Retiree are a band that live up to their name, sonically – their tunes are languid, reflective and melancholy, but there’s also a complexity there that only comes with a deep understanding of the mechanics of music, something most people only earn with age.
There’s a broad range of influences that pierce through their songs – from 70s funk and the darker side of 80s pop, to krautrock and Afrobeat – and all of these congeal to become something that is very much unique; they are one of the most unmistakable electronic acts in Australia right now.
Their debut record House or Home was a long time in the making, with some songs dating back years, and its craft is undeniable. Written with equal input from all three members – Matt Crowley, Tori Holleman and Marco Vella – the album’s eight songs best represent the essence of what Retiree is. We had a chat with Matt about how it all came together.
Retiree dive into how they wrote and produced their brilliant debut album, House or Home.
Hey guys. Really digging House Or Home. How are you all feeling now that it’s out?
Humbled and privileged. It’s not often you get to hold a physical copy of music you’ve written in your hands. It’s awesome to emerge from this bubble where it’s only been us and a few friends who’ve heard these songs, to knowing it’s now able to reach people all over the place and hopefully connect with them in one way or another.
Tell us a bit about how it came together. Where was it recorded? Who worked on it?
It came together over quite a long time, several years for some of the songs. A couple of years ago we set up a studio in a friends bush/beach house about five hours south of Sydney and started fleshing out some very rough demos/scratch tracks we all had floating around. We ended up with a bunch of tracks, some of which made it onto the record after another long period of fine-tuning. We spent probably 18 months after that working on all sorts of different songs, with different feelings, vibes and purposes. Some of them worked more for the live set and were fleshed out through trialling them when we played and some were purely studio entities, with no mind being paid to how we’d pull it off live – just focusing on getting the best production and songwriting locked in.
Out of this big pool of songs, there were these six or seven that all felt like they came from the same place and shared a certain feeling, which then informed the writing of a couple more songs, and we realised we were approaching a pretty good little journey of an album with them.
So yeah, it was probably one third recorded at the beach house, about two thirds in our home studios. All three of us write, record and produce the music in Retiree, and we had a fourth member Ryan who was there at the beginning of the writing of these.
When you began writing and recording the album, was there something specific you set out to achieve sonically or in terms of production?
Not particularly. We wanted whatever we wrote to just come naturally and to be comfortable with the recording and production process. We’re lucky in that we write together pretty organically and all have different influences, so we can try a lot of different sounds and production techniques out on each other to see how we react. There are examples of songs where someone would have based a sound on a song they know, and show it to someone else in the band who doesn’t know that song, who could then take it down a completely different path oblivious to the original reference, and this lead to lots of interesting sonic blending.
Was there anything you were listening to at the time that really influenced the sound of the record?
The record was written over a long period of time so it’s hard to pinpoint anything in particular. Lyrically, the record is very personal, so the focus was really to record the most honest takes with melodies that expressed the emotions in the songs. Because of this, a lot of the delivery was a little inspired by Australian music – Dick Diver, The Go Betweens, RVG, Lower Plenty. Also, love some of the more rocky deliveries and melodies on Cut Copy’s Haiku From Zero. We’re all big fans of a lot of Australian guitar music. Hopefully one day we’ll crank out a record in that format, maybe when we’re too old and tired to fuck around with all these temperamental old synthesizers.
Drum machines, loops and samples all play a huge part on the album. Tell us a bit about what you were using and what influenced your choices.
The familiarity and time-tested feel of LinnDrums and TR-707s are pretty common foundations for a lot of our drum tracks, with the enjoyable challenge being to make them not sound derivative or pastiche-y, to try and use them in a way that you almost don’t register that they are what you’re hearing.
We also extend both forward and back in time from that base, using anything from CR78 samples to the MFB Tanzbar. Percussive elements are always something that makes their way into our songs, sometimes starting out extremely big and [present] in a first demo, eventually being pared and layered back to compliment the way the song works. All percussion is either recorded or programmed ourselves, with very, very sparingly-used loops and samples only once or twice ever really.
The album is obviously very synth-heavy. What are your go-to synths? Was there anything in particular that really shaped the sound of the album?
The Juno 106 would probably be classed as our fourth member, it’s always utilised in one way or another, whether for pads or bass or leads. It appears consistently across the album. Other more complex sounds are usually created with our live rig which consists of a Casio CZ1000 linked to a Moog Slim Phatty via MIDI, but also with the audio from the Casio running through the Moog’s filter. This allows us to knock the harsh edge off the CZ1000 but still use all the cool phased-out sine tone sounds. Sometimes a patch will be stacked with a mono patch from the Moog too.
I really love Sui Zhen’s contribution on Magic Eye. What do you feel she brought to the table when you recorded together?
She completely elevated that song and transformed it. Tori initially went to her looking for some subtle backing vocals in the choruses, but she ended up being instrumental in the completion of the song both sonically and conceptually. The song was written before a big break up and Becky’s verse was added after it. They worked on the verse together after hanging out and talking about what that song now meant compared to what it was when it was first written. Sui Zhen is also a massive legend and an Australian artist we look up to and are inspired by. Aaaaand, get this – she just came on Spotify after playing an Ocean Party record as I’m writing this. A coincidence? Or did my computer read Sui Zhen from this Google doc and beam it over to Spotify’s algos? Creepy stuff. First EP though! Good shit, can’t really complain.
Guitars blend quite seamlessly with the rest of the instrumentation on the album. How does the guitar fit into your workflow or songwriting process?
The guitar can sometimes be that element that, after adding, all of a sudden a song will feel textured. With the majority of our track’s sonic beds being electronic, with drum machines and synths, it’s very easy to view them from the confines of a certain sonic box while writing.
For example, a demo might have a particular melody that’s played on a synth, and that demo might get stuck in a rut for a while and not progress. Playing that melody on the guitar can then shine a different light on it and open the rest of the instrumentation up to other possibilities. Introducing the guitar at certain points in writing can also often send a song off down a completely different path, causing the writing process to then feed back in on itself.
The way you guys process vocals really intrigues me – there’s this restraint and subtlety that is super interesting and has become very synonymous with your sound. How do you approach vocals in the studio?
Tech doggies might squirm a bit at this, but the vocals were all recorded at home, in a small room with no treatment, with a handheld mic. I tried recording at a studio once but the performances always end up sounding kinda contrived or something. Mystery Bay and Another Day were the most testing. About fifty takes were recorded for the lead vocal in Mystery Bay, but we ended up running the demo because it was recorded in the exact moment the song was being created and had an intimacy and feel to it that was impossible beat. You’ll hear a few bung notes here and they’re on the record because of that. I’m self-taught and an average singer, but it’s more about the feeling of the song, not about me being the next Michael Bublé.
You guys put on an amazing live show. How do you feel this record will translate compared to your older stuff?
We’re really excited to test out live versions of some of the album tracks, extending them, adding a bit of improvisation and translating them a bit to get people dancing. We’ve been playing a few of them in our set for the last couple years too, with the way they fit in the set and the way they translate live informing how the songs are formed, written and moulded. So for a while we’ve had this freedom of trying out things and maybe stuffing them up and forgetting parts, but it going unnoticed because no one knows the song, but that’s helped us get them locked in tight and now we get to look forward to playing them for people who will now know these songs and know the words. We can also now bump off a couple songs we’ve been playing for way too long…
What’s next for Retiree?
This album was very introspective and contemplative for us, which is amazing and such a good feeling to have it connect with people when it comes from a place like that. But we have a bunch of songs up our sleeve that we love playing live, and ideas that are based more around making us dance, so we’d like to finish those off and do something with them. Apart from that, the immediate plan is to get out there and play these songs for people. We have an album tour in a couple months and a few other shows in the pipeline, so we’ll be holed up in the rehearsal space for a little while between now and then.
House or Home is out now via Rhythm Section.