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Angus Stone’s new project, Dope Lemon, is a bit of a busman’s holiday for the musician. But what began as a few loose jam sessions among friends has evolved into an album and a bona fide band, with a tour to follow. The amiable collection of relaxed grooves on Honey Bones, the album in question, are the perfect setting for Stone’s unpretentious, dreamy lyrics. And while Dope Lemon might not eclipse the success of his well-loved duo with his sister Julia, for me this is the most enjoyable and satisfying album of Angus Stone’s career.
Growing up on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, the young Angus Stone always dreamed about a life on the land, somewhere not too far from the sea and surf he also loved. A few years ago he found his ideal in a 50-hectare property near Byron Bay. After moving in he discovered a small, derelict cottage at the bottom of the property that was occupied by squatters who were, to use his words, “doing dirty stuff”. Stone thought it would make a good studio, so the cottage was stripped out, re-roofed and a bathroom was added. After installing an analogue mixing desk and other recording equipment, the building’s transformation from meth lab to sound lab was complete. Stone dubbed it Belafonte Studios, after the ship in Wes Anderson’s 2004 film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
When I interviewed him in March, Stone described the casual way the album’s sessions began. “We’d just walk in after a few drinks and we’d just play, you know, stoned, and start strumming a chord over and over again, and someone would sit down at the piano and someone would sit down at the drums and they’d just be really long recordings… People were changing instruments. Lots of walking around and talking.” Later, Stone and his engineers would listen back and choose the best sections of the jams to rework into song arrangements. “We pick it apart and sometimes you’ll be lucky and get a whole stretch of a song in one take and it’s great. And on certain days we were a lot more focused and we’d go, ‘Okay, that last take was good, let’s try this.’ ”
The album’s opening track, “Marinade”, sets the mood to chilled and that’s pretty much where the album stays throughout. The guitars sound warm and playful, while the rhythm section glides alongside effortlessly as Stone talk-sings about an intriguing woman who showed him a secret beach somewhere near Burleigh Heads:
She said, You know how you heard about that family
that burned down that house?
Well, that was hers.
She said it was just some hoax that she made up to
watch people cry.
Yeah, she whispered to me softly,
Do you want me?
This is how I am.
Stone explained: “I created this character from her. I mean, it’s not her at all – she’s really sweet, she’d never be that… It sorta created something in my mind that was fun to go with, you know? This character of this troubled girl who begged for attention and would do anything to get it.”
“Uptown Folks” is a track close to Stone’s heart and was the first song released from Honey Bones. Its lyrics talk about escaping “delirium” and going “back to the garden”. It’s not hard to recognise the songwriter’s own story there, and Stone readily agrees. “All good things start and finish in that place,” he says. “And in between there’s delusion and delirium, of the world, of religion, and just talking, emptiness.”
There’s an honest simplicity in Stone’s songwriting that doesn’t hide behind artifice or pretence. Whether you like his music or not, there’s no doubting his sincerity. I have to admit that up to now I haven’t been a fan of Stone’s music, whether on his own or with his sister Julia. Their enormous success speaks for itself, but their music has always been a blind spot for me. That’s why I was surprised to find myself enjoying this album so much. Honey Bones has an unfussy, rough-hewn charm that I find completely irresistible.
Part of the magic of Honey Bones is the obvious chemistry you can sense between the musicians involved. Stone had some close friends in the studio with him, chief among them being Rohin Brown, guitarist from The Walking Who. The two go back a long way. “We used to ride around bikes in a little gang on the Northern Beaches, Newport,” Stone recalls. “And we both had the same passion for writing songs. We always wanted to be involved in the music world and we sort of went our own way.” Brown plays on most of the songs on the album, and is credited as co-writer on all but one of them. “Everyone else would come and go. We changed drummers and bass players and keys. [But] me and Rohin are the staple.” Elliott Hammond, the lead singer of The Delta Riggs, also figures prominently. He played drums and keyboards and also received a songwriting credit for the four songs he was on. Hammond is a Byron local and the camaraderie between the three musicians was the spark that ignited those initial jam sessions at Stone’s farm.
Wine lovers use the French word terroir to describe the many environmental factors that alter the flavour of the grapes as they grow and thus the character of the wine they produce. Similarly, the music of Dope Lemon is totally imbued with the atmosphere of Byron Bay and Stone’s farm. The laid-back ambience and positive vibes have seeped into the roots of all these recordings.
Well, all except for track three. “Fuck Things Up” was recorded at a friend’s home studio in one of the least laid-back places on earth: New York City at the height of summer. Once again, Stone found himself with some free time during the Angus & Julia Stone album tour, so he visited a friend and did a little recording. The communal experience of making music is something Stone obviously relishes. “He’s got a little set-up, it’s pretty cool,” he tells me. “We got some whisky, had the afternoon off. It was boiling hot in New York, which is just intense… and I started strumming the bass chords. It turned into a really cool song.”
I ditched all your friends to score some dope.
It’s a funny thing Murphy’s Law,
It’s what’s been waking you in the middle of the night,
It’s what’s been keeping you from the light.
Sometimes we just fuck things up.
Dope is mentioned a couple of times in the album’s lyrics and, of course, it’s referenced in the name of the band itself. Is Angus Stone trying to tell us something? Just how fucked up were the musicians when they were working? Stone admits the occasional joint was passed, but going surfing and sharing a bottle of wine also played a part in putting the musicians in a good mood. “I don’t smoke much anymore. When you’re in the studio and someone’s rolling a joint, it’s like, if everyone’s in the same pocket, you get in there and you can definitely float along in a bubble when you’re jamming.” Stone’s candour is refreshing. “You can kind of lose yourself – I mean, you can lose yourself in music anyway, that’s a given… But it doesn’t mean that [dope is] everything. It’s just like, whatever: if it’s there, it’s cool.”
Regardless of any levels of intoxication, there is no trace of sloppiness in the performances. Nor is there any “you had to be there” monotony. In his role as producer, Stone wisely keeps things simple; but after listening to it a few times the listener will start to notice the many elegant production touches. He has managed to keep the essence of the live performances intact while adding sufficient tasteful overdubs to fill out the arrangements. It’s a great sounding record and Stone is clearly a very talented producer. In this, he has been ably assisted by mixer Jordan Power, who also engineered with Paul Pilsniki.
After sitting on the Belafonte recordings for six months, Stone decided to record some more songs to complete an album. It was during yet another break in his tour with Julia that he invited Matt Johnson and Rob Calder, their touring rhythm section, to join him and Rohin Brown at Inky Studios in Byron Bay for some recording and R&R. The four songs that resulted – “Marinade”, “Uptown Folks”, “Coyote” and “Stonecutters” – comprise the first half of the album, along with “Fuck Things Up”. The rest of the album comes from those initial sessions at the farm, with one notable exception: the title track, “Honey Bones”, which was only recorded at the last minute. For this one, Inky Studios, where they overdubbed and mixed the album, had a prior booking and the only other studio available in Byron at the time was a peculiar place called Doublebassment, a live-venue-cum-studio run by bikers. “It’s underground,” Stone tells me. “It’s almost like you’d keep cold meats in there. So, kinda weird.” The singer believes the creepy voodoo sound of “Honey Bones” was influenced by these surroundings: “ ‘Honey Bones’ definitely came out of the walls there. I talked to the other guys about it… and we were all feeling it. Like, cold sweats.” Afterwards the musicians were happy to see the back of the place. “We didn’t even need to say goodbye,” Stone says. “We just walked off.”
It’s hard to put your finger on what makes the Dope Lemon album so distinctive. The songs have a dreamy, hallucinatory quality that is a significant departure for Stone as a songwriter and performer. I’ll just have to put it down to terroir and musical chemistry. There is definitely something otherworldly about it. The openhearted spirit of this music transports the listener and if you shut your eyes you can almost hear waves crashing in the distance and taste the sea air, fragrant with eucalyptus.
THEATRE A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, June 15-19
VISUAL ART Tempest
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, until November 20
LITERATURE Emerging Writers’ Festival
Wheeler Centre, Melbourne, June 14-24
MULTIMEDIA Dark Mofo
Various venues, Hobart, until June 21
CABARET Adelaide Cabaret Festival
Adelaide Festival Centre, until June 25
MULTIMEDIA Screen Space-Mary Reid Kelley
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until September 25
THEATRE Straight White Men
Arts Centre, Melbourne, until June 18
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 11, 2016 as "Stepping Stone".
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