Aussie singer-songwriter Josh Pyke has been the darling of the Aus music scene since his track Middle of the Hill hit number 19 on Triple J’s Hottest 100 back in 2005. His debut album Memories & Dust debuted at number four on the ARIA Album Chart in March, 2007.
In celebration of the album’s 10th anniversary, and to commemorate his last tour indefinitely, Pyke will embark on a regional tour across the country, kicking off in Byron Bay this weekend.
Girl caught up with Pyke during a rare few days at home back in August, before he headed to Tasmania for some shows.
Girl: So tell me, why have you decided to hang up your ‘Josh Pyke’ boots for a while?
Josh Pyke: “It’s basically just to work on some other projects that I’ve been keen to explore for a while, but it’s just really hard to dig in to projects and really commit to projects when you’re pissing off on tour every couple of months. So things like producing other artists – I’ve got this great studio at home that I don’t get to use as much as I’d like to – so producing other artists, and doing film and TV music, stuff like that, is what I’m really keen to dig into. But of course it’s hard to do that when I’ve got tours coming up.”
Well yeah, and obviously your own press and all the stuff that goes with that takes up a lot of time, I can understand that.
“Yeah, it does yeah.”
So since the release of Memories & Dust you’ve really only had a 10-year career, say, but your CV – looking at that and, as you say, the other stuff you’ve been doing as well as the music – it’s super impressive. But what stands out for you? What are you most proud of in that amount of time?
“I think career-wise, doing the Sydney Symphony record and shows was really quite a highlight for me, because it’s just such a different ballgame, you know, and really elevated my music to this cinematic context, which was pretty amazing to hear. I think starting the JP Partnerships is something that I’m really proud of, and I’m so proud I’ve been able to legit help artists that are now touring the world and doing pretty big things. So that’s been great. But you know, part of me is like, the biggest thing that I’m proud of is that I’m still doing it at a pretty high level and haven’t had to get a job or anything. (laughs) For the last 12 years, I mean for me that seems like a pretty big achievement.”
For sure, particularly the way the industry seems to be going with online and downloads and stuff like that, it’s pretty remarkable really to have a career that’s 10 or 15 or 20 years.
“Yeah, and I mean, I really look to people like Paul Kelly and the generation down, like Tim Rogers and Tex Perkins and all the guys that are out there doing multiple and really diverse projects and still being really creative and inspired – I look to those kinds of artists as people that I’d like to be doing stuff like, I mean, they’ve got 20 and 30 year careers now, you know?”
Yeah, exactly. And you’re only young, there’s still time yet.
“Hopefully, yeah! (laughs)”
So I’ve read a few stories and I have to say you didn’t seem to have it very easy in the early days, like I heard you were out of pocket a lot early on, even though you were touring with John Butler Trio and had a gold record under your belt. Was that difficult? Were there times you were like, maybe I shouldn’t be doing this?
“Absolutely! I mean, I think those were the points where a lot of artists quit because, you know, you have this kind of perception when you start out that if you hit these benchmarks and, you know, you start big touring or you’ve got songs on the radio or you’ve got a gold record then surely you must be making enough money to pay rent and buy a house and stuff like that… it’s just not the way it works in Australia, you know? Far more moreso today than back when I started.
So, you know, there were periods of huge investment… and this is not a complaint, this is, just, if you think of it as a business this is what every business has to do is invest a lot of money into their business until it becomes a viable thing. But the flip side is that it’s a creative business, and creative people pour their heart and soul into these things. So it’s quite hard to also think of it in a commercial framework. So it was hard in the days when, you know, I was getting all this great press and great responses and great success from the albums but at the same time I was losing 20 grand every time I went on tour and… it was hard, you know? But it’s just what we had to do to get it to the threshold where I could consider it a career rather than a passionate hobby. (laughs)”
Well at what point did you realise that you had ‘made it’? Like, that’s it, I’m a full-time career musician, I can pay my bills now?
“Well I mean, I think that’s the funny thing – maybe this is unique to me or maybe this is what everybody feels, but even though I was a full-time musician for like eight years by this time, I really only felt kind of ‘established’ like four years ago I reckon. (laughs) Because particularly, again, in Australia – and again, this is not a complaint, just the reality of our industry – you kind of have to start again every album. You know, just because you got played on the radio last time doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get played on the radio this time. Just because people liked the last album doesn’t mean they’re going to like the next one. So you’re always kind of starting again and it was only when I had built up a body of work that was big enough that had had success – all of the albums had gone pretty well, and people had come to shows supporting each of those albums – it was only when I got to about four albums when I thought, ‘Alright, I think I have enough that people seem to like and enjoy that I think I’ll be okay from now on.’ So, you know, most of my friends aren’t involved in music and nobody feels particularly secure in their jobs half the time anyway, so it’s probably not that unique really.”
Does that play on your mind at all? Like, when you sit down to write an album… I mean, what is your writing process anyway? Do you write songs as you go then sit down and say, okay, it’s time to put all this together? Or do you sit down and say, okay, it’s time to write a record?
“It’s definitely the former, I’ve never even tried to sit down and say, ‘It’s time to write an album,’ but I just write all the time. Like, I probably have 15 or 16 songs right now that are finished, that I love, but I don’t know what I’ll do with yet. It’s kind of like, when the timing lines up and it feels like it’s time to do an album I’ll compile all the ideas and songs I’ve written over the last 18 months or two years or whatever, and I’ll just kind of define them and I’ll figure out 10 or usually about 15 that seem to make sense as a body of work thematically or aesthetically or whatever. For me, that way it prevents me second-guessing myself, and I don’t like the idea of going, ‘Okay, everyone liked this album I did so I need to write another album like that,’ you know? So that’s how I’ve kind of done it in the past, but looking into the future I can’t imagine that changing, but having said that it might be four or five years between albums by the time I get around to doing another one, so I don’t know how I’ll do the next one.”
Well that’s the time we have to point out, it’s not like you’re quitting, you’re not saying, ‘That’s it, I’m done forever, screw everyone,’ this is literally just a hiatus.
“It’s just a hiatus from touring, yeah. I mean I love writing songs, it’s my favourite thing to do. Whether I’m recording or out on the road or sitting at home, I pick up the guitar at least once a day, you know, and noodle away and try to make inspiration strike. But it’s more if I want to dig into more production work, which I’ve always had a big passion for – I mean, I studied sound engineering years ago I have this kick-arse studio at home – but if I ever really want the chance to dig into those things more, I have to draw a line in the sand and say I’m not going to tour for a while.”
Yeah, exactly. Well, I heard that you worked at a record store in your younger years – so was music always the career direction you were headed in?
“Yeah, very much so. I mean, I joined my first band when I was 12 and I always, from that day forth, I was going to be a musician. That’s just what I wanted to do. I worked at a publishing company, which was one of my first good jobs, which was really exciting. I worked in publishing for about a year, and then I studied sound engineering, worked at a venue at Manning Bar at Sydney University for like, five years, doing sound and setting up and all that kind of stuff. I studied event management for a while when I was trying to figure out what was going to happen, and I was in a punk band for years, and then finally went solo. I had other non music-related jobs over the years but it was always to earn money to perpetuate this thing that I was trying to do. I never had a plan B so (laughs) lucky it worked out.”
So do you think that background with the event management and the sound production has helped you, like you were saying before, think of this as like a ‘business’?
“Yeah, I mean I think I’m just the sort of person that does that anyway. I think I’ve been lucky in that I can pretty easily separate the business from the creative side, and they don’t really mix so much. I’ll think of a creative project that I want to do, or when I’ve got an album ready I kind of silo it, so I focus purely on the creative when I’m doing that, but once it’s done I really enjoy thinking up ideas for touring that might be good, or what’s a good theme for a tour or what’s a good film clip to make. So yeah, I think I’m the sort of person that’s interested in that side of things anyway. There was a point in my life where I was like, okay, maybe I should pursue working in the music industry rather than being a songwriter. But it was really working at the publishing company that made me realise what I needed to do, because every day I went in there just feeling frustrated and wanting to be on the other side of the desk.”
You’ve done a lot of philanthropy in the past, the Indigenous Literacy Fund and Busking For Change and obviously the Josh Pyke Partnership – are you going to continue with any of those projects besides the Partnership?
“Yeah, definitely. I’m a lifetime ambassador for the ILF and even just this year I went out to the Tiwi Islands with those guys to run literacy workshops in the community out there, I’m performing at Indigenous Literacy Day for them, so I’ll definitely continue working with them because I really believe in their foundation and the work they’re doing. JP Partnership I’m going to continue as long as I can. It’s really, really, really time-consuming so it’s quite a load but I think it’s been really beneficial to the people that have won, so I’d like to continue that. So yeah, I would like to do all those things, but at the same time I don’t want to kill myself doing them, so (laughs) I’ll see what happens.”
Fantastic. So while we’re talking about Memories & Dust on tour, what are your best or even worst memories from the road?
“I mean, they’re overwhelmingly good. Like even just this tour has been so much fun, you know, the band is just better than ever and the guys and I get along so great, we have such a great time. I remember early tours of the UK and touring with Ben Kweller over there doing those full-on bus tours where you sleep on the bus and stuff, that was just so wild and amazing for me back then. And of course playing South by Southwest and Glastonbury Festival, there’s just been too many to mention, it’s just been really a great adventure.”
Do you feel like a bit of a proper rock star when you’re touring on the bus?
“Yeah, when you’re on the buses it feels amazing (laughs) like, sleeping on the bus is like returning to the womb or something, you know? It’s like, fully decked out, you’ve got computer games and movies and all that stuff, it’s pretty awesome. It’s almost clichéd in a way. (laughs)”
Sounds amazing though. I guess, we’re running out of time but I have to find out – did you end up finding your (guitar) boat?
“We actually did, you know! But it was a funny thing, because when we auctioned it off years ago for charity, which was to raise money for the ILF, the person that bought it wanted to remain anonymous, right? So I never knew who it was. Then we sent out that Facebook message, and Kath McCabe did an interview and mentioned that I was looking for it in this national interview and we got some Facebook messages from people saying they knew where it was, and gave this particular address so we Google mapped it, like Google street viewed it, and there’s a shape which looks exactly like the guitar boat. It’s wrapped up in white plastic, I guess to protect it from the rain or whatever, but it’s in somebody’s front yard. But because they wanted to remain anonymous I don’t feel comfortable just knocking on their door, you know what I mean? I mean, I very publicly put it out there that I was looking for it, and I figure if they want to contact us they will. So yeah, we do know where it is but (laughs) I just kind of have to leave it as it was.”
So no covert under the cloak of darkness operations to try to get it back?
“No, I don’t want it back anyway (laughs) I don’t know what I’d do with it. I really just wanted to know where it had ended up, and I’m pretty sure that is (laughs) where it ended up.”
Watch – Josh Pyke ‘Make You Happy’ (featuring the guitar boat):
Josh Pyke 10 Years of Memories & Dust Regional Tour
Friday 3rd November – Byron Bay Brewery, Byron Bay
Saturday 4th November – Long Point Vineyard, Port Macquarie
Saturday 11th November – Baroque Bar, Katoomba
Sunday 12th November – The Playhouse, Canberra
Thursday 23rd November – Ramsgate Hotel, Henley Beach
Friday 24th November – Norwood Hotel, Norwood
Thursday 20th November – Mt Pleasant Tavern, Mackay
Friday 1st December – Dalrymple Hotel, Townsville
Saturday 2nd December – Tanks Arts Centre, Cairns
Friday 8th December – Sooki Lounge, Belgrave
Saturday 9th December – Karova Lounge, Ballarat
Sunday 10th December – Theatre Royal, Castlemaine
For more information and tickets visit the official Josh Pyke web site