Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Ten years of Skeleton Jar for Youth Group

Originally published at ABC Arts Online, July 2015

For any kind of artist, reflecting on work made more than 10 years previously could be a perilous exercise in self-confrontation, due to the double dangers of the highs of a long-gone time bringing into stark contrast any perceived failings in the present, or indeed cringing at the embarrassing indulgences and questionable tastes of a younger self.

Neither of these is the case for Youth Group’s Toby Martin when he ponders the significance of the band’s 2004 LP Skeleton Jar, which has just been reissued on vinyl (accompanied by an East Coast tour that sees the album performed in full). Martin is proud of it as a standalone work, yet recognises its importance as a seminal stylistic departure point for the Sydney band and indeed his own personal path through music. It was the establishment of the band’s voice rather than, necessarily, their masterpiece.

“We felt it was a very big step for us musically,” he says, “When we’d finished recording and it was about to come out we even talked about changing the band name because we felt we’d changed so much from our first album. When I listen to our first album I can hear clearly a lot of our influences, and Skeleton Jar just sounds more like Youth Group. From then on we had a sound and identity that was ours.”

The greater challenge has been the process of learning and inhabiting the songs again – after all, until a reunion show at Sydney’s Newtown Social Club in January, it had been some five years since Youth Group was Martin’s main priority.

“It was actually more difficult than I thought, it’s not like riding a bike. It was very enjoyable and satisfying, but not seamless. A lot of the songs on Skeleton Jar we didn’t even play live at the time because they weren’t working – the songs we did play a lot live were easier.”

Skeleton Jar rests on a template that combined Martin’s natural talent as a melodist with the band’s affection for louder influences that, he says, included American indie institutions Pavement and Built To Spill along with UK shoegaze pair Ride and Swervedriver. But it is the nuances and more subtle moments of the album that make it so intriguing when listening today: the hint of additional echo that attaches to Martin’s voice as he sings with an emphasised sense of crisis the line “You walk me across freedom fields” on the remarkable ‘Shadowland’; the startling dynamism between guitar line and vocal line on the chorus of ‘Why Don’t The Buildings Cry’ and the moment that ‘Baby Body’ crunches into life after its ambling acoustic intro. As well, the album was arguably the first instance of Martin’s lyrical habit of casting a painterly, deeply sympathetic eye on a cast of characters that ranged from the desperate to the bewildered to the scared, all inspired by his suburban existence in Petersham, Sydney’s Inner West.

Skeleton Jar was well received, bar a tepid review from Pitchfork, and it set the blueprint for the band’s future. They went on to make two more (Casino Twilight Dogs and The Night Is Ours – the latter being Martin’s favourite) before going on a hiatus that, though intended to last just one year, turned into five.

Ask anyone merely casually aware of Youth Group and they will probably refer to their single ‘Forever Young’, which reached number one in Australia in 2006. A cover of Alphaville’s 1984 song, it’s a track that one hears in supermarket aisles, a monster that has had more than eight million listens on Spotify. Youth Group’s next most popular track has been played just under 370,000 times - respectable but hardly comparable. Martin must live with the fact that the band’s most recognisable song is not one from his pen.

“It continues to be annoying,” he admits, while the song’s recent vulgar appropriation by the Robertson Brothers, used by DJ Ray Hadley to attack Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, met with a robust riposte from the band.

“We’d much rather everybody knew our original material. It’s not like we played a lot of covers – it was a one-off thing we did for a soundtrack [for The O.C.], it was an anomaly in what we were doing that became this phenomenon in popular culture. It feels removed from what Youth Group and I do musically, but that’s the connection a lot of people make.”

Youth Group these days can almost be seen as a kind of Australian supergroup. Along with Martin, the band comprises guitarist Cameron Emerson-Elliott, whose other band Community Radio released the quirkily soulful, excellent album Serious Magic in 2013, while he is also a part of the much-revered Songs. Bassist Patrick Matthews was once in The Vines and is also in Community Radio, while drummer Danny Lee Allen – whose relocation to New York was one reason for Youth Group’s extended time on hold – has played with The Drums and We Are Scientists.

And, fairly unusually, the Youth Group four remain close friends, with Martin having known both Emerson-Elliott and Allen since school in Canberra. That, as is the case for many bands who were friends before being bandmates, has resulted in music that both reflects that friendship, and sustains it.

“I’ve always thought Youth Group’s music is an expression of being friends, and I think it goes back to when we formed the band. Danny and I were friends first before being in a band and I think the band has always reflected that. I’d known Cameron since school and we’d been friends for a long time [before Emerson-Elliott joined the band in 2004, seven years after its inception].

“But it’s a grey area – what’s first, friendship or music? Of course we’re closer friends today because we’ve had this shared experience of being in a band, and we have the sort of friendship now that we wouldn’t have had if it wasn’t for the band.”

It is a partnership that is set to embark on a new chapter. Martin admits that the January show was a “nostalgia fest” but that the latest shows will lead to a new Youth Group album “soonish”. This may mean a temporary break for the band members’ other projects. As well as Emerson-Elliot and Matthews in Community Radio, Martin himself released a passionate, outstanding solo album in 2012, Love’s Shadow, consolidating him as among the finest Australian songwriters of the past couple of decades. He also completed two multi-faceted arts residencies in Bankstown, resulting in a unique performance as part of Sydney Festival 2015 in a Bankstown front yard. He has also been writing and performing with Aboriginal country singer Roger Knox (Martin also completed a PhD on the history of country music in Australia). Youth Group may have returned, but space will be reserved for dabblings in multiple other things – for both Martin and the rest of the band. 

“[During our hiatus] I realised that music was a lot more than just playing in Youth Group,” says Martin. “We’ll make another record, but for me, and for the other three, it will be one part of our musical lives. It’s become really easy for me [when I write songs] to distinguish what is a Youth Group song and what is for something else – I feel like I’ve matured in that way.

“For lots of reasons we couldn’t sustain the intensity that Youth Group had built up by 2009 – it’s not going to be intense like that, this will be something else, and I think it will be very pleasurable.”

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