For the better part of a decade, fans have anxiously been awaiting new material from Melbourne indie icons Something For Kate. Now, the group have delivered in spades, with The Modern Medieval arriving today.
Their first record since 2012’s Leave Your Soul To Science, the album is as far from a “comeback record” as possible, with Something For Kate having served as a constant presence on the local live scene the entire time.
While a pair of solo records arrived from frontman Paul Dempsey during this time, the promise of new Something For Kate material was always constant, with the group assuring fans a new record would indeed arrive.
In early 2019, the first signs of a new record finally began to appear, with Dempsey announcing a run of solo shows which would see him preview the group’s new record alongside his own tracks, and other classics from the band. With tracks like ‘Supercomputer’ and ‘Our Extinguished Colleague’ getting a well-deserved (and well-received) look-in, we had to wait until 2020 to finally hear the recorded versions.
Announcing that a new album would be released soon by way of first single ‘Situation Room’, a run of other tracks followed before it was revealed that The Modern Medieval would arrive in November of 2020. Appearing a year on from its competition, it goes without saying that Something For Kate are as eager as their fans for the record to be released into the world.
To celebrate the release of The Modern Medieval, Something For Kate bassist Stephanie Ashworth spoke to Tone Deaf to give us an idea of how the new record came to be and what it means for the band.
Check out the album trailer for ‘The Modern Medieval’:
TD: Let’s begin with the standard question: How have you been dealing with everything happening in 2020?
Stephanie Ashworth: Look, just getting through it and being really thankful that our Premier has been so decisive about his action. Just really happy that we have a sensible Premier, but also feeling a little bit stressed about the American situation as well.
Personally I’m glad things are slowly returning to normal here in Melbourne, but at least we have a new Something For Kate album to help ease us into everything. It’s been eight years since the band’s last album, so how does it feel to be releasing a new album after so long?
SA: It doesn’t feel like that long, to me. We’ve sort of still been playing, we’ve been touring, and there’s been a lot of things going on, but it probably does feel like a long time for a lot of other people. But yeah, it feels a bit mixed. It feels really great, and a relief, but at the same time, obviously it’s not the ideal scenario to release new music. And to not be able to play music live with the band, it’s yeah… It’s different, you’ve just got to get through it in the best way you can, I suppose.
Check out ‘Waste Our Breath’ by Something For Kate:
TD: I recall when Leave Your Soul To Science came out in 2012, and everyone viewed it as a ‘comeback’ of sorts since it had been six years since Desert Lights. I guess it’s easy for some to forget that it’s not really a big gap for you, rather, it’s just the continuation of time, isn’t it?
SA: Yeah, there’s no ‘comeback’ album; there’s never been a ‘comeback’ because we never went away, we just stopped doing the two-year album cycle that we were in. For ten years or more we were in an album cycle with a new album every two years, and we just opted to change that so that Paul could do his solo stuff.
Obviously albums aren’t as regular as they used to be, but I think it’s a little simplistic to call it a ‘comeback’ since, you know, you didn’t cease to be a band, or cease touring or anything like that.
TD: Did the moving away from the two-year album cycle help the band in a way to not feel so pressured to be coming up with new material quite regularly?
SA: I don’t know if we ever felt pressured. I think there’s a sense of freedom, that’s for sure; there’s definitely a little bit more of a sense of freedom to not be in that cycle, and to have a break. I mean, Paul never gets a break, he never stops; he’s a bit of a machine. He just keeps going and going, and that’s because that’s his whole reason for living. He kind of thrives on that constant output and just being really busy, whereas I need to kind of have a break.
I mean, we lived overseas, we had children, and something has to give in that scenario sometimes. But it has been good for us to have a little break and then regroup. But it’s always the same, we see each other all the time, and it’s not like eight years goes by and I don’t see Clint. I see Clint almost everyday.
Check out ‘Supercomputer’ by Something For Kate:
TD: From a fan’s point of view, it proves that Something For Kate aren’t a band who just rush things along. You really take the time to plan it all and, honestly, you make us miss you, so we appreciate the music so much more when you come back.
SA: I guess it’s also about crafting things properly and not rushing something that we think might be sup-par. We do agonise over the details, and that’s always the band that we’ve been, and we will always be that, because the three personalities are such that we do agonise over the little things, and we have to make sure the music is right. So yeah, there’s no rush to put anything out.
TD: I think Paul said something similar in a press release, where he notes the album features “not a word out of place and not a note out of place”. With that in mind, is there a lot of labouring over things when you’re recording an album? Or have you guys been at it enough to know what works?
SA: We don’t have a blanket approach of what works every time, because every album is so vastly different, and every song is different, and it’s put together different, or it needs different things. So yeah, we really do labour songs and demos, and we draft and redraft and redraft. Sometimes songs are just so far removed from where they first started out, or the minutiae is just laboured over. Everything is deliberate, I guess you could say.
TD: This year has been pretty strange to say the least, but how badly did the band’s plans get affected this year? Obviously there would’ve been touring and that sort of thing, but did it affect release dates and all that sort of thing?
SA: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the record was going to come out in July, so we would’ve been touring in March for the first single, and then the record was going to come out in July. There’s obviously lots of technical nuts and bolts that a record company deals with in a situation like this, so for a bunch of reasons, it got delayed and delayed. I think we felt that at least it was a consolation to keep putting out singles every few months just as a commitment to getting new music out there during a crap time.
TD: Was there ever any thought about delaying it to a time where you could tour it?
SA: I think it’s pretty wishful thinking to assume that we can do that right now, and I don’t want to release a whole lot of tour dates out into the world and put hope out there when we don’t know what the exact scenario is. I think it’s an ever-evolving situation that we’re in, and I see a lot of bands announce tour dates and then cancel, then announce tour dates, and then cancel, and I just really don’t want to do that.
I really think that we need to be responsible about when it’s safe to even announce stuff like that, and right now I don’t know if we have that assurance from the government yet. I think we need to sit back and just watch things play out.
Check out ‘Come Back Before I Come Back To My Senses’ by Something For Kate:
TD: When did things really start to kick off with the making of new album? How far back does everything go?
SA: Well it’s definitely been a few years, I can’t pinpoint the exact… I mean, we would rehearse regularly for festivals and tours and everything like that, and we would carve out specific time for new stuff. Paul had some songs he’d been working on for some time, and he’d been testing them out solo for maybe a couple of years before we recorded them.
I would watch them and we would redraft and redraft and work out how we would flesh them out as a band, and then maybe a year before the album was recorded – so in 2018 – we wrote the majority of the record then. Things were in various stages of completion until… One of the songs was actually finished in the studio. Concepts-wise, years and years, but the music for the album was just a couple of years.
TD: When did it become apparent that there was a new Something For Kate album on the horizon? If Paul has songs in the works whether it be in his solo career or not, there must be that point where you sort of realise there’s enough material in the bank that you feel it’s the right time to start working on a new album.
SA: We never like that until maybe a week before we go to record [laughs]. We’re always like, “[Steph makes a number of thinking noises]“. It’s the nature of the three of us, we’re not easygoing, as I’m sure you probably deduced.
We’re not really a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of band, we get really concerned about things, and even two weeks before going into making every record we’ve ever made, we always go, “Should we be doing this? Are we at that point?” It’s funny, because every producer we ever work with always goes, “Oh my God, you guys are so organised,” and we’re always stumped [laughs].
Check out ‘Last Resort Town’ by Something For Kate:
TD: When you were actually making the record, I noted that Paul said the goal was to make something “hi-fi”, and make it sound as polished as possible. What exactly were you really trying to do differently to previous records? To me, everything has always sounded superb, so when I heard that I thought, “Well, where else can they go from the top?”
SA: I think with the last record that we did with John Congleton, the concern there was not about high fidelity, it was more about character and the sounds not being fully rounded. John Congleton makes records that are pointy, and they’re about character and not necessarily about the fullness of the sound in the technical sense.
And I think the reason that we chose Nick DiDia to record is because we knew his work – very well – enough to know that he really captures sounds at their very best, fullest. So we wanted to do that and be able to fuck with it afterwards when we had that in the bag.
We then wanted the freedom to take what we had done and then destabilise it if we wanted to, because once you have it in the bag you’ve got the freedom to pull the rug away from under it if you want to, because you’ve got it all there. I guess we just thought, “Let’s get the best possible sounds that we can get, and then we can manipulate from there.”
TD: You also worked with Howie Beck as well. What was it that he was able to add to the Something For Kate formula?
SA: Well, he was somebody that we knew from over the years, but had never gotten around to working with. He was in the back of our minds, we have mutual friends, and I was a fan of his work; his own records are great, and he’s also focused on doing a lot more electronic stuff in the last decade with his mixing work and engineering work.
I really liked that he had a really strong pop sensibility, like, unashamed hooks. His approach to electronic music was so satisfying to me – the sounds, the stuff that he produced, the instrumentation, everything. And he also had that little bit of weirdness that I really enjoy.
So I think the idea was to get the sounds in the bag with Nick, and then go take it for a curveball with Howie, and have that other set of ears give you an objective perspective.
[DiDia and Beck] have very different approaches, the two of them, and they come at things very differently. They might not necessarily agree with what the other might do, but that’s what makes it interesting for us. Howie and I, we have our guilty pleasures with pop a lot more aligned than other people we’ve worked with, say, with Congleton. Howie and I could pretty much gang up on Paul and change arrangements in ways that hadn’t really been challenged before. We conspired [laughs].
Check out ‘Inside Job’ by Something For Kate:
TD: You also got Bernard Fanning in the mix for ‘Inside Job’ as well. Did that take any convincing, or did he jump at the chance to be involved in a Something For Kate album?
SA: [Laughs] I think we always knew that Bernard would be on the record somewhere. I mean, we were working in his studio, he’s a very dear friend, we’ve worked together a lot over the years, and it’s just that when we were writing that song, we knew that we needed a low voice, a lower register to play the other character that Paul is singing about in the song.
And we knew that Bernard’s voice would be perfect. So we kind of knew, even before we asked him, that that part was for Bernard – we’d carved it out for Bernard.
TD: Listening to it, his presence sounds so familiar, and for anyone who hasn’t listened to Powderfinger in a while, it’s something that can give you a strange feeling where you know the voice, but just can’t place it.
SA: He’s singing probably even lower than he normally. He’s doing, normally a low harmony that he might do with himself in Powderfinger or with his solo stuff, you wouldn’t normally hear it just by itself, it would be coupled with his main vocal range. I think it sounds familiar to people, but you’re not the first person to say that where people go, “I know that voice, but it doesn’t sound quite normal.”
TD: When was the album all wrapped up? I know you all managed to escape the US just before COVID hit, and you filmed the clip for ‘Situation Room’, but was that all part of the record’s production still?
SA: The album had been finished by then, the album was mastered last year. We finished the album in October last year, so we left Canada in late October – so the album was finished – and then it came back here and got mastered in November of last year. So the album for us is a year old.
TD: So you’d be pretty keen to get it out there then? You’ve been sitting on it for a while.
SA: [Laughs] You could say that.
Check out ‘Situation Room’ by Something For Kate:
TD: You’ve been releasing new material since by way of the singles though. What have the responses been like so far?
SA: We don’t really pay too close attention. It’s really difficult in this situation because we’re not playing live. Normally, you’d go out and play the new stuff and hear this palpable, visceral response. You can hear it when you play the song and you get this connection with people when they know the new stuff, they sing along, and you can hear it in the room.
This time, it’s really difficult because it’s this void that is between you and people. People write us lovely messages, and lots of lovely emails, letters, and social media and all that stuff, so it’s been really great. People seem to be happy, and there’s been a lot of really lovely messages from people feeling like it’s helped them, like, the singles have helped them in some way get through something, or get through this period, or get through something else in their life. So the response has been really positive from what I have heard.
TD: I actually spoke to you back in April when ‘Situation Room’ arrived, and you noted how it felt like “old Something For Kate” in a way. Does that sort of feeling extend to the rest of the album as well?
SA: It doesn’t feel like old Something For Kate. I think probably what I meant by that was that the ingredients are there, thee three of us, and that it feels natural. To me, it feels like a natural progression. It doesn’t sound like old Something For Kate and I know that because I listen to the old stuff, because sometimes I have to rehearse and I listen to the old stuff, and I’m like, “Wow, this is really quite different.”
I think it’s quite different. Obviously you’ve still got Paul’s voice, which is obviously the most distinctive element of Something For Kate, but I think he even sings in a different way than he used to. His vocal range is much bigger, his voice sounds much more lush, he has developed much more range, and does these incredible vocals which are falsetto all the way down to baritone. He has a full range, and I think he has developed a lot more that in the last couple of records, like in his last solo album and this album.
And I think that’s from him touring so much and just having the freedom to experiment. I think also when we lived overseas and he toured a lot on his own, he just became a different performer and a different person. He’s a lot freer now and he’s just not afraid to use his voice in all the ways he can.
Check out ‘Our Extinguished Colleague’ by Something For Kate:
TD: You mentioned going through the early stuff, and that’s something I’ve done that as well recently. One thing I noticed is how each Something For Kate album seems to sort of build upon the last one, and it sees you evolving musically each time. Is it sort of difficult to keep that balance when you’re recording?
SA: I think as we’ve gotten older, we’ve gotten much less concerned with anything like that. I don’t think we’ve ever been too worried about sticking to a certain sound because that’s where we’ve come from. I think as we’ve gotten older we care less about that, and this record, we’re at a point in our career or lives where we really don’t give a fuck. It’s just an incredible freedom about going, “Well, here is unapologetically what we do.”
And we don’t need to make records, we only do it because we love doing it and it’s awesome fun. There’s just absolutely no concern about offering something safe and predictable, or something that people can digest easily. So I think you just get more confident with that stuff as you get older, and you don’t need to impress anybody, you don’t need to offer something for the reliable trajectory of what you offer.
It’s pretty much just, “This is what we do, so if you like it, that’s great and we’re here for you and with you. And if you don’t like it, well, there’s so much else out there. Go enjoy it.”
Something for Kate’s The Modern Medieval is out now via EMI.