A guest post courtesy of the virtual pen of Gareth Ware
Put simply, few people have captured suburban Australia – and suburban life in general – quite like Oliver Mestitz. Even in such company as labelmate, label boss and longtime friend Courtney Barnett (who immortalised Mestitz on her Grammy-nominated debut – the “Oliver Paul…” that graces the record’s opener, Elevator Operator, is Mestitz; the song’s story is his own real-life experience) his works stand out. With an understated diligence that matches his work Mestitz, via his creative vehicle The Finks, has created a world where details such as the washing up, drying bathing attire and laundry hanging on a clothesline are presented in a ways that at act as relatable signposts to our own existence and make us question our relationship with the everyday sights and sounds of our lives.
His worldview is coloured by the bittersweet setting of suburban streets on weekday afternoons, at once filled with the warm contentment or familiarity and the strange, sad stillness of an environment briefly shorn of its life. 2015’s Lucklaster – The Finks’ first long-player – saw Mestitz’ vision presented with an acoustic minimalism that brought his eye for detail and charming, easy going way with a story to the fore, broken up by a couple of instrumentals including the record’s title track. The 2016 follow-up Middling saw his vision expanded via a full-band setup (even though, as ever, it was recorded in his front room; listen on headphones and the homely sounds of the wider world such as the weather and traffic can be heard). Gone were the instrumentals of the album’s predecessor, the focus instead being entirely on the cast of characters and their lives that formed Middling’s thematic backbone.
Rolly Nice is the sound of someone toying at once with the change of artistic development and the naturalness of consistency. The instrumentals return, but are used more liberally than on his previous works. The shared vocal duties that have featured prominently on all of his works also remain, but with a different cast. His deft way with suburban intimacy again features, but on ‘Charlie’s Manifesto’ it comes presented as a spoken-word list – think Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Sunscreen’ filtered through the sonic equivalent of the feeling of the late afternoon Antipodean sun on your face. The reflective nature that has underscored his songwriting remains another constant, but Rolly Nice mixes it with a melancholia that runs throughout its duration – even minimal piano instrumental ‘Palazzolo Park’, name after a local roadside verge with ideas above its station, has a haunting beauty tinged with sadness – and foregoes the wry humour that’s peppered his prior writing (such as “They say love is blind and deaf and dumb, well here’s to hoping’, as he once sang on the Lucklaster-closing ‘Moonah Mile’).
But at its core, Rolly Nice remains a perfect distillation of Mestitz’ world. It still contains a deceptive simplicity that masks the insidious way the characters, their stories, and their lives can worm their way into your brain. There’s still that sense of being warmly and wittily regaled by old friends. There are still moments that point back to the everyday familiarity of our own lives – on ‘Charlie’s Manifesto’ Sarah Farquharson can be audibly heard battling a cold, ‘Thankful’ features the rustle of the lyric sheet, ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ saw Mestitz lock the 8-track recorder in a box so its whirring didn’t make it onto recording. But perhaps most importantly, there’s still a sense of being presented with a landscape at once conventional enough to identify with and fantastical enough to lose yourself in.
As I’ve said before, few people capture suburban Australia quite like Oliver Mestitz.
GW: The period from Lucklaster to Middling saw you move from making a quasi-solo album to a full-band setup, and Rolly Nice sees you experimenting with different song styles. Do you consciously try to push yourself from album to album, and do you view each record as an opportunity to develop and/or reinvent yourself?
It helps me to think of each album that I’m making as a concept (not a concept album – it’s a fine line). This forces me to be creative within set parameters. The idea with Lucklaster was to make a mostly acoustic album without bass or drums, whereas Middling was eleven more tightly crafted songs in a band setting. The process has always been the same, with me playing and recording almost all of the instruments at home. Hopefully that’s something like development.
GW: Rolly Nice marks the first time you’ve released a record peppered with instrumentals – as a songwriter is trying to convey an emotion or a message via wordless means a challenge or something quite exciting?
The great thing about instrumentals is that they don’t convey emotions or messages as bluntly as words tend to do. They’re abstractions. There were two instrumentals on Lucklaster, and I regret their absence on Middling, which feels heavy under the weight of its words. So the idea with Rolly Nice was to make an album of songs with lots of words and songs with no words. The other day someone described the instrumentals as offering respite for the listener, which I like.
GW: [Labelmate and creator of a recent, largely wordless postclassical piano album that explored their own non-binary identity] Evelyn Morris said that they enjoyed the way their last album – and the instrumental passages contained within it – allowed them to present their work in a way that didn’t steer the audience’s thoughts. Is that how you feel?
This is true but I also think that Evelyn and I have different motives. Theirs was an album about ambiguity and fluidity, and the abstraction of instrumental music allowed them to present it in an ambiguous and fluid way. I’m more interested in leaving space for reverie. I also get tired of hearing my own voice.
GW: ‘Charlie’s Manifesto’ – even if, as a spoken word list song, it marks something of a new direction for you – feels like a distillation of your aesthetic in the way it present everyday relatable things in a way that makes the listener question their own relationship with them. Is that something you’d agree with and is that a stylistic/thematic element you’ve consciously tried to develop throughout your work?
I don’t know. I guess so? That sounds great. I’m more preoccupied by the fact that people tend to attribute a song to whoever is singing it, even though a lot of my songs are fictitious and the words belong to the characters in them. “Charlie’s Manifesto” is a good example because it’s so specific and opinionated but it’s not my manifesto, or even Sarah’s, who reads it. It’s Charlie’s. Charlie doesn’t exist as a person but in the context of a song or a story or whatever she’s just as real as Sarah or I. We’re all words.
GW: Even by your own standard the new album is incredibly wistful and reflective and seems shorn of some of the Outback-dry humour that featured on your previous records. To what extent is that representative of your headspace when you were writing it and with the benefit of hindsight do you feel you’ve made the record you initially set out to?
I never end up with the record that I set out to make because the record changes in the making. I change in its making. This is always frustrating and bewildering until I learn to make peace with the chasm between my expectations and my limitations. I didn’t intend for Rolly Nice to be so melancholy. That wasn’t conceptual. I like slow music. It was a long winter.
GW: Themes like nostalgia, rejection and loss all feature on the record and are typically sensations we feel more and more as we enter adulthood, and become more prevalent as we go through the twilight of our twenties and enter the dawn of our thirties. Is that what you’ve found in life and is that why they feature so strongly on the record?
I’m sure that my future self won’t agree with whatever I say here. I do seem to write a lot about what it means to be a person in time because I’m interested in how stories and selves are constructed. My mum says that you get one life-changing revelation per decade, on average.
GW: With multiple vocalists on the album what is the deciding factor as to who sings what – is it based solely on melody or does thematic content play a part?
There have been three vocalists on all three Finks albums (Jake from Soda Eaves replaces Maddie Duke on Rolly Nice). Writing songs for other people requires a shift in perception that can be helpful (in both ways that you mention) but the deciding factor is usually whim or impulse. My recording process is very insular and self-reliant and putting someone in my lounge room at the centre of it all is an act of intimacy. I’m very blessed to have talented and agreeable friends.
GW: Rolly Nice, like all your albums, was home recorded, and it’s something which has always given this organic homeliness to your sound which has complemented the lyrical content. Is it something you view as important in The Finks’ sonic make-up and in terms of the project’s wider aesthetic?
Thank you. Yes. It’s very important to me, even though every time I make an album I swear I’ll never do it the same way again.
GW: Suburban Australia – and suburban Melbourne especially – seems to be a rich lyrical seam for the current crop of descriptive, relatable musicians that have made headway over here. As someone who’s used it as a backdrop does that landscape almost act as an additional character, and what do you think makes these suburban landscapes such a great source of lyrical detail?
I don’t think I can answer this question in the way you want me to. It makes sense that any creative community will influence each other and share the same dialogue in their work but only insofar as the social and cultural landscape will allow it. For me the idea of “being a Melbourne musician” is all tied up in the person I’ve become and the people I’ve met in pursuit of that idea. It helps that we have great community radio.
GW: Are you at a point of reflecting on Rolly Nice and enjoying the fact it’s out in the world or are you already looking to the future, and if the latter what are your ambitions going forward?
I’ve always looked forward creatively because I’ve always created things for myself, and what excites me is the next thing. I’m trying to figure out where I stand in relation to my music being “out in the world”. I find the whole thing pretty baffling and surreal but I’m grateful for the privilege. I’d like to be more generous with my time and uncompromising in my work and to tell people that I admire them.
Rolly Nice is out now via Milk Records. Click HERE for more information on The Finks