Last week a talented, thoughtful, genuinely good man called Nick Weaver died. A musician of quality, he’d been in bands since childhood – usually with his oldest friend Nic Mckenzie, notably in Deep Sea Arcade – and his most recent groups included Salmon Brothers and The Tambourine Girls.
Nick was 37 and married a few days – with a solo album that has been finished by his mates to come - when cancer got him. His mother Helen Wellings, wife Tia Turner, Nick Mckenzie, and an extremely long list of people he was close to were left devastated by his death. Many more of us who knew him some, had heard his work or had watched him play, were knocked about by it.
Wind Back Wednesday is taking a slight detour this week as this technically was never published, but three years ago I was asked to write a bio for Deep Sea Arcade ahead of their album, Blacklight.
It involved me talking to Nic and Nick for some time, probing the creation of the album, and also pulling up some song-specific thoughts from two men whose relationship was essentially that of brothers and whose respect for each other transcended anything.
It was a good record, they were a good chat, and I walked away impressed further.
With Nic’s permission, that bio and track-by-track is offered up as a small gesture to Nick Weaver, the musician and the man.
Is it physical? Is it chemical?
Those questions are a line from Learning To Fly, on the new Deep Sea Arcade album, Blacklight. But it’s more than that for the Sydney band built around Nic Mckenzie and Nick Weaver.
While it may have been written about a relationship that was addictive but ultimately toxic for Mckenzie, it also sums up not just the fresh territory explored on the record – Is it trip hop? Is it electronica? Is it rock’n’roll? - but the lifelong friendship at the core of the band.
And, if you’re wondering, a partial explanation for why it’s taken the pair six years to come up with a sequel to the first Deep Sea Arcade album, Outlands.
“I suppose the thing with Nick and I is we come together when it feels right. We don’t force things,” Mckenzie says, adding with a laugh that “that’s the nature of the way Nick is. I am more like ‘let’s do it every fucking day’ while you [turning to Weaver] are more ‘I’m not feeling in the mood. I’m pissed off with you’.
Weaver joins in the laughter: “I’ll take that.”
For Mckenzie the chemical element “is there in that we are terrible with each other as well”, though mostly for good, such as building up Outlaw from an acoustic guitar line of Weaver’s into a film score-ready track, or the song Joanna, which Weaver at first couldn’t stand but came to enjoy as Mckenzie kept rewriting.
“If Nick goes ‘I’m not sure about that’ then I’ll be like ‘fuck you, it’s awesome’ but I’ll be sitting there thinking ‘now I’m not sure’ and I’ll change it,” says Mckenzie.
Meanwhile in Weaver’s eyes “Nic’s extreme perfectionism is such a positive thing, but it’s also something to be fought against.”
The mix of spontaneity and perfectionism, competitiveness and collaboration never left the pair during the extended time between records. “We didn’t know it was going to take that long,” says Weaver. “But even if we skipped a month here and there we were always working in some way.”
Some of the songs go back nearly six years, but others emerged as the discovery of a ukulele, and pairing up with Eric J, a producer better known for his ARIA-winning work with electronica artists such as Flume and Chet Faker, set the direction for the “new” DSA, a band now keener on rhythm and groove.
“You listen to a song like Oh Julia, I get really excited about playing it live because when I’m playing it live I’m moving around and I’m kind of dancing and it has groove,” says Mckenzie. “The first album was really straight ahead and this one is funky and groovy and disco, and it makes me dance. When you play to a crowd and see them kind of moving and you drop in something like Close To Me or Oh Julia, everyone for a second don’t know how to move, and then they start grooving to it.”
Songs such as Close To Me – one of the songs featuring drummer Matt Johnson, who was in Jeff Buckley’s band - came out of a Redfern shared house Mckenzie lived in.
He occupied an attic room stuffed with dozens of discarded and sometimes disgusting coffee cups (“I’m not a very good housemate. That’s why I have to live by myself now,” he confesses.) and an old, yellow uke which “informed a lot of the feelings of stuff like Joanna”, even if what Weaver describes as “really distorted Keith Richards ukulele” didn’t end up staying in that song’s final mix.
“I wrote this song for that girl that I did the physical/chemical thing about, on the ukulele, to be romantic. It was like really cheesy and sounded quite Neil Young,” remembers Mckenzie. “But then Eric J had brought in this really huge drum sound that sort of sounded like something from Cyprus Hill’s Hit From The Bong. This was when we rediscovered our love of trip hop and thought can we access our passion for that sort of music rather than rock ‘n’ roll again?”
You could argue that this album expands the notion of psychedelia you might apply to a rock band like DSA, and what kind of song Weaver and Mckenzie can write. But it’s also redefining what it means to be honest says singer and lyricist, Mckenzie.
“On the first album I’d always hide behind something and hide vulnerability, and it left me feeling detached and when I performed I’d feel detached,” he says. “On this record I feel like I had the balls to actually go, no, I am vulnerable and I’m going to say things about being vulnerable and when I speak to the audience I am that person.”
The physical. And the chemical.
BLACKLIGHT TRACK BY TRACK
CLOSE TO ME
Mckenzie: “Close To Me was the song where we figured out what the palette was for the album with Eric J. That and Learning To Fly. Matt Johnson from Jeff Buckley’s band played drums on it.”
Weaver. “He’s just a master. He’d only heard the songs that day but he brought so much to the table on that song. Aside from the feel, getting that kind of hip hop thing so well it feels nasty, just the hooks in the drums that he does … And that was just him on the fly.
McKenzie. “Lyrically as well that was an interesting one. I remember coming back from London and feeling really out of sorts. It’s strange how you can leave the country, then come back and feel like you don’t belong there anymore. That and Outlaw have that feeling of trying still to be strong but feeling super out of place.”
LEARNING TO FLY
Mckenzie. “That’s a good example of why it’s important for musicians and composers to do extra-curricular stuff. Doing something with strings, or even with those chord progressions – which has one weird change in it – it’s probably a lot simpler than anything I would try and compose for Deep Sea Arcade.”
Weaver. “I think it’s the first time, maybe the only time, that Nic’s written something that is four chords that repeats the whole way through, and never changes. And I think that was a real discovery in itself.”
Mckenzie. “I broke up with this girl, everything seemed fucked and Nick and I weren’t getting along very well either. I was feeling like I had fucked everything with everybody and I rented this really shitty music studio above a brothel, at Central bus stop. Across the hall from me was this piano teacher and I can hear him play what sounded like musical theatre/Elton John sort of stuff, I was really into all of that stuff and I liked what he was doing. Then we met in the hallway and it turned out to be Brendan … and he joined the band.
“I was really interested in Dr Dre’s California Love, which actually samples [Joe Cocker’s] Woman To Woman, and we were listening to that and came up with that piano groove together. I met him and he was like this beacon of hope across the hallway and we started writing music together.”
MAKE IT REAL
Mckenzie. “I run Visions, which is events that showcases young talent and new bands in Sydney, and I have a studio above the Lady Hampshire, and that’s next to the guys from DMA’s as well. There was a band called Planet and I just loved the way those guys were doing music that sound a lot like The Stone Roses and The La’s and it reminded me of my love for that kind of music and I thought, cool, I want to have another crack at doing something that that. Then Nick heard it and we added stuff that sounded like the Chemical Brothers and it evolved from there.”
Weaver. “One thing I really love about that song is that in the main part of the song it’s like three chords that really don’t belong together. They are all major chords but it sounds really dark because they don’t live in the same key, and it’s all melded together with this one note that goes through the whole song. I like the idea that this drone just makes everything glue together.”
Mckenzie. “It’s a song about un-meeting somebody. That concept of when you break up with someone and you go through the process of getting to unknow them. That’s what ties the lyric content together: the outlaw is like being the opposite of an in-law.”
SOME OF US
Weaver. “That was a really hard bassline I came up with, one or two bars of a bassline repeated.”
Mckenzie “Then I did the chorus. I was like ‘I present you with three chorus options’ and it reminded me of when you have a film score and it’s a section of the film where something is nostalgic. So then I was, well what’s nostalgic? and became about going back to your old town. If there was a film for the song it would be driving through the [Sydney] northern beaches and Warringah Mall and stuff.
Weaver. “I try not to be music nerdy but we talk about the album being influenced by disco, that 70s kind of soul thing is definitely the guitar reference, that Isley Brothers thing of phased fuzz guitar which was kind of an accident. And Shuggie Otis.”
Mckenzie. “I was obsessed as well with Edwyn Collins’s A Girl Like You and that is a bit like it but then I said can we make it disco as well. Lyrically it was just about a guy discovering that he is an arsehole and ‘kiss my downtown star’, the downtown star is kind of like an arsehole.”
DON’T LOOK BACK
Mckenzie. “It started off as a ukulele thing to sing to my girlfriend and then cut the chorus off when we broke up. It was a really nice collaboration with Eric J as well. He really did make it sound like a journey. That Lou Reed song, Walk On The Wild Side, I said how did they get that effect of sounding like the singers are coming towards you? He said it’s really easy: tonnes of reverb and really quiet and then as you turn up the volume you have the reverb disappear and a makes you think something is coming towards you. So we did that with the guitars.”
Weaver. “That song had everything but a chorus for a long time and it’s interesting when the chorus is almost the last thing to be discovered. It’s not the way you imagine things happening.”
Weaver. “That was a big ukulele number.”
Mckenzie. “It was sort of a dumb rock song. Lyrically it might be about the relationship between my mum and my dad, and it was finished after my dad died. Then Nick Weaver just never liked it. He was like ‘can we not put it on the album?’ and I was like but I kinda like it. So I said, I’ll stop it from being a dumb rock song and I went to Bali and took that and a lap top and rerecorded all the lyrics and made them more creepy, tried to turn it into something more like a Chemical Brothers remix.”
Weaver. “It worked. I like it a lot more.”
Mckenzie. “I had this organ that was sitting right there and one of my friends came over and we started playing it together. She was holding one note and I was changing the notes and it sounded fucked but cool. I recorded it on my phone and I said to Nick, I can’t remember what we did. He said it sounds so cool so we spent ages trying to figure out what she had been doing what I had been doing.”
Weaver. “It was a bizarre experience of elimination just to find the secret sound.”
McKenzie. “Him figuring it out is a testament to how good his ear is. Then I was trying to do something that was like Frankie Valli meets Frank Ocean, I even tried to sing a bit like Frankie Valli.”