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Paul Dempsey: At Home With Strange

Existentialist, astrophysicist, musical genius, family man. Paul Dempsey is one strange loop in an endlessly fascinating universe.

There is a simple world of tidy houses on leafy streets. It’s a routine, unquestioning place where a tall, raven-haired man and his radiantly blonde wife might push a stroller through the morning sunshine and order takeaways from a local barista without recourse to rocket science or brain surgery. Sure, it’s a world teetering on big unknowns. There’s the Horizon Problem, for instance: a cosmological conundrum stemming from the Big Bang theory, in which the speed of light renders one end of the universe impossible from the other. Or something.

Then there’s the mystery of human consciousness as explored in Douglas Hofstadter’s book I Am a Strange Loop. What weird science leads every man, woman, barista and baby to construct their own unique sense of “I” from the common atoms comprising brain neurons?

If you canvased the length of this busy Melbourne road from Albert Park to Dandenong Valley, maybe only the tall man sipping coffee at this particular crosswalk could engage with those concepts with any real insight. Certainly he alone would feel compelled to draw songs of comparable intrigue and beauty from their mysteries.

Strange Loop is Paul Dempsey’s second solo album. It was largely made here, in the double-storey weatherboard house he bought two years ago with his wife Stephanie Ashworth, the bass player in his currently resting band, Something For Kate.

Their four-year-old son Miller is at kinder this morning. Baby Lake, now being spoon-fed with one hand while Mum uses the other to check her laptop on the kitchen bench, arrived just eight months ago.

The light and airy family space is tastefully lined with art, books and cactuses. The letters I, D, E and A throw a kind of wry gauntlet from one corner. A Fender Jazzmaster guitar lies in wait under the stairs. ABC Jazz filters from the radio: “Steph likes to feel like she’s in a hotel lobby,” Dempsey explains. They smile at each other like couples do.

“Ignore the junk here,” he says, as we carry our coffees past an upstairs alcove overflowing with a rubble of toys under half a dozen gold and platinum awards for old SFK albums. He points through a bedroom window to the backyard: “There’s room out there for a double-garage-sized studio space. That will be a dream come true.”

Meanwhile, the spare room is it. “I’ve actually recorded whole albums up here,” he says, settling on a drum stool in the middle of the unremarkable cube of carpet and white walls lined with books, built-in robes and more books: Russia, Einstein, Vonnegut, Ballard, The Road to Reality, The Joy of X

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Dempsey performing at the Beat The Drum festival in Sydney in 2015.

“I produced Mike Noga’s new album here and it sounds great. Most of ‘The True Sea’ was recorded in here,” he adds, referring to his new album’s epic opening track about infinity and beyond.

In fact, since the third SFK album of 2001, Echolalia, Dempsey has composed each of his records in the form of detailed home demos, layering every instrument via ProTools software onto hard disk. When he plays his ‘True Sea’ demo from his laptop, it sounds so complete you wonder why he bothered flying to Chicago to record at Wilco’s studio, The Loft.

“Because they were the drums,” he says, pointing to an electronic kit draped with an autographed St Kilda jersey. “I can route them through some great software program that makes them sound like they were done at Abbey Road but I like to sit at a proper drum kit in a nice room and use good microphones. It’s just about acoustics.”

It’s also about independent ears. In this case they belonged to American engineer and co-producer Tom Schick, who Dempsey tracked down from the credits of records by Wilco and Ryan Adams. “I didn’t even know you could record at The Loft,” he says, until Schick invited him over during a 16-day window when Jeff Tweedy and his band were away on tour.

“It’s like a museum,” Dempsey says, wide eyed. “There’s so many little curiosities and obscure, weird instruments, as well as beautiful, classic instruments that you dream about . . . They’re just crazy collectors.”

The “organised chaos”, where practically every instrument was already mic’ed up and plugged in ready to record, was the perfect office for a man with a prodigious ability on drums, keys and guitars, and a blueprint for every song meticulously pre-arranged by his own personal collection of brain atoms.

It’s there, inside a strange loop that tends to seem more remarkable than most, that any story about Paul Dempsey must eventually lead. His freakish gifts as a musician are illustrated by what Ashworth calls his “phonographic memory”: the ability to identify, recall and reproduce music on any number of instruments after a single hearing.

He agrees that it’s probably this mental agility that leads him down less expected paths as a composer. “I don’t do it on purpose,” he says, “I’m just easily bored. I guess at this point I just hope to be able to surprise myself.”

“I was raised in a very strong Catholic family. I was an altar boy. I was a total believer until I was about 14, 15.”

Music, as intricate as it can be in metre and harmony, is the easy part. From the first guitar chords of any new song, entire arrangements arrive in his head without pain, he says. It’s only when it comes to content that his synapses stall.

“Alan Sparhawk from Low once described writing lyrics as ‘humiliating’,” he laughs. “I like that. It’s the part of the process where you just go, ‘I don’t know how to do this! I’m not a writer!’ It’s this whole process of feeling like you’re terrible at something. You bash away and write all this awful crap that you want to burn until finally you get enough lines and the song is done.”

Plenty of the lines that made Strange Loop are worth savouring. “It makes the ocean seem like a drop in the ocean”, is his shot at the aforementioned Horizon thing. “If you were me I’d give me a piece of your mind,” he advises in the strangely loopy title track. “A little distance goes a long, long way,” he frets in the nightmarish rush of the brass-studded single, “Morningless”. “I can never tell if I’m kidding, I just play along,” he confides in the exquisitely tender “Be Somebody”.

Kidding isn’t something critics have often noted in Dempsey’s writing, though Strange Loop reaches a new level of playfulness with words that naturally reflects a somewhat mellowed mindset since the discordant anguish of those first SFK records, 20 years ago. “Look, there’s always been a kind of existential angst,” he says. “When I was doing it as a teenager it sounded like a teenager and when I was doing it in my twenties, I guess I wasn’t able to inject much humour into it. Then in my thirties, I started feeling more comfortable with myself and what I was doing.

“When I say comfortable, I don’t mean any less bemused by reality,” he adds, “but more able to look at it with a certain dark humour, instead of just darkness.”

As a father of two preparing to celebrate his 40th birthday this winter, the question of how reality has shifted is one that Dempsey has learned to anticipate.

“When you’ve got kids, yeah, you do start to worry more about the world,” he concedes. “Before that, it’s only your death you have to consider – which I don’t have a big problem with.” He laughs like it’s funny.

“But when I take the longer view of history, I think it was probably no different for parents in ancient Greece thinking, ‘Oh my God, what kind of world are my children growing up in?’

“I think it’s probably been the story of every generation ever – ‘The world is fucked! It’s all over!’ – because every year we are at the forefront of history. Everything is behind and nothing is in front, so obviously you’re always going to go, ‘It’s all coming to an end!'”

Which it is, of course, on a personal level, for every mortal loop in this infinitely strange universe. In a business heavily skewed towards feel-good panaceas of the “All You Need Is Love” variety, one of Dempsey’s distinctions is his complete disinterest in the kind of fuzzy self-help tropes that lead pop stars to thank God at Grammy time.

Hey, of course he has a hand-drawn ‘I love you daddy’ card stuck to his studio wall. It’s right next to the certificate from an online astrophysics course at Swinburne Uni. But as wittily illustrated by SFK’s last album title, Leave Your Soul To Science, the fire in his work is a passion for rationality with all its conundrums, and an utter refusal of the supernatural comforts embalming too many brain neurons in this simple world.

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From left: Recording Strange Loop at The Loft in Chicago; a charming young Dempsey, learning his future trade.

“I remember as a teenager reading The Celestine Prophecy, that book that everyone was going crazy about, and I just thought this is…” an exasperated face finishes the sentence. “Then I read this.” He reaches for a nearby tome called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, by Charles Mackay. “That was probably the best self-help book I ever read. And that was written 150 years ago.

“I’ve succumbed to the madness. I had a nervous breakdown,” he says, referring to a prolonged state of depression he suffered in the mid 2000s. “I kinda lost my mind for little while. No gurus, but I saw a psychologist for a while.”

But The God Delusion, to cite another book on his shelf, was never an option.

“I was raised in a very strong Catholic family. I was an altar boy. I was a total believer until I was about 14, 15. Then it was an arduous process of un-brainwashing myself.

“The hardest thing was giving up on the idea that . . . my father died when I was two years old, and I was always told that I would see him again in heaven one day. I used to feel like he was watching over me, all that stuff. So the hardest thing was letting go of all that.”

The baby has been put to bed when we come downstairs. Ashworth has both hands free to check e-mails from the merch company for her husband’s upcoming tour. “This one’s a tea-towel, would you believe,” she laughs, scrolling down a rectangular version of the spectacular collage cover art by Sydney artist Jonathan Key.

She’s enraptured by the design, which she compares to the work of American conceptual artist John Baldessari. She sees its shimmering bouquet of recontextualised images – body parts, water, clouds, colours – as “the perfect visual accompaniment to Paul’s lyrics… more like a novel, rather than the traditional rhyming stanzas of a lot of songwriting”.

Dempsey embraces the mention of Baldessari, perhaps best known for his collaged scenes of ordinary people with their faces obscured by coloured dots, with a passion they obviously share deeply. “I love the way he gives you something and takes it away at the same time,” he says. It sounds like one of his lyrics. She seems to know exactly what it means.

Main photo: Cybele Malinowski. From issue #775, available now.