Murder; mutiny; mayhem. It’s all there if you dig deep enough into the history of this country and Nigel Wearne and Luke Watt have teamed up under the name Above the Bit to flesh out some of the most gripping stories and events, turning them into a beautifully crafted collection of songs of epic proportions. We asked them how they took on this mighty task.
Tell me about how the concept for this album came together?
Nigel: I was listening to Late Night Live on RN a few years back. Philip Adams did a show that was loosely themed around mutiny, and I thought it’d be a cool idea for an album. Later that year, I went to the Port Fairy Folk Festival and my wife saw Katie Noonan playing a set. She mentioned there was this Artist-in-Residence program up at Bundanon that sounded pretty amazing. Bundanon is a property that was owned by Arthur and Yvonne Boyd later in their life and they donated it to a trust for artists to use as a space to dream up new works. It’s nestled on the Shoalhaven River not far from Nowra in NSW. I looked it up and I thought, well why not apply? I had this idea and I wanted someone to collaborate with, so I contacted Luke, put in an application and it got accepted.
Luke: Nigel and I have been mates for the better part of 20 years, and whilst we’ve played together on and off over that time, this is definitely the first real collaboration. Making a record or making music together was always something we wanted to do. For a good while we’ve just been finding our own individual musical voices and have taken our own paths to get there. I’d say we’ve have finally wound up at a point where it just felt right. A point where musically we could meet each other in the middle and have it make sense to us. I’d written a couple songs on my last solo record that delved into Australian history, as had Nige, and at some point Nigel approached me with the concept for the record.
Nigel: In the six months leading up to our time at Bundanon we did a lot of research. We read a lot of books and blogs and listened to podcasts, so by the time we got there we were pretty prepared. We got to stay in the Musician’s Cottage for about three weeks, writing and exploring ideas. In that cottage is Arthur’s personal grand piano… it still has paint stains on the stool. We also had access to the homestead that had a Steinway concert grand piano, so we were spoilt for choice.
What does Above the Bit mean?
Luke: It’s a term that’s used to describe a horse raising its head to avoid contact with the bit, in order to evade control. I was writing a song for the project called Arthur Kelso’s Lament where a horse is spooked by some gunfire. My sister who is a horse rider threw me the line when I was trying to find a phrase that sat well in that particular verse. It was Nigel who saw the metaphor in the phrase, a metaphor for evading control and mutineering, and it soon became the band name.
Walyer is an amazing subject for a song. What was your approach to putting her story in musical form?
Luke: It was pretty simple from my perspective. I made a morning coffee, sat at the table, and Nige said, “listen to what I just wrote!”
Nigel: I first learned about the story of Walyer while listening to Earshot on Radio National. While gleaning the stories for the album we were on particular lookout for stories that were somewhat obscured or buried in history. This is one of those stories. Walyer otherwise known as Tarenorerer, was an Aboriginal warrior from Emu Bay in Northern Tasmania. For a period of time in the 1830s she gathered a band of warriors and wreaked havoc on the European colonists. She was a Minerva with great tactical expertise. I wrote the song at Bundanon late one night after Luke had gone to bed, and it kind of fell out of the air. I played it to Luke and said ‘here’s your gift’ to play slide guitar on. It was really important to me to tell the story in third person and not assume or appropriate a First Nations perspective. Once Luke and I were happy with the lyrics I sent the song to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre as part of a consultation process to ensure that I had permission to record, perform and play the song into the future. This permission was granted which was affirming and a very important step.
How did you choose your slices from history that make up the songs on this album?
Luke: It was a real mixture. Some of the stories we were already into, had read or explored out of personal interest, and they just fit into the project. Others spoke right off the page after just a small amount of reading, whilst some took some real digging. More like careful excavation. Personally, I just wanted to take snapshots of time and place and jump inside. Sometimes emerging midway through the story, some from a particular characters’ perspective, sometimes from the voice of the unreliable narrator. I think if it got us talking, made us ask questions, it was worth exploring.
Nigel: We were both really passionate about trying to find stories that told somewhat forgotten fragments of Australian history. Unsurprisingly, this ended up including a number of stories about women and First Nations Australians. A couple of songs were inspired by Clare Wright’s fantastic book, ‘The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka’ that details the plight of women and children who lived on the goldfields in the 1800s. Luke wrote some great maritime themed songs, one of which is called ‘Ben Hughes on the High Seas’, which is effectively a reinterpretation of an incredible article we found on trove.com from the 1890s. Overall we feel like we’ve covered a fair selection of paths less trodden in the Australian memory. Women on the goldfields, the high seas, Townsville in WWII, Wiradjuri country, Tasmania; we kept it broad.
What do you feel each of you brought to this project in terms of ideas and musicianship?
Luke: Nige is a true searcher. He’s always trying to learn, always digging and exploring musically. It’s something I really admire. For me in the past, if something wasn’t working, an idea or a feel, I’d be pretty quick to abandon it. We had the luxury of time at Bundanon, but it was Nige who would often suggest we just jam, explore in and around an idea, come back to it, and often it led to things that worked, that stuck, and that found their way onto the record. Nige was spending a lot of time playing piano at the time, and that sound shaped a lot of the songs, rhythmically and dynamically. Throughout the whole process he brought a genuine desire to explore how this concept of mutiny and civil disobedience has shaped us culturally as a nation.
Nigel: We’d been making noises about doing something together for years, but this is the first time we’ve got around to it. Luke comes more from the blues side of things, and I kinda come from the folk side of things. So it was a lot of fun trying to meld our different styles into a cohesive sound. We meet somewhere in the middle, creating a sort of blues-folk hybrid with a country garnish. He has a powerful, at times understated, but assertive style of songwriting that draws you in. This, with his innovative style of playing, has been a great influence to me over the years. Because we’re both fingerstyle guitar players, we spent quite a bit of time honing the sound and intricately weaving our parts in and around each other. Intuitively, I’ve ended up playing quite a bit of piano and banjo on the project which broadened the sound pallet considerably. We’re pretty proud of the end result and we hope it makes for an interesting listen.
Does being a teacher help inform how you impart history like this?
Nigel: I’m not sure. Perhaps. I think we’re definitely curious about history in general, and this is a trait that many teachers possess. I guess conveying a message clearly is something that’s important in teaching, so maybe that’s helped us tell these stories in a way that the listener can be drawn in. The album has a really detailed booklet that includes lyrics, a list of sources and a brief intro of each song giving a bit of a back-story. At the end of the day, we wanted to make a record that’s a compelling listen, but for those who want to go digging, all the tools they need are right there. Hopefully a bunch of folks out there learn something new.
Luke: I don’t think it has on any conscious level. Primarily I just wanted to write good songs that people could enjoy from lots of different perspectives and for different reasons. If I reflect on it though, honesty and being truthful has always been really important to me as a teacher. When you’ve got a class of children and you hope that they engage with you, those kids need to know you really mean it, or they can smell it a mile off and you’ve lost them. Perhaps that’s the same as when someone listens to a song or reads an interview!
Nigel: Amen to that Luke!
What about some of the artists you roped into the project?
Luke: Once the songs were written it was fun to explore how we might present them on the record. From the start it was clear we needed a rhythm section. It was going to be important that the songs move dynamically in a way that reflected the ruggedness of some of these stories, they needed head room to enable the ups and downs of the characters’ journeys. Danny McKenna is a drummer I had recorded with on 2 of my solo records. It was a no brainer, when it comes to asking someone to inhabit a song and help tell a story with their instrument, Danny was the best choice.
Nigel: We got Steve Hadley in to play double bass, on Matt’s recommendation. Steve’s an absolute monster; he’s played with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Archie Roach, Paul Kelly and Tex, Don & Charlie. We also had Corinn Strating play wood whistle and wood flute; who did a fantastic job. She brought a flavour to the record that we otherwise wouldn’t have thought of, had Matt not suggested it. Mandy Connell sang backing vocals. She’s an amazing artist in her own right and brings a soulful, heartfelt vibe to the songs that she sings on. And actually… as well as backing vocals, Matt makes a little guitar cameo on the album version of Walyer which is pretty cool. You won’t hear that on the radio edit but keep an ear out when you listen to the record. You can’t miss it.
What was it like working with Matt Walker on production duties?
Nigel: Working with Matt was somewhat of a dream really. Both Luke and I came to the idea of working with Matt, individually. Having been big fans of his work in the past, Matt has certainly shaped us as musicians in a profound way. So from the get-go we had a lot of trust in his process. He has a really cool way of suggesting things that serve the song; and all in a way that is both affirming but assertive. It’s impossible to mention Matt on this project without mentioning Sound Engineer, Rowan Matthews. Rowan’s expertise and ability to grab bloody awesome sounds was invaluable. He also was crucial during the mixing process.
Luke: I was really nervous fronting up to Matt with a guitar in my hand. The guy has been one of my all-time favourites since seeing him and Ash Davies in ’99 at Byron Bay Blues Festival. There was a hefty dose of imposter syndrome that I grappled with on the drive to his studio. That all very quickly dissolved though, and Matt just made us feel incredibly welcome in his space. He simply let us play the songs, he felt like a member of the band, occasionally offering musical ideas when he thought it was important. We tracked the songs live as a band, and Matt would say, just play it until the last take was better, and then stop. Made it simple. I felt however, that it was during mixing that Matt really got inside the songs. Subtle highlighting of particular voicings that he felt were important, were often really significant.
How do you see yourself sharing these songs throughout the tour and beyond?
Luke: Most of the shows will be a duo arrangement with just myself and Nige. Whilst the record has this incredible rhythm section and Mandy Connell singing BVs, we wrote the songs together, the two of us, with an instrument each, in a room, and it feels great to deliver them like that. It works. That being said, I’m very excited about the band show at the Wesley Anne in Northcote and looking forward to more shows down the line.
Nigel: I’m just really happy to get these stories out there. This is one of those projects where it kind of goes beyond who we are, to presenting who these people were. For me it’s about planting seeds; I don’t want to tell people what to think. Perhaps, by owning and speaking about our history, whatever that may be, it might inform how we move forward as a nation. There’s a lot of hardship and sadness in a lot of these stories, but I actually find it really inspiring. From the ashes of these stories has come what is, and should continue to be an amazing country. But it’s a country with contradictions, inconsistencies and ongoing confusion about how we reconcile our chequered history. I’m hoping after this album launch tour, we can share these songs widely at music festivals and regional theatre performances. ‘Some tales don’t heal unless they’ve been told’.