Josh Pyke has forged a bold and distinct path since his breakthrough album Memories & Dust 10 years ago, selling out shows worldwide and delivering a unique sound which has garnered him a wealth of respect from fellow musos and fans combined. To celebrate the milestone, we caught up with the enigmatic Josh to talk about his upcoming tour, his unique take on a ‘best of’ album, his mini web documentary series, life on the road after having kids and smashing nangs at Glastonbury.
Obviously it’s been 10 years now since Memories & Dust, do you think that the music you’re writing has evolved much for you?
I think I’ve just become better at recognising when something’s worth pursuing. I think I probably wrote a lot more songs when I first started that I didn’t finish because I just didn’t, you know … something sounded kinda good and then I’d pursue it and I’d be like, oh f*ck it, I don’t like this song after all. Whereas now I cull a lot earlier so, it’s just something about honing my instincts, I pretty much only pursue songs that are worth pursuing now. Beyond that I think you know, I mean technology’s changed – I have a studio at home now so record my stuff (at home), which makes the creative process a lot freer; I can experiment a lot more. I think my eventual creative process is pretty much the same, which is just to muck around until something feels right and then follow through to the natural conclusion.
And is that the same with touring? Obviously, you started out spending heaps of time on the road, and it’s still a big part of what you do – do you find yourself doing music differently onstage?
Yeah, I mean when I first started, I started solo – just a guitar and I was singing, then I eventually built up a band. This next tour is with a full band, which is gonna be great. Over the years I’ve also developed my solo show, which involves a loop pedal and little bits and bobs of technology.
It’s also the difference between the band shows and the solo shows, the difference between having a sort of monologue with the audience as opposed to having a conversation with the crowd, when you play solo. I like both of them but, yeah, live – it’s developed a lot. Also, all the songs are quite different when I play them live, which gives them all a fresh kind of breath of life, but it also makes it more interesting for people coming to see the show because it’s not exactly the same as on the album.
You touched on something there, with regards to effects pedals and such – when you’re playing solo, do you find yourself using a lot more technical skill or equipment than you would when you’re cutting loose with the band?
Yeah, absolutely! Playing with the band, I just kind of take a back seat – apart from vocally – but when you’re playing solo – it’s all you. The loop pedal, you kind of have to learn how to co-ordinate your body to make it all work, and that took a long time. A long time practising, and when I haven’t done it for a while I have to do a couple of days worth of practise. It’s not like rehearsal, it’s like training – getting your body back into co-ordination. Playing solo, I just find adding those elements kind of takes it to the next level, kind of keeps you engaged. I don’t use it in every song, I probably only use it in 6 songs out of a 20 song set, but it just adds a little bit of fairy dust on top.
When your career started to take off 10 or so years ago you spent a lot of time touring between Sydney and London. Do you find yourself, ‘reining it in’ a bit more nowadays?
Sort of, I mean I’ve got two kids now. I can’t not tour you know, I mean it’s my job, but also I’m addicted to it. I really love it – I miss it when I’m not doing it, but I’ve just found a better balance. Now, when I’m touring Australia I’ll do it sort of Wednesday through Sunday, but then I’ll be home for a couple of days and I’ll only do that for maybe six weeks and then I’ll have a break.
Last year I did a 32 day regional tour, which is really too long but I had two weeks off in the middle and I took my family to New Zealand for two weeks together solidly. This year I’m going over to Europe in October and that’ll be constant time away. Yeah – it’s just finding a balance and luckily, I feel very lucky that the shows that I do are big enough that I don’t have to play 100 shows a year anymore. I think I’m only doing like 42 shows this year, which might sound like a lot, but it’s nothing compared to what I used to do.
I did a little research, sorry to give you this question, but can you tell me about doing balloons of nitrous oxide with gypsies in Glastonbury?
Haha! Yeah, I mean, we played Glastonbury, and we played sort of late afternoon, then we just got smashed, so we were wandering around all night and then as the sun was coming up we ended up in the healing fields, which is like … have you been to Glastonbury?
No. I’ve heard enough stories that 50% of me wants to go, and the other 50% thinks it’s a bad idea.
It was full on; it was full on you know. But you end up in the healing fields, which is apparently mystical Druid land and yeah, there were gypsies that had jumped the fence and were selling balloons of nitrous oxide, for like two pounds or something like that, but that’s what we did as the sun was coming up and it was awesome.
That is a good story. You can’t play in Glastonbury and not have a good story like that.
Yeah, I mean it was, we were staying on site as well – we were staying in a camping ground on site so it was like, we didn’t even have to go anywhere. It was basically like, the gig took about two hours out of our day and the rest was just cutting sick. It was good.
How do you find balancing that – the Rock and Roll lifestyle, and having a family?
I guess again, it’s just balance. I mean everyone’s life, whether or not they are a musician or not, I think you try to find balance.
For me, things didn’t really happen for me musically until I was about 26 or 27. That’s not old but it’s quite old in the scheme of music careers. So by that time I’d got a lot of partying and craziness out of my system anyway, I was kind of ready to be a bit more responsible. At the same time, when you start touring, you are literally presented with a massive bucket full of booze every night so for the first couple of years I probably hit that a bit too hard and then I just realised that I was getting sick all the time, I was always run down, then you just find balance; you just pull it back. Now it’s great because I lead a pretty nice domestic life when I’m at home with my kids. I have a studio in my back yard so I hang out at home then when I go on tour I guess I kind of engage in that again.
So when I go on the road it’s my chance to not engage in domestic life and just kind of hit that life again. It’s pretty good.
Touching on the album, it’s not really a typical ‘Best Of’, it heavily features B-Sides and Rarities – tell us a little about it came to be.
Well that was really, you know – you have streaming these days, ‘best ofs’, I mean I don’t think they’re redundant, but it’s pretty easy for anyone to compile a ‘best of’ playlist with Spotify and what not, so I really wanted to make it worth releasing. So the B-Sides and rarities are kind of my favourite thing about the best of and there’s some songs that date back to 2005 and some really raw demos and early work. I love all those songs you know, but for whatever reason they never found a place on an album. This is my chance to kind of really get them out there and pass them on, clear them from my brain and my computer and everything, so I can just kind of start again, in a way start fresh, know that everything that I’ve done, that I’ve been proud of, is out there. Which is the same reason that I wanted to do the little doco that I’ve done.
Yeah tell us a little about that.
I had all this amazing old footage from touring the UK and stuff, and I just like, when am I (going to use that)?
I watched you talking about the advent of MySpace – that took me back.
Yeah, and the reality of that was, I WAS joking in that video, I don’t know if people got that… I’d only got an email address up two years before that, you know what I mean? My kids have email addresses now, they’re like 7 and 4. I only got an email address so when I was backpacking in Europe I could stay in touch with my parents. But yeah I had all these videos and stuff and I just wanted to kind of make the best of about not just a few of my singles and popular songs. I wanted to be like here’s the whole story, here’s how it all happened. Here’s the development of the songs from demo through to singles and this is it, this is everything that I’ve done. Now I can, sort of, do the next thing, whatever that is.
Your music’s a unique genre, I wouldn’t really know how to label it. Do you have something you call it?
I just say singer-songwriter because, you know people have said that I’m folk over the years, but I’m not at all really. I mean I have some songs which are kind of folky but when I got nominated for my first ARIA it was in the pop category and then you know, I guess it’s adult contemporary. You know actually one genre that I think is good is ‘adult alternative’, for a while that was a category of the ARIAs and I think that’s quite good.
Adult alternative, because it’s like, people that have grown up on Elliott Smith, Sparklehorse, Grandaddy and stuff like that, but, making music not exactly folky but it’s not rock either. I don’t know, I really don’t know.
In that light, what are the main inspirations you draw on, are there like 3 or 4 artists that you heard when you were younger that made you go ‘yep, that’s what I’m gonna do’?
I was in a Punk band for years and years and years, from the time that I was about 12 till about 22, pretty much the same group of guys as well, so I was really mostly influenced by Punk and Metal – Soundgarden was a huge one for me. Soundgarden play in drop-D tuning and that’s how I learned to play guitar, so even though my music is not like Soundgarden, I still play in drop-D tuning. Every song that I play on my guitar. They were a massive influence on me musically because that’s just how I learned how to play.
Then I kind of found Elliott Smith when I was about 22 and that really changed my focus. Then bands like the Shins – I reckon that was another big one.
You write so much – a lot of albums for a solo artist in 10 years – and the first 3 were quite close to each other, do you find that really easy or is that something that you do deliberately? Do you force yourself into a studio?
No, I just write. I just write all the time. I mean my phone is filled with thousands of voice memos and then every, probably, six months I’ll go through and I’ll email myself the sort of thing I’ll use then I’ll start with finding those ideas.
So, I write all the time but I only pursue the ones that have worked, and it just sort of happens that roughly every two years I have about 20 songs, which is a lot and then I’ll sit down with those. So now, even though I’m not gonna do an album next year I’ve got about 22 songs so by the time I do another album, I may well have enough to do a double album and I don’t believe in holding things back. I just write, it’s just what I’ve always done.
Does it make it easier to pick your set list or is it too many songs to choose from sometimes? Do you have to whittle it down on stage?
I can only keep in my mind about 20, 25 to 30 of my own songs in my head. So, for instance on this tour, I had to go back and relearn three quarters of the set. Half of the Memories (& Dust) I’ve never played live and I haven’t played them at all since 2007 when I wrote them. So I have to like go back – I had to look up tabs online to figure out what I was playing and remember lyrics and stuff like that so it’s been cool, it’s been a great way to kind of re-engage with songs in a way that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to. It’s been pretty good, challenging but good.
Does that make it hard to get bands? Do you give them hell on stage and throw them curveballs?
They are way better at remembering my songs than I am, like in terms of if we f*ck up on stage, it’s always me.
Do you find you have to use session players or do you get the same people?
I’ve had the same guys for… like, one of them has been playing in my band for 10 years. The other guys are newer but they are still years and years with me. Occasionally I’ll have to get a ring in but they’re the same dudes, they’re my guys by choice and they’re just amazing.
As someone who was born and raised in Sydney and a musician who plays a shitload of live music, I want to touch on your thoughts on the current way things are going here. With the lockout laws, obviously, live music is becoming harder and harder for small venues, new artists are having more trouble getting gigs and then getting paid gigs, what are your thoughts on that?
Well it is hard, but, I kind of feel like there has always been those exact challenges and it just kind of, if you take a longer view it sorts itself out. I remember when I first started, the Hopetoun was this huge venue for Sydney musicians, in Surry Hills. If you could get a gig at the Hopetoun, it was a big deal and I remember selling out the Hopetoun for the first time, it was a massive point in my career – then the Hopetoun closed down. Now it’s been closed for years. That closed down, but then venues like Oxford Art Factory opened up and then there was a venue down the road, which opened up, which is also now closed, there are things like, I mean, now the Lansdowne’s opened back up…
Yeah, you know shit just kind of… Newtown used to be the place to go for bands, now Marrickville seems to be coming up in the ranks; Lazybones, Gasoline Pony have been doing well so … it’s always been this way where something will threaten the live music scene and then there’s a desire for bands to play, so they’ll figure out how to play and there’s a desire for people to come and see bands so people will figure out how to get them to see bands. House concerts are coming up you know, house concerts are really popular, Parlour puts on gigs; there was one in Dulwich Hill the other night. People will find a way to do it so it’s a challenging time but, the only thing, I mean … it’d be great if we didn’t have lockout laws and it’d be great if government legislated against that and it’d be great if government funded more arts which, you know, I’m a huge advocate for the arts and lobby for it all the time.
In the mean time there is still a lot of change happening, it’s up to the artists to figure out ways to make it happen, you know, ask themselves why – like me and all my friends did 10 years ago. People will do it, it’ll be fine.
What you’re saying is, you can’t stop the music?
I’m exactly saying that.
I just wanted to put that in.
You can’t stop the music. I’m saying you can’t stop the music.
Nobody can stop the music.
There’s my headline… Touching on venues, is there anywhere you haven’t played that you really want to?
In Australia, there’s… I’ve done most of them, actually no, there is one. I have played there, but I’ve never headlined the State Theatre, I’d love to headline the State Theatre. I’ve played there quite a few times but never headlined… I did a few Beatles shows there, stuff like that.
I supported some other acts – I don’t know who it was but, I’d love to headline the State Theatre, that’s actually a legit goal.
Is that like the highlight of a career when you can’t remember who you’ve been supporting?
(Laughs) … it might have been Tim Finn or something like that or, I can’t remember now, it was someone big and exciting at the time.
What about non-musical heroes, are there any idols, not necessarily musicians, but people you look up to or have inspired you in some way?
Yeah, I mean, a lot of writers. Like Tim Winton, I was a huge – am still a huge fan of, when I was growing up and I think particularly being an Australian male, I think his way of describing a certain type of Australian male is really interesting and unique, so he was definitely a big hero. Ben Quilty, the artist. He is an amazing artist but also a really huge advocate for lots of things which are all cool. Actually Peter Garrett, like I was so stoked one day, I got a personal message from him on Twitter saying that he was listening to my music on the plane, because we follow each other on Twitter.
Yeah, yeah. A lot of authors, like Margo Lannigan is another amazing Australian author.
Cool. How about a bucket list? Anything you haven’t ticked off it yet?
There’s one thing that I haven’t done. Like in the sense of my career, I’ve pretty much done, I mean I’ve well and truly exceeded everything that I’ve ever wanted to do. What I’ve done is I wanted to be able to make it my job, and I said I want to headline one Australian festival – I wrote it down – I was like if I can do that, if it doesn’t go anywhere from there, I’ll be happy. But because I was always trying to make it in music, I’m touring a lot, I never got the chance to do what a lot of my friends did, which was just piss off overseas for a year. I’ve travelled, I’ve travelled a lot, for music, but it’s always touring, so one thing I would love to do is take a year off and live in one place a month for 12 months with my family, to really engage in the world.
I mean we’d have to homeschool our kids – I don’t know know much fun that’d be.
And what if you could play a song for anybody, dead or alive, what song would you play, and for whom?
Oh my God… Play a song for anybody? You know, actually, I would play a song of mine called All Those Other Lives, which is about my grandpa and grandma who are both not here and they never got to hear the song but it was really a tribute to them. Their story was very romantic; they met during the war, my grandfather was an American GI. He came out to Australia during training, met my grandma then went off for two years fighting on the Big Island but asked her to wait for him and then it was 3 or 4 years later, he finally got back to Australia, and they got married.
So, I’d love to be able to play that song for them. But they are dead so…
On that note, if you could have a beer with anybody?
A beer? Ah, I mean, I probably wouldn’t want to have a beer with somebody that I didn’t know. So, I’d probably just say a mate – you know what I mean? I don’t actually get to see everybody that often cause I’m pretty much always away, so I’m gonna say my mates.
What if you could retire anywhere – is there one place you’ve been where you’ve though ‘yeah, this is it’?
Well it would be two places, I don’t think I could do one place. In my dreams and what I am totally shooting for is to stay in the inner west (of Sydney) because it’s great. Yeah. I mean I love it, it’s like all these little small bars are opening up, so I’d stay there but I’d definitely have a house either down the coast in Milton, or in Pearl Beach.
You can answer one of your own songs for this one: if you’re at a really shit party, what’s the one banger you put on to get everyone up and dancing?
There’s a couple, one is like the sort of … there’s heaps actually, but I think Hey Yeah by Outkast is always good. Everyone is always on board with that. Then, you know, Intergalactic by Beastie Boys, or like really early Beastie Boys, ‘dang, dang, dang, da, dang, dang.’
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
You’re probably way too young to remember this (thanks Josh), but Dexter used to DJ at the Blue Room on Oxford St and on Wednesday night there used to be this amazing night there – I can’t remember what it was called, but it was him DJing, it was all this like early Beastie Boys and early hip hop. Early De La Soul, stuff like that. That was one of my favourite memories of going to this club. I don’t even know if the Blue Room still exists…
I don’t think so… Was that like a guilty music pleasure to you? Like do you have that song you play when no ones around, or that band, like Lady Gaga or something?
Oh man! I hate all that shit, my wife went through a period where she said she thought Taylor Swift was actually good, and I was like, she’s not. She’s not good, she’s shit. She’s not being ironically … her shit is not ironic.
She’s come around since and said okay, I see now.
Josh Pyke’s national tour starts at the end of this month. He’ll be playing Memories & Dust in its entirety, followed by a set of rarities, personal favourites and other hits from his massive back catalogue.
Jul 28 Enmore Theatre (w/ Kyle Lionhart), Newtown NSW
Jul 29 Cambridge Hotel (w/ Kyle Lionhart), Newcastle West NSW
Aug 03 The Corner Hotel, Richmond VIC
Aug 04 The Corner Hotel (w/ Kyle Lionhart), Richmond VIC
Aug 05 The Wool Exchange (w/ Kyle Lionhart), Geelong VIC
Aug 10 Miami Marketta (w/ Kyle Lionhart), Miami QLD
Aug 11 The Triffids (w/ Kyle Lionhart), Brisbane QLD
Aug 12 The Spotted Cow (w/ Kyle Lionhart), Toowoomba QLD
Aug 17 The Gov (w/ Kyle Lionhart), Adelaide SA
Aug 18 Prince of Wales (w/ Kyle Lionhart), Bunbury WA
Aug 19 The Capitol (w/ Kyle Lionhart), Perth WA
Aug 25 Launceston Country Club (w/ Kyle Lionhart), Prospect Vale TAS
Aug 26 West Point Casino (w/ Kyle Lionhart), Hobart TAS