Spacey Jane "Make It More Organic"

Perth’s emergent garage pop group discusses isolation and image

Spacey Jane

Caleb Harper of Spacey Jane ~ [Photo by Aneta Urbonaite]

Despite its profound isolation and relatively small population — or maybe even because of it — the city of Perth is a musical breeding ground. Nestled along the coast of Western Australia, its unique, vast landscapes, paired with slow living and eternal blue skies, has inspired a number of household names. Stella Donnelly, Tame Impala and POND are all from the area and each act has, at some point, played the fabled stage at Mojo’s Bar, attended the local music awards, or sung to almost nobody at one of Perth’s tiny venues downtown. They’ve all been greeted with fierce pride and support by the community, and even when they inevitably found international recognition and success, they have all returned home.

Right now though, as restrictions lift and the music scene ricochets back to life, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more beloved name in WA than Spacey Jane. The four-piece indie-rock band was born in the garages of Fremantle, an intimate portside town caught between the river and the ocean. Despite becoming an international act, Spacey Jane has still retained their grungy, coastal feel, and they do it all from where it all started.

Their expert riffs and tender storytelling, quintessentially Australian, have won them something of a cult status. With an electrifying stage presence and an uncanny knack for nailing the grief and hope of being a young adult, it’s no surprise that their gigs sell out in hours. After several national tours, appearances at Laneway and two EPs, Spacey Jane finally released their debut full-length album ‘Sunlight’ on June 12. It coincides with a move away from their independent label, a new record deal, and a period of intense uncertainty for the music industry around the world. For an act poised on the brink of global recognition, the notion of growing up and leaving home can be both terrifying and exhilarating.

I sat down (virtually) with Spacey Jane’s lead-singer Caleb Harper to discuss the inevitability of change, the pressures of the music industry, and what it means to belong to a place like Perth.

EF: It's been a meteoric rise over the last couple of years for you and Spacey Jane. I know that this was the year you were scheduled for your first UK tour, too. Did you ever expect this kind of success starting out?

CH: I think so. It was really hoped for, and we definitely have worked towards that and had it in mind. Like some people, they can just start a band and muck about, but we definitely had our eyes set on that kind of career.

Was there a point where you started to realize you had something quite special?

Oh yeah. There was one show we did in Perth, at a place called Badlands—which is a really sweet venue. The room is about a 500 person capacity and we sold it out. It was the most tickets we've ever sold. It was right when we'd put out ‘Cold Feet’, so around August, 2018, and people were responding to it really well. When we sold out, we were like, “Shit, this feels kind of real.” People even got turned away! It definitely felt like a turning point where people were taking us seriously, so we were taking it more seriously as well.

I was there, actually!

No way! That was such a fun show. I hadn't met Jack from Psychedelic Porn Crumpets yet, but he said he came on to check us out and it was already sold out when he got there. He said he had to bribe the door person to get in!

One thing that stands out to me about Perth's music scene is how welcoming it is, and how readily people help each other out. Have you had a lot of support from everyone? Not just the musicians, but all the crew and venues as well?

Yeah, definitely. We're quite proprietary over the music scene here. Like, anyone involved in the music scene, in any capacity, is important. It all belongs to the community and should be valued and looked after. That's why there's so many good venues and good bands in Perth. So you know, you're spoilt for choice with regards to managers and lighting techs and everything. Everyone feels valued and has a place. There's a high quality of everything.

Photo by Aneta Urbonaite

Do you think it's because of how isolated we are over here? In that we have to stick together?

Yeah, I definitely think it's part of that. Everything's exciting and new because we feel behind and so isolated. There's not as much that's just readily available, or a million bands and heaps of venues to cycle through. Things are in short supply. There's a need to be more appreciative of them.

There's a real local pride for Spacey Jane. Everyone seems to think of the band as ‘ours’. I can't count the number of people I see sporting your merchandise. Is that something you're conscious of?

Definitely a little bit conscious. We're very grateful for that sense of home and our hometown crowd. When we played Laneway we got great crowds everywhere. It was really lovely. But coming back to Perth was the best. That was easily the biggest crowd we had and I just remember being blown away. It was so loud and it felt like a homecoming. So special.

It can feel like a family sometimes, when everyone's belting out the lyrics. There's a sense of reliability and openness in your social media, too... Is that important, to stay accessible?

Yeah, I don't think we've made a huge conscious effort to stay accessible, but on the flip side we haven't tried to create an enigma or anything around ourselves. We're very much normal people, and it would probably be hard work pretending we were weird or mysterious or something like that. I know that's a part of some acts of course. If that's the kind of artist you are, more power to you, but we never felt the need.

Guitarist Ashton Le Cornu, singer Caleb Harper, drummer Kieran Lama, and bassist Peppa Lane (L-R)
Photo by Annie Harvey (2019)

Do you feel like moving to a global record deal might necessitate some kind of distance from your fans?

I don't think so, because we made sure we have full control of everything artistically, in terms of the direction and the voice. The deal is just for distribution and things like that. I think we'll go on being true to ourselves and how we work. I would hope that it wouldn't impact how we relate to listeners. We'll find out, I guess.

Was there trepidation with the move away from independent labels?

Definitely. We were on the road and looking at deals for probably six months. Trepidation is absolutely the right word. Signing rights and all the licensing over to someone is terrifying. And people don't realize how stressful it is to think about the money going in and out. But we felt the team at AWAL was really great, the deal was super flexible, and just for one album. We still have choice and freedom to move around after the first album, if it's not right. Having that freedom's probably the most important thing to us.

Autonomy matters.

CH: Absolutely. And it's just as important to have a good team. Like a balance between being able to lean on people and make the big calls ourselves.

You've said before that ‘Sunlight’ is a tying off of loose ends, and the close of an era. What changes in terms of direction going forward, musically and otherwise?

From a sonic perspective, it's going to be a really nice shift. Previously, we've always written big guitar songs, and gone into the studio with it all pre-written, and then tried to make the instrumentation fit together. Sometimes we ended up forcing it. I think now we're trying to be looser, less stubborn, and just see what happens. Build everything up from the ground, and make it more organic. Lyrically, I have no idea. It depends on what happens. That's how life goes!

It's not a particularly easy time for that either, with a pandemic. I've heard conflicting things from artists—some who've said it’s been a great creative space, and others who said it’s been intensely demotivating. What has your experience been?

It's been a bit of both, actually. When we first cancelled all the touring I wasn't working or anything. It was really good for probably a month. I did lots of writing. I was slowed down and it felt really good to dive into different feelings and reflections. But then I went insane after four weeks. I was like, “What the fuck?” I was so bored, just desperate to be on tour or work, it was ridiculous. Now it's eased off, because we can get out and do things. But in those weeks where I didn't leave the house, it was brutal.

I think it's also highlighted how much musicians depend on live gigs and merchandise as opposed to streaming. How much of a challenge is that to emerging artists?

Unless you're getting hundreds of millions of Spotify streams, you're making zero money digitally. Gigs are the only way you can survive as an artist, because such a big part of merch sales come from being on tour and people buying stuff at shows. It can be disheartening when nobody knows who you are... and you need to eat. We got lucky because when we posted about needing support, so many people bought our stuff and it was incredibly helpful. We're so grateful.

The amount of labour musicians have to perform, just to make a living, seems overwhelming. You can't just play. You have to budget, and be a graphic designer, and a social media coordinator, and a techie, and a driver. Not to mention the actual work involved in writing and performing. How taxing is that?

Oh god, it can be really fucked when you're just starting out. We've got to a point where there are people to handle those things now, thankfully. There’s a team doing a bunch of different things. Kieran's our manager so he co-ordinates those efforts. And now we have a label, but up until the last six months or so, it was awful. Everything had to be done ourselves, and it was so confusing. How are you meant to know if you're doing the right thing? That was the hardest part. Until you have the professionals around you, you're just throwing shit around and hoping for the best. Exhausting.

Do you think that kind of thing knocks a lot of young artists out of the game? Especially those who don't have economic stability or resources to keep investing?

Yeah, it's so easy to miss things. You can be focused on writing and rehearsing, which of course everyone knows you need to do well. But if you're not thinking about merch, or social media, and if you're not thinking about how to service your media to radio or streaming, you can run yourself into the ground. That was such a shift, to realize it's not all about the music. We had our period of that adjustment. My advice is to keep your head down and not worry about a few mistakes.

And music seems to depend so heavily on image, with regards to social media, and Instagram particularly. You can't just sound like a band; you have to look like one as well.

We struggled with that for a while—maybe we still do. I never felt like we looked how an ‘act’ should look. None of us are very outrageous or incredibly good-looking. There's no visual thing that ties us together into an image of a band. I actually reckon that might have hampered things in some way. Unless you look the part, people are less likely to take you seriously. You have to have a great shot. That's something we've had to learn to be comfortable with. Although I'd hope that if an act has stellar music and an ability to play a live show, that would win out over Instagram followers. Eventually.

Photo by Jacob McAneny

I'd hope so too. It’s uncomfortable how you have to look a certain way to sell your art, because it implies that you're actually selling something else.

Yes, that's fucking weird. And that's also the problem of how labels have marketed music for decades and decades, you know? You can trace it way back to when the very first labels would dress their artists up and make them rename themselves so they'd be appealing to the public. And it's never gone away. It's impossible to be a silent artist. There has to be some kind of presence.

I knew someone who called it the dictatorship of image. Because everything else even talent—came under it.

I like that. We do have to do a lot of photo-shoots, which I absolutely hate. There's such a pressure with putting out new visuals. But also, I think if you really focus on that image side, as a band, people are inherently going to think that about you. That's how they'll see you and what they'll expect. We always just focused on putting music out and I think now we have a bit more freedom where that's concerned. But also, three of us—me, Ash and Kieran—are guys, and there's a lot less pressure I think.

Guys can turn up in ill-fitting clothes and a piece of cord for a belt, and everyone loves it.

It’s so unfair. Women cop it so much harder, in terms of dressing-up and make-up and how you look on stage. Guys can be a bit scruffy and nobody cares. In fact, they like it.

With the loss of gigs, and that income, how do you think the music industry will fare now that restrictions are lifting?

I reckon in Perth, it seems like established places are still afloat. Assuming venues don't go under, I think it'll be crazy. Everyone's itching to get out and there's going to be heaps of new acts and material and shows. I hope it'll be a revitalizing thing.

It's tough with state and international borders still closed, though, especially when you're just starting to branch out globally. Will you guys be looking to play a lot of gigs locally?

Oh, heaps. We'll be playing a million shows, everything we can. Doesn't matter the size or venue, we just want to play.

Do you consider yourself to be a Western Australian group? Is that an identity you want to keep promoting as you go forward?

Yes. Here is home. It's our home and we love it for so many reasons. I think everyone's identity is tied to place...where they're from. We're so impacted by Perth, and WA, because it's such a unique place, and distinct from everywhere else. Because of the isolation, the landscape and so many other reasons.

Even on your album covers, there are photos that are just quintessentially Perth.

Oh yeah, absolutely. That was very intentional. Like the Fremantle sunset, or the red granite on 'Good Grief' or Wave Rock. It just creeps into all our work, even the sounds. I think we'll always be very tied here, to this place, and I don't see any of us moving away. Not ever. We're always going to be around.

Photo by Ashton Le Cornu

Ella Fox-Martens

is a Canadian-born, Australian/South African-raised essayist and poet. She has been published in Observer, Meanjin, The Rumpus, Westerly, Cordite Poetry Review and others. She lives in London.

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