“A bit of gallows humour that Liam and I enjoy is that for a few thousand people in the world we’re their favourite band that nobody knows about,” says Australian Davey Ray Moor from his home in southern England. “And that’s kind of cool, I don’t mind that. At least we are well loved, and everything else is just luck.”
This “favourite band” is CousteauX (yes, the x is silent), purveyors of what the New York Times described as “dangerously seductive atmospheres”, but which could also be called capital R romantic and dramatic pop songs. It’s a group which these days consists of multi-instrumentalist songwriter Moor (and his signature flugelhorn, the instrument that also defines a classic Burt Bacharach song) and Canberra-based Irishman and singer of resonant low tones, Liam McKahey.
They’ve been working together on and off for almost a quarter of a century, initially as the five-piece Cousteau in London, and now at opposite ends of the Commonwealth, with a bonus X. And no, you’ve probably not heard of them, though critics and fans across Europe and the USA have been in love since the single from the band’s 1999 self-titled debut, The Last Good Day Of The Year, helped sell more than 200,000 albums on both sides of the Atlantic.
That looked a pretty good start, but “it was never going to be mainstream was it?” says McKahey without rancour.
Is that true? Maybe. Pop songs rooted in a time when orchestras and suits were matched by quiet intensity and big melodies, sung in a deep voice that is almost ripe for parody and packed with lyrics that prefer to err on the side of big emotion. It’s not exactly trap beats or Tones And I.
But there are people around who like their Leonard Cohens and Nick Caves, their old Scott Walkers and Dusty Springfields, maybe even their Jacques Brels and Francoise Hardys.
And for those people, Moor and McKahey have a new album called Stray Gods, and it’s pure CousteauX, confirming that they may live thousands of kilometres apart and have fallen out several times (in keeping with the music these were “quite epic fallings out” according to McKahey) but musically they fit together perfectly. Not just because McKahey calls the Australian “my favourite songwriter bar none … comparable to Jimmy Webb and those classic songwriters”, but because their natural tendencies balance each other out.
“I’ve come to understand in many art forms, but particularly music and songs, it is sometimes a juxtaposition of things … a darkness and a masculinity that Liam really hits it with, makes something happen differently to anything I would have done naturally,” says Moor. “It gives this, I think, its grounding, a bit like Lennon and McCartney, or Waters and Gilmour [of Pink Floyd],
where you pull them apart and one becomes very sweet and the other becomes very bitter.”
To this point about McKahey and his strong masculinity in voice and presence, what makes him perfect for Moor’s songs is that this is never a dominating or aggressive masculinity. It’s not just vulnerability, it is an openness to sensitivity and never just demanding the space, without those ever feeling like weaknesses.
Without that balance, in the wrong hands, Moor’s songs could turn into something florid and false or, as the writer himself says, “it just becomes pretty music then”. And that was never the plan, not when the band started with Moor as the singer, nor when on their first masterpiece, 2002’s majestic second album, Sirena, Moor was writing songs specifically for McKahey’s voice “and we realised that that was it”.
“That’s why the second album had a darker, deeper, more ‘70s soul kind of quality about it,” Moor explains. “Liam, beside his baritone that immediately impresses, has this third octave up in this Sam Cooke sort of register that really excited me. Suddenly I had all this variation.”
And now, two albums into CousteauX since reforming in 2017, Moor is exploring “if I can absorb some of that outsider, darker character that Liam enjoys in Johnny Cash and Nick Cave’s music, wind it tighter into what’s unique about Liam’s character”.
This has McKahey excited, gesturing towards the home studio space in which Moor is sitting for this three-way conversation, the room McKahey calls “that sorcerer’s den, where all the magic happens”.
“This is where he writes, producers, masters, does everything in that little space up there,” the Irishman says. “And basically I just kind of swan in at the end, with my frock coat, and warble a bit, and get all the praise.”
Even if this were true, it should be noted that McKahey always swans in looking a million dollars in a band who know how to rock a suit. Always in a suit.
“In the past, certain record company people and certain press people tried to say to us you’ve got to stop with the suits,” says McKahey. “And it was like, WHAT? We are a suit band, you’re right.
"[Moor] wears a suit all the time, I wear a suit as much as I can in Canberra. I must look like an idiot sometimes, and certain people say ‘oh are you going to court?’ ‘Who died?’ ‘Are you getting married?’ No, I’m just getting a pint of milk.”
This is not without purpose, McKahey explaining that his bandmate always argued that there’s nothing like a suit to make a shabby band look good.
“And it’s so true,” McKahey says. “The biggest hurdle in a band is when they turn up to a gig and you look at what they are wearing, because you can’t trust guys - especially guys - to dress properly: they’ll turn up like The Village People. So when you have a suit, you tell them which suit to get, and that’s taken care of.”
Maybe this is why they reformed as a duo, fewer people to worry about dressing appropriately.
“The great thing about suits as well is they used to be a symbol of the Man and squares and stuff,” says Moor. “But now all the people in the city are wearing Gap Casual and a suit is a subversive thing to wear.”
More seriously, the suits do tell you from the start that this is a band of grownups, working a little bit harder to present, committed to the sound and the look, and definitely containing adult themes. Oh, and a Miley Cyrus song.
Yes, that is not a joke. There are two covers on Stray Gods, one is Leonard Cohen’s So Long, Marianne, the other Karen Don’t Be Sad, originally recorded by Cyrus and The Flaming Lips.
“Davey phoned me up and said, I’ve got a great idea,” says McKahey. “And I said, okay, because they usually are. He said we should cover this song, Karen Don’t Be Sad, and I said okay, who is that by? And he said Miley Cyrus, and I said have you lost your fucking mind?”
Moor hadn’t, and after watching her Saturday Night Live performance, McKahey was convinced. Today the song is one of the album’s highlights – tender, bruised and gorgeous, with pedal steel, flugelhorn and a voice of gentle but firm strength offering “Karen don’t be sad. You know the truth is the world can still be beautiful, but that part’s up to you”.
You may not have heard of Cousteau before, but I bet you want to now.
Stray Gods is out now through Silent X records.
A version of this interview originally ran in The Sydney Morning Herald.