SPRAWL Emotional math

Four years on from their debut album Deepo, Perth art-punks Sprawl will lift the lid on their second record Irrealis on Wednesday, December 16. The local trio have poured all of their daring experimentalism into the record and it shows. Brimming with adventurous time signatures, lyrical colour and other-worldly themes, it’s a journey from post-punk to surrealist prog and everything in between. BRAYDEN EDWARDS spoke to bassist Edric Matviev and vocalist/guitarist Ben Claessens to find out how the album was built around a desire to stretch themselves creatively and how it uncannily captured the mood of 2020 in a way they never expected.

So your first album in four years comes out this month! What has the ride been like this year finally getting it out into the world?

Edric: Tumultuous! Our guitarist and lyricist, Ben, was set to move overseas this August, so we worked pretty hard to get the album out and ourselves back on the stage for at least one show. Ultimately doing things by the skin of our teeth is what led to the delay of the release. Either way, here we are, and the album is done. We’re all thrilled with the result. It’s also been fun playing a few shows as things have kicked back up – even if it feels like someone found a wish-granting monkey’s paw…

And what did you feel you were trying to achieve or do differently on this album compared to your previous records? And do you feel any different about what it means now that it’s done?

Edric: Our previous release, Deepo, was sonically a response to the realisation that our initial live show, with processed vocals competing against a four-piece band and a sea of samples, wasn’t really practical. At least, not with the tech we had access to and the venues we were playing at in 2012. On Deepo, we tried to explore the possibilities of a three-piece band while maintaining our maximalist approach to songwriting, and the role of Sprawl as a funnel for our current musical interests and bucket lists. Ben and I were pretty new to playing our instruments out in the open, so we placed a lot of emphasis on tone, noise and tempo.

On writing for Irrealis, we found ourselves having a lot more freedom in terms of what we could achieve technically and, never wanting to do the same thing twice, worked hard to make songs that sounded big in their composition, rather than timbre. We also pushed ourselves to work more consistently in meters outside of common time, like a 4/4 beat. We’re all fans of rhythmically dense artists like Jaga Jazzist and Squarepusher, so heading in that direction was pretty natural.

Listening to Irrealis now, I feel like we landed incredibly close to what we intended. I suppose that’s one of the perks that comes from playing together for a fairly long time. Also, for me, the lyrics on Deepo kicked against uncertainty with a ton of angst, threatening nihilism, but really just revelling in ambiguity.

Irrealis also admits that we can’t find consensus in our experiences. Still, more importantly, it explores how we can build a constructive and life-affirming dialogue from that point. Given how this year has intensified the surreality of the digital and political landscapes, I can’t help but feel that it’s coming out at the right time.

The lyrics tend to vary from colourful to seemingly bizarre. Where on earth, or elsewhere, do you feel they come from?

Edric: I’ll have to pass this one off to Ben…

Ben: Not sure! Where does anything come from? In part, at least, they’re a response to Deepo. Both albums took a lot of emotional investment. Or rather, they’re a by-product of emotionally investing, generally. But that’s worth it, because, as with any white-whale endeavour, it begins to seem alien from the moment it’s complete. You don’t recognise yourself in the result. And that sucks, in a valuable way. So, lyrically, Irrealis is the result of feeling alienated by the mindset of Deepo.

And how about the music? It sounds like you’re all contributing somewhat to the structure of the songs? Do you all bring your own influences and styles to the table in a sense?

Edric: Ben and I typically knock together a rough demo and then take it to the drummer, Michael [Emery], where we then workshop it pretty intensely. We find that this process allows us to try ideas which are beyond our capability to “jam out,” while also ensuring that each person leaves their stamp on the finished project.

When I’m writing a bass line for Sprawl, I’m generally thinking about how I can support the melody in Ben’s lyrics, while also giving Michael something fun to bounce off. I think we all have similar considerations baked into our writing process.

There’s a lot of parts in this music that are quite adventurous technically…what were the hardest, and most fun, tracks to bring to life in the studio?

Edric: Ought was a bit of an adventure – there’s a bunch of variations on a theme, but it doesn’t really repeat much. Plus, none of us had ever played quintuplets before, or habitually transitioned from a 7/8 beat to a 13/16 beat and back. For me, Time and a Place was the most satisfying track to lay down during recording. As one of the earlier tracks written for the album, it made it clear to us that Irrealis was going to stand apart from our previous releases. I think In Lovely Blueness was the most enjoyable. A lot of spontaneity went into that one.

The title Irrealis refers to events or things that are yet to take place. So how do you feel the future, or 2021 in particular will look like for Sprawl? Is this release going to culminate in a few more live shows?​

Edric: We’ve got a show coming up at the Aardvark on January 9 with Babayaga, Rental Knives, Lou Solverson and another special guest. I’m pretty stoked by the line up. Beyond that, it’s hard to tell. When international travel restrictions loosen up we’ll be winding up as a band, but, no one knows when that’ll happen! If we keep getting asked to play interesting shows we’ll keep kicking on, but, at least release-wise, Irrealis concludes what we’re planning to say as a band, for now.

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