About 8 or 9 years ago, while I was writting tof a fanzie called Starshy (when fanzines were still printed paper) I had the pleasure of interviewing Marty Donald from The Lucksmiths, just before the band finished the recording of “Naturaliste”. Since then, the band released “Naturaliste”, “Warmer corners”, a double compilation with rarities and b-sides “Spring a leak” and “First frost”. Then the band decide to break up and started a long farewell tour around Europe and Australia, which last ever farewell show was recorded and just released in a new DVD called “Unfamiliar stars” by Lost and Lonesome Recordings and Matinee Recordings, including a short documentary about the last days of the band. In this blog we’ve always been big fans of The Lucksmiths (we reviewed their whole discography in Spanish here and here) so we could let go the chance of interviewing Marty Donald once again and ask all those things that sprang to our minds since the previous interview. Here you have the result, a sincere an extense interview that would clarify a lot of you doubts about the past, and maybe future of this great band.
Try to go back to your first years in the band and tell me what the younger Marty Donald from “First tape” would have thought if he would have listened at that time “First frost”… Would he recognise himself in those songs? And does the older Marty Donald still recognise himself in “First tape”?
I’m not sure what I would have thought of First Frost all those years ago. I might have found it a little slow in places! But I think there are enough common threads running from our early work to the last songs we wrote that I would have found plenty to like in them. I would have been impressed by some of our musicianship, too — particularly my finger-picking in “California in Popular Song”! I’ve had to listen to the First Tape songs a bit lately, as my young son really enjoys it (no more than First Frost, though!), and I don’t enjoy it at all. I mostly find them hopelessly naive and embarrassing. The one exception is “Weatherboard”, which we revisited for our farewell shows, and which I think stands up surprisingly well amongst our later work.
Look back into the Lucksmiths discography; I know is hard but please choose just one favourite song and one favourite record.
A favourite song is too hard. There are many songs of mine I like for different reasons. I think Warmer Corners is probably our best record (for reasons I’ll get to later); that was certainly the best group of songs I wrote for The Lucksmiths. So if pressed I would probably chose one of those: maybe “A Hiccup in Your Happiness”, “The Chapter in Your Life Entitled San Francisco”, or “Fiction”.
After being three in the band for a lot of years, in the end a fourth member joined, Louis Richter. I think your sound improved with him in the band, both live and on record, how did you decide to ask him to join and what do you think was his contribution to the band?
As our arrangements became gradually more complex over the years, we had started to find that there were more songs we felt we couldn’t play properly live as a three-piece. We had a few people play guitar and keyboards and things with us whenever we could — Darren Hanlon and Drew Cramer, among others. As well as his own band, Mid-State Orange (who we all loved, and still do), Louis was playing guitar with Anthony Atkinson. (I should probably point out that he still is, and that I now play bass in that band.) When they toured with us around the time we’d released Naturaliste and A Little Distraction, we got Louis to help us out with a few songs. He immediately fitted in perfectly, both musically and personally — no easy thing when a band has already been together for a decade or so, as we had then. I think it very soon became apparent to all of us that it was much more fun to play with Louis in the band than without him. I don’t know that we ever actually officially asked him to join; it just seemed to happen. And when we came to working on the songs for our next record (Warmer Corners), his playing and his ear for the perfect guitar part gave the rest of us an enormous lift. I certainly don’t think the band would have lasted as long as we did without Louis coming on board.
There is something that always happens to me with my favourite bands, as they release more records. Usually the first ones or the ones I listen first remain as old time favourites and even if I love the new ones, I tend to think that the older ones were better, because they surprised me and I got them maybe a bit overrated. That was my case with the Lucksmiths, I always thought that my favourite record would always be “A good kind of nervous”, but then you released “Warmer Corners” and broke that unwritten rule, so how can it be that after so many records you were still probably in your best creative moment?
I have to agree with you! Looking back on it, I think there are a few reasons Warmer Corners is probably our best record. As I mentioned in an earlier answer, I think the songs I contributed to that record were, as a group, the best I had written. I had been pleased with our previous album, Naturaliste, but more with the songs Mark and Tali wrote for it, which I thought were easily the best things they had done, than with my own (although I remain proud of some of them). So I was reminded that I needed to keep pushing myself as a songwriter, too. We had also been constantly improving as musicians over the years (having started from a pretty low base!), and as we got better we also became more adventurous and ambitious with our arrangements. And for Warmer Corners, this was helped hugely by having Louis in the band. As I said above, I think after being a three-piece for many years, having him involved in working on those songs from the outset — rather than just coming in later and adding a guitar line over the top, as we had sometimes done in the past — was incredibly important. His parts are integral to those songs. We were just having more fun playing those new songs, and I think it comes across on the record.
In my opinion, “A chapter in your life entitled San Francisco” is, if not my favourite Lucksmiths’ song, at least is the one that I think is more complete. I mean that it has a lot of different sounds or arrangements and they all fit so well that the final result is amazing, what do you remember of the recording of that particular song?
Again, I tend to agree. You’re quite a perceptive listener! I was really happy with the words and melody when I first brought it to the band, but after a while I had a nagging feeling that it wasn’t quite complete, somehow. It wasn’t until I added the middle-eight section that it felt as though it all came together. I remember more about the process of arranging that song than actually recording it. I think it was the first time we sat down with Louis and all worked on a song together; I very clearly remember us playing over the song for the first time in the spare room of the house I lived in back then, and Louis coming up with that ascending guitar line in the intro. I was so excited about how it sounded!
The song is interesting, because (as you point out) it has a lot of things going on. Some elements are quite conventional things that we often shied away from — the break-it-down section, for example, or the three choruses, which I almost never did — but others are more unusual, like the missing beat in the chorus. We threw a lot of ideas at that song, and they mostly seemed to work, somehow. As for the actual recording, I remember a last-minute decision to shorten the breakdown part, which helped tighten the whole thing up, and souveniring the musical charts for the beautiful string arrangement written by our producer Craig Pilkington.
It seems funny the difference between the title of your last two records, from “Warmer corners” to “First frost”, was the change of weather made on purpose?
Each title feels appropriate for its record, but the thematic connection between them is a coincidence. I suppose in some ways First Frost feels like a “colder” or at least more subdued album. We recorded it in a mountainside shack in the middle of a Tasmanian winter, waking every morning to snow or heavy frosts, so it was probably inevitable that something of that feeling would seep into those songs.
I know that you made an statement about it a couple of years ago, but now with time passed and more time to analyse, could you please tell us why did you decide to split?
As we got older, and found ourselves with families and proper jobs and such things, it became more difficult to devote the necessary time and energy to the band. It was a question of priorities, I guess, and Tali eventually decided that his no longer lay with the band. I certainly thought we should end things before the band became an afterthought in our lives, and the music we made began to suffer accordingly. After sixteen years, it just felt as though it had gone on long enough.
The cover of your last ever single, “get-to-bed birds”, shows some pigeons flying over a building with the world Libertad, is freedom, in someway, a feeling you got when you decide to break up the band?
Again, I’m afraid, it’s coincidental. To tell you the truth, that interpretation hadn’t occurred to me until you raised it! The beautiful print was done by a good friend of ours from San Francisco, Jaime Knight, who played in bands like Poundsign and Still Flyin’; it predates the single by several years. I guess there was something of a sense of freedom after the band split — it was hard work in many ways, and because it had felt for some time as though the end was inevitable, it was a relief to be done with it — but I wouldn’t want that to suggest there weren’t many less positive emotions involved, too.
You announced that you were breaking up before a long European and Australian tour. How were your feelings during those farewell shows? Did is slightly cross your mind that maybe you shouldn’t break up with the response from the audience?
We had a great time on both those tours, and played some very memorable shows. Knowing the band was coming to an end certainly made us appreciate it all the more, but I think it also gave the audience something of a “charge”. It was both humbling and heart-warming to receive so many messages from friends and strangers telling us how much The Lucksmiths had meant to them; especially in the lead-up to our final show in Melbourne, it was a very emotional time for all of us. Having said all that, though, I never felt as though we were making the wrong decision, which is probably a very good sign that we weren’t.
Which things are you going to miss the most of being in the band?
Some of things I’ve missed are fairly obvious, I guess: the excitement of playing a great show to a room full of people, for example, or of working on a new song with bandmates and hearing it take shape. But there are others I hadn’t thought about so much. I’d made so many friends all over the world through the band, many of whom I got to see every couple of years when we toured; it’s only now, really, that it’s starting to feel like a long time since I’ve seen some of them. I also must admit that, although my girlfriend occasionally consents to a game, I miss the many hours of Scrabble Cards (a card game version of the board game) that kept us entertained on tour.
I don’t write songs, but I imagine that when someone has spend sixteen years or more of his life writing and recording songs it is not easy to just stop doing it so I need to ask… Are you still writing songs? And will you released them in a solo project?
Once again, very perceptive! I haven’t stopped writing songs. I’ve always had vague ideas that I would like to try other forms of writing (such as a novel or short stories), and when the band broke up I lost my main excuse for not having done it so far. But it’s a difficult transition to make after so many years of songwriting.... I haven’t put any pressure on myself, which has surely slowed things down, but I have a handful of new songs — including one I really like called “Nora Creina”, which I just finished yesterday, incidentally — and when I have a few more I’ll decide what to do with them. The idea of a “solo project” doesn’t really appeal to me, though.
Which has been, in your opinion, the highest achievement you made as a band? Or the achievement that made you prouder.
I am very proud that we managed to play our music to people in so many different corners of the world — from obviously exciting big cities like New York, San Francisco, London and Tokyo to more obscure places that I would never have imagined touring to — and that, over the years, we had the opportunity to play with so many bands we loved. But, beyond that, I am most proud of the fact that whatever we achieved, we did it entirely independently, in every sense of the word.
Surfing on the internet I found “Music to hold hands to”, a Filipino tribute to the Lucksmiths, did you know about it? How do you feel knowing that people from so many places around the world love the band so much to do things like these or feel devastated when you announced your breaking up?
Yes, we know about it. It’s kind of incredible! I wish we had had the chance to play there. In some ways, Australia still feels fairly removed from everywhere else; when we first began touring overseas — last century! — I couldn’t believe there were people on the other side of the world who could sing along with our songs. I’m not sure the novelty ever wore off, either; it surprises me a little even now to be answering questions for a Spanish website! From an artistic point of view, too, it’s very gratifying to realise that focussing on smaller everyday aspects of life doesn’t have to lead to parochialism; that maybe you can better connect with people that way, regardless of geography or language, than by spouting shallow universalities.
I think you are going to release a DVD with your final farewell show, what can you tell us about that DVD? Any extra songs or documentaries? (Note from the blog: this interview was send before the release of the DVD)
We wanted to record the last show for those fans who couldn’t be there to see it, and as a document of the band’s career. A friend of ours, Natalie van den Dungen, filmed it for us. She also put together a short (but sweet) documentary called Darkening Doorways, which sort of follows us through rehearsals and our farewell tour, as well as our last recording session for “Get-to-bed Birds”. Never having done a DVD before, it took us a while to get it all together; a seemingly endless number of technical issues set us back. It’s only just come out, but the responses we’ve had from people so far have been great.
Your lyrics usually are about ordinary people living in ordinary world and that makes it possible for the listener to feel so close to them and feel touched by them, at least it happened to me with a lot of songs, but I was wondering what percentage of truth is there in your lyrics and what percentage of them is fiction?
There’s generally a mix of fact and fiction in all my songs; some are closer to the “truth” than others. There’s certainly no element of soul-bearing in my work, but I usually write from a perspective very close to my own, so I’m happy if people can’t tell the difference between what I’ve made up and what I haven’t; I take that to mean I’m doing a good job. At times I have been surprised by how much this issue matters to people, though; my song “Fiction”, which addresses this directly, was inspired by a telephone interview I once did with a girl who was audibly disappointed to learn that a lot of my writing was invention.
When we did our first interview you had never played in Spain (probably the furthest place you can go), I think that since then you have toured in Spain three times, each tour with each one of the last three albums, what are your memories about that shows?
A couple of my fondest tour memories come from Spain. It’s a wonderful (if sometimes exhausting!) place to play music, and we made some good friends on our various visits. From the last tour, I remember — amidst the usual blur of beer and delicious meats — swimming in the Mediterranean at Vilanova as the “The Chapter in Your Life Entitled San Francisco” came wafting over the waves from the festival sound system they were setting up. The next night’s show there was fantastic, too. We also played a great show in Madrid, when our dear friends Still Flyin’ drove all night and day from the Netherlands so they could see us play one last time. We stalled as long as we could; I finally saw them walk in about three songs into the show. It was a fairly great night afterwards, too, although I don’t remember too much of that....
Which bands from nowadays do you listen? Is Morrisey still there as the artist you listen the most?
I still listen to some of Morrissey’s older stuff occasionally, but I haven’t even heard his last couple of albums. The bands I have listened to and drawn influence from the most in the past few years are mostly American: Okkervil River, The National, the Silver Jews, Bill Callahan, and the like. I have just gotten into The Hold Steady, which is quite a departure from my usual docile indie ways, but behind the big riffs and guitar solos, Craig Finn is one of the most remarkable and ambitious lyricists I have heard for a long time.
Which song, from any other artist of all time, do you wish you had written?
It’s too hard to narrow it down to a single song! I wouldn’t say I have an out-and-out favourite, but there are many songs I love and admire for different reasons. David Berman from the Silver Jews is probably the lyricist I’ve most often cited as my favourite; “Random Rules” is possibly the best example of his genius. But in Bill Callahan’s best songs — there are many of them, but “Truth Serum” and “Dress Sexy at My Funeral” come immediately to mind — there’s an incredible sense of depth and wisdom of which I am particularly envious. Of the better-known pop classics, I love “Everybody’s Talkin’”.
In our prior interview, knowing you were a fan of Woody Allen’s films I asked you about his recent works. It’s time to get updated, eight years have passed since then and Woody Allen has released 8 films (Anything else, Melinda & Melinda, Matchpoint, Scoop, Cassandra’s dream, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Whatever works and You will meet a tall dark stranger) which ones did you like most?
I’m afraid the love I use to have for Woody Allen’s work has dimmed considerably in recent years. Some of his earlier films (though certainly not all of them) still hold up well, but I’m pretty sure of the films you list, the only one I’ve actually seen was Match Point. I thought it was quite good, although I remember it taking an odd 90-degree turn at some point, and becoming a very different film than the first part had suggested.
When I saw the film Up by Pixar, I immediately though about your song Up, and thought that you got there first, but wouldn’t it have been a perfect song for the soundtrack?
I thought of that too when the film came out, although that song is not one I’m particularly proud of. I watched the movie recently with my son, Tom; I liked it more than he did.
Say what comes to your mind when you think about the whole discography of the band.
Looking at our back catalogue in more general terms, I will say that I probably view it in three distinct phases, with A Good Kind of Nervous being a sort of bridge between the first two, and Why That Doesn’t Surprise Me being the same for the second. (Compilations like Where Were We and Happy Secret don’t necessarily fit so neatly into this scheme, however.) And, predictably enough, I like each successive phase more than the last. Without actually being ashamed, I don’t think all that much of our first few releases, although there some songs I like, particularly on What Bird is That and A Good Kind of Nervous. There are songs I like a lot more, though, from our “mid-period”, and (more to the point, maybe) fewer songs I dislike; by this time, I think we’d begun to figure out what we wanted to do as a band. And by the last few releases, I think we’d got there.
We recently made an interview to Charles Bert, from you record label mates Math and physics club (here in English), and he told us some anecdotes from your tours together, what can you tell us about them?
They’re some of the nicest people we ever had the pleasure of hanging out with, but I actually can’t think of a particularly good anecdote from our touring with Math and Physics Club. They’re too sensible to get themselves involved in any of our many amusing misadventures, I guess. One of the very best shows The Lucksmiths ever played was with them in their hometown of Seattle, at a wonderful little bar called the Sunset Tavern, when Mark and Louis and I drank some mild herbal hallucinogen shortly before taking to the stage. Good times! But I guess my favourite MAPC memory comes from our last trip to the US, in 2007. We had played another great show together (as well as with our close Australian friends Fred Astereo) at another great Seattle bar called the Crocodile. Arranging ourselves for the obligatory post-show photo, the normally mild-mannered Ethan suddenly flung himself full-length across the couch, drenching everyone in beer. An extremely funny moment, which you should find preserved for posterity here:
Anything else you would like to tell to your fans to end this interview?
Nothing I can think of, except to thank them for listening. I think I’ve typed enough.