By Philip Runco.
On a recent episode of “The Dinner Party Download”, Twerps’ Julia McFarlane and Martin Frawley can be heard espousing jangle-pop forbearers The Go-Betweens. “They’re a much appreciated band,” Frawley says. “But I feel like they didn’t get the worldwide attention.”
It’s a recommendation that makes a good deal of sense: One can easily trace the lineage of the late ’70s/ early ’80s Australian band to the pair’s current Melbourne four-piece. There’s also a certain interpersonal parallel.
“It was a band of two couples, predominantly,” McFarlane continues. “You think about the forces that sort of led them to write those songs.”
“Jules and I are in a relationship, so I think that’s kind of cool,” pipes in Frawley, who’s impossible to not picture without an impish grin. “It builds tension, and you write songs about each other. Or maybe not.”
The two have been exploring that tension in Twerps through the four years of their relationship, though the band itself stretches back to 2008. When I reach McFarlane a few months ago, she and Frawley have just moved into a new house in Melbourne’s Elsternwick neighborhood – not far from St. Kilda and the water. “This as far south as I would ever go,” she says, opera playing softly in the background.
McFarlane has lived in the Australian city since she moved from neighboring – and historically “picked on” – New Zealand in her early 20s. “I thought that I was very grown-up at time,” she reflects.
A dozen years later, she’s an integral part of a band in full stride. In January, Twerps released its second LP, Range Anxiety, a slyly ambitious collection of off-kilter pop songs that projects a carefree vibe while exploring subjects that span from the devotional to sinister. It’s also their first full-length for indie mainstay Merge Records – though, in a Spoonian twist, it was preceded this summer by an EP, Underlay, recorded after it.
The releases chart the expansion of McFarlane’s presence in Twerps. Not only is she contributing more songs to the band, but her three contributions to Range Anxiety – the sweetly melancholy “Stranger”, “Shoulders”, and “Adrenaline” – are highlights on a record that is one of the year’s best.
Everyone in Twerps seems to have a big voice. How does a band navigate when everyone has a hand on the steering wheel?
It’s always really fragile. If you were writing a story with four people, or making an art piece with four people, or running a small business with four people, I’d be surprised if it didn’t feel fragile and precious. You have to make sure that you’re being really honest, but also completely trying to understand where everybody else is coming from at all times. If you don’t, it can fall apart so easily.
There are some big voices in the band, so it’s super important that they’re all heard. Speaking from my perspective, I’m constantly in situations where I’m like, “But this is important! We need to do it like this!” But there’s also a voice in my head that says, “You trust all of these people 150%, so how could your opinion be right?” At the end of the day, it does feel scary at times making compromises, even when they’re for really good reasons. It can feel so hard to navigate.
I have to ask about “I Don’t Mind” and the bank heist backstory. What happened there?
Oh whoa. I never realized that Marty told people about that. It’s true, though.
Marty and I tend to scrap a little bit. I’m very aware that we live our relationship under the harsh scrutiny of other peoples’ eyes, but I never like being the center of attention. It’s ironic, because I’m on the stage a fair bit, but I pick my moments, you know?
So, we were in the recording studio one day, working on that song, and we were touchy around each other – we had probably gotten into a little fight on the way there. I said something insensitive to him, like, “You can’t a make every song about us!” And he said, “It’s not about us, anyway! It’s about, uh, a bank robbery!” So I was like, “OK, whatever.”
Then it was my turn to do backing vocals, and I just sat there all day thinking about lines to say about someone who was watching their partner get ready to go rob a bank. So, I been had. After I found out, I was like, “But now it sounds kinda like a gold diggy song!” I’m singing, “When you count your money.” Meanwhile, Marty’s just singing a song of devotion for somebody. [Laughs]
Do you think of songs that you write as your own? Or, at a certain point, do they become the band’s? Range Anxiety doesn’t have any songwriting credits.
I don’t write many songs. I’m quite slow at writing songs, so it took a while for me to bring a song to the band. For a while – and maybe still now – people referred to my songs as “Jules’ songs.” That’s just a technicality, though. They all definitely feel like our songs.
Marty or I may have a skeleton of an idea at first, but we’ll just bring that idea to rehearsal. Maybe sometimes I’ll say, you know, “Think Felt instrumentation for this one” – just to get us on the right track. Sometimes you get a sense with a song that a reference point could be handy, because otherwise, it could go any which way. I could take a song to practice and it could easily turn into a country song, and maybe I don’t want that to happen. But a lot of the time, it’s just: “Here’s a song. You guys do some cool things over it. Take it from being a standard song to an awesome song.”
We’ve also got Alex [Macfarlane], who plays drums with us, but is a songwriter with his own band too. I know that he’s a creative person worth his own agency, so I don’t need to speak for him, but I often think, “I bet that you would rather be in your room recording your own songs.” He’s been a huge pool of creativity for us to draw from, though, in terms instrumentation and backing vocals. He does a lot of backing vocals in the band, and engineers us as well. He has a huge creative voice in the band. And because he’s a songwriter, it’s very easy to trust what he has to say.
In the figurative sense, is “range anxiety” [the fear of running out of gas] something that the band experiences?
It’s probably a universal feeling for bands. We were certainly feeling it when we were making this record. Our bass player was just about to leave the band around that time, and we were feeling that. He’s a graphic designer, and he’s really focused on his career, and he’s married, and he bought a surfboard. He’s got other priorities now. He didn’t want to tour anymore. He was like, “I want to be a grown-up.” So, we were probably sensing that.
We were also struggling to find a name, and Alex, our drummer, was reading through a list of possible song titles and band names and album titles that he has in his journal; he’s constantly writing lists of word combinations. When “range anxiety” came up and everyone, was like, “Yup! That’s the title!” Because it’s funny too. It’s a recognized term for an elderly person that is scared that their scooter is going to run out of batteries. But it’s obviously quite literal in terms of us not knowing how much longer the band has left.
How would you describe Melbourne? It feels like a fairly nourishing scene for arts and music.
I had some really naïve ideas about Australia before I came here. I was playing in another band for quite a few years – a noisy one – and the plan was originally for us to stop off in Melbourne en route to London. I was really excited to get to London. But by the time that I got there, I realized what a great scene Melbourne had, and I wanted to go back.
It’s awesome for music. It’s awesome for art. It’s a big place compared to New Zealand. New Zealand has some great bands and great things happening in the art world as well, but there seems to be something particular happening in Melbourne for music. I just think that the quality of songwriting coming out of bands in Melbourne has been remarkable, especially over the last fifteen or twenty years.
New Zealand had that Flying Nun scene, which is probably a go-to for musicologists. I do know why the Flying Nun thing happened – it was super vibrant and super awesome and special – but there were things just as great things happening in the ’80s and ’90s in Melbourne and all over Australia.
Growing up New Zealand, what sort of shadow was cast by that Flying Nun scene? Is it something that most people are aware of, or is it something that you have to seek out?
You have to seek it out.
I’m originally from Stratford, the part on the north island that sort of sticks out like a thumb on the west coast. It’s got volcanic, black sand beaches. It’s quite remote. But then my family moved to place called Hamilton, which is where I really grew up. It’s part of the Waikato district, which is renowned for its beef and dairy farming, so it’s a beautiful part of the country. Hamilton is a city, but it’s one of New Zealand’s smallest. The population is maybe 200,000 people, so it was just a big town, I suppose.
We probably had one record store at any one time, and it would close after six months. I didn’t know how to use the Internet. Maybe there was, like, file sharing on a modem or something – that’s what my brother was up to, but I didn’t know how to use it.
I listened to Hole and Babes in Toyland and other things that were near them in the rack at the record store, but there certainly wasn’t a Flying Nun section. I would have been aware of Chris Knox and the Clean. But, like, my auntie doesn’t know who the Clean are. The last time that I went home, at one point I said to her, “You know, like the Clean,” and she was like, “Who’s the Clean?” And I thought, “Wow!” When you find yourself in a world where you assume that people know all of the things that you know – not in a snobby kind of way – you just forget that your scene and network is probably a bit isolated.
Being fans of the Clean, was it meaningful to sign to their label?
Yeah, we were so excited. I think that there may be a sellout thing associated with signing to Merge, but I’ve never been afraid of that. I’m sure a few people in Melbourne are like, “Uh, really? Do you need help from a label? Can’t you just do it yourself?”
I love the idea of working with other creative people who are passionate about music and come from a particular perspective. We’ve always been open minded. When Chapter Music approached us, we were pumped about that. We were super psyched that there were people who were enthusiastic about what we were doing and wanted to help us. It feels like that with Merge, too. It seems like they come from the same sort of background. We felt like we were in good hands with them.
Do you feel as if things are aligning at a time when the band has figured things out internally?
It feels very appropriate that it’s happening now. We’ve had a couple of line-up changes over the past couple of years, which have been stressful, but have also streamlined our approach and maybe our intentions. Before, we were a bunch of creative people having a great time and making music, but we were really limited in terms of what we could do. We couldn’t really tour. Now we’re in a position where everyone in the band is like, “Yep, we’ll do whatever.” I don’t what’s going to happen in the future, but the four of us are excited to tour and go overseas.
Being signed to Merge has in a pretty tangible way helped us to be able to plan things over the next year. If we’d tried to put out this album on our own in the States, a North American tour definitely wouldn’t have happened. There are some really cool people who are saying nice stuff about our album, and I don’t know whether that would have happened without Merge – that’s for sure.
So, yeah, the timing is perfect, but, hypothetically, if Merge wanted to put out our other album in the States, we probably would have said yes. [Laughs]
Where did the Underlay EP fit into this?
Merge had said they were really keen to put out Range Anxiety, but that they couldn’t do it until this month. But we had a new bunch of new songs that we wanted to record. We were also really excited about doing some recording on our own.
We were almost going to put out something as a different band. We knew that there was going to be a long period of waiting for [Range Anxiety] to come out, and we wanted to keep being creative, but we also knew that Merge might say, “No, you can’t put something out before the record comes out!” But in the end, they were really keen on the idea.
And it all worked out, because if we hadn’t waited for Merge to put out Range Anxiety, we never would have done Underlay. We never would have felt the panic to make sure that we were being creative in that year of waiting.
Fidelity wise, a lot of people don’t like listening to stuff that’s recorded quickly and roughly. I personally love that, but I know that there are a lot of people who will be able to listen to Range Anxiety who aren’t necessarily willing to wade through the layers of noise – the tape hiss – to get to a song.
Where did “Science” – your contribution to the Or Thousands of Prizes compilation – come from?
We forgot that we had committed to contributing something, so we were like, “Shit! We were supposed to do that song! We haven’t don’t anything!” We went to our practice studio and recorded a bunch of songs, and then we went to our friend Jeff O’Connors’s house afterward to mix and do the vocals. Marty and I didn’t know what we were going to sing, so we just kind of riffed it a little bit and improvised. We were like, “Yeah, let’s make it sound like ‘Coney Island Baby’. We’ll have some really loud, weird backing vocals that come in.”
I haven’t listened to that song since we recorded it at Jeff’s house, because I was a little bit like, “Fuck! I’m glad that’s over! We did something.” Maybe I’ll listen to it in a year’s time and be like, “Hey! That’s kind of cool!” At end of the day I was like, “It’s good that we did that.” Because sometimes it’s like, “It’s bad that we did that. We should have just said that we weren’t ready.” I’ve been in that position quite frequently in my life, thinking, “I just should have said no to that commitment instead of making something that I’m not entirely proud of.” Everybody is probably familiar with that feeling from school, like, “Maybe I should have taken one less subject this semester.”
But it was good that we didn’t bail on Merge when we said that we would do a song for them. [Laughs]