Absentee are Laurie Earle (bass), Babak Gangei (guitar, lap steel), Jon Chandler (drums, percussion), Dan Michaelson (vocals, guitar, piano) and Melinda Bronstein (vocals, keyboards, melodica, glockenspiel). It began with Dan issuing a debut single ‘One Big Wave/ Sweet Sweet Sleep’ (Radiotone, July 2003), recorded on a four track portastudio, before progressing to eight-track and working with Melissa for the album ‘Hawaiian Disco’ (December 2003). Filling out to band-size, Absentee released the limited edition single ‘The Getaway/ Homegroan’ (April 2004), before being signed by Memphis Industries and putting out the ‘Donkey Stock’ mini-album in June this year. For comparative purposes, think Smog, the Velvet Underground, Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen delivered with a very black humour. They’re frequent tourers, having supported the Broken Family Band, Kevin Tihista, Joanna Newsom, St Thomas and the Magic Numbers (Romeo Stoddard used to play bass in Absentee and has said that they’re his favourite band). We spoke to Dan, with interjections from Jon and Babak, at Truck Eight in July 2005.
written by Ged M
Aug 15, 2005.
SXP: On the press release for ‘Donkey Stock’ you say you identify with donkeys because they’re placid, slow to rouse but have a nasty kick. But you don’t really think of donkeys as rock’n’roll animals, do you?
Dan: Not instantly. But there’s a lot to be said for a donkey. It seemed to make sense for some reason.
SXP: *points to their photo from their site* Is that a donkey?
Dan: That’s Bayleaf – that’s our donkey.
Jon: Babyshambles nicked it for their new video. It’s not our donkey actually – as if you’d fight over a donkey.
SXP: Is it a Hackney donkey?
Jon: He’s from Spitalfields City Farm. Trying to get him into a gig, now that would be the ultimate thing.
SXP: Bayleaf went onto better things having been a part of Absentee and Romeo [Stoddard] went onto the Magic Numbers, so this is a starting point for everyone.
Dan: Basically, we just like to prepare future stars for their role in life. That’s all we’re here for!
SXP: At Acid Country 2 at the Windmill, you were joined on stage by Angela and Michelle [from the Magic Numbers]. Do you keep in touch?
Dan: We did the last tour with them and we’re doing four or five dates on the next one. We’re not doing all of it this time.
Jon: We still see them all the time. Melinda lives with Angela so it’s like a little posse. It’s a shame they’re not down here today.
SXP: I know that when John Kennedy plays your records he introduces you as “Romeo’s favourite band”.
Dan: No-one tells us we’re going to be on the radio so I haven’t actually heard it. I heard the first time ‘Rainy Day Swimmer’ got played on the radio. I sat up and listened to that. I had to listen to an hour of a Green Day documentary to get there! Other than that, I haven’t heard it on the radio.
SXP: The first time that I saw you was when you came off the Ed Harcourt tour and you were on a Track & Field bill. You were all sat down.
Babak: It took us a long time to work out how to use our legs.
Dan: I was quite adamant we’d all sit down but the crowd barrier at the front of the stage [on the Harcourt tour] was higher than we were so the stage appeared to be empty while we were playing! So we decided things had to change.
Jon: We played with Joanna Newsom as well. That was a real quiet thing. That was a while back in Birmingham. She’s fucking amazing. It was brilliant that one.
Dan: It was brilliant afterwards. At the time I was so nervous. It was so quiet, you could hear people lighting their cigarettes and just breathing. Fairly nerve-wracking. But it’s one of those gigs that’s really good after you’ve played. We’ve also done a lot of stuff with the Broken Family Band, who we really like quite a lot.
Jon: Dan’s recording stuff with them.
Dan: Me and Steven [Adams] have been talking about doing an album together since we met; it hasn’t come anywhere near happening. We talked about maybe doing a cover version but that’s as close as we’ve come to it. They’re a great band; that’s what we’re aiming for.
SXP: How long have you been writing songs?
Dan: I’ve actually been writing songs for about two years. Me and Melinda were in a band previously for four years and then I started this band, with Melissa initially. We just did a demos album together and then we got a proper band to do stuff.
SXP: That album was ‘Hawaiian Disco’?
Dan: That was just me and Melinda. When we realised we’d have to play gigs, we thought we’d start a band properly and that’s when we met Babak, Laurie and Jon. We knew them all previously from different social circumstances and from there it just progressed to everyone writing songs instead of just me and Melinda. It’s been quite natural. In September we’re recording the first full-length album which is much more of a band album.
SXP: You’ve just released a six-track mini-album. Presumably you have more songs so why not release a full-length album?
Dan: We thought about it a lot. By the time we released [Donkey Stock] we’d had it made for nearly a year and we had pretty much a whole album’s worth of new stuff to record. We though that it’s better to put it out as something slightly less significant than an album; that gives us the freedom to play all the other songs at gigs and just keep going forward instead of standing in one place. It seemed like the right thing to do.
SXP: Why re-record ‘Rainy Day Swimmer’ for ‘Donkey Stock’?
Dan: It was the one song when we first started playing as a full band that really seemed to say: “bloody hell, there’s a band”. For that reason, I thought it was worth doing again. And I thought it was a really nice way to show the transition from one record to the next.
SXP: Is it fair to say that all your songs are quite…depressing?
Dan: *laughter* It depends...In terms of delivery, if you’re speaking more than singing, which is generally what I tend to do, and it’s in a lower kind of register, there’s always going to be a slightly sadder edge. I think there’s a healthy balance to be honest. I think lyrically it’s not all doom and gloom but maybe it sounds a little like that.
SXP: They’re kitchen sink dramas, heavy on the detail.
Dan: Yeah, they’re very short narrative stories about usually just a couple of people in a very minor, insignificant-to-anyone-else situation.
SXP: With some of your lyrics you have a surprisingly vivid turn of phrase.
Dan: It didn’t really come very naturally to me to be doing any singing or songwriting or whatever. So if you’re going to bother to do it when it doesn’t come naturally to you, then you have a certain responsibility to try and use language a bit. I thought it was important. It’s such a rich language you might as well use it.
SXP: You have a deep singing voice. Any influences or role models?
Dan: I wouldn’t go that far. There are only certain people that I’ve thought have written much better records than I have so far, or than we have: Lou Reed, obviously a very good songwriter, Leonard Cohen has his moments, and Bob Dylan is very good. That’s pretty much all. I don’t really listen to a hell of a lot of music.
SXP: I saw that someone compared you to Neil Hannon.
Dan: Yeah, I thought that was really weird. Not unflattering, just weird. It’s not something I’ve ever thought of. I’ve only ever listened properly to one of those albums and I thought that was very good. I certainly wouldn’t say he was a role model.
SXP: I like the way ‘My Dead Wife’ morphs into ‘You’re the One That I Want’.
Jon: They haven’t heard it yet. We’re riding that one as long as we can do it. They’re going to take our £500 advance!
Dan: It seemed like a perfectly natural thing for that song to do. I think it’s incredibly difficult to write anything that sentimental without feeling incredibly foolish so, if someone has already done it and it pretty much gets the point across, that’s fine.
SXP: It must take some vision to hear it at 64bpm or whatever speed someone estimated it to be.
Dan: I think we’ve got a tendency to slow pretty much everything down! Again, it was just a very natural thing to do.
SXP: Some of your songs are on a film soundtrack. How did that come about?
Dan: That came about, like I think most of these things happen, I shared a flat with the guy who made the film. It wasn’t any more glamorous or interesting than that. He asked if we could do the music for it and I thought that would be a good idea.
SXP: Had you seen the visuals before you agreed to let him use your songs?
Dan: No, most of the tracks were already written. The only one that wasn’t was a track called ‘Crystal’; he told me the plot of the film and I wrote a song around it. Hopefully we’re talking about them doing a video for us at some point, which will be a really nice way of coming full circle on that thing.
SXP: When is your new record out?
Dan: There’ll be a single in early October.
Jon: We don’t know what that single is yet! Bit of debate really: there are about three potential songs. It’s not that big a deal really; just be nice to have it played a little bit in the lead up to the album.
Dan: We’ve got a little time to think about it.
Jon: Yeah, we’re just enjoying playing and starting to get the name around.
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