NO Mono is the story of two Toms, and their other friend Tom. And it all started with a “wheelie incident” at CMJ festival in New York, 2012.
Tom Iansek was soundchecking with his band
“About two months later Tom emails me a piano line,” Snowdon interjects. “It would become the track we worked on for Tom’s other record, ‘Return To’ [by #1 Dads]. I remember hearing it and having immediate thoughts about what it should be. Then, when Tom and I met up to work on it, it just felt like an instant chemistry. We were both on the same page.”
Six years after that first encounter, the pair greet me at the door of BellBird, a beautiful light-filled studio, just off Melbourne’s notoriously busy arterial Punt Road. You can catch little glimpses of BellBird and its leafy interior courtyard in the clip for No Mono’s ‘Violence.Broken’, a live performance that was pieced together using smartphone footage from about 30 friends.
“I think we both probably found it really strange,” says Tom Snowdon, “some kind of Black Mirror-esque thing, where the first time we’d performed any of these songs to anyone they were in our face with these things.”
The other Tom in this story, Tom Fraser – co-owner of Pieater, along with Iansek and Big Scary’s Jo Syme – lives here at BellBird. But Iansek and Snowdon may as well have a bed. The pair spent many long hours here piecing together debut album
“[BellBird] is essentially a free space for us to use whenever we want,” says Iansek. “It’s what most musicians in Melbourne wouldn’t have, and that has a huge impact creatively.”
Islands Part 1 is a record built on an intuitive understanding between the two artists, who have gone from just a handful of performances to the Opera House stage in just a few months.
Is it awkward having two Toms in this project? Do you have nicknames for each other?
Snowdon: Yeah, I’m Snowy.
Iansek: And I’m Bears.
Snowdon: It makes it more awkward that our manager is also a Tom [Fraser]. So there’s typically three of us when people are like emailing or something and there’s just three Toms and that’s it, and it’s crazy. So it’s Frase, Snowy and Bears. But it is confusing, yeah.
Where does Bears come from? Can you say?
Iansek: It’s an old childhood name that my brothers came up with. But, it’s from when I was very little, and it’s a long and convoluted story, but it was initially a derogatory term. As most sibling nicknames would be, I’m sure. Somehow my friends started calling me that in my 20s and that caught on.
So obviously this is more than a music collaboration. It’s also a friendship that exists outside of music too?
Snowdon: Yeah, absolutely.
Iansek: Sure, yeah.
And do you think, in a way, that kind of informs the music? Does it make the working relationship easier or harder?
Iansek: It helps a lot that you like the people you hang out with. I mean it’s the same with Jo [Syme] in Big Scary. We also happen to be really great friends … You have to spend a lot of time with people that you’re in a band with, touring and creating. And you kind of get the full the spectrum of their personality – when you’re exhausted on tour and short tempered, to when you’ve just done a show and you’re feeling elated and amazing.
Snowdon: That’s primarily what drives the chemistry, I think … There’s just something about the intuitive kind of relationship with music Tom has, which is very similar to the way I see songs. So it’s very efficient, in terms of where the end point is. We’re not fighting together much along the way. We’re both kind of steering the ship, in that direction, I think.
Do you guys do stuff outside music? Do you go to footy together or anything?
Snowdon: Yeah, we go to the movies, have dinner.
Iansek: Our partners are friends, too.
Snowdon: I was invited to Tom’s wedding, huge moment. There was a lot of people at that wedding.
Iansek: Tom sang a song at my wedding, it was awesome.
Can you reveal the song?
Iansek: It was Chris Isaak.
Snowdon: ‘Wicked Game’.
[To Tom Snowdon] I guess this might sound like a dumb question, but when did you realise you could sing like that, and have that kind of vocal range?
Snowdon: It’s not a dumb question, I get asked it a fair bit. Brief history of my voice: I sung in a choir from the age of four and just wanted to be like my big sister, so she joined a choir and I joined a choir. I always loved singing, and then in high school I started a band and decided I wanted to be a heavy metal singer. So I was like screaming and stuff, not so good at that. And then Arctic Monkeys and Bloc Party came along and I wanted to sing in that very British affected kind of voice style. I’d done singing lessons in high school.
Then my band Lowlakes moved from Alice Springs, where I grew up, to Melbourne, and we were like, “We want to be musicians.” We’d just spend ages demoing songs in our bedrooms, just every night writing and demoing songs. And I think just through the process of constantly recording myself and hearing it, and performing and feeling how people were reacting to what I was doing.
Then just being in tune with how I felt my voice was portraying an energy. It was just years of experimentation … Lowlakes was kind of shoegaze-y, saturated in reverb, so it was when that band kind of fell apart and I joined Pieater that I was like, “It’s my voice.” I felt this really strong compulsion to just explore my voice more.
What was it like growing up in Alice?
Snowdon: I was born there and I lived there until I was 19. And my family’s still there. We [#1 Dads] actually went and played a show there on our last tour. It was a very supportive community, and we got to do a lot of awesome things, because it’s small, because there’s a lot of wonderful people there doing a lot of cool things. So we’d do dancing and singing and trumpet and Taekwondo and soccer and everything. Because it’s such a small town, you can just do all this stuff.
And just living in the streets basically. Like riding bikes around until night, and just running around with our friends who just lived round the corner. It was awesome, yeah. I feel like I’ve always thought there’s something about the space, growing up in the desert, that has always informed my music, because it’s like nothing here [Melbourne]. Coming to Melbourne as an 18, 19-year-old, I found it really mentally challenging. And I don’t think at the time I knew it, but I think it was a bit of shock, like being in a city where everything is just like this the whole time. And sometimes I just had to get out of the city, and I’d just drive down into the country by myself of whatever. I’ve come to appreciate growing up there a lot more as I get older. I think it’s a very unique and wonderful place, and Tom and I are going to make an effort to get back there if we can.
Well, there’s that a song called ‘Desert’.
Snowdon: That’s right, yeah … I know there’s definitely a concept to the stuff that we’re writing, but a lot of it – in terms of when I’m writing words – it just kind of comes out with the phonetic delivery of my voice. It’s not so much like, “These are the words I want to sing”, and then I sing them. It’s much more experimenting with how the sounds of my voice make me feel, and words will just kind of flow through that experimental process. There are references to water and the desert. I think there’s a very powerful kind of balance or imbalance in those things that we kind of play on a little bit, yeah.
[To Tom Iansek] When did you first hear the full potential of Tom Snowdon’s voice?
Iansek: I remember Jo played me a Lowlakes song called ‘Song For Motion’, and that was the first time I heard Tom sing. Something grabbed me right away. I think it’s just a feeling that a lot of music listeners get. When you hear something striking that you know you can’t explain what it is, but there’s something there.
I think a lot of other bands have songs that kind of start in really linear ways, where it’s music first or lyrics first. But, I feel like – and I may be wrong – but the vocal is a starting point for some of the songs?
Snowdon: Absolutely. The vocal is the vehicle through which these songs have a lot of their potency.
And are you often singing just kind of nonsense?
Snowdon: Yeah. Way more a feeling, and just thinking of the arc and movement of melodies and how it can shape into a song. And then a word will just come into my head and I’ll just sing that, or something like that. It’s very much a performative thing, I think.
I find it hard – and Tom’s aware of this – to sit at a computer and try write a very organised map of the song. I need to be moving my arms a bit to really do it justice, or to give it its best effect. I feel like sometimes it’s like a friend and I can’t think too much about it. Because if I’m thinking about it I’m not actually singing, I’m just trying to analyse it. I can’t do that, it’s got to come from somewhere else.
In that sense, is the process of ascribing lyrics or words to these nonsensical things difficult?
Snowdon: No, I don’t find it difficult. I really love writing words. I think it’s very visual, a lot of the stuff. A sound will make me feel something and then it all kind of just comes together … It never feels like Tom’s trying to take the song in a direction that it shouldn’t go. It feels like we’re on the same page with it all the time. We’ve very lucky to have found each other…
And are you drawing on personal experience for the lyrics, or is it just kind of more inspired by the mood of the song?
Snowdon: This stuff is super personal, I think. So it’ll kind of start with a feeling from memory or something that’s happened, and my voice is just like a very cathartic kind of expression of it, and then words come. I used to write extremely esoteric words, and I think with this project I’ve wanted to be a bit more pointed with the references, and they are personal stories.
“If something feels good we just really trust our instincts. It’s almost like there’s this energy pulling us to just do this thing, and it feels very strong sometimes.”
I guess for me, the point where I realised that on the record was on ‘Desert’, especially the reference to Sydney.
Snowdon: The concept of ‘Violence [Broken]’ is moving from moments of sanctuary to trauma, and the hard transitions [in between]. When I was with the band, which was our whole lives, this is what we were going to do. We had a really bad falling out with a very close friend … and it kind of just fell apart.
The band broke up and they were my best mates, and they moved back to Alice Springs. My partner and I, we’d separated and we’d moved to Europe, and it just all fell apart. And I think I needed to explore those very hard things to kind of move through them. And yeah, as I said, my voice was the thing that helped me do it. So they are autobiographical, yeah.
I love the story behind
Snowdon: That’s right, yeah … It’s almost like a telepathic thing that Tom and I sometimes feel like we have, that we’re talking about a thing and then it’ll just arrive there for us.
Iansek: There have been a few nice serendipitous moments, I guess.
Snowdon: [With] ‘Violence’, the theme that kind of carried through that journey was this thought of self-discovery and moving on from a way of life that just wasn’t working. And we just opened the lyric book and it was just there, and rather than questioning it, which is – I think, typical of this project – we just kind of went, “That feels right, it’s there for a reason.”
What were some of the other serendipitous moments?
Snowdon: It’s hard to pinpoint them.
Iansek: That’s the way a lot of the songs developed. We’d go down this path and just when it felt completely hopeless, like we’d been wasting all that time, something would come along and the song would just blow open, and then it’d come together…
Snowdon: One thing we both talk about is that we want to be a bit brave with this project and just do things that feel right … If something feels good we just really trust our instincts. It’s almost like there’s this energy pulling us to just do this thing, and it feels very strong sometimes. It’s the same with words…
The fundamental part of this project is that it’s an intuitive thing. And we haven’t got boundaries around what it is … It’s just whatever the song requires at the time, to give it the atmosphere that we’re seeing it needs to have. That’s really exciting because, as Tom said, we can experiment with things and try whatever. We’re not in a little shoebox.
"There's just something about the intuitive kind of relationship with music Tom has, which is very similar to the way I see songs. So it's very efficient, in terms of where the end point is."
Like that nylon string guitar that comes in on ‘Otherside’. It’s quite an electronic record in a lot of respects, but I think it was just a great touch.
Snowdon: We really love the texture of nylon string instruments. I think both of us, love electronic music, but I like it to have organic elements in it, because it feels more real or more played or something. We were using the nylon string on a lot of things. It just has this really great warmth, which is a balanced against a lot of the electronic elements.
Iansek: I remember we definitely kind of smiled when we first got it.
That song also has one of the most visceral lines on the record: “Should have cut my hands to show you I was real.”
Snowdon: That song was really about when I was in the band [Lowlakes]. I remember one of the guys – I love this guy, he’s one of my best friends – but he was like, “I don’t want to be 30, wearing black jeans, in a band.” For me, at that time, I was like, “Well I still want to be playing music.” And I just kind of would sit on that thought for ages and be like, “What does that mean?” Like your life is in the future or something? But it’s now and we’re doing it now … I think the chorus is, “When the river broke through it got me stuck/I was trying to get back to a time when I just gave a fuck.” That feeling of living and doing something you love in the present moment.
It’s interesting because I think some people put this fixed timeline on music. Like it’s a thing to do in your 20s and then it’s time to move on.
Snowdon: It doesn’t have to be a really scary thing. You might not have the luxury or the benefit of a stable life, but the trade off for me is that I just can’t not do it. I think that’s what Tom and most people who continue to do it, it’s because of that, they can’t not do it. It’s not just a thing that they have fun doing, it’s so integral to them that they’ll find a way to keep doing it. They’ll work another job. And I think that’s what it is, it’s that appreciation for being able to just explore and create. And the fact that we get to do that together is really awesome, I think.
Iansek: It’s an interesting point though. I do feel like most musicians – me included – labour under misconceptions for a long, long time. And you kind of have to live through them to prove that most of them are false to yourself.
The misconception that music is a young person’s game?
Iansek: Yeah, that you have to be young. And even just the funny thing that if you’re 21 that 30 is just old … Whereas, I continue to grow more and more into myself as an artist and a person. I’m only just starting to tap into some interesting stuff now. Big Magic is a really great book that kind of digs into those kinds of artistic misconception … But I think it’s really interesting and it’s so common. I probably would have been the 22-year-old who had already made their mind up about things I did or didn’t want to do in 10 years time, creatively. And now I’m in a totally different head space. It’s interesting.
Snowdon: It is a scary thing for a 23 or 24-year-old, when your whole life you’ve been socialised to think that success is this one thing. You’re going to school; you’re planning your life, which will start at some point down the road, when you finish uni, or when you get job or when you buy that house … Without trying to be preachy or anything, it was a really powerful moment for me to just be like, “No, I love music, I want to just keep doing it.” And I feel really peaceful about it now.
I guess the title [of the record] implies that this is going to be an ongoing project. Was it important for you to put that out there as a commitment to it being more than just a part one?
Iansek: It’s an interesting question. Maybe in a subconscious way it was that. The reason there is a part one and there will be a part two is that … we just made a lot of stuff, and it didn’t all fit on one record. And so we’ve not really known what to do with the rest. It was only towards the end of really deliberating about it all that conceptually it kind of made more sense to have these two separate islands.
I want to ask how the live show is developing? Obviously I’ve just seen some clips and just heard from people that it is quite a theatrical thing. Flailing limbs. Which I’ve noticed now is not a performance thing, it’s just a thing that’s particular to you as a person, Tom [Snowdon].
Snowdon: We definitely weren’t like, “Let’s make it theatrical.” … If we’re in a room I always think of it like we’re hugging the audience into this immersive thing. So I think we really enjoyed the challenge of doing that with two people. I had to learn a lot of new skills, in terms of programming, all this light looping stuff that I’d never done before really. And then just letting our energy work together. We don’t think too much about it. And I think the performative thing, it just kind of happens. When I try and sing the stories and add my voice as an instrument to the accompanying parts, I kind of move with it, I think.