MARTIN Frawley recently released his first solo single ‘You Want Me?’. It comes after the demise of his longtime band Twerps, who many people outside of Melbourne didn’t realise had ended.

The song is a strikingly honest slice of autobiography tracing Martin’s lonely teen years, his life-changing relationship with Twerps guitarist and co-founder Julia McFarlane and their equally seismic split nearly a decade later. That entire arc is related in less than five minutes, against a dishevelled shuffle of folky acoustic guitar, bright piano and bubbling synth.

“This isn’t the way we should end this team,” sings Martin, and that sense of thwarted resolution pervades his upcoming solo album, due in February 2019.

Undone at 31 continues the memoir quality of its lead single, as Martin openly presents himself “drink[ing] myself insane” while trying to move forward. The song and album are torn between embracing the risks of change and wanting to retreat into an imperfect past.

Sitting behind his sharehouse, tucked away in a residential stretch of Melbourne suburb Thornbury, Martin is just as frank and conflicted in person. Thin and unassuming in a white t-shirt and worn-in jeans, he hasn’t lost the youthful trademarks of his floppy hair and goofy grin.

While a smattering of laundry dries under a glaring afternoon sun, Martin mixes and shares mimosas left over from a birthday party for his current girlfriend, Lauren.

She appears with him in the video for ‘You Want Me?’. Shot in New York, it adds a surprisingly happy postscript to the lyrics’ blow-by-blow account of his recent unravelling.

“I cried every time I heard that [song] a bunch of times after I recorded it,” admits Martin, who’s now 32 and thus a year removed from the album’s messy coming of age.

The song wasn’t any easier for his former partner and bandmate to hear, and when he called to warn her on the day before it debuted, she had already heard it.

For Martin, the album isn’t just about the break-up of his relationship and band, but his own history of self-destructive behaviour, the charm of which wears thins with each passing year.

“It worked in my 20s,” he says, “but now people are like, ‘Nah, you need to rein it in.’ And I’m trying to.”

To some degree, the new songs are meant to explain his actions. “Maybe in some ways it’s like me apologising to a lot of people for my behaviour,” he says. “When you go through that [kind of big break-up], a lot of people [around you] don’t know how to handle it. You find that a lot of people who are meant to be your pals just don’t call you or answer the phone. I lost the plot, for sure.”

The album’s opening tracks – ‘You Want Me?’ and new single ‘End of the Bar’ – both recount drinking, as does another, ‘You Can’t Win’. “I just write about what I’m doing at the time,” says Martin. “I have to be purely honest, maybe for my own sake. But yeah, I’ve spent the last year and a half in bars.”

•••

TWERPS formed in late 2008, a creative outgrowth of Martin and Julia’s relationship.

Releasing a debut EP a year later through prized Melbourne indie label Chapter Music, the project grew into a quartet with bassist Rick Milovanovic and drummer Pat O’Neill.

“Rick designed me,” says Martin. “He showed me The Fall, The Evens, all of the cool shit. He took me to every show.”

The band came up around the same time as another Chapter signing, Dick Diver. The bands shared their fondness for jangly guitars that harkened back to the heyday of New Zealand’s Flying Nun Records.

That reference point eventually became a bugbear for both bands, but by then Twerps had garnered serious word-of-mouth buzz around their self-titled first album in 2011. They signed to US label Merge Records, who introduced the world to Neutral Milk Hotel and Arcade Fire.

The 2015 release of Twerps’ second album, Range Anxiety, saw the band jump from casual hometown gigs to high-profile slots at festivals like Spain’s Primavera and local powerhouse Sugar Mountain.

“I feel like people make too much music these days, and sometimes they need something to [actually] write about. Wait till you have something to fucking say.”

Now with a new rhythm section in bassist Gus Lord and drummer Alex Macfarlane – both from a scrappier Chapter band, The Stevens – Twerps were suddenly crashing mainstream year-end lists in Newsweek and American Songwriter while more indie-leaning publications debated whether the Flying Nun influence was a deal-maker or -breaker.

Setting aside the familiar breeziness at play, there was plenty of relatable appeal in Julia’s glistening, banner-like lead guitar and Martin’s matter-of-fact singing and often melancholy subject matter.

Julia wrote and sang lead on a fair share of Twerps songs too, including the woozy near-waltz ‘Shoulders’, the playful reverie ‘Adrenaline’, and the sloshing dream-pop of ‘This Guy’. The pair’s guitar interplay was consistently lively and rewarding, especially as they graduated from more lo-fi meandering to clean-cut guitar-pop anthems.

But by that point, fissures were growing between the two, and by extension the rest of the band. “A lot of the reason Twerps broke up was because everyone wanted to do different things,” says Martin. “I was like, ‘Let’s go on tour,’ and they were [happy playing locally].”

That lack of wider ambition frustrated Martin, whose struggling artistic parents had made him recognise how tough it is to make a living with your art.

“Two people who worked their ass off,” he says of his parents, “and now I get to go do some pretty cool things. And I play in a band with a bunch of people who are like, ‘I don’t want to do that, I want to be in Melbourne.’”

Of bassist Rick Milovanovic’s exit after recording the second album, Martin muses, “He could see it from a mile away. He was like, ‘I can’t fulfil my best friend’s dreams.’”

Following that second album, Twerps began to break down internally as Martin and Julia’s relationship worsened. “I couldn’t write a song for three years,” he says. “It really savagely ruined my confidence.”

At another point, he alludes to just how bad things eventually became: “I don’t want to ever be in that room again, where it’s awful to make music with someone. It’s really shit.”

Twerps played their last show in November 2017, though it wasn’t intended as such. They released their last song a year later – the heartstring-tugging ‘It’s Time’, which opened the Thirty Days of Yes benefit compilation for marriage equality.

In the year since, most fans would have assumed that Twerps were busy working on a third album, which made the announcement of Martin’s solo record – and the band’s defunct status – perhaps come as a shock.

Asked why there wasn’t a definitive post on social media announcing the end of the band, Martin questions whether anyone out there even cares. When assured that they do, he counters, “I don’t think so. Like, really?”

That pessimistic stance is understandable, given how little faith he had in the band himself by the end. At one point, he was determined to save his relationship by abandoning Twerps – whereas he says Julia suggested doing just the opposite.

The pair did try to keep working together musically after they broke up, but that was fraught from the start. “She still wanted to connect through the songs,” he says, “and I was like, ‘I can’t give you this any more.’’

So he had to find his own way back to music, a bumpy road that’s been mapped extensively from song to song on Undone at 31. The songs may not always offer a flattering portrait of Martin, but they do communicate just how high the stakes have been for him – something that he underscores during the interview.

“It was my first relationship,” he says of his nine years with Julia. “I never even had a girlfriend before that. So I don’t think I handled any of it well. But no one knows how to handle it.”

•••

AS break-up records go, Undone at 31 isn’t a downer, nor is it especially spiteful.

In fact, it’s almost upbeat, as if Martin is making peace with every crushingly personal detail he airs. Yet two of the album’s rockier standouts aren’t actually about the split: crackling with distortion and more frazzled vocally, the Kinks-y ‘What’s On Your Mind’ is about a girl he dated after Julia, while ‘Chain Reaction’ is “an angry song” about a friend that plays like chewy power pop.

Most importantly? It doesn’t sound like a Twerps record. There’s more folk and country than jangle-pop, and purely Martin’s songwriting rather than Twerps’ collaborative process.

“If I want someone to rip on guitar solos, I’ll get Jules to do it,” says Martin. “But I didn’t want to have someone that couldn’t do it as well as her.”

The person he did find to bolster him was American multi-instrumentalist Stewart Bronaugh, whom he saw playing in Angel Olsen’s band. Martin got Stewart to come to Melbourne to flesh out and properly produce the recordings he had made with Gus Lord on bass and Matt Harkins (also of The Stevens) on drums.

Stewart certainly made his mark on the album, playing piano and many other instruments before shooting the DIY video for ‘You Want Me?’.

He came into the picture right when Martin was floundering, musically and personally. The former Twerps frontman wasn’t happy with the album’s initial form, and he was drinking more and more.

“I lost my house, a dog, I crashed my car, I lost my band,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘I’m just going to drink.’ I was very unwell mentally [but] I worked really hard when I wasn’t doing that.”

"People would be like, ‘Man, ‘Dreamin’, great song’, and I’d be like, ‘That’s about my dad that’s dead.’"

Stewart, who doesn’t drink, convinced Martin to have a break from booze while finishing the album. Even better, he was an outsider who wasn’t tangled up in Melbourne’s tight-knit music community.

“He was like a rock, and he wasn’t connected to my world,” says Martin. “He was someone to hold on to.”

So when Stewart suggested a break from drinking, Martin listened. And when Stewart said the initial album sounded like “a bad Twerps record” rather than like the more left-field inspirations Martin had been citing – “weird Japanese electronic music, or Joy Division” – he listened once more.

The finished album banishes load-bearing jangle in favour of quirky experimental touches like spacey keyboards, delicate drum machine, romantic strings and even lap steel guitar.

That restless palette mirrors some of the idiosyncratic artists Martin mentions when discussing the album: Brian Eno, John Maus, Cass McCombs, Bob Dylan, and Lou Reed.

“I know fuck all about any instrument,” he says. “That’s why I finally fell in love with Lou Reed’s [solo records]. It’s what other people can give you, and it’s a group production.”

Beyond that, he looked to Stewart and engineer John Lee, in whose Phaedra studio the album was recorded, to bring their own individual quirks to his autobiographical framework. “Everyone put in their own thing,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘This is my story, but you guys do whatever you want.’”

So is he happy with how it came out? “Yeah,” he says. “It’s like a diary. A lot of people said, ‘This doesn’t sound like Twerps.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I don’t fucking want it to.’ It kind of made me happy, the more bad feedback I got.”

Though no plans have been finalised, Martin hopes to convince Stewart to tour with him behind the album, which will come out worldwide through Merge. For now, local pop eccentric Gregor is playing keyboards with him live, plus that rhythm section borrowed from The Stevens. But Martin made a point to write songs that he can play on acoustic guitar.

“[After] Twerps, I worked out really quickly that I was relying so heavily on so many elements,” he says. “So every song on this record I can play by myself.”

Not that he wants to be left alone: he describes constantly dropping in on his housemates, including Julia’s brother Nathan, for company. And that’s the appeal of his job at specialty grocery store Terra Madre, in nearby Northcote.

“That’s why I work [there], surrounded by people,” he muses. “That’s why I want to go on tour.”

•••

THE first song on the first Twerps album is a propulsive earworm called ‘Dreamin’’, which became the band’s accidental calling card.

Its itchy melodic drive belies the fact that it’s about the death of Martin’s father, songwriter and musician Maurice Frawley, who succumbed to liver cancer in 2009.

Many casual listeners took it for a chipper love song, but it’s a close-to-home act of mourning that Martin began to dislike revisiting live. On ‘Consecutive Seasons’ from 2014’s Underlay EP, he pointedly sang, “I don’t want to sing ‘Dreamin’/It’s lost every single meaning.”

 

"I got absorbed in [his work] to try to understand who my dad was, and my dad spent a lot of time in bars."

When told that his solo album feels upbeat despite its origins, he counters, “Twerps always sounded like that too. People would be like, ‘Man, ‘Dreamin’, great song’, and I’d be like, ‘That’s about my dad that’s dead.’ I wrote something on Instagram, [like] ‘Stop asking me to play it.’ None of those songs are happy.”

That goes all the way back to the first Twerps song he wrote, ‘Good Advice’, which opens their debut EP. Again, Martin’s lackadaisical vocals and the upsurge of tangled guitar melody might make the stakes seem fairly low, but it’s about an argument he’d had with his mother, painter/illustrator Penelope Metcalf.

And like his solo songs, it references drinking, opening with, “And let’s think of what could have been/If it wasn’t for all the gin.”

Living in a sharehouse now with Julia’s brother, he says, “I still want to be part of her family. I feel like as soon as I found them, I was safe. So when I broke apart from that … I was instantly alone [and] really scared.” He wrote the album track ‘Smoke in Your House’ about Julia’s parents.

After the break-up – with his dad gone and his mum living in Sydney, and feeling cut out from the Melbourne music community – Martin dove headlong into his self-destructive impulses. When someone told him he still hadn’t gotten over his dad’s death, he immersed himself in his father’s life, for better or worse.

“I got absorbed in [his work] to try to understand who my dad was, and my dad spent a lot of time in bars,” he says. “So I was like, ‘If you’re gonna tell me to find my dad, I’m gonna do it this way.’”

Maurice Frawley, who was just 55 when he died, played guitar in two of Paul Kelly’s bands in the early ’80s and fronted several more of his own, including Maurice Frawley & Working Class Ringos and Maurice Frawley & The Yard Hands.

He co-wrote Paul Kelly’s song ‘Look So Fine, Feel So Low’, whose contrast of desolate lyrics and gleaming guitar jangle seems to eerily anticipate Twerps.

After his death, Maurice’s country-leaning, melancholy-soaked songs were covered by the likes of Kelly, Tex Perkins, Kasey Chambers, Tim Rogers, The Drones, Sarah Blasko and Chrissy Amphlett for the compilation Long Gone Whistle, which paired those loving reinterpretations with the originals.

Despite his musical father, Martin didn’t play guitar until age 18. “I used to go see him play with Paul,” he recalls, “but I didn’t really understand it.”

Years later, when a teenaged Martin started listening to rock bands like The Vines and The Hives, his father bought him a Gibson SG. But when he started playing in bands like the short-lived Melbourne ensemble You Will Die Alone and later Twerps, his mum wasn’t exactly enthused.

“She was like, ‘Well, I know how this lifestyle goes,’” says Martin. “My mum [had] managed bands and managed the Espy [in Melbourne]. She was deep in the scene. I think Mum has come to terms with it [after] maybe wishing I was going to be a painter. She said I’m very much myself, and that’s what she’s proud of.”

Though he only heard them early on, Maurice Frawley didn’t much like Twerps. He told his son he didn’t sing properly, and that he shouldn’t “pull rock moves.” But when Maurice died, that drove his son to take the band more seriously.

“That’s why Twerps might have driven as hard as it did,” he says, “as opposed to other bands at that time. When my old man died, I was like, ‘I’m gonna fucking do this.’”

As for his mum, Penelope Metcalf, who has contributed to The New Yorker and The Age and illustrated books in addition to her work as a painter, when she heard him in the studio recording Undone at 31, she cried and told him that he had found himself.

•••

WHILE critics of Twerps couldn’t let go of how much they sounded like bands from the past – no matter how well executed – there’s little chance of Martin’s solo debut sounding like anyone else.

That’s because it’s so fidgety in sound and so specific in subject matter. It’s even sequenced in roughly the order in which the songs were written, following the volatile stages of the relationship’s fallout.

“There are some empowering parts of being on your own,” says Martin. “The first whiff of confidence you get when you come out of a big break-up? You forget how incredible that feels. That was what I tried to give in the energy of ‘End of the Bar’. Then [your confidence] comes down really hard again, and I wanted that in the music [too]. You have to have [both] – it goes up and down for sure.”

 

“If anyone says they like my songs, it’s the ones about the most honest shit in my life.”

Martin admits to having written certain lyrics at the last minute, having stayed out all night beforehand. But he was vindicated by the feeling that at least he had something to write about.

“I feel like people make too much music these days,” he says, “and sometimes they need something to [actually] write about. Wait till you have something to fucking say.”

Though it took him a long time to trust himself after that three-year songwriting drought, he knew his strike rate was much better when he wasn’t bullshitting.

“If anyone says they like my songs,” he observes, “it’s the ones about the most honest shit in my life.”

That includes ‘Dreamin’’ as well as the effervescent mingling of romance and anxiety in ‘Back to You’, used to such sweet effect in a recent episode of the animated Netflix series Hilda.

As for the fate of Twerps, maybe it’s not a closed door. “One of my favourite records by The Go-Betweens is The Friends of Rachel Worth, which is their comeback,” says Martin. “I want to make music with Jules again [someday].”

Julia is still active and visible in the Melbourne scene, having played in Blank Statements and now leading J. McFarlane’s Reality Guest, formerly known as Hot Topic.

She and Martin even see each other on a regular basis. In part that’s because they share custody of their dog Henny, a kelpie who’s pictured next to a shirtless Martin on the symbolic front cover of Undone at 31 – lazing together on a couch that’s floating adrift at sea.

With three months to go until the album surfaces, Martin has that much more time to keep working through what he needs to. Circling back to that naked sense of autobiography, he says, “I’d rather leave someone with a story.”

Laughing, he adds, “People don’t listen anyway.”

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