Sunday, March 16, 2008

Interview with Aidan Roberts of The Maple Trail

Aidan Roberts, co-songwriter and lead guitarist with Belles Will Ring has a new project: The Maple Trail. First came the 7-track EP "New York" with a selection of unreleased EP tracks and demos on Sydney indie label Broken Stone Records and in April they will be releasing his first full-length album "Dirty Echo Spark".

Roberts records his music in his home in the Blue Mountains - about 30 miles west of Sydney - and occasionally gathers a band of merry musical friends for live shows. The Maple Trail also tours with label mates Richard In Your Mind and Des Miller.

Q & A with Aidan Roberts of The Maple Trail

The Nightfly: The Maple Trail is an interesting name - it conjures up lovely images of a winding road leading to a wonderland of pancakes and syrup.
Aidan: Several years ago I put together an album simply as Aidan Roberts - for the album launch I wanted to name the band who played for me, so I tried to think of a name which implied a journey of some sort; it was billed as "Aidan Roberts and The Maple Trail." I think the word "maple" seemed right because of the autumn thing, and in the Blue Mountains where I live there are a lot of Chinese Maples that scatter their leaves. It's a bit of a sentimental image, but that's where it came from. I now wish I'd thought of something with more... danger in it. The project will probably adopt a new name one day.

The Nightfly: Which of the songs on your upcoming album is your favorite and why?
Aidan: I think if I had to choose one, it would be "Terminal Song" which comes near the end of the record. I think there's a great sense of desperation in it - it builds and builds - there's only a couple of chords but it shifts and changes, and takes you on a journey. The lyrics were written as a kind of meditation on being stuck in an endless limbo between destinations, like a perpetual airport terminal.

The Nightfly: There are distinct echoes of The Byrds in your songs – were you always a fan?
Aidan: Always loved the Byrds. First exposure was those weird tracks on "The Easy Rider" soundtrack that my Dad used to always play - I remember being really haunted by those harmonies when The Byrds would come on the AM radio. "Wild Mountain Thyme" is amazing.

The Nightfly: Your songs sound as if recorded in the 1960s but with better gear – how difficult is it to nail the retro sound and still sound fresh?
Aidan: I basically record to tape, then mess around with it later in the computer. Tape sounds so nice, and that's where you'll be hearing that "retro" saturation. It's actually quite easy to make things sound rich and exciting using a minimum of gear - most of my friends use a blend of tape and computer gear - and this album was mixed through a huge desk with lots of fancy old analogue processors and effects. I've learned a lot from listening to my favourite albums and trying to imagine how they made all those amazing sounds, from the dirty and nasty through to the lush and beautiful. It's great to have the benefit of computers around to edit and do extra bits of recording and to mess things up a bit if you want. I just love the way old records sound - there's human element to analogue recording that's harder to achieve with digital stuff. I think it's actually quite exciting to having limitations - it makes you work harder, be more creative. I also like to record in challenging or odd places, like my kitchen or outside - it lends an air of unpredictability to the process, an element of risk and the accidental. There's all sorts of weird sounds on this record that just sort of happened.

The Nightfly: Are you fascinated with America of the 1960s and 1970s or just with the music of that era?
Aidan: I am not personally devoted to any kind of exploration of Americana - I mean, I'm Australian after all. But yes, the majority of my musical influences are the 1960's and the 1970's musicians from the US and Canada. I think there's an element of fascination with "other" places in my music for sure. But a lot of the American-sounding references in my music are purely sonically so - the song "New York" is not so much anything to directly do with New York City, but again an exploration of an uneasy feeling which was planted in my head on a trip to NYC. I was always worried that people would misinterpret "Beggar's Canyon" as being some sort of generic fictional location, like I'm trying to evoke the spirit of California - it's in fact about wishing things could revert to happier times; I used a line from Star Wars to illustrate that sentiment: "just like Beggar's Canyon back home". But I can totally see from a lot of my song titles and sounds that people will get a distinct American influence. Hmmm.

The Nightfly: When did you pick up your first instrument?
Aidan: The first instrument I can remember trying out was the piano in Mum's bedroom - I couldn't play anything as I was 5 years old, but I remember trying to work out how to play "Tubular Bells" on the black keys.

The Nightfly: Are the lyrics as important as the music when you write?
Aidan: Usually my lyrics come first. I carry round a little book and when I get inspired, I usually sit down and nut out an entire song lyrically, at the same time imagining the music around it. I get all excited and run home to try to realize the music on the guitar or piano - sometimes it comes out, but sometimes it doesn't. I guess the music has to carry the lyric, not the other way round because I'm always trying to create a narrative. Or sometimes, the music doesn't need lyrics as it tells its own story - there's a couple of tracks on the album that explore that.

The Nightfly: Was the music of previous decades better overall?
Aidan: Big call. I think we are lucky to live now, in hindsight of all these decades and movements of music, popular and otherwise. We get to listen to this massive massive back catalogue of people paving the way for us to explore music now. I would be loathe to say that yes, older records are better overall because that would discount all the amazing stuff which is going on now around the world - some of my musical "moments" have certainly happened discovering "On The Beach" or "Revolver", but they're also happening on an almost daily basis with innovative, beautiful music I'm discovering through my own explorations. But by the same token - where would the world be without "Kind of Blue", "Harvest", "Exile On Main St.", The Beatles - they're the precedents; the things to live up to and to challenge.

The Nightfly: Which do you enjoy the most – writing, recording or playing live?
Aidan: I think I enjoy recording the most - it's where you get to create the tangible thing that lasts forever - the record. And you are free without time limits to explore your own imagination, which is the most satisfying way of playing music. But at the same time there's an immediacy and danger in live performance that you don't quite get when you're recording, and you're directly communicating with warm bodies - that's so important. You can't have one without the other I think - you need the two worlds of recording and performing to offset one another, to feel fulfilled. Writing is surely the hardest bit.

The Nightfly: Has the Internet leveled the playing field for indie artists/bands?
Aidan: I still have a wide-eyed sentimental wonder about the Internet - it really can be great. It means that now we can listen to music from all around the world, instantly post demos or unreleased recordings, communicate with people we would have never otherwise met. If you try not to take an anti-capitalist stand against MySpace, etc., you'd have to admit it's really opened up the channels for musicians to get their voices heard. But of course that also means that we have over-saturation, and a lot of awful shit all over the Internet.

The Nightfly: What was the first record you ever bought?
Aidan: The first record I ever saved up for and bought myself was the soundtrack to "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" when I was ten years old. I was obsessed with movie scores. Before that I always just listened to my parents' and my brothers' records - everything from Peter Paul & Mary to Erik B & Rakim.

The Nightfly: Is there such a thing as an “Aussie Sound”?
Aidan: For sure. There's a roughness and a cultural oddness that comes through in a lot of bands, indie and commercial. I think Nick Cave has a very Australian sound - kind of volatile and crazy, with an air of the grandiose. And there's a certain sound to all the darker, echo-y 80's new wave rock bands from over here - The Church, Straight-Jacket Fits. It seems that it took a while though for Australia to find its feet in the rock circuit - whenever I think of a popular Australian band from the 1960's or 1970's, they always seem to me to be a slightly less interesting version of what was happening overseas at the time. Having said that, now we're finding some really obscure Australian stuff that never made a wave at all, and is just amazing. Also, in the 1990's there came a string of indie bands that have the most undeniably Aussie sound - Youth Group, Sidewinder, etc.

The Nightfly: When writing songs, do you hole up by yourself in a cabin or go jam with friends?
Aidan: I like to do both - I'm a pretty insular person when I want to be, so I like being secluded to write exactly what I want to write. Then again, it's really important to have the balance of being able to stuff around with other people, to let the music do its own thing while you're all there. I love cacophony too - so I like big messy jam-outs that have all these inherent accidental beautiful details as a result of all the human input. That stuff can be so great to capture on tape.

The Nightfly: Are Australian artists and bands content with being artistically and commercially successful on their home turf or is there usually a desire to “conquer” foreign markets – the United States in particular?
Aidan: Most bands do want to go over to the States or Europe to try to "crack the market". There's very little money in the Australian market - but in the States there's infinitely more people and ears and investors, so if you're doing something that's commercially viable or just plain awesome, it's a good idea to go and tour the States - widen your audience, widen your possibilities for income. If you're serious about your music I suppose you'll always want to travel and reach out to other people, get them to hear your stuff. Again, that's where MySpace, etc. is great, for providing that little link with the rest of the world.

The Nightplay: What is the role of a songwriter: entertainer, rebel, activist, shaman, aural therapist - or all of the above?
Aidan: The songwriter's role is never clear. Some think songwriters carry the torch for their generation or their class - sometimes I guess that can be true. But these days, you make your art because you have to, and you want to.

The Nightfly: Which artists/bands are you currently listening to?
Aidan: Right now I am in love with Broken Social Scene, Grizzly Bear, Ned Collette and City City City, Ani DiFranco, David Karsten Daniels and Canon Blue.

The Nightfly: Are songwriters – indie or major label - selling out when they allow their music to be used in commercials or are they just trying to survive?
Aidan: There's an element of selling out - I mean, what industry is more over-invested and greedy than advertising? But having said that, isn't it nice to have someone give you money to buy fabulous things? It's a dangerous world. A song by my other band was used in "Home & Away" - that's a bit scary.

The Nightfly: Do physical discs and record stores have a future in our brave new world of downloading?
Aidan: Yes, MP3's sound like shit and records sound amazing. Records and CD's are kind of like the physical, tangible piece of art that's worth investing $20 in. MP3's are so vulnerable - one crash and they're gone. But the reality exists that convenience wins out against aesthetics - so I reckon there will always be a market for people who like their records on the shelf. I'm very old-fashioned, I know.

The Nightfly: Is it difficult for indie artists/bands to get airplay on commercial radio stations in Australia?
Aidan: It all depends on how many sales your CD gets, or how much money the record company is willing to pay to have their material aired. There's a lot of great community radio in Sydney and around Australia - commercial radio is pretty much not the place to go to for new exciting music.

The Nightfly: Would you be flattered if a company offered to make The Maple Trail action figures?
Aidan: I would be over the moon. They'd need to make the Aidan doll with interchangeable heads - perhaps a snap-on beard.