Work Song: An Interview with Joel Stern

(L-R) Sky Needle's Sarah Byrne, Joel Stern, Alex Cuffe and Ross Manning

(L-R) Sky Needle’s Sarah Byrne, Joel Stern, Alex Cuffe and Michael Donnelly

At the back end of last year I was lucky enough to get a quick interview with Joel Stern, the Melbourne-based Queenslander behind such projects as OtherFilm, Greg Boring and, the reason I was present in North London that evening, Sky Needle. Backed up by Upset the Rhythm acts Mad Nanna and Pheromoans, Sky Needle had just worked a beguiling set out of a cache of home-made instruments, in support of their new album Debased Shapes. Inspired by the radical, auto-didactic possibilities opened up by musical experiments like Hans Reichel’s Daxophone, I was keen to gauge “leg horn” maestro Stern’s take on the cultural importance of home-made instruments. I am now in a position to publish the results.

First of all, what instruments have been used on the new album? Have any been created since the last release? Any you’ve got rid of?

We make new instruments all the time, often for a gig or two until we grow sick of them or they break. But I must say, there’s also been a real consistency with regards to our ‘core’ instruments, my leg horns, Alex [Cuffe]’s bass, Daniel [Jenatsch] and Ross [Manning]’s planks. Michael [Donnelly] and Glenn [Schenau] are a little more dilettantish in their choice of various percussion tools. Basically, our instruments have been quite consistent so that we could focus on evolving a playing style and sound rather than jumping from one novelty to the other.

I recall at Castlefield Gallery in Manchester a few years ago they had works on show by this artist called Reto Pulfer which resembled primitive string instruments. I don’t recall whether or not they could actually be played, but seeing them brought home how easy it should be to make your own resonant thing, in order to create music. At the same time, I’m aware that it’s now easier than ever to do that with electronic kit: to make your own patches, software, and so on. What’s the difference between your approach and the approach of bedroom producers?

Our instruments are really simple, ­ that’s the first thing to say. There’s not a lot of skill or expertise required to make them. Why we’ve made them the way they are is…I think we asked ourselves what the most basic, bare necessity is for being able to make a band; like, what is the minimal instrumentation, what is the threshold of not being able to play music and what is just beyond that? Our concern isn’t so much whether something is digital or analogue, electronic or acoustic, it’s more that it’s a question of working within our means, working with materials close at hand, and in a way it’s also a bit of a reaction against the excess of most bands, of the rock and roll scene, where it’s dudes with lots of gear, and the amount of gear you have and the fanciness of your instrument bears no relation to how interesting the group is. For us, it’s a case of minimal domination, doing the most with the least.

There’s something improvisational to the whole set up, isn’t there? Do you find that the spare physicality of your instruments makes them easier to improvise on? They don’t come loaded with expectations…

The whole thing is improvised. Our instruments are very acceptable for this.

This is a thing that’s true of all instruments, but maybe more so of mine specifically, with the foot pumps: I’m literally pumping air to make music, like how you might pump up a mattress. It resembles other forms of labour or working. This repetitive, physical work. We’re creating music that is closer to other forms of work, working with a sonic by­product.

What are your influences for this approach?

One thing that comes to my mind is ‘films of people working’ by the artist Phill Niblock, where images of repetitive labour is mixed with drone music, and this idea that repetitive movements can be a kind of physical drone which matches the music. I get into both the sound of the band and the physical movements that are required to produce the music. Maybe our thing is not so much about instrument building as about finding tools that allow the physical actions that we’re compelled to do…

That enable you to labour? That’s significant, isn’t it? It seems to me that there’s a need nowadays to find things that enable us to labour in a physical sense. That sounds kind of ridiculous said out loud, but the fact is that certain groups of people are, say, returning to listening to music on vinyl because there’s something important and pleasurable about actually getting up and maneuvering a needle. Do you see physical labour as important to the creative process?

Very much, yes. And not just labour in and of itself but also the kind that is produced by an object that you’ve made, where the labour involved in playing that instrument is singular, relating to that instrument and that instrument only. We’ve developed our own instruments and we’ve developed our own ways of playing, our own forms of labour…Really, the reason we’ve made our own instruments is so we can operate outside of the forms of music and the forms of playing that are somewhat predetermined in other situations. If you play your own instruments nobody can tell you you’re bad at them…We’ve produced our own set of rules which we have to measure up against, we give ourselves a degree of autonomy this way.

I think that’s one of the reasons your stuff is so pleasurable to listen to, it sort of comes out of nowhere…

It comes out of Brisbane. It’s sort of the same thing.


by Luke Healey


One response to “Work Song: An Interview with Joel Stern

  1. Finding inspiration in bare necessity is actually overwhelming, when you consider how thick and fast it comes. Mastering that will always be where the real music is.

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