Daniel Boud*

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The Modern Revival of Something for Kate

Eight years on from their last record, Something for Kate have returned with one of their finest albums to date, with 'The Modern Medieval' leaving them feeling like a new band once again.

It’s fair to say that when Something for Kate first formed over 25 years ago, the band itself had no idea what the future would hold. In fact, at the time, the group – which drew inspiration from the likes of Fugazi and R.E.M. – very well could have fallen into a hole of obscurity reserved for many of the exceptional, yet forgotten, members of the ’90s Australian music scene.

Making their recorded debut by way of 1996’s The Answer To Both Your Questions EP on Sony’s Murmur sub-label, the band followed things up with a handful of other releases before 1997’s Elsewhere For 8 Minutes served as their first full-length record. For founding guitarist and vocalist Paul Dempsey though, this might very well have been where the Something for Kate story came to an end.

“I remember when we first got offered a record deal we almost thought it was a ludicrous idea,” he recalls. “The contract was for a couple of EPs and one full-length album, and then after that, everything was sort of optional for the label. We just really thought, ‘Okay, well we’ll get to make two EPs and one album, and that’ll be it.’ We never expected to see out the end of that five-album deal, let alone sign another deal.”

But another deal did arrive, and before long, Something for Kate found themselves in the midst of a burgeoning career; a new album arriving every two years on average, and the constant cycle of “record, release, and tour” becoming the band’s new normal.

Soon after 2006’s Desert Lights arrived, it became clear that there was a new normal about to be adopted by the group. Dempsey formally launched his solo career, releasing Everything is True in 2009, the band then returned with Leave Your Soul to Science in 2012, and more solo releases would follow for Dempsey in the ensuing years.

But even with Dempsey’s dance card appearing to be a bit more full, Something for Kate never actually went anywhere. Live shows never ceased, the group always continued to exist, and the promise of new material was always apparent. Despite this, the announcement of their latest album, The Modern Medieval, has seen a number of fans or casual observers consider it as something of a comeback record – though Dempsey will happily refute the notion.

“In many ways, this album feels like another beginning,” he admits. “For a lot of people it’s going to seem like a ‘reunion’ album because it’s been eight years since the last one, but we have played shows over every one of the last eight years.

“We haven’t been inactive, it’s just that it’s been really difficult to find the time to make a new album. We’ve been raising families, doing other things, and I’ve been making solo records. It’s not that we’ve been inactive, but it’s great to finally have an album’s worth of new material. And after eight years, it just feels like a new band again.”

While most bands would likely look at an eight-year gap on a resumé as something to be avoided, the members of Something for Kate tend to thrive in this situation – namely due to the fact that everything is still done on their own terms. Dempsey, along with wife and bassist Stephanie Ashworth, and drummer Clint Hyndman have been able to use the somewhat sporadic nature of the band to their advantage, allowing them to start families, and focus on other interests.

“It’s just a really great situation where none of us are really dependent on Something for Kate for anything; we can just do it because we want to and because we feel ready to, and we can put it aside for a few years,” Dempsey says, noting that the band’s fans are part of the reason they’re able to enjoy such an existence.

“We were full-time, touring, working our backsides off for the first 15 years of the band, so it’s nice to now to be in this position. We’ve always had an attitude of, ‘We do whatever we want,’ but moreso it feels like we really have a license to just do whatever we want, whenever we want, and really that is because of our audience and our fanbase.

“We’re also just really grateful that it’s still an ever-changing audience, and there’s still new people discovering the band. We feel really lucky that when we do put out records, there’s an appetite for them. It’s not like we’re a band who has been around for ages and we just make records for an excuse to go on tour so that people can hear us play our old records. It’s like, people want to hear this record, and when they go to see us on tour, they want to see us play this record. After 25 years, that’s a wonderful position to be in.”

Arriving almost exactly four-and-a-half years after Dempsey’s Strange Loop album, the current pattern of solo records coming between albums from Something for Kate was similarly an unintentional approach, but one that the group have managed to get used to.

“We just sort of fell into thing of, ‘Let’s just do one after the other’,” Dempsey notes, “and it seemed to fit in nicely with our pattern of having children [laughs].

“But now, I don’t know what might be next. It might be neither. There will definitely be more Something for Kate records, there will definitely be more solo records, but what comes next might be a different thing again; it might be some other project. I think we’ll be doing Something for Kate stuff for a very long time. And as for myself, I don’t imagine a day where I won’t be making records.”

As a record, The Modern Medieval has been in the works for quite a while. When Dempsey released Strange Loop in 2016, the songwriting process began almost immediately afterwards, with the music beginning to take shape soon after, and by the end of 2017, the musical side of things was relatively established.

With a sense of where things were going, the trio entered La Cueva Recording with studio co-owner Nick DiDia to formally begin work on the record. Going into the process with an intent of creating a record that was “hi-fi”, and one that didn’t lack the space and dynamics that previous Something for Kate records may have (according to Dempsey), the group set to work, with DiDia helping the band to bring more out of the songs thanks to his own unique experiences within the music industry.

“We chose Nick because he’s an extremely accomplished producer and mixer and everything he does just sounds fantastic,” he explains. “He had a really interesting perspective on the songs. It wasn’t just about the sound, he would talk about. If I was singing a particular song, we would talk about a character’s perspective, and the character’s voice, and stuff like that. He thinks about it on a number of levels.”

With the recording process finished off in Byron Bay, the trio continued an approach they had not previously attempted, as they allowed the record to settle before embarking on the mixing process with Howie Beck in Canada. It was this approach that allowed The Modern Medieval to become what it is, with more than one set of ears hearing its potential, sharing their input, and helping the record to grow to its final form.

“All our other records have been recorded in the same studio, with the same person,” Dempsey explains. “You start recording, and immediately as soon as you finish recording, you start mixing, and you keep on going until it’s done, and then it’s all finished. We decided this time, before we even started, that we wanted to break it up into segments.

“We wanted to record it one place with one person, and then go home for a month, live with the rough recording, and then go somewhere else and mix it with somewhere else again. So it was three blocks, and it almost gave us three opportunities to imagine what the record could be.

“We recorded it in Byron Bay, I did a bunch bit more recording at home in my little studio, and then it was mixed in Canada,” he adds. “And I think all of those three different locations, different people, all helped it to [evolve]. I think if we had just mixed what we did in Byron Bay, it just wouldn’t be the same record. It grew a lot at each stage.”

While the recording and mixing process for the recording was officially wrapped up in November of 2019, a mid-year release date was pushed back for obvious reasons. However, with the full extent of 2020 still set to show its teeth, the group released the record’s first single – “Situation Room” – back in April.

A track which almost seems to be rather prescient for the year that has been marred by a global pandemic, it would almost be too easy to say Dempsey might have known something we didn’t. However, he admits that the song’s inspiration came from the fact that the state of the world hadn’t exactly been one of serene stability beforehand.

“Let’s not forget that we were living a shit-show before COVID came along,” he notes. “COVID is obviously massive and it’s affected every last person on the planet, but prior to that, it’s not like things were sailing along smoothly.

“It’s been a pretty chaotic few years in a number of ways. I guess I was reacting to that […] and trying to predict what’s going to happen next, and trying to be prepared for whatever disaster might be around the corner. Then it just happened that we copped a good one.”

Likewise, second single “Waste Our Breath” feels like more of a reactionary response to the world as it is, with Dempsey referring to the track as being a tale of “love in the time of the surveillance state”. Written with George Orwell’s prophetic warnings in mind, and the notion of iPhones allowing users to be tracked and followed, Dempsey focused his thoughts on the idea of the general public becoming the new surveillance state through the use of social media.

“I was thinking about all of those things and thinking about how funny it is that there was a time when people would say to you, ‘There’s this bar that no one knows about’,” he explains. “It’s like, behind a secret door, and no one knows about it, so it’s really cool. But that doesn’t exist anymore. There’s no secrets. There’s no spots that no one knows about.

“But thinking about all these things, I was thinking, ‘Well, what do you really have left that is truly yours, and truly private, and truly intimate?’ And I guess it came down to ‘your breath’. So it’s the idea of two people meeting somewhere, even though there’s a checkpoint or a watchtower, to waste their breath on each other, because it’s the only true intimate thing [left]. Then COVID came along and now that’s a terrible idea.”

Meanwhile, one of the earliest songs to have been written for the record was “Supercomputer”, the record’s third single, and a fan favourite since Dempsey began performing the track during his live shows. An almost haunting track which serves as a standout of his live shows, and of recent singles, it’s one that paradoxically sounds the most like Something for Kate, while feeling completely different to anything else on the record.

“It might have been the first or second song that was written out of all of these, so I’ve definitely been playing that one live for the longest,” he explains. “I’ve been playing it live, acoustically, but the version you hear on the album is pretty close to the demo. For me, it’s always had those shuffling drumbeats and those keyboards, so it’s nice for people to finally hear it finally realised.”

Of course, one of the most notable songs on the album though comes by way of “Inside Job”. Again, something of a relevant composition given the levels of extreme paranoia that runs rampant throughout the world in a time like this, Dempsey explains that the track’s origins actually came about during a trip to the pub with a friend.

While discussing the topic of Russian literature, the pair were joined by an individual who overheard their conversation touch upon alternate and hypothetical realities, and viewed it as something of an invitation to share his belief in almost any and every possible conspiracy theory imaginable. While initially struck by the absurdity of the man’s blanket approach to these theories, Dempsey explains that it was the loneliness of the man that stuck with him.

“There was no amount of trying to reason with him or trying to explain the actual information,” Dempsey recalls. “He just didn’t want to know, and I was really struck by how lonely that must be. He was at the pub by himself, so it wasn’t lost on me that he was alone at the pub and had to come over and talk with us. I just became so fascinated with the mentality of the conspiracy theorist.

“It was like his crusade. It obviously gave him some sense of purpose, it made him feel important, it made him feel smart, it made him feel superior – presumably – to everyone else who didn’t know what he knew. It’s like, how can you walk around thinking you are in possession of secret knowledge that no one else has?

“It’s a delusion of grandeur. But also, I couldn’t help thinking, it must be so lonely. You must feel like you’re the only character in a grand drama and that no one understands you, no one hears you, no one believes you. I was just kind of interested in that.”

Having recorded the track at La Cueva, the group called upon studio owner, Powderfinger frontman, and close friend Bernard Fanning, to take on a guest role, with his iconic vocals helping to round out the track by serving as the voice of reason.

“It’s written in such a way that there’s two different voices throughout the song,” Dempsey explains. “I’m kind of ranting and raving throughout the verses, trying to paint the picture of that tormented inner world of this person that knows everything but no one believes him.

“Then when Bernard comes in, it’s more like he’s taking the cold, clinical approach, assessing it from a distance and sounding very reasonable. He was perfect for it because everyone knows his voice, everyone recognises his voice, and it’s a comforting voice to any Australian. So he was the perfect person to provide that voice of reason.”

With The Modern Medieval now out in the world, it goes without saying that the band’s release day is unlike none they’ve ever experienced. In a perfect world, the day would potentially be spent with an album launch show, or at the very least, a cursory look towards the upcoming tour dates in support of the record.

Instead, Something for Kate are left to celebrate the record with a little bit more isolation than would be preferred; itching to get out in the road once again.

At this point, the future is relatively uncertain, though Dempsey admits that the creative process won’t take long to fire up again, though live performances are undoubtedly at the forefront of his mind.

“I’ve already started thinking about starting to write again,” he notes. “Obviously we’re desperate to play shows, and to tour if we can. Playing live is something we really thrive on. So as soon as we can do that, we’ll do a lot of that. Hopefully for the next couple of years we’ll be playing lots of shows and writing at the same time.

“We do have some dates on hold for next year. But we’re not going to announce something only to turn around and cancel it. People have enough disappointment in their lives. But if it gets close to that point and it looks like they’re actually doable, then we’ll be ready to go.”

Something for Kate’s The Modern Medieval is out now via EMI.