WHY do some rooms have a sort of intangible magic and not others?
Why did Sound City – a suburban LA studio best described as basic – produce some of rock’s finest albums when there were better studios with better facilities and better equipment just down the road in Hollywood?
Was it that old analog Neve console that Dave Grohl later purchased in a futile attempt to capture the epochal moment in time that was Nevermind? Or maybe it was the manner in which the linoleum tiles were laid, or the wholly accidental way in which the walls were painted that deadend the drums that were so essential to that classic ‘70s sound?
Perhaps it was the “family” vibe of Sound City (Barry Manilow’s words) that created the pre-conditions for a classic album, of which Manilow’s Here Comes The Night is definitely not.
On the subject of how a room shapes an album, Melbourne’s Two People – former Snakadaktal members Phoebe Lou and Joey Clough – have a pretty definitive view. “I would say it’s the core of our record,” says Phoebe emphatically.
THE room Two People built is in a big old labyrinth of a building just off Brunswick Street in Fitzroy in Melbourne’s inner-north.
In the Victorian heritage database it’s described as an “unusual and flamboyant” cluster of eight shops, reflecting the “wealth and optimism” of Melbourne in the late-1800s.
While the exterior still retains its red-bricked Victorian charm, the interior was falling apart. “It was fully run down,” Joey recalls.
“I think at the time we were so excited that there was a room available that we weren’t seeing how terrible it was,” adds Phoebe. “And when we finally moved in, all of the stuff from the previous tenant was left in there.”
“That’s our roots of making music – we always made it from our home.”
But there was something about room 11 – re-christened Studio 11 – that felt like the right place to record an album. And it had nothing to do with it being acoustically sound.
Studio 11 sounded “clangy” at best, says Phoebe, so instead of trying to transform it into a recording studio, Two People set out to make it feel like home. They plastered the walls and carpeted the floors They brought in a couch, a record player, and a few pot plants.
“We had to do a lot to make it right,” Phoebe says, “but I think for us it’s really important that we were working out of our own space and that it felt homely, in a way. I think that’s our roots of making music – we always made it from our home.”
PHOEBE and Joey started making music back in 2008.
This was roughly two years before they formed Snakadaktal with singer Sean Heathcliff (now a solo artist), bassist Jarrah Mccarty-Smith and Barna Nemeth, who plays drums live in Two People.
Snakadaktal formed in high school, but they’re not like the high school bands you remember. They won triple j Unearthed High a year after forming in 2011 and there’s an infamous story about them celebrating a publishing deal with a round of beers they were too young to drink.
“It sounds corny and whack but I was immediately hooked.”
Their debut self-titled EP had a sophisticated air about it that belied the fact they were teenagers when they made it, and they became festival mainstays after two of their tracks – ‘Air’ and ‘Dance Bear’ – made it into the Hottest 100 in consecutive years.
Johann Ponniah came across the band when former manager Jack Shoe posted a link to ‘Chimera’ on his Facebook page. Despite some initial reservations about their much-maligned name, Johann released the Snakadaktal EP on his then fledgling label I Oh You.
“It sounds corny and whack but I was immediately hooked,” he says. “To me, what they were doing had a sense of maturity in the songwriting but with enough self awareness and honesty to still feel innocent and not designed.”
“We kind of met each other at the time when we were discovering our own music and finding our own bands and artists that we liked.”
‘Dance Bear’, which made the Hottest 100 in 2012, dates back to an unreleased album Phoebe and Joey made before they joined Snakadaktal. “We’ve just always made music, the two of us,” says Joey. “It was never really with the view to releasing stuff – we just kind of did it for ourselves.
“We kind of met each other at the time when we were discovering our own music and finding our own bands and artists that we liked,” he continues, “and not just into what was playing or what our parents were playing. That was the beginning of our friendship – and our friendship has always been centred around music, I think.”
When Snakadaktal folded in 2014, it was always clear Phoebe and Joey would continue making music together – they just weren’t sure they were going to release it.
“The experience was amazing and I value that a lot, but we were not yet our own people,” says Phoebe. “So to be doing this now, as our own people, is a totally different thing. It’s a different life altogether, I guess.”
“Snaka was a great band,” Joey adds. “But the main difference for me was that it was a guitar band – we wrote the songs live and it just worked that way. Whereas the Two People project is like a complete reversal. We wrote the songs in the studio, experimented, and reverse engineered it into a live setting.”
“IT’S always when you’re on the verge of losing your mind that the good stuff happens.”
Phoebe Lou is talking about one of many all-night sessions that yielded songs from an as-yet-untitled album. The relentless construction in the area and some noisy neighbours forced them into recording at night.
“We had a guy next to use who built etching presses, so he’d be on the angle grinder all day. And so we had to negotiate when we could record,” recalls Joey, laughing.
There were no rules or formulas behind the way their songs formed. The starting point may’ve been as simple as a phrase, or even a feeling. Other times it’d be a musical idea that they’d jam out until a story emerged. ‘Something To Talk About’ – Two People’s take on a “rock song” – is a joint recollection of a specific summer’s night, but the atmosphere is so dense and intimate you experience it at arm’s length, voyeuristically.
“Phoebe got really excited and started shouting. That was the take.”
‘I’m Tied To You’ is best representative of the live show they reverse engineered. Joey triggers samples intuitively and improvisationally and if you listen closely you can hear Phoebe getting completely lost in the moment.
“We actually did a couple of takes on that song that were kind of just improvised with the mics on so everything was getting picked up,” Joey explains. “I was playing a part and it sounded really good and Phoebe got really excited and started shouting. That was the take.”
A few weeks before their official live bow at Splendour In The Grass, Two People played a tiny label showcase at Melbourne’s LongPlay. The pair were barely visible behind red lights and claustrophobic smoke. It’s a cloak, Phoebe says, allowing them to escape back to the time when they were just two people making music in a clangy rundown room.
“Playing in a foreign room or on a foreign stage to people you don’t know can be pretty strange. It’s sort of like, no matter what we can just close our eyes and think of that room.”