When Ball Park Music first announced the impending arrival of their sixth studio album back in March, the world was something of a different place. In fact, just four days prior, COVID-19 restrictions had led to the closure of venues around the country, with artists unsure of what the future would hold, or for how long this nascent environment would become “the new normal”.
Ball Park Music however, were left in something of an interesting situation. With new music ready to unleash into the world, “Spark Up!” served as the first single from Mostly Sunny, and it helped fans to briefly forget about just what the events of the outside world as they became enveloped in the band’s outwardly-sunny sounds.
Just a month later though, the band announced that the album would be undergoing something of a change. Put simply, the Mostly Sunny title was out, and it had been replaced by the eponymous Ball Park Music name.
“We’re going to call the album Ball Park Music,” frontman Sam Cromack told triple j at the time. “We’ve been talking about it for years, waiting for the right album to do it and we were finally like ‘let’s do it!’
As new music continued to arrive, and the global situation continued to rage, Ball Park Music gave fans an insight into their new record, revealing that it had in fact been borne out of one of the most gruelling experiences that they had ever encountered as a band.
“None of our records have been glamorous to make; we’ve always wound up in some hot shed making indie rock on the cheap like a bunch of masochists,” Cromack revealed via Instagram. “But this record, well, it was the most hardcore. It knocked us around the most. It was the most us. I mean, look what we did… We called it Ball Park Music. We named it after our own fucking band.”
Despite the negative conditions in which the album was cultivated, and the year that it arrives in, Ball Park Music has become what is arguably the finest album not only released by the band, but an Australian artist in 2020. Though traditional touring is off the cards due to the pandemic, Ball Park Music look set to end a rather forgettable period by way of not only unleashing this long-awaited, hard-won record, but by launching it as part of a residency at The Triffid in Brisbane.
With the future once again looking mostly sunny for the group, Cromack and guitarist Dean Hanson spoke to Rolling Stone about the new album, its production, and their long-awaited return to the live stage.
Firstly, congratulations on the new album, it’s an amazing piece of work that I bet you’re feeling eager to finally get out there?
Sam Cromack: Last night I took a listen to the album for the first time in a while… You just binge it so hard when you’re making it that when you finally finish it, you’re kind of still in the zone and really feeling excited and proud.
It’s been a slow year, we finished the record around May or something, and listening to it last night, I was still vibing everything, but I was like, “I just need to get this out there now.” That’s the next step; I need to part ways with this. I’m sick of having it just to myself.
Dean Hanson: I remembered last night – about 10 o’clock; I was driving home – that people we’d be speaking to for press will have heard the record, and I was just like, “Yeah, finally, there’s a bunch of people who have listened to it!”
For me, it was an album that made me want to actively share it with people before I realised it’s not actually out for a while still. You’ve done some really amazing work, but you mentioned before the album was finished up back in May, so was the album supposed to arrive a bit sooner?
Dean: Definitely, the plan was for it to be here sooner. I think it came down, pretty much, to shipping of the vinyl, because shipping is just so hard at the moment to do air freight. So the vinyl had to be shipped on an actual boat, on water, which was going to take… I think we get our vinyl printed in Germany, so it was going to take something like two-and-a-half months for it to arrive.
Then, “What if we get them and they’re all printed wrong?” So we had give ourselves two weeks to a month of emergency time or consolidation, so it was originally slated for maybe late August, early September, but it kept getting pushed back because of those things, which was a funny reason for it to be pushed back.
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We’ve also been seeing a bit of insight from you guys about the album’s production and how it was such an intense, gruelling process. On Instagram it was said that this one “knocked us around the most”. So, other than a pandemic in the midst of it, what exactly was different this time around? Why were things so much more intense than on previous records?
Sam: It’s kind of a boring reason, but we moved into a new studio space, which we were really excited about. We’d been in a smaller room for a couple of years, and that was where we made Good Mood, our last record, and then we got into this new space which was probably twice as big, so we thought we’d died and gone to heaven when we found this room. It was so large, it was the biggest studio we’d ever worked in. When I say ‘big’, we’re still talking about one square room, about six by six metres, so nothing crazy.
But we were so excited, we’d moved all our shit in there, which took ages, and then the room was basically just plagued by noise. On one side of our wall, we had a mechanic, and on every other surrounding wall, we had drummers in their rehearsal rooms, and it sounds petty, but it was not an ideal environment to make a record in.
It was just so kind of heartbreaking to secure this new space, move in there, and it’s almost unworkable a lot of the time. We had so many sessions just ending with our heads in our hands.
“We had so many sessions just ending with our heads in our hands.”
We worked from October through to Christmas time, and we ended for the year, took a break for Christmas, and I remember we all ended on a pretty sour note. It was just so hot in the studio, so noisy, and we all just felt like, “Ah shit, is this record coming together okay?” So we kind of had to dig deep and come back with a better attitude. But it was just shit like that, and it just really challenged us.
Dean: I feel like one of the biggest differences on previous records and this one is that the way that we often work when we’re in the studio together is based off like, how plucking inspiration from the universe – just out of thing air – and when you’re in a place where you do run into those hurdles, it just massively puts walls between those moments of inspiration.
Like, you walk in, you’re enthusiastic about it, you’re trying to create this record that you’re hoping is really great, and then you go in there one day and your whole day is just sidelined by some bullshit you couldn’t anticipate. I think that it just exhausted us eventually.
One thing I’ve always loved about Ball Park Music is how you guys are always able to put this outwardly positive spin on everything you do, even though the message beneath it or the inspiration behind the music might be much darker. Knowing that background, it sort of turns this into a classic Ball Park Music album, and also adds a bit more context to songs like “Nothing Ever Goes My Way” as well.
Sam: [Laughs] It’s so funny, Dean wrote that song and I always loved the song, and the tune, I felt, was so strong. We talked a lot about that lyric, and trying to get the balance right of just how to execute it. We ended up being like, “Let’s just put it front and centre and make it an angry, pissed off track,” and that’s one of my favourites, and I always just lead into that lyric and think how it totally reminds me of those times where we were just like, “Fuck!”
You noted it’s one of your favourites, and honestly, it’s the one I’ve returned to the most. It feels so cathartic, and I suppose that must be how you look back on it now as well.
Dean: I feel like when we did get on a roll with recording stuff, because of the frustration, when we finally had those moments where something was feeling good and feeling right… If there’s one thing that has kept us producing music over such a long period of time, it’s just purely our love of playing music together.
I think we’re just so unbelievably passionate about it, and we just had a rehearsal yesterday for the first time in a while, playing some of our old songs, and we all leave the studio just writing on our text messages like, “Oh man, I’m like, coming down from that.” I’m on such a high from it, and I’m exhausted the day after it, and I think that reflects on the record we just made.
“If there’s one thing that has kept us producing music over such a long period of time, it’s just purely our love of playing music together.”
I think all that positivity and energy we’re putting into the recordings is even more magnified by the fact we were able to be getting something down without having issues.
When you all actually went into the studio for this album, and having the new space at your disposal, had you planned on doing anything particularly different to Good Mood, or did the presence of the new studio just allow things to unfold that way?
Sam: I think we always just let fate play a role; just see what happens with the song that we’ve got written. The main ‘theme’, if you will, for our philosophy or approach [to the record] was to lean into each song, if that makes any sense. I think in the past, we’ve looked back on our records and felt like either a), we’re worried, like “Did the record end up too eclectic?”, or b) did we we actually put too much pressure on ourselves to try and make certain tracks feel consistent across the record.
This time, we were just like, “Fuck it, let’s almost treat it like a mixtape.” I know it probably doesn’t sound like that when you hear the record, but that was our mindset, “When we’re working on each song, forget about the rest of the songs, forget about the world, and just go down each rabbit hole with each tune and see what happens, and not worry about the consequences.”
You guys also changed the title of the record earlier this year as well. Was that something that came about late in the process? When did things start to present themselves to make it clear that the old title no longer represented what you had created?
Dean: I think with every record we’ve ever made, and I think most bands are probably in this boat, the idea of calling the record, or making it a self-titled record, is always there; it’s always an option. We’ve probably floated it with all of our records now, from one to five, and then this one was where that idea probably came about the latest for all our records.
None of us had really thought about it, but then when it came time to releasing details about the new record coming out, we had already pretty much announced it was going to be called Mostly Sunny, and I don’t know, we might’ve done that a bit prematurely. Then we were worried about changing the name, but then we thought, and it was the same as our approach to the songs on the record, “Let’s just lean into what we want to do and what feels right, and if something feels like it needs to be changed, let’s just do it.”
Then we were sitting around just talking about it, and I think I might have suggested, “How about we just call this one Ball Park Music?” Then we all went, “Hang on a sec, if there’s ever been a record where we feel like our band name represents the record we’ve made, it’s this one.”
“If there’s ever been a record where we feel like our band name represents the record we’ve made, it’s this one.”
It just felt right for the first time, and the more it’s gone since we’ve accepted that that’s what we’ll be titling it, the better it’s felt.
Plus the idea of calling an album something like Mostly Sunny in a year such as this would be almost a little paradoxical as well?
Dean: Yeah, it all started to fall apart as soon as we did that, so it’s probably out fault, maybe; we jinxed ourselves. But another thing I thought I’d mention on that, is that this is our first record we’ve released as an independent [act], so we’re releasing it on our own label as well.
So, taking ownership on that side of things as well, it just feels like the whole project of this album is, I mean, we’ve always had a lot of ownership of it, but this one’s the most we’ve ever had, and the control is in our hands.
Sam: It really just made us feel like we could do what we want at every stage, and made us realise more than ever before how much all these made-up, silly rules seem to exist in the industry. Then you wake up one day and realise, “This is all bullshit, we can do whatever the hell we want.” It’s not a big deal if we change album titles, or whatever.
If you guys weren’t releasing this one as an independent act, do you feel you would’ve made a different record? Would you have had even more pressure on yourselves?
Sam: I’d say we’ve been really lucky in terms of actual music-making, our team – from our management through to our previous label – have been extremely respectful in that regard, and almost not interfered at all with our music-making. We more or less send them mixed and mastered records and they just go, “Cool!”. So that feels like a huge privilege.
Dean: I’d say that I feel like another reason that we did this record independently is through the blessing of our entire team as well. It wasn’t just us going, “We want to do this one independently,” it was kind of everyone in our team that still remains going, “You guys can do this!”. I think we’ve always had so much control over every aspect, and I feel more or less, they were trying not to throw a blanket over our potential to have that kind of freedom in what we make.
If anything, I think going independent and having that sense of, “Yeah, this is ours”, definitely encouraged us to keep pushing forward with that attitude toward the record, keep leaning into the songs. It just feel as the years have gone by, we’ve kind of picked our lane now, and we just want to sit in it, and go, “Let’s just lean into our music.” We’ve always done it, it’s always worked for us, and that’s just how we love making music.
Speaking of the songs specifically, there’s a lot of great tracks on this one, but one that has stuck out to a lot of fans is the inclusion of “Bad Taste Blues (Part III)”. It follows on from “Part I” and “Part II” on 2012’s Museum, so why did we wait so long for a third one?
Sam: Look, to be completely honest, that song had a different name right up until the completion of the record, and I was just like, so in love with the song, but so unsatisfied with the generic name I had for it.
I think we were literally working on the album artwork, just thinking, “What else could we call this to make this a bit spicier?” Then we just thought of “Bad Taste Blues (Part III)”, because, to be honest, all our other songs that have had “Blues” in the title, none of them have been a blues song, it’s just like this ongoing joke every now and then to call a song “Something Something Blues”.
Yeah, people lost their fucking minds anticipating number three, but after we did that, we ended up doing some further work to the song to add some mysterious kind of links in there.
Dean: It has to fit the brief, too. I think from our point of view it just feels like we just slapped this title on song and went, “That’ll do,” but if it wasn’t the right title and that song didn’t fit in the trilogy, I think it wouldn’t have worked. So there must be some kind of spiritual thing going on there that made us feel as though it was the right song to have [that title]. Who knows, maybe there’ll be a “Bad Taste (Part IV)” coming up?
Or if history repeats, it’ll be another eight years before it arrives. Now, looking towards the release though, you also have your residency at The Triffid in Brisbane as well. I’m assuming you’re looking forward to finally hitting the stage again?
Dean: Absolutely, we’re kind of treating it as kind of a special thing for ourselves, and leaning into… I don’t know, maybe being a little bit indulgent in terms of what we’re performing. So, we’re kind of going deep into the back catalogue, there’s – speaking of “Bad Taste Blues” – one night where we’re playing the trilogy back to back. We’ve never played “Bad Taste (Part I)” at a live show in our entire career… Just doing things like that, y’know?
[There will be] little easter eggs, and we might not have the opportunity to perform a residency like this again. It’s kind of been forced on us by what’s been happening in the world, but yeah, it actually feels really nice. Every step of the way has felt like it’s going to be really cool. It’ll be a treat for punters, and we’re very excited about it.
Obviously it’s the culmination of a really intense, but exciting lead-up to this album, isn’t it?
Dean: The one thing that’s been exciting me the most about it coming out is that the singles we’ve shared so far – we’ve shared three singles so far, and there’s eight tracks – I don’t necessarily feel like the singles are a great representation of the whole of the record.
So I feel a lot of listeners will be like, “Oh shit, this is actually a surprise.” And we tossed up what to roll out with, and especially this third single [“Cherub”]. Obviously side one of the record is a lot more upbeat, it’s classic, I guess what I would call alt-rock Ball Park vibes, and then the rest of the record sort of mellows out towards the end.
So I hope it will surprise people. Things can be predictable in – excuse the pun – this day and age, and with records, you release singles and you kind of know what you’re going to get. So I know, from my point of view, knowing that people kind of get a surprise when they put the record on is really great.
“We might actually be able to help people through what has been a bullshit year.”
Was there any sort of worry about the original plan of releasing the album in August that people wouldn’t be able to experience the album in the way you wanted it to?
Dean: Not really. It was definitely something we considered, of course, but I feel like bands have either gone one of two ways, which is like, put everything on pause and wait for it all to pan out, or just roll ahead. Some people have had to roll ahead with things because it was too late to pull out the campaign. I feel like those people were probably in the hardest position of everybody, because they’re going to have the longest wait before they can try and keep the momentum going.
For us, we definitely considered “What should we do? Should we push it back?”, but then we just said, “You know what? This could almost work…”. And we’re not looking for an advantage or anything, but it could almost be an advantage to just go, “Yeah, shit’s weird, but let’s just push ahead with what we’re releasing.”
Sure, we might not be able to tour off the back of it right away, like we’d usually love to do, but if we can just keep releasing things, keep a positive attitude, and keep our fans engaged, then we might actually be able to help people through what has been a bullshit year. We feel that energy back from those people.
From the very beginning, I’ve been saying – and I only just realised that the goals we set ourselves at the beginning of all this, and when we knew it would be a lot of hard work to get this album to reach its full potential through the pandemic – I feel like the set up has been really good. It’s been organised, and people have been ready for this album. It could potentially turn out to be one of our most, I guess, remarkable releases in terms of the fact that attention is on us this time around.
I’ve said this to a lot of artists this year who were apprehensive about releasing new music this year is the fact that with people in lockdown, it’s given them a lot more time to really listen to an album, to sit with it and experience it the way it’s supposed to be heard.
Dean: I feel like with the fact that we can’t travel and the fact we can’t go to other countries in the world, I feel like the focus – especially in the community we’re in, and with stations like triple j – from punters is more on Australian music this year. Because we’re all in Australia, and the thought of internationals coming here on the touring circuit and adding to the saturation of artists and bands on the market hasn’t happened.
So it feels like it’s a good opportunity for Australian acts to go, “You know what? We’re here, we’re all in this together, we’re all in this beautiful country, and how about we enjoy the stuff we’re making here?” The focus is a little bit smaller.
I’ve even found myself wondering what things like the triple j Hottest 100 will look like next year. Y’know, how Australian will it be now that folks haven’t had the chance to see all this international music up close like they usually would?
Dean: It’ll be fascinating. I’m excited about it. I don’t know, as much as it’s been a grim year for so many people, it’s kind of been interesting. We’ve learned a lot, from our perspective, and learned not to take things for granted as well. So when things do go back to – well, somewhat – normal, I think people will appreciate that a lot more. Especially artists, and hopefully punters, too.
I could only imagine how voracious the crowds are going to be when Ball Park Music play The Triffid.
Dean: I don’t know, I have no idea how I’m going to react. When I got married, I was like, “Am I going to cry when I see my wife?” So I’m like, I don’t know how I’ll react. I think it’s the same, we’ve been missing that rush of performing live, so those first few shows will be truly overwhelming, I think. Hopefully the same can be said for the people watching, because not a lot has been happening in Brisbane.
While it feels like things have been better here [compared to Melbourne], it feels like there’s been a severe lack of people getting out in the community. So I think that’s why the shows have sold so well. We were expecting it go… I mean, hopefully people will buy tickets, but it really surprised us. Obviously people have been sitting there waiting for that release, so hopefully we can provide them with it.