An ‘Action-Packed’ Sound Progression // An Interview with BITUMEN

WL//WH Interview BITUMEN 

Nicole Reed Photography

Finally, the moment has come for the long-awaited sophomore album, “Cleareye Shining”, by the Melbourne-based 4-piece Bitumen, made of longstanding friends Kate Binning (Words), Sam Varney (Guitar), Bryce Maher (Guitar) & Simon Maisch (Bass), the follow-up of the nothing short of captivating and compelling debut, “Discipline Reaction”, from more than 3 years ago, replete with tortuous suffering post-punk and edgy noise rock with industrial tensions, and experimental attitude, deftly dosing melody and noise, introspection and catharsis.

Much time has passed with the Pandemic period further messing things up, forcing the band to necessarily redefine their objectives and tinker with their sound. Will the band be able to overcome the second album syndrome? Let’s try to understand something more with the lovely Kate and Sam…until tomorrow then the ultimate verdict…

  • Thanks so much for the interview, Please, let’s talk about the genesis of Bitumen. How did you all meet? What attracted you to each other? What are the main influences and inspirations behind the start of the band?

K: This is a very sweet question because we are all friends first and a band second, so to talk about how we met and formed a band is to talk about our friendship which is cute. We are all from Hobart, Tasmania, but didn’t form Bitumen until we had all moved to Melbourne. So, Sam and Bryce bonded over a shared love of metal in high school and I met them through mutual friends who were into music and skating. I knew Simon’s incredible band Bears, but hilariously I was a little intimidated by him and we didn’t really become friends until we met up again in Melbourne. Actually the other day I found a long lost mix CD I made for Sam when we first met and there were like three Bears songs on it haha.

In Melbourne Sam, Bryce and I all lived in the same sharehouse and spent all our free time catching buses to shows hanging around in beer gardens talking shit about music. Do that long enough and you eventually have to come up with something yourself. Well, actually we might have just kept talking shit forever if Simon hadn’t actually been the man with a plan and got us all round to his shed in Preston to actually practice.

We were all going to a lot of shows about town at the time, and seeing incredible bands like Nun, Stations of the Cross, Habits etc playing really powerful, dark, intense music. Particularly seeing acts like V and Twinrova using drum machines made us realise we didn’t need a drummer to start a band.

  • Did you already have a set idea of how you wanted the band to sound or has it been a gradual process of discovery? What individual experiences and strengths do each of you bring to the band?

K: It was absolutely a process of discovery. Whatever we set out to sound like we did not end up there. I think we initially thought it was going to sound like Sonic Youth but with a drum machine or some nonsense. Some Beat Happening type crap. But genuinely, the sound just happened when we all got in a room together. That’s just, what we were capable of sounding like.

Individual experiences and strengths?  I like to think that Bryce is the Chemical X, he plays total emotive guitar, utterly creative, utterly expressive.  I love to watch him play. I think we are all in awe of him.  Simon’s experience as a sound engineer means he brings a sonic brain to mould all of our sounds and knows what fits where and can bring things into line.  Sam is just a music obsessive and on a constant journey of discovery finding the next riff. It’s beyond fulfilling to hang out with three such driven, creative people.  

Not to neg myself but I have no idea how music works and kind of just do everything by feel. The boys will be working away on the MPC or like doing the meticulous figuring out of how a riff can fit around a beat and I’ll come back into the room and say something like “it sounds too happy now” and none of them even roll their eyes they just take that on board and try to change it to what I’m saying. It’s like we speak two different languages, or we’re coming at the song from two totally different ends, but I think that that weird process is actually really valuable.

  • Melbourne is renowned for a longstanding supportive, vibrant cultural and underground music scene, quite unique to your country, what’s your take on it and how are you shaped by and fit into it? What are your favourite new local bands around at the moment?

K: It’s so good, it’s so funny! Sometimes I get down on it, but everyone likes to bitch about what’s wrong with their own city you know? Having the two big community radio stations is a huge thing, having online stations like Pretend and area3000 and Skylab, having venues like Nighthawks, The Curtin, Miscellania, Colour, Northcote Social Club… People who’ve lived here their whole lives might not be able to appreciate just how much easier it is to GET STUFF DONE when you live in Melbourne. And for every annoyingly exclusive or narrow-minded or boring promoter/booker/band there are ten others who will go out of their way to help you or take a risk on something interesting or weird or innovative and that’s not to be taken for granted.

Right now everything has kind of been in a holding pattern for almost two years. We had one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the entire world. Of course, people were still making music through lockdown, but unless they were in my internet silo I didn’t really get exposed to it. I can say Mk8ultra released this utterly perfect tape called ‘Life on Other Planets’. V, an eternal favourite of ours will soon be releasing an album complete with a clip for every song! Very, very excited for that. Vacuum have a terrifying single out and new music on the way. There’s Laughing Gear, Cong Josie, Ov Pain, Mod Con, The Glass Picture, Nightclub, Premium Fantasy, Screensaver, Syzygy, Time for Dreams, Big Yawn, Nina Buchanan. Outside of Melbourne – Redefex, Daily Toll, jobfit, and s.c.r.a.p.s. are all incredible.

  • Do you draw on, or are you influenced by, any non-musical cultural resources (eg films, books, visual art) in your creative process?

K: Absolutely! Especially artists who work with words like Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Louise Bourgeois… I like e.e. Cumming, stuff like the title cards in Gregg Araki movies. Films always, especially from the 80s – Brian de Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, but lately I have been on a very 90s/early 2000s bent because I watched the Matrix trilogy for the first time. For me, when we are writing the songs I’m imagining a scene in an imaginary movie, it’s very visual. I wrote the lyrics to one of our older songs (‘Winter Swimmer’) because the music kept making me remember the scene in The Sopranos where Tony finds AJ in the pool.

SV: Lately I think the rather violent humour of Paul Verhoeven films has crept into the way I visualise what we do. Another is Michael Mann. I sort of start off with ‘Thief’ and the ‘Miami Vice’ TV show and have watched most of his stuff up till Blackhat (dc). There’s something about those helicopter shots of cityscapes that totally influenced the song ‘Paint and Draw’ for me.

  • What comes first in your music composition? Lyrics, vocals, instrumentation? Take us through the process.

SV: Most of the songs start as a phone recording of a drum loop and a guitar or synth. We compile a bunch of those and then when we are hanging out we listen through them and see what grabs us. Then we’ll just start demoing it together and adding new beats, changes, structure etc. While we’re demoing Kate is listening and writing things down and when she’s ready she’ll pick up the mic and start trying out melodies. From there it’s a real feedback loop of hearing what Kate’s doing and then adjusting the instrumentation to suit.

  • Who writes the lyrics? Are they autobiographical, fantasy and or cathartic?

K: I write the lyrics! I would say on this album they are even less autobiographical than they have ever been. I’m only interested in my own experiences as much as they allow me to better understand universal experiences or fears or desires. The specifics of my life are not at all interesting or important. So they are vicarious I suppose.

  • Kate, did you have any vocalist that inspired your way of singing?

K: V definitely inspired me. It’s funny to say someone inspired your way of singing because my voice is my voice and I can only sound like myself, but V inspired me to sound like myself haha.

  • Your Bandcamp page says ’80s maximalism meets 90s industrial electro and maybe more interesting ‘Robocop meets Basic Instinct’? Will you better explain these stances?

SV: 80s maximalism to me is Depeche Mode. Massive anthemic tunes with just infinite detail. Music For The Masses and what Alan Wilder, in particular, contributed to that sound was a big influence on us. Especially considering the arsenal of synthesizers we used on this compared with the last record.

I think by ’90s industrial electro’ we’re basically talking about what Trent Reznor did in terms of the production and the aesthetics of music in the 90s culminating with his work with David Bowie on ‘Outside’. And then I think Bowie took that another step further with ‘Earthling’. Super exciting records.

K: Sometimes it feels pretty tortuous trying to describe your own music in words. It’s one thing to describe the sounds, the sonic palette, and it’s one thing to describe the ‘content’ (the words and what songs are ‘about’) but we don’t like to split them up like that. Everything is made together, concurrently. When we were trying to write our copy for the album, we talked about describing songs like movies. You can say an album is “sexy, scary, violent, romantic, suspenseful” OR you can do that in one (hopefully much less pretentious) go by saying it’s like an erotic thriller. And the best erotic thriller is Basic Instinct! The album is also dystopian, industrial, paranoid, scary, and umm ‘action-packed’….OR Robocop. I picked two Verhoeven movies for continuity and because if forced at gunpoint to pick my favourite director I think it’d be him.

  • As you explained on your BC, due to the pandemic and the long period between them, inevitably the new studio-recorded album seems to have lost the urgency and visceral edge that denoted your sort of 2018 ‘live’ debut, it’s more cohesive and less chaotic, one thing above all is the guitar sound, more blaring and razor-sharp, less psychedelic and haunting… Please, could you better explain their genesis, differences, and the possible evolution between them?

SV: The guitar sound on “Discipline Reaction” is completely to do with where we recorded it. We’re all playing live together in a large concrete room with quite high ceilings. As an experiment, we also used foldback monitors instead of headphones. We just let it all bleed together.  With “Cleareye Shining” we wanted clarity and precision so next to no reverb and lots of re-amping to get more specific tones for each song. As to why we chose to try that? Hard to say. One thing I will say is that there is no hiding behind reverb and mess on this record. We’re out there baby and we’re loving every minute of it!

  • How did the tracks come together? Could you talk about the title, the influences and the ups and downs that have brought you to the final result?

K: It was a long process, it seemed like every time we were about to get to the next stage of the recording process a lockdown would get announced. Many of the songs on the album started life more than two years ago as guitar sketches and evolved and evolved at practice. We had almost an album’s worth of material ready to go when we were approached by Flash Forward. That gave us the money to finish things off in a proper studio, to pay for mixing and mastering. Not going to lie there were a lot of downs. As I write this we haven’t played a show in 18 months, we’ve only just (as in the last couple of weeks) been able to practice again…so there was an enormous stretch where we were a band yes, but it felt like all we did was send emails and do admin and we couldn’t even hang out with each other. It fucking sucked. To finally be able to release this album and play the songs live together will hopefully be a nice cathartic end to the process. In lockdown, I made loads of Spotify playlists to take me from one mood to another mood and “Cleareye Shining” was the title I gave one particularly cathartic, happily existential one. It just stuck in my brain. Also, I like that when you google it you just get loads of ads for eyedrops and I think one company that uses AI to do banking. All very chemical-industrial-dystopian.

  • Did you have an all-encompassing vibe or themes you wanted to portray with this release?

K: We actually made a conscious decision not to try to make a cohesive or all-encompassing album but rather to let each individual song become its own thing. Listening to big 80s albums like Peter Gabriel‘s 3/Melt, where each song is such a totally self-contained narrative and stylistically quite distinct from each other, Kate Bush, Grace Jones, Scott Walker. More song focussed less album focussed. That being said, to anyone who’s not actually in the band maybe it does sound quite similar overall. What you think you’re doing and what you end up sounding like to other people are never the same thing. I always think we’re writing sexy, minimal HTRKish songs and then months later I’ll listen back and be like whoops we made nu-metal.

  • What’s your favourite part about playing live? Do you recall your first gig as Bitumen and what are your highlights/lowlights so far?

K: I feel weird saying I love performing because it seems so narcissistic to say you love getting up in front of a whole bunch of people and sort of demanding they all look at and listen to you. I’m not about to say I think performing is some great community service. Like some musicians seem to think they’re doing everyone a favour by playing some songs, I hate that attitude. We love performing because we think we’re good at it, it feels good to do something well and to do it together with your friends. Like, we pulled it off! You know? Our first gig was with our friends All The Weathers (also from Tasmania) at the Old Bar. I was absolutely terrified but the irrepressible Georgia Lucy from ATW stood up the front and danced and cheered and gave us high-fives between songs. My god, what a lifesaver. She’s an inspiration for my policy of ‘be the audience member you want to see in the world’.

A lowlight hmm…

SV: A lowlight is just any show where the sound is fucked. Sometimes the mix is all over the place because the drum machine isn’t balanced with the vocals and live instruments on stage. Often times we don’t even know it’s happening and we get off stage and someone’s like, “welp, that was a mess.” That’s the drawback of the drum machine for sure. Lara Sulo is gonna do sound at our launch (December 4th, Northcote Social Club) and she rocks and has killed it doing sound for us in the past.

  • Are there any pivotal records and gigs that changed indelibly your perception of music?

K: Seeing Neubauten.

SV: Yeah seeing Neubauten changed everything. I think after that we were like, “let’s just embrace our weird drum machine sampling style and stop trying to make realistic drum sounds.” We all saw them together at Dark Mofo in Tasmania two years in a row. Kate met Blixa at one point and told him, “I love everything you’ve ever done.” And he, being the wry bastard he is said, “Everything?” with a smirk and an eyebrow raise.

  • What kind of old/new music do you usually listen to? Any current bands/artists that you are excited by at the moment?

SV: I got quite into Acid House last year. Just like sitting around with a glass of wine with KLF cranked in my headphones. New music wise I try and listen to everything my friends do first then explore elsewhere. Kate mentioned just about all of the local stuff above, Neubauten released another fucking awesome record last year and so did Kylie Minogue.

K: At the moment old music-wise – Linkin Park. New music wise – Tirzah and some demos for a new project Blake from Union Jerk Records has been working on that are insane heat.

  • Many thanks for being our welcome guests, Is there anything would you like to add?

K: We’d just like to thank you very much for your support and incredibly thorough and thoughtful interview questions!

Bitumen‘s second LP, “Cleareye Shining”, is slated for release, tomorrow, November 26, 2021, on Ltd. Vinyl 12″ & Digital, via Heavy Machinery Records.

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photo by Emily Herbert