Jarrad Seng

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Eskimo Joe Have Something to Say

Seven years on from their last album, Eskimo Joe have returned with "Say Something", a song not intended for, but perfectly suited to the times we live in.

The last time anyone heard new music from Eskimo Joe, things looked very different. Of course, there’s the obvious facts (we weren’t in a global pandemic back in 2013, for one thing), but when they released their latest collection of music, they were a band who were feeling a bit of a burn-out.

Fast forward seven years, and things have changed. Folks have been locked down in their homes for months, global protests rage on, and now more than ever, it’s time to say something; whether it be about what you believe in, or to take a stand against injustices.

Having spent a few years taking it relatively easy (sporadically emerging for live shows), Eskimo Joe have now emerged refreshed from the shadows, ready to share their first taste of new music since 2013’s Wastelands. Titled “Say Something”, the new single has been a long time coming for the group.

While they’ve not released new music as a band since 2013, its individual members have worked on solo material, production work, and other activities, while recent years have seen the reissue of the majority of their back catalogue.

Now, their new single sees them refreshed and more powerful than ever, with frontman Kavyen Temperley describing the song as “a call to act with humanity, without prejudice or violence towards each other or the planet”.

With this prescient new song arriving a time when it’s needed more than ever, Temperley spoke to Rolling Stone about how it feels to release new music, their time away, future plans, and whether they might take a look back at their formative years to cap off their reissue series.

Eskimo Joe have been gearing up to release the first song since 2013 this week. How’s it all been feeling at the moment?

There’s aspects of it that feel familiar, but more than anything else we’re in a very fortunate place where we’ve had some success in the past – and probably got to a point where we took it for granted. Having a break and then coming back together; there’s not one part of people giving us support that we take for granted any more.

I think we just really appreciate the fact that people support us and love our music. It’s not lost on us at all this time around.

Is there a bit of nervousness behind releasing a new song after such a long time away?

I guess so. We’re always confident in what we do, we’re like, “We wouldn’t put it out if unless we thought it was good enough to put out.” But I think where we get a little bit more nervous is that we’re kind of stepping into this space which is a space of protest and about writing and putting out something that’s a little bit more political than anything we’ve done before.

I think that’s what makes me nervous, because when you go into that place, it’s a whole new world of people who are on different sides of the fence; very passionate about what they’re talking about. We’re not putting out a social media post, we’re putting out a piece of art that we believe in, but we are talking about stuff that’s a bit more heavy and a bit more real.

We’re not talking about relationships or love, we’re talking about what’s going on in the world.

In an Instagram post, the song was described as being “a call to act with humanity, without prejudice or violence towards each other or the planet.” When you were writing the song, what was it that helped inspire the song’s content?

We started writing it about a year and a half ago, and it was originally inspired by what was going on with all of the young people really taking the climate change thing by the horns and running with it, and really going, “Come on people, you need to pay attention.”

I found that really inspiring that in this world of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, […] they’re putting themselves out there and getting us to pay attention. So that’s where it started, and we started writing – me and Joel [Quartermain, drums] sat down in Melbourne when a lot of the climate strike stuff was going on.

And as we wrote this song and as we got deeper into it, it ended up at this place where, as I said in the quote, ‘This is more a statement about being a humanitarian and saying something.’

We’re actually past the point where you can sit on the fence about these things anymore. If you’re in the schoolyard and you’re a young kid and someone uses a racial slur in a friendly way, say something about it. Don’t just go, “Haha, oh yeah, that’s what old mate does.” Or if you’re at the dinner table at Christmas time and your weird uncle makes a sexist remark or talks about violence towards women, say something about it.

I probably would’ve sat on the fence about this a few years ago, but I think having kids and wanting to create a better environment for them to grow up in, I think this is something that’s now a lot closer to my heart.

With everything that’s going on now, especially with the Black Lives Matter protests, this song definitely takes on a new sense of timeliness. Especially now that people are actively taking a stand and deciding to really “say something”.

We couldn’t have predicted what was going to happen this year, and like I said, we were writing this song outside of that. I was very kind of prescient that 2020 ended up being what it was. But I think it’s important that we actually say we weren’t writing this song about George Floyd, we didn’t turn on a ten cent coin and say ‘here’s out protest song’; we’ve been thinking about this for a while.

It’s that classic thing with art in general. It’s why you have about 20 songs called “Freedom” that come out at the same time: because everyone’s kind of tapping into this ether of what we’re all thinking, so it definitely comes out in the arts a lot more.

What was the recording of “Say Something” like? Listening to the track, it definitely follows on from the sound Eskimo Joe had on Wastelands, but it still features that real “hit formula” that you guys are known for.

What happened, interestingly enough, is that we had been going through this process of releasing our back catalogue on vinyl – we just put out A Song Is a City, which was a really close record to our heart.

But the funny thing is, you ask most bands when was the last time they listened to their own records, they’ll probably tell you it was just after it came out, and that was it. It’s really forced us to go back, because we have to listen to these albums as they get remastered, and it’s almost like we’ve […] been feeding ourselves all of this Eskimo Joe music.

So the consequence was that we’ve ended up writing this very Eskimo Joe-sounding song. We’re not trying to emulate whatever we’re listening to, we’re just writing what we do, and I think we’re able – with enough time to drinks – to really appreciate who we are as a band, and the friendship that we have, and the fact that we have this back catalogue of songs that we really appreciate now.

We’re not trying to destroy it so we can write the next record. We get to listen to our music and say, “Oh, we did this! Cool, this is amazing!” That’s why the song sounds like it does; it sounds like we just sat down and wrote an Eskimo Joe song.

It’s also rather rare for bands to be inspired by their own music, isn’t it? But at the end of the day, it really works since it’s pure Eskimo Joe – which would presumably be what the fans want?

I guess so. I don’t think we were overthinking that side of things too much, but what happened – the road map that went from there to here – [is that] we were very lucky to be invited by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra to do a concert, a two-hour gig of all of our back catalogue, rearranged by these different composers and arrangers.

And that was the first time, I think, that we all came together after having a bit of a break and just felt that kind of magic feeling in our bellies where we were just like, “Oh my God, this is amazing.” We were actually nervous going on stage and the connection that we had on stage, just going “How amazing is this? We’ve got a symphony orchestra, and the songs we wrote in our bedrooms have been transformed into these fantastic things.”

So we walked away from that experience just feeling very invigorated by the band, and with this unspoken idea that felt it was time to step back in together and start to do something.

Then “Say Something” came up as an idea, and I just happened to be in Melbourne – which is where Joel lives – and I was talking to my wife and I said, “I’ve got this song, and I really feel like it could be an Eskimo Joe song.” She said, “Just give Joel a call and go to his house now.” So I did, and the rest is history.

What was it that inspired Eskimo Joe to take some time off? Or was it more of a natural occurrence?

It happened naturally, as a self-preservation thing as well. We’d been doing it since I was like, about 18, 19 years old – so for 17 years, we had lived in each other’s pockets. There’s just a kind of a treadmill you get on where you write a record, record a record, tour a record, and I love that we got to do that, but it definitely got  to a point where it was like commerce was coming into it.

You know, “We have to do this to get the next record out, this is what you do, this is your job.” And it stops being about just trying to create really great records. So we sat down and had this kind of meeting, and I brought it up and said, “Guys, I love you, but I just need to have a couple of years off.” Just to do some other projects, collaborate with as many people as I can, and just do something else while I’m still young and beautiful enough to drink champagne in the spa.

Everyone was in a pretty similar headspace, and it was great, we got to actually go off and instead of being married to the band, we got to be married to our wives. Joel has gone off and done some amazing production work, produced a whole lot of people. Stu [MacLeod, guitar] has gone off and was the Managing Director of RTRFM, which is our community radio station here in Perth, and he’s now doing Fairbridge Festival.

I got to go off and do a solo album, a bunch of music education programs that I’m really passionate about, and my Hat Jam podcast, which takes up a lot of time and energy.

We got to do these other things, so coming back together, a lot of these old stories you hold onto… I mean, over 20 years is a long time to have a relationship with anyone, and you really have to go through some process in any relationship where you break it all down and build it all up again. I certainly feel like that’s what we did, and we’re at this really good place with it all.

In early 2019, Joel said in an interview that the band was unsure whether or not they’d do a new album. Is “Say Something” set to feature on a new record, or would you look at focusing your efforts towards individual singles as time goes on?

I’m not sure how we’re going to approach it, but I definitely feel like while we’re in the flow of it, we’ll write and record a couple more songs. Whether that turns into an album, I don’t know. Or we’ll just work in this new world paradigm where we write and record a song, put it out, let it do it’s thing, and then do another one.

I still love albums, because most of my favourite songs are not the singles off the album. I do think there’s something about going deeper into the work when you do a record. There’s always a whole lot of songs floating around, but it’s just the logistics of trying to get the three of us into a room at the same time.

Me and Joel have been trying to write over Zoom at the moment, and it’s a really long process. You come up with an idea, and you say, “What do you think of this?” And the other person says, “Yeah, cool, let me just think about it.”

Then everyone goes on with their week, and then about two or three weeks later and you’re like, “How about this for a chord change?” and you’re like, “Yeah, that’s a cool idea.” Then months go by and what you would’ve achieved in a day in a room has taken a couple of months. I think as soon as the borders open and Joel is able to travel, he’ll come over to Perth, and we’ll get back into it I think.

I would assume you’re also looking forward to giving the song its proper debut on the live stage as well?

Yeah, it’s a funny thing, to put out a song out with no thought in the back of your mind that we need to get into the rehearsal room and learn how to play this live. Everyone’s just like, “Let’s just put it out. Cool, what now?” We will be touring again, but we’ll wait until next year sometime, so hopefully we will have had another song or two out by then. Who knows?

You mentioned the reissue series earlier, which recently wrapped up with the release of A Song is a City last month. How has the reaction to it all been? Have fans been enjoying hearing all the extras?

I think so. It’s interesting for us to go back and listen to the demos and hear all that stuff as well. I love the fact that a big part of it is putting it out on vinyl, because CDs are pretty much drink coasters these days. But it’s lovely that our albums get that treatment, because I just feel like, “It’s like a real album”, you know?

So we’re pretty passionate about making sure we’ve remastered it so it all sounds great on vinyl. The reaction seems to be great, but more than anything else, a lot of people own these records already, but I think it’s just really been a time for people to go back and revisit their memories of being an Eskimo Joe fan when they were at uni, and now they’re living in the suburbs with kids.

It’s been a good time for that, but also, when we stepped away from doing Eskies, I felt it would be nice if everyone missed us after a while. And I think with the reissues, there’s been a bit of a resurgence of that.

Wastelands wasn’t included in the reissue series though, was it?

It hasn’t been yet, no. That was the only record we didn’t put out through a record label; it was independent. I haven’t looked at it, but I think [these reissues are] coming out through Warner, so there’s an element of that going on. But Wastelands did come out on vinyl, it may get the treatment later on down the track. We’ll see.

You’ve re-released all of the albums, but I’d love to know if you’d ever look at reissuing your early EPs [including 1998’s Sweater and 1999’s Eskimo Joe] at all?

Maybe, I don’t even think the EPs are up on Spotify at all. I think I found one of the EPs on a computer or something like that, maybe a couple of years ago, and I listened back and it’s one of the most bizarre things if you’re the singer in the band because you’re literally listening to yourself as a child. It’s very strange.

I think it’s a fair call, and I think it’s probably time that we put those EPs up on Spotify.

If you listen to them though, it really sounds like a totally different band. After all, if you compare the likes of “RSPCA Lovesong” [from the Kiss My Wami 98 compilation] to “Say Something”, it’s completely different.

That’s going way back! I’m glad that we’ve been on a journey and that we’re not still there. We went through a really interesting moment in our band’s evolution. Me and Stu had started playing what would effectively become Eskimo Joe, and they were like these Pixies, folky kind of Pixies songs.

We had this one song, which was “Sweater”, and I remember me and Joel were playing in another band – Joel came in to play drums, but he was a guitarist at the time –  and I remember him saying – because we had just done the campus band competition in our other band – “If we had like, four more songs that sounded exactly like that, we would win the campus band competition.”

And it was a big deal in Perth, because it meant that we got a plane ticket out of Perth, and back in the day we were so isolated. So we did it, and lo and behold, we won the campus band competition, and won some time to record, and we recorded those four songs. I think “RSPCA Lovesong” was part of that first batch of songs that we tried to… you know, [they were] almost gimmick songs that we wrote to try and win the competition.

But then, when we sat down to write our first record, I was kind of getting bored of that, and I started writing my own songs that felt good to me; songs that would want to put on a record. But I thought that would be a whole new project again. And Joel was very good, he just came in and said, “These songs need to be the Eskimo Joe album.”

And at that point in time we could have changed our name, which y’know, might not have been a bad idea, but we just decided to go, “Okay, we’re going to evolve as a band, and this is going to be our sound now.” It’s almost like there’s two eras.

There’s this era of the EPs where it’s kind of like a different band almost, where we’re literally just jamming stuff in the band room and going, “Yeah, let’s put this on a record!” Then there’s Girl onwards, and Girl is us actually sitting down and trying to write a record that we think stands up to our favourite albums. I think it’s okay that people can still look at our high school yearbook and see how far we’ve come.

Eskimo Joe’s “Say Something” is out now.