For those of you unfamiliar with Jason Sweeney, maybe dropping a few names like Simpatico, Sweet William, Pretty Boy Crossover, Panoptique Electrical, Par Avion, Luxury Gap, School of Two and Other People’s Children might perhaps jar a memory or two. To say Jason has been busy writing and recording music over the last decade and a half would be putting it mildly. Check out some of his output on labels like Matinee and Shelflife as well as his own Sensory Projects. Mr. Sweeney is a very interesting individual as I found out in my recent interview.
Where were you born Jason?
In a small but very beautiful valley town in the South Australia wine region called McLaren Vale. I’ve just recently moved back to a place nearby this place and it does feel like a kind of home-coming.
What was life like growing up in South Australia?
I really adore this place – it’s a kind of secret utopia in many ways with its own hidden darkness and strangeness. My family moved around a lot as a kid so I have seen a lot of the state. I often drive around with friends and endlessly point out places and houses that I used to live in. I think that wears a bit thin on my poor friends sometimes! “Look, there’s another house I lived in for a few years!”
Any brothers or sisters?
One sister. A wonderful woman who is a drama teacher and all-round mentor for creative kids in the south-east of South Australia. Although all my life I’ve lived with this idea of having an imaginary brother too… but that’s another story…
Do you remember the first 45 or album you bought?
With my own money, it was Yazoo’s “Upstairs at Eric’s”. Such a great album and I still treasure it as the first LP I bought with my own cash. It’s probably the most looked after album in my collection.
What local music stores did you haunt in your younger years?
Ah there were some great ones in Adelaide. I used to haunt this fantastic place called Umbrella Music that used to stock so much great independent stuff and all the records being released on New Zealand’s Flying Nun label. There was also a great place called Mr Music which again stocked lots of really interesting experimental and indie pop stuff too. Another place called Seeing Ears (always loved that shop name!) which carried me through the whole shoe-gaze and Sarah Records years. There’s been a resurgence lately of really good record shops in Adelaide, including some pretty amazing second hand vinyl stores, so I seem to be finding a lot of stuff that was once stocked in these stores.
Was anyone in your family musically inclined?
Indeed. My mum was, and still is, a pretty enthusiastic piano player. My Opa (my Mum’s dad, on the Dutch side of my family) was a drummer and very good one at that. He died when I was quite young but I remember his drumming around the house and seeing photos of him with his drums that he played in a kind of street band. I really feel like I carried on the musicality from him as he was a bit of a free spirit in many ways … I often think he would approve greatly of my choice to pursue being an artist and musician.
Did you play in band or take music lessons growing up?
All I did in my growing up years was a lot of experimenting with sounds, forming little ‘bands’ with my best friend, just recording with keyboards, his parent’s organ which had a great preset rhythm box on it. Putting stuff onto stereo cassette recorders, that kind of thing. I never took lessons but tried really hard to learn lots of guitar tabs/chords and attempted to try and read sheet music – I think I even wrote some sheet music for songs – but then ultimately found it easier to write down chords and just memorise melodies and ideas. My childhood friend and I formed our first ‘official’ band, The Nightmare Room, when I was 16 years old and made a whole lot of crazy cassette albums. We even entered the alternative public radio station’s music competition in 1988, came second… but that was the first live gig too where me and my friend just played these ridiculous songs with a garbage bin lid for a drum and an acoustic guitar. My first proper adult-oriented band was formed in 1990, called The Millards – and in fact songs like Drove It Down and Spin where written and performed in that band. It was the pre-cursor to Sweet William and Simpático.
What was the first instrument you played?
I guess it was a keyboard of some description, probably by friend’s parent’s organ! I just loved the weird echoey sounds it made and making up odd chords and melodies. Although, having said that, I do remember having these two plastic sticks I used to carry around a lot as a kid. I use to go out and play drums on tree trunks and pretend to be some kind of pop star…
Who were some of your early influences musically?
I was really into things like Yazoo and Eurythmics when I was a young kid but in high school it was hands-down, without a doubt, The Smiths, The Triffids and The Go-Betweens, all at once, obsessively. I also got into The Cure as well and it was actually a song off their album ‘The Head On The Door’ called The Blood that really made me want a guitar and to learn to play like that, sort of like Spanish strummy guitar. Great song that one… But ultimately The Smiths. As dial-a-cliché as it sounds, Morrissey got me through high-school.
Talk about the live music scene in and around Adelaide at this time in your life.
Well, I do feel like it was a lot healthier, in terms of places to play and audiences to go see bands, a while back or at least 15 years ago in this town. Where there used to be about 10 or 12 places to play now there’s probably a good 4 or 5 decent venues left here to choose from. A lot of the good pubs where bands used to play have resorted to becoming bistros sadly. But it was an exciting time, especially during The Millards. There were so many great bands and friends to be made, a lot of whom are still friends. I think that surge of excitement and being in your first or early bands and gigging is kind of universal. Friends of mine who are just starting out in bands have this excitement in them and it’s quite humbling, to an old cynical gent like me!
Talk about the idea behind Sweet William and how your recording career got off the ground.
Sweet William ultimately began as a name and then an idea to start the band. I was listening to the beautiful “Showtime” EP by Australian band, Rabbits Wedding and the song ‘Sweet William’ came on and instantly I knew I needed to start a band with that name. At the time I was also listening a lot to bands like The Field Mice and Heavenly (in fact most of the Sarah label!) and was really inspired by the ethos, aethestics and DIY attitude of those bands and that label. I was working at the radio station 5MMM (now known at Three D Radio) and Louey and Karl were working there too – so I asked them to join the band. We got together with my old drum machine, Dr Rhythm, started programming and rehearsing up songs. Louey’s boyfriend at the time, Peter, offered to record our songs on a Tascam 4-track, which at the time I thought was just as good as going into a studio (which in a way, I still think it is!) – so we recorded the songs as they were written and rehearsed bit by bit over a couple of years. The recordings were always pretty faithful to the live sound and there was a kind of unspoken agreement to not play around too much with the sound in recording (Louey always said “no reverb!” bless her), which in some ways now I do regret a little bit… cos I am a sucker for a good reverb.
Where did you record in the early days?
Pretty much in Peter’s lounge room or my place. Although we did do one ‘proper’ studio recording for two of the 7″ releases, “Fedora” and “Lovely Norman”.
Many of your early productions ended up on cassette. Talk about this process and its benefits at the time.
I’ll always love the idea of a cassette release so I was very much interested in putting things out that way. Just seemed logical at the time to do cassette releases. They were also much more tangible that burnt CDs I guess. And CDs probably still weren’t as widely used as self-releasing objects back in the early 90s. The thing I love about cassettes is you can still work with this idea of an album, an A and B side, and also work to a particular length of tape time. The paper parts are also an alluring thing, being able to do little fold out covers.
What do you feel is your best work(s) as Sweet William?
I think we found something when we did the “Fedora” 7″ on Library Records – it was a single, both songs sung by Louey, and really simple and atmospheric. I think Bart (from Library Records) knew something we didn’t when he chose to release that material over other things.
Was Shelflife the first label you signed with?
No, Matineé Recordings was our first label.
How did you come to be record on Matinee Records?
It was actually a very beautiful situation where Jimmy Tassos found me through a tape release put out by Paul Gough. We had our song “Lovely Norman” on there and Jimmy really loved that so he got in contact with me via email and asked whether we’d like to be the first release on his new record label. It was very very exciting, especially as it was to be a 7″ vinyl release so I felt like all my dreams had come true.
You also have a pretty extensive production output with Other People’s Children with Nicole Lowrey. Describe the type of sound and music you were creating here.
Other People’s Children was always about collaboration and Nicole and I became the ‘duo’ after many years of working with numerous other people, so to speak. This band was always about electro-pop in one way or another, sometimes upbeat and sometimes very downbeat. The project was inspired by the whole motorik movement in pop, the Neu!-inspired krautrock thing. It was never about 80′s pop at all but people often put that label on it. I was just interested in making electronic pop songs that were created out of studio noodlings and experiments, often making these looped pieces and then finding words and vocal parts for them. In a greater scheme of things I suppose I wanted OPC to be the main project, especially after releasing a 7″ on Morr Music. But… there you go. I got my hopes up!
Talk about Pretty Boy Crossover with Cailan Burns.
Pretty Boy Crossover began after I met Cailan in 1997. I’d been making music for theatre and dance shows a few years before I met him and I’d received a grant from the youth arts board in South Australia to release a compilation of this music. Also at the time I was still working at the radio station and I asked Cailan to be part of show I was doing called Pretty Boy Crossover… and then mentioned I wanted to do more with this name and turn into a music project… so from that point we started getting together and making stuff on my 8-track tape recorder (yes I’d gone 4 tracks up in the world!). Cailan is an amazing visual artist and his work has often appeared on our record sleeves as well. He’s moving back to Adelaide after living in Melbourne for many years soon and we’re going to be working on a new album.
In all of your side projects including School of Two, Luxury Gap and Mist and Sea, you’ve worked with various artists as well as many different recording labels. What have been your favorites?
They’ve all been great in different ways, I don’t really have a favourite. Each of these projects have their own kind of sound and personnel and I sort of see going to each of them as like going to visit a different part of the extended family of music comrades, including the labels themselves. I think that’s why I do so many projects. I really love this sense of living in a world of creative comrades who one can turn to a different times in one’s life.
You’ve also had tracks included on many compilation albums. In fact I first become familiar with your work on the Sky Blue Records V/A compilationPopular World and the song “Heavy Metal”. Do you feel the comp albums have helped to gain more exposure for you?
That’s always hard to tell. Funny because I moved house recently and pulled out a box of all the compilation albums I’ve been on. It was something like 30 or more CDs of different compilations and I thought “surely this has to count for something?”. I never know what kind of exposure I really have gained from all this. It’s very hard to tell especially not being a person who goes out and tours much at all. And after all, we are all so saturated with musical output on a second-by-second basis these days that compilations often overwhelm people even more. I can only hope that I’ve contributed maybe one or two dusty gems in one or two of the comps I’ve been on?
Incidentally “Last Train Home” is also on the aforementioned Sky Blue cd. This time you have manifest as a solo artist “Simpatico”. Where did the name come from? Did you feel it was time to branch out on your own?
After Sweet William decided we’d done what we’d needed to do, I had all these songs I wanted to try new stuff with including more time in the studio to experiment a little bit with how the songs were realised and produced. The name Simpático came from listening to a Stan Getz album and on the back the words “This music is simpático!” was written and I was smitten with the word. And it seemed to encapsulate this idea of a kind of unified sound, something I could really invest with a particular type of feeling.
Of your solo work, what is your proudest moment?
So far it’s the second Panoptique Electrical album, ‘Yes To Fear, Yes To Desire’. I am desperately proud of that record. Feels like a culmination of all my ideas and musical passions.
What is Panoptique Electrical?
Well, it was the name of my portable studio for many many years and most of the releases I’ve done have credited that name as the studio it was recorded in. Because of this, it led to calling what I ‘do’ in terms of musical composition (as opposed to song writing) this. It seemed to make sense, as Panoptique Electrical is a very personal experience in terms of making music, even though I am extending invitations to another artist for the next record which I am working on right now. I do liken the idea of this project as my own personal radiophonic workshop!
You’ve released 2 critically acclaimed albums on the Sensory Projects label. Let The Darkness At You (2008) and Yes To Fear, Yes To Desire (2009). Do you feel like you’ve done your best work with Panoptique Electrical?
I feel like the work I’ve done on these two releases were quite accomplished and the most satisfying records I’ve made to date, aside from most of the Pretty Boy Crossover records, which I am always really in love with in a different kind of way, in the way you might continue to love someone at a distance. As I say, Panoptique Electrical is much more personal and I really feel like I am just getting started with this project. The first two albums are kind of like epics to me, they really took me out of comfort zones and forced me to be a composer and work with much more complex instrumentation and structures. The next album is going to be even more complex, much more rhythmic and built in a workshop environment with a couple of close collaborators.
What other artists do you listen to/like?
The saddest part to this question is: Broadcast. The work of Trish Keenan has inspired and guided me since they began 15 years ago. Her tragic and untimely death last week has really shocked so many thousands of people and my heart breaks for James and all of her family and comrades. I’d only seen them play their second-to-last show in Melbourne a month before. It was an incredible show. The thing about Broadcast (and of course the legacy will continue) was they have been responsible so heavily in turning me on to so much incredible music, sound work, psychedelia, vocal material. I have gone through their radio mixes obsessively and tracked down much of the music that they love. And there must be something about Birmingham because I am also incredibly in love with Pram – they would have to be another great influence on me, for the very fact of their discipline in what they do, how they make music, how they portray themselves as almost covert artists. And they make incredibly evocative music. Two other artists who have been massively important to me since I was very young are David Sylvian and Kate Bush. Kate, in particular, continues to open my ears (and eyes!) to the many different worlds that a musician can inhabit. In a kind of transcendental way, I believe the spirit of Trish Keenan will live on in the body of Kate Bush, she being the mother of so much invention.
What’s on the horizon for Jason Sweeney?
Aside from working on the new Panoptique Electrical album, I am spending a lot of time settling into a new house by the sea – the southern coastline of South Australia. It’s so beautiful here and I am setting up a wonderful studio space. I look out the window and I can see the ocean. Very lucky boy am I! Next month I am also beginning work on two film projects – a short and a feature – that will be directed by yours truly! They will bring together ideas I’ve been working on for a number of years and will incorporate very strong sound and composition elements too. The feature film is all about the dark secrets of Adelaide, so look out for that one!
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