Ian Maleney talks to Deaf Joe whose debut album Burrowings was released last week on the Delphi Label.
You get the feeling that Joe Harney sees sound as something huge and invigorating. It’s an entity to be dug into, finding the paths and textures that allow you to become totally submersed. His own sound is deep and rich, the product of years spent exploring the warm tones of summer nights and the fresh wind of dewy mornings. It’s an inviting sound, a room with a crackling fire, full of stories that grew out of stories and a place where truth is only what you make of it. In that sense, Burrowings is a perfect title for the debut full-length from the man known as Deaf Joe. He goes deep into the woods and finds there a bountiful world full of tales to be told and good times to be had.
“I’ve arrived at something, man,” he says of the record with a sarcastic grin. “I’m really happy with it, personally. It’s like, I’ve put out a few EPs before this and half the tracks on the album have been on those EPs before, but they were always just a few songs thrown out there. With this, now that everything is together, I’m very happy with it. I’m at a point where I’m actually happy to give this album a go and try to stick with it. There’s always the compulsion to keep writing. You get bored of shit. You go into the rehearsal room and you’re playing the same old songs and you say ‘Fuck this, let’s try new stuff’. With this, I feel like I can live with doing just this for the year and see where it takes me.”
Burrowings didn’t come together over night, being rather the product of a long, relaxed germination. Opening track, ‘Slipping On Home‘, has been knocking around for around for years and is the oldest of the bunch. “I’ve just taken my time writing it, no real rush about it,” says Harney. “I was saving money and recording in little blocks, every six weeks or two months I’d do another little session. I threw away a lot of stuff. I was also working on theatre shows which were quite labour intensive in terms of writing music and demand everything of your time. So if I had one of them, that was me gone for six weeks. So all this other shit. I wasn’t possible to sit down and do it all in three months. Just the the reality of having to live and make money to pay for the whole thing, that’s why it took as long as it did.”
Obviously things changed throughout the album’s gestation, as Harney sought a sound that reflected his love for the immersive album-length listening experience. “About half way through, it started to take shape,” he says. “I kind of threw away about twenty songs because there was no vibe to them, and I was left with these. It all just came together then. It’s quite highly orchestrated, even though it sounds like things are coming in and out. I sat down and worked out every line, every time. There was very little left to chance on it. By the end of the project then, when I saw what it was looking like, I mixed it all a certain way to make sure everything was more or less in the same place. The production style clarified itself as I went on.”
From his early days listening listening to classic albums as a teenager, Harney has been obsessed with recording and the creation of a perfect world of sound. “I was always in my own head,” he says, “writing stuff and recording stuff. You know, you have live music and recorded music. There’s always been live music and it’s only in the last while we’ve had recorded music so live performance is supposed to be much more natural. I grew up obsessively listening to recordings and then going to see big bands as a teenager and finding the gigs weren’t as good. The sound was shit or you were getting stepped on and puked on by drunks or whatever. So I’d come home from a gig and go, ‘Nah, the recording is better, I prefer this’. So that’s where my head would be, just in albums.”
This obsession makes the challenge of a live performance a difficult one to attempt. Stripped of the time to perfect and forced into an uneasy spotlight, Harney is never quite as happy up on the stage. “I’m not hugely comfortable with the idea of playing live,” he says. “I don’t personally need the tension of standing out the front. At the same time, I really wanted to make this record so there’s a trade-off. You can’t just have that idealist thing of sitting in a room and writing songs and expect to make a living out of it. I think everybody wants to get to a point where they’re making some sort of a living out of music, which is probably impossible in this day and age, but it’s unfortunate that in wanting to do something like this album, you have to go out and do all the live stuff and get it out there. I much prefer to just hang back in the group and chill out.”
Harney’s theatre work has provided something of a middle ground between the divided worlds of stage and studio, giving him the extra challenge of working to deadlines and budgets. Unfortunately, with pennies being squeezed everywhere over the past couple of years, the work hasn’t been as regular as he’d like. “I really enjoy doing that stuff but there’s not much of it around any more,” he says. “Arts budgets have been really badly hit. A few years ago though, it was pretty regular. It’s really fun. It’s basically tailoring music for specific moments. It’s really time-intensive, labour-intensive, very heavy pressure because theatre people love to get their blood pressure worked up! They seem to love to get upset about shit and let things get behind time, then fly through the last five days with an ‘It’ll be alright on the night’ kind of attitude.”
After spending four years working by himself on an album, the cut-and-dried aspect of theatre work seems to be deeply refreshing for Harney. “The thing is, an album like this one, it’s open-ended,” he says. “You’re just a guy in a room saying you’re going to write a song and talk about your feelings. When you go into a theatre situation, you’ve got a director there, a play there, a script there. There’s a lot of doors closed off to you straight away. With the album, I spent a lot of time exploring what the overall sound was going to be and that shit takes time. Just to figure out what it’s going to be and how to implement that in tracks and across tracks. It’s really time consuming. With theatre stuff, the answer is kind of half in front of you and you’re straight in, just do it.”
However, with the album finished and ready for the world, Harney’s next challenge is to bring the record to life on the stage. To do this, he’s brought a six-piece band together. Ever modest, Harney’s respect for his new band mates is unwavering. “It’s weird because it’s a situation where they are pretty much all better live players than I am!” he says. “It’s like I’m standing in a room with these guys and I’m after writing a couple of songs but then I’ve got Peter on the bass and Keith on piano, who are both major jazz heads and are light years ahead of me musically and other ways. It’s odd. How can I tell them what to do? It’s not intimidating because I know they’re better players, there’s no competition there, but I have to front that and that’s where the discomfort comes from.”
Still, he is hoping his experience as a long-in-the-tooth member of Katie Kim‘s live band will serve him well as he takes those reluctant steps towards centre stage. “With that set up, it’s more about everyone’s understanding of each others’ space,” he says. “It’s about swells and stuff like that. We’re very lucky in that we’ve been playing together so long and know each other so well and there’s no egos in the band. We can turn up to a gig without practice and be fine, if we’re in that space.”
It seems like that feeling has started to bleed into his own group now too, with mutual respect and close friendships creating a warm glow of humble but confident creativity. “We had a rehearsal the other day and, while I do kind of lead things, I’m still throwing it open for everyone to chip in,” he says. “It’s much nicer that way. That’s why I was saying about the Katie Kim thing, I’ve learned so much from that for live gigs because it’s so democratic; everyone’s voice gets heard and everyone’s opinion counts. It’s hard to find that, to find a group of people that work together like that. But that’s what it was starting to feel like in rehearsal, the one rehearsal we’ve had. Not to go too far down the hippy road, but there’s a lot to be said for that bon homie between everybody. If everyone is relaxed and doesn’t feel under pressure or stressed, you enjoy it more and that comes out through the speakers. I guess it’s that thing I’m trying to chase.”