Over the course of last five years, few music scenes have flourished quite the way Sydney’s has. From psychedelic rock to electronic music to singer/songwriter fare, it seems Australia’s most populous city is experiencing a bit of a renaissance of late, and in no new band is that more evident than Jagwar Ma. The brainchild of Sydney scene staples Jono Ma and Gabriel Winterfield (the band now also includes Jack Freeman), Jagwar Ma crafts the kindly of tightly wound, beat-based synth rock that’s both forward-thinking and undeniably rooted in the psych movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. Alongside acts like Warpaint, Tame Impala, and Cut Copy, they fit like a missing puzzle piece, incorporating dizzying, intricate orchestrations with harmonics that burrow fast and deep. This Wednesday, in between Coachella sets, the band makes a stop in Santa Barbara in support of their stunning 2013 debut, Howlin. Below, we talk with frontman and sort-of namesake Jono Ma about the band’s formation, the Sydney scene, and recording with Odd Future.
You guys recently relocated from Australia to the U.K., is that correct? Yeah.
What prompted the move? Well Jack was already there before he even joined the band, but it kind of felt like London calling. When we first put out “Come Save Me,” within a week a whole bunch of people from the U.K. got in touch with us about the song. It was being played on the radio over there, and there seemed to be a lot of interest from NME and other press outlets in the U.K. before anywhere else. We ended up making the rest of the record at a studio that I built with a friend in France, so that was relatively close. After that, we were going back there and meeting people, and we ended up finding really great managers and signing with a label that was based in the U.K. I guess it all kind of converged, and we were just kind of drawn to London by the reaction to the music from that part of the world.
Do you tend to think of Howlin as more of a U.K. record than a Sydney record, then? You know, it’s always difficult to know how much is environmental and how much is an individual anomaly. Sydney is a strange one, because Australia is a really young country — the colonial settlement has only been here around 200 years — so there’s kind of this sense of insecure identity. There’s sort of a lack of culture. And what history we do have, my generation is kind of ashamed of because the foundations of the country are based on very inhumane conditions. Particularly in the creative-arts world, I feel like there’s a bit of a rejection of patriotism in Australia, and I notice that leads to a creative thirst. But I don’t know. It’s hard to say how much of it is influence from your surroundings and how much of it is influenced by your imagination and the books you read and music that you listen to, which come from all over the world.
How would you describe the Sydney music scene? Well, prior to Jagwar Ma, Gab and I were both in other bands. He was in a band called Ghostwood, I was in a band Lost Valentinos. We were in a scene with a bunch of other bands, and we were all very close. That included bands like Cut Copy, Midnight Juggernauts, The Presets, and all the Modular [People] artists, like The Avalanches and Tame Impala. We were all part of the same sort of community, and it definitely felt like being a part of that gave energy to all of these little things. There’s an artist called Kirin J Callinan who just put a record out on XL, and he and I were both guitarists in Lost Valentinos. It was a small scene, and it was kind of incestuous. Even though we were in this large city, I think the music and the creative scene was quite closely knit. If you played in a band in Sydney, you’d know everyone else that played in a band because you’re all playing the same venues.
How did Jagwar Ma factor in? Well, I formed a band with Kirin called FLRL, which was basically designed to bring all the artists from different bands together to do these experimental improvised sets. We kept a rotating roster of members in the band, so it was just this project that was constantly evolving and recycling different people. There was this cross-pollination of activity, and that’s where Gab and I first met. I asked him to come and play with us. Stella from Warpaint also played in FLRL, Kirin, a guy called Jonti, who’s now signed to Stone’s Throw. Loads of different artists who’ve now gone on to pursue their own things all had this sort of crossover moment in this group. That’s Sydney.
It’s pretty amazing to think that all of these kids are now working in bands that are able to tour internationally. Yeah. I think originally when I was asked about it I would downplay it, but now that we are touring and playing festivals with these friends who were all part of this thing in Sydney, I’m actually becoming less cynical about it. I’m actually starting to feel a little bit proud of it. We were all playing together, and we all grew up together, and at the time it seemed really normal, but — like Stella is one of the best drummers in the world, and I was playing in bands with her when we were teenagers. It’s changed my outlook quite a bit. Like, maybe we were relaying energy and ideas, and there was a thing going on there that pushed us all into the right direction with music.
I think sometimes it’s just being surrounded by creative people that pushes you a little farther. Exactly. Originally I studied film. When I came out of my university degree, I wanted to be a filmmaker, and music was a hobby. But then I made a film, and the soundtrack that I made to go along with it got more recognition than the film itself. [Laughs.] I got this job working in a studio that made soundtracks for films, and that was my first job straight out of school. I had this studio at my fingertips, and I started getting into production just because I wanted to share this resource that I had with as many people as possible. So I’d approach lots of upcoming bands from the scene we were a part of and say, “I’ve got the keys to this studio. Let’s get in there after hours and make records.” That was how I got into producing. And that definitely played a part in transferring energy and inspiration around. It’s a conversation that goes back and forth, because I’d learn things from people who would come into the studio and vice versa. You kind of learn it all together.
Speaking about collaboration and sharing ideas, I’m curious to know how you approach the remix thing — both making and receiving. It’s an interesting question. They’re two very different processes. Doing a remix, the way I approach it, I’ll listen to the song and kind of decide that I’m going to really respect the original because there’s something about it, and I’m just going to make it more dance-floor friendly, or give it a slightly different angle. And then there are other times where I’ll have my production hat on, and I’ll be like, “The vocal is great, or the song is great, but I would have done everything so differently.” So I’ll kind of deconstruct it and approach from a much more postmodern perspective. You’re almost approaching it with dissent and disorder, which is great, as well. Both ways are valid.
What about on the other end of things, when people remix your tracks? I think part of the remix process is just picking the people who are remixing in the first place. There should already be an established level of respect for those people. In my old band, we used to throw the stems out there to anyone and everyone, and we’d receive, like, 10 remixes of a song, and nine of them would be pretty average. When we started Jagwar Ma, from the beginning I was aware of the fact that I didn’t want to do that again. I didn’t want to leave this paper trail of mediocrity. I wanted to be a little bit more specific and selective about who we get to remix. And so far I’ve been really happy with most, if not all, of the remixes we’ve gotten back — even to the point where I think that some of them are better than the originals. The Pachanga Boys’ remix of “Come Save Me” — the feeling that evokes is just something else. It’s like they tapped into one minute element of the song and just drew it out into this less-is-more, cathartic, spiritual thing. I think there’s a kind of genius in doing that; in being able to focus in on one element and turn it into this expansive, beautiful piece of music.
With your having contributed to so many projects, I’m curious to know what you think it was about Jagwar Ma that made this one take off. I think everything we’ve done prior to this was leading to this moment, from producing other bands to starting this experimental collaboration project — I look back on that now as the training ground. The interesting thing about it is that Gab and I didn’t even really think about this as a band: It started as a side project. I think that’s a testament to this idea that effortlessness is sometimes the most important thing in art. You just need to do the groundwork first. It felt like we both had done all the learning that we needed to do, and then almost subconsciously, on the side, without any preconceptions of what we were going to do or what the band was going to be about, we just got in a room and made music, almost without thought. It was kind of like the samurai approach to sword fighting: not thinking about it and just sort of doing it. We were putting all of our focus and anxiety into other things at the time, so this became this really free, open environment for making music, and I think that’s probably why it was the project that succeeded.
Does that freak you out in terms of writing the second record? Yes. [Laughs.] You hit the nail on the head because now it’s all about trying to find that balance. When we made Howlin, we didn’t have a label. As the producer of the record, I was not answering to anybody. I was in a studio that I had made. We had no time constraints. We were just making a record for the fun of it. The second record is going to be very different because it isn’t that. Hopefully we can preserve some of the isolation we had in the process of making the first record, but, at the same time, also channel some of the energy and excitement from what’s happened since. And I know the traps you can fall into: spending all this money on a record or trying to get this person or that person to work on it because you think they’ll make it better. A lot of that stuff I’ve tried and failed at. I think for the next one, we’ll try to keep it quite humble and quite similar to the first record in terms of process. We’ll probably keep the same people involved that worked on the first record, and probably work in similar environments: try and recapture the energy that we had when we did Howlin and just not overthink it. It’s about trusting your instincts.
I’ve got to ask about this crazy late-night recording session your were part of last month, with Earl Sweatshirt and Warpaint and King Krule. It was at Jonti’s studio. He’s working on a new album at the moment, and I’ve been helping him out with that — sharing ideas and helping him with the production side of things, synths and recording and whatnot. Obviously he, being a Stone’s Throw artist, is kind of on the radar of the Odd Future Wolf Gang artists, and they’re really big fans of Jonti. Anyway, we had a day off when we were on the Laneway tour, and I took them all to the beach, because that’s what you do in Sydney. We were hanging out all day, and we all got along really well, and then at night we went back to Jonti’s studio. There was nothing pre-planned, nothing pre-organized — it was just a really natural progression of a bunch of musicians hanging out together. When I got in there, everyone was just sort of drinking and partying, and there wasn’t actually much going on, and I sort of looked around and went, “Okay, there’s Earl Sweatshirt, and there’s Jonti, and there’s Stella. This is such a wasted opportunity. We need to do something.” So I put my headphones on and jumped on a laptop and just started making a beat. I remember Earl going, “Ohhh, okay, it’s getting serious now.” [Laughs.] But I was like, “We can’t just sit here and piss off — we’re in a studio; let’s do something!” So Jonti and I started working on a beat, and Earl got really into it and started putting chords on it, and King Krule came a bit later. We ended up making a couple of tracks, and I don’t know what the intention is. I worked on one of them after everyone left, and I think we’ll probably send it to Earl and King to put vocals on. But I don’t know. It was just a fun night in the studio, and I don’t know what it will be or won’t be. It might just be a distant memory. It might just be a Pitchfork article.
Jagwar Ma plays SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.) on Wednesday, April 16, at 8 p.m. Call (805) 962-7776 or visit clubmercy.com for tickets and info.