Image: Augie March by Tobias Titz.
Author: Melody Menu
The music of Augie March is far from immediate. Rather, it takes the listener time and space to acclimatise; for the mind to open up to these wordy, otherworldly songs. You may listen to their albums for years with only a passing interest, until all of a sudden, the drumbeat of ‘Just Passing Through’ is tattooed upon your subconscious, and the heartbreaking harmonies of ‘The Hole In Your Roof’ give you pause.
Their songs are delicate, earnest, fragile and fierce – each line and verse suspended with multiple meanings, allowing you to continuously find something new upon each listen. For frontman and lyricist Glenn Richards, this is as much for him as an artist as it is for the listener. “I’ve always made it a point to make the songs interesting for myself. Every song has to have a couple of levels of meaning for me, so that when I have to sing the thing over and over, there’s something to discover.” This is often grounded in literary theory and verse; Richards’ songs are often well-read while remaining accessible and open to interpretation from the listener, regardless of the listener’s own knowledge of the subject matter.
“One thing that I’ve been doing lately – and this is just a real effort to get my mind working in a better way – instead of waking up in the morning and having a coffee and getting upset at the news of the day, I’m trying to read a poem or two every morning, which is something I used to do when I was younger but I’ve just fallen out of the habit.” To Richards, this is an ideal way of keeping the mind healthy and active, but may well be a source of inspiration as well. He adds that, serendipitously, he received three books of poetry in the mail from an American friend, just two days after making his decision. “It was like he knew what I was doing.”
Poetry and literary allusions underpin their sixth album Bootikins, from the Roman Emperor Caligula (whose nickname lends the album its title), to the expression of humanity’s worst aspects. But rather than investigate a separate concept in each song, Richards draws together the album’s overarching themes and ideas, examining them for their similarities.
“Whether I intend to in the beginning or not, it always ends up that I look to collect the group [of songs] at the end of the process and try to find the most prominent thread or threads.”
“And this time it was pretty easy. The album felt like it needed something that was a bit nasty and musically a bit of a kick up the arse. So I wrote with a real intent to make something like that, but also realised that this character that – I wouldn’t say creating, I was really just channelling – he became the thread. I could see that he existed in the words of all of the songs to a varying degree.”
Through the eyes of this character, Bootikins becomes an exploration of “worst tendencies, or exaggerated versions of negativity – not just in myself, but in everybody.” Sometimes quietly alluding, sometimes wildly brandishing, the album explores these themes of negativity and ugliness in colourful detail, making way for something decidedly unfettered and unfiltered. As a result, Bootikins snarls.
This distinct lack of a filter whereby all of humanity’s ills comes pouring out is reflected in ‘I Hurtle Back To A Conservative Locker.’ Here, Richards paints a portrait of hyper-masculinity as encouraged and emboldened by the Internet. A potentially off-putting track, it references politically in-correctness gone very, very wrong. “That’s probably the prime example of imagining the very worst – almost the nightmare self – to the point where it didn’t feel even five per cent me, there was definitely a creature I was imagining for that one. It’s just rank, and the piece of music itself is a dirty ramble.” Despite this, the song remains tongue-in-cheek; an aspect of Richards’ songwriting that can at times fly under the radar. “The role, for me, of humour in songs is entirely about taking the mickey out of myself, in order to prolong the curiosity for me about what I’ve created.”
“It’s a personal thing for me, you’re always looking to get better, to weed out whatever awfulness in you.”
It’s not all dire, however, with Bootikins being highly influenced by a sense of place. From Richards’ adopted home of scenic and secluded Hobart, to journeying through Italy, the album takes on a worldly and inspired hue. “I didn’t get to go to Europe until very late; I always thought we’d get over there as a band. So when I eventually got to Europe – and this is a lifelong dream – I really made the most of it. Basically, my life now is: try and make enough money to pay the rent and get over there at least once every couple of years. Because it just does wonderful things for me. And Italy in particular, I know I’m not alone in that, it just knocks me out.” This is brought to life in ‘I Woke Up In Borgolombardo’, a magical tale of the road not taken in Northern Italy. “I love the words and the daydream that produced it – I have a very strong memory of that. And it wasn’t the most wonderful moment over there – it was on a hot train, with a terrible hangover. And it was a melancholy production, but it produced a really nice, flowing kind of song-poem.”
Much of this subdued production work was framed by the late Tony Cohen, who came out of retirement to record and mix a portion of the album, and to whom the record is dedicated. The sessions recorded with Tony were performed live to tape, a process which requires “a real keenness of mind” for the band. “You want to feel like everything you’re doing is special; needs to be special; or it needs to be ‘the one’ each time. But it was very much Tony Cohen’s presence and his way of doing things in an old studio.” Of the songs that Cohen collaborated on, Richards is proudest of one in particular. “I think from the Tony side of things, ‘When I’m Old’ is a really good achievement. It’s really difficult to make a very simple song have weight.”
For all of the thematic weight and plain wordiness of Bootikins – and all other Augie March albums for that matter – Richards concedes with a laugh that their songs can become difficult to recreate in a live setting. “Obviously from my point of view, I really struggle to remember all of the words. And I don’t have a great memory – terrible, in fact, so that requires a lot of practise on my part. I usually have to run through all of the songs in my head on the night of the show, just to make sure that I don’t trip up too much, but I always do anyway. And our audience kind of expects it – you hear laughter through a lot of the songs. But we’re there to entertain, right?”
“As far as reproducing the songs, it is a real challenge and probably one that we underestimate ourselves. The various moods and approaches – to go from one thing to another – is a really big requirement and the band does really well to pull it off when we do.” For a punter, calling out a song request or expecting quick and easy transitions between songs may seem commonplace, but to a band like Augie March, this becomes more than knocking out a few chords, but also channelling some visceral energy, or recalling a jewelled memory; from relishing in humanity’s worst aspects, to picturing a life not yet lived in mountainous Italy.
Thursday May 24, The Imperial Hotel, Eumundi, QLD
Friday May 25, The Zoo, Brisbane, QLD
Saturday May 26, The Lansdowne, Sydney, NSW
Sunday May 27, The Lansdowne, Sydney, NSW