths have disbanded (after 8 studio albums and 3 compilation albums), there is still some activity going on.  Tell us more about the 7” single, Get-to-Bed Birds, that was released in May.  What is the latest word on a DVD release of the band’s farewell show at The Corner Hotel in Melbourne?

Louis: “Get-to-Bed Birds” was just a great song Marty had come up with. I heard him tell Jeremy Cole from The Zebras that it was a line he had overheard him using once, and liked. It is a pretty great phrase. I can’t remember at what point we started working on it as a song, but we went in to do it at Audrey, with Craig Pilkington, and I remember it being really fun to record.

Mark: We actually just released that single a few weeks back, in late-September. Both the title-track and B-side (“The World of Professional Golf 1994”) were recorded for compilation CDs we’d been invited onto. Since they were the last couple of songs we wrote and recorded as a band, it seemed like they deserved a proper final resting home; a vinyl single seemed like an exciting way to go, so we did a co-release with our mate Jimmy Tassos at Matinée Recordings in California. Matinée had been involved with pretty much everything the band had done since ’98, and he has recently started doing vinyl again, so it was great timing.

And the DVD… Wow, the DVD is so close to being complete, we can practically taste the popcorn! It’s called Unfamiliar Stars and features two-and-a-half hours of four sweaty dudes playing all the songs their bleeding fingers would allow. There’s a few great guest performances from people like Darren Hanlon and Kellie Sutherland from Architecture in Helsinki, as well as some of our finest/dumbest banter moments ever! Also included is a special featurette that traces the band’s last month or two; at thirty minutes in length, it’s a little something for the less-masochistic Lucksmiths fan. We plan to release the DVD in November.

You know, it just hit me the “lucksmith” is actually not a word in the dictionary.  LOL  How did you hit upon it as a band name?  Does it have anything to do with The Smiths or is it an amalgam of “luck” and “blacksmith” and the idea of shaping your own luck?  Just curious!

Louis: I always thought it was a pun on ‘locksmith’, rather than ‘blacksmith’, although that’s kind of a more pleasing image. And the Smiths, of course… or so I’ve heard, I wasn’t even shaving when they came up with that.

Mark: No — actually, we found it in the dictionary… we must have a different one than you! Lucksmith is a noun, defined simply as “A drunken sports fan who endures long road journeys in order to sleep on uncomfortable couches”.

Louis, what’s in store for your band Mid-State Orange, which has been operating since the early 2000s?   Is there an album coming out soon?

Louis: Yes, and I really do have most of it finished, although it is also true that I’ve been saying that for a couple of years, and it was just as true those times. I’d say I’ll finish it the end of the year. It just needs a bit more work, which means I’ll listen to it a few times and then get scared of finishing it off and put it away again for a bit. If I don’t finish it soon, I’m pretty ready to just move on and do a completely new record. I guess then nobody’ll ever know which one I put out, funnily enough. That’s an odd thought. Something soon, though, definitely. Thanks for asking!