Interview: Joe McKee

Published in Drum Media (WA) | 23.08.12 | Issue # 302



Returning to Australia – the “cultural cul-de-sac” he once called home – late last year, Joe McKee found his childhood hometown in the WA hills burnt to the ground. Daniel Cribbdiscovers how this incited plans for a debut solo record that provides much needed closure.

In February 2011, Joe McKee boards a London Underground train, picks up a newspaper and starts glancing at headlines and skipping through stories. It isn’t long before he finds himself staring at disbelief about news on the WA hills, the place he grew up. “That really struck a chord with me – seeing my childhood home burnt to dust and ash,” McKee recalls stories of The Darling Ranges fires, 35kms south of Perth. “It was the first time I started to get thinking about it again. I started having dreams about it and it just started seeping into my conscious, and it was at the time when Snowman had ended.”

Without a band to vent his confusing mix of feelings, McKee began going through old notepads and piecing together part of the songs that he had been writing over the years, adding lyrics as he went. Going back over three years of writing he found plenty of material; it just didn’t have direction or purposeful meaning yet. “That was the moment that triggered off the idea to make this album, that triggered off lyrical ideas and I had this overwhelming sense of, almost, confusion of how I felt about all of that. It was this unnameable emotion and the aim for me was to try and communicate it through music rather than trying to communicate it through words. I think that’s music’s role; to transcend language and things like that, you know?

“There’s always this euphoric moment where it’s like, ‘Okay, this is where I need to take this record’ and that kind of helps me define the parameters of the record and helps me articulate what I’m trying to say with the record,” he explains.

So, after four years living in London, McKee returned to Australia in October 2011 to see the damage that still remained from four days of fire. “The thing that ties [the record] together is the longing for something that doesn’t really exist anymore and longing for a glorified vision of my childhood in the hills in Australia, and it’s a longing to kind of communicate with that. I suppose the simple fact that I was dislocated from the place I grew up was enough to give me that feeling, and I think that’s where the songs were born from. It was essentially escaping everything that was going on in my life. When I was up there I tried to transport, or transcend, back to this place which I could never really get back to. But that’s the purpose of these songs, to take me back there.”

Although he admits to having ants in his pants, he hung around long enough to finalise the writing side of his album and record it. His choice of producer and the few months spent in WA proves that, while most of his things are in London, his heart is still in Perth. Renowned producer Dave Parkin (Jebediah, Red Jezebel, End Of Fashion) was behind the wheel when it came time to track McKee’s debut solo album. With Parkin working close with Snowman in the past – producing 2006’s Snowman and 2009’s The Horse, The Rat & The Swan – he was an obvious choice. “Dave and I speak the same language – he helps me kind of translate what’s going on in my head,” McKee says.

“I’ve been [in Australia] for longer than I intended,” he admits. “I’m a bit of a floating nomad. But I kind of like that – that makes me happy. I’m really restless and if I stay in one spot too long I just get miserable. As long as I keep moving I’m happy, so I’m happy to keep bouncing around the world and let music drag me around.”

The financial constraints of making a living from music can sometimes make it hard to stay in one place for long periods of time. Without constant gigging the money dries up, and playing five nights a week in Perth wouldn’t do much good. “Making the type of music, in Australia, that I make means that I waver between having money and not having money. That’s just the way it is unfortunately… The best way to combat it is to just not expect anything. I certainly don’t expect any financial rewards for what I do, which is kind of a sad truth.”

This leads onto the reason Snowman departed Perth and headed for Europe. “Australia, as wonderful a place it is, is a cultural cul-de-sac, and unfortunately what that means is that no one outside of Australia gives a shit about what’s going on down here. And that’s not to say that what’s going on down here isn’t any less significant – I think it’s particularly fertile creatively. I think it’s an incredible place and there’s some incredible things happening here, but if you have any desire to push what you do to new audiences, you’ve gotta get out and you’ve got to relocate to somewhere else, I think.

“We’d toured Australia countless times and thought, ‘Well, why play to the same faces over and over?’ Eventually people get bored and we weren’t going to keep doing a victory lap of Australia. So we got to play to new people and keep pushing ourselves creatively, you know; put ourselves in a completely new environment. I’ve maintained that kind of belief throughout whatever I’ve done creatively because you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone, otherwise you end up with the same results and the same kind of sounds.”

One listen of Burning Boy and you’ll hear a completely different sound to that of Snowman. While Snowman relied heavily on rhythm, McKee’s solo work is based around melody, which was a first for him but something that had to be done in order to capture the feelings surrounding the loss of his childhood home. So, does listening back to the 10 tracks on his debut solo release provide him with the closure he needed? “It’s funny; I try not to listen to anything that I’ve done,” he admits. “It’s living its own life and doing its own thing and I’m living my life. It’s like having a child, and it’s gone and left the nest.” He did divulge that the process in itself has delivered desired results.

Burning Boy was an internal record – it was an escapist, cathartic record. It’s about creating peace. The second Snowman record was an angry record and a record born from frustration. The last Snowman record was a record born from loss and was about creating some kind of peace and moving on. With Burning Boy, the title’s a reference to burning off land in order to replenish yourself, you know, and I guess it’s about burning off my childhood, burning off that past in order to start again. So it’s about fresh beginnings and starting again with a new, clean slate.”

Daniel Cribb