INTERVIEW: Otto Wicks-Green (SLEEPMAKESWAVES)
In what can only be described as a fairytale for delay pedals, post-rock trailblazers sleepmakeswaves have well and truly hit their stride with their unique blend of ambient bliss and booming instrumentals catapulting them into international infamy - having already toured with the likes of Karnivool, Cog, Opeth and Devin Townsend, their sprawling epics and dynamic live performances have continually made waves all over the globe, as well as scoring favour locally with unprecedented ARIA nominations for all three of their studio releases
Despite the rapid evolution into the spotlight for these Sydney lads, the sleepmakeswaves success story isn't hinged on arrogant ambition or conventional process, but instead on an authentic passion to constantly refine their art and engage their diverse and adoring audiences - and it's this humble approach mixed with a punishing work ethic that has seen the group punch out their most successful year to date.
In an extremely rare moment of downtime, I cornered guitarist Otto Wicks-Green having just returned from the UK and Europe to debrief 2017, an incredible year that's seen this enthralling quartet dominate live shows all over the world, release their third album 'Made of Breath Only', kick ass on Triple J's Like A Version - and chalk up a third ARIA nomination for their efforts. But in spite of a truly monumental year, there's no complacency in sight or resting on laurels - this is a group who aren't afraid of hard work, permutation or the occasional little dabble into pop music, as Otto explains...
TIANA: Hey Otto, great to chat to you today, how's it going?
OTTO: Hey Tiana! I'm really good!
TIANA: So tell me...sleepmakeswaves have had a ridiculous year, I literally could not make up a more action-packed year. The new album 'Made of Breath Only' hit #15 on the ARIA charts, you've had shows at home and overseas, what I personally deem to be the best Like A Version of all time....and to top it off you've scored an ARIA nomination and a whole new headline tour back home about to kick off...amid all of this overachieving, what has been the biggest highlight so far this year?
OTTO: Wow, I mean...yeah, jeez when you put it like that it has been a big year hasn't it?! (laughs). It's been a hell of a ride, it's been really wonderful that the band has been able to afford to keep me out of work, even just for a couple of years so that a few of the members of the band, myself included, are doing this full time now. So I suppose as a highlight, it's that. I'll give you a very specific example as well, but more broadly the coolest thing about this year has been that I've been able to do this weird, niche art-rock band full time. That's been the massive goal - that's the white whale for the last kind of five years of grinding out way up and getting here has been massively rewarding and enabled us to really put the hard yards in and do all of this touring. But specifically, we loved playing in China. We have a great promoter out there who looks after us and the shows just get crazier every time we go back, it is insane! We're kind of a nerdy, bearded post-rock thing but we play shows in China to hundreds of people and we feel like frickin' Guns N' Roses, it's mental! The scene over there is amazing, and we have a great time. So, I mean, i gotta say in terms of eating a lot of delicious food and just pretending to be rock stars for a week, China has probably been the highlight. But, hey, it's been a crazy year. There's been a lot of cool stuff.
TIANA: Epic, any lighters going up in the crowds in China?
OTTO: Yeah, lighters and phone lights, it's mainly all digital these days (laughs).
TIANA: The modern-day lighter!
OTTO: Yes, the 2017 anthem wave is the blinking light of a social media story, captured ephemerally for someone to watch for 24 hours before being hurled into the void...
TIANA: Well it sounds like at the moment you've had a little bit of time to catch your breath this year...and at the risk of making the most terrible segue of all time, speaking of breath...
TIANA: I couldn't help myself...so the sleepmakewaves new album 'Made of Breath Only' obviously came out in March, and I feel like a lot of the response is significantly focused on the evolution of the sound, while still keeping the core-strengths of what the band has always been about. Aside from your live digital release last year, it's the first time we'd heard new music from you guys since 2014....but was the time in between solely down to the fact that you guys were just hammering out an insane amount of live shows all over the globe in the past few years, or was there another motive behind the gap?
OTTO: Well touring definitely eats up a huge amount of time and this band's always been focused on getting this music out into the world, that's where sleepmakeswaves is best experienced. We try to capture the lightning in a bottle of a live show into our recordings, but unlike some bands which you feel are "recorded" bands first, they spend a lot of time perfecting and teasing out this kind of monument of beautiful noise...we take our recording seriously, but it's really down to capturing the energy of us live. So, as soon as we finished Cartography (2014's 'Love of Cartography'), we hit the road pretty hard and in 2015 and 2016 we were super busy, we hit Europe twice, America once and went around Australia a bunch of times. But also in addition to that we had some line-up changes and that kind of kept things interesting for us and made booking focused time with the guys to sit down and write difficult. And there was a few personal things going on for some members in the band which meant that certain people had to step back for a little while and other people had to step up. So it was a really difficult time - it was busy and it was cool to get a bunch of shows under our belts and to play some cool tours with some rad bands, but it was a challenging time. And stepping back and having the benefit of a few months, or nearly a year out of the writing of 'Made of Breath Only'....looking back it's like "yeah, that was tough". But we persevered.
TIANA: Well the end result is proof that hard work definitely pays off...hindsight is a beautiful thing though, it can be very hard to see it at the time.
OTTO: (laughs) Well, we got a record out of it, and I think it's a monument to where we were at the time. I think it stands nicely in the sleepmakeswaves output. I think it's a bit of a different album, you know? It's funny how records can take their own twists and turns and end up sitting in a space that you didn't really predict. I think that this record turned out far more prog than we expected going in...I think it's a sort of 70's prog homage, this album when I look at it with a bit of space. Which is something that I didn't expect we'd write?! (laughs) Looking at it I'm like "oh yeah, cool! Ok!". But it sort of is of a piece, and I think it holds its own quite consistently in this sort of conceptual way. But, yeah it's funny the twists and turns that you take and you fall down and try to batter these songs into shape!
TIANA: And you obviously are in a band where you're not relying on any vocals, and it does come down to having a lot of light and shade going on....and the album was a great showcase of this, you've got your bone-shattering hard rock moments but still with that bit of ambience...
OTTO: Totally, yeah! We sort of have a toolkit of musical techniques that we bring to bear quite intuitively on our songwriting, a lot of which involve those stark dynamic contrasts and the movement between fast and slow and loud and quiet...they are techniques that we fall back on quite comfortably. So I think it's very much a sleepmakeswaves album, but it's sleepmakeswaves who went out to the snow and went back in time a little bit. It's very technical, it's very dense and I think...that's done! And now we've done that record, me and Alex (Alex Wilson - bassist) like to talk about it like our '...And Justice For All', like how Metallica kept increasing in complexity until they got to 'Justice', and then after that they sort of stepped back and said "right, well let's strip this back to basics again". And I think that's kind of where our heads are starting to fall into now.
TIANA: I don't know if that mentality is what's motivated your next tour, you'll be touring in December alongside Rosetta, and I noticed that a lot of the venues seem to be a little bit more intimate than, say, the huge overseas gigs and festivals you've just come back from. Is that a total coincidence, or is it a conscious effort to strip back and get back to your roots a bit more?
OTTO: Yeah, absolutely right. We've been really focused on, in inverted commas, "growing" the band in Australia and just scoring those goals of getting to play bigger shows, and most importantly stepping up the production every time so that every time someone would come back to a sleepmakeswaves show there would be something new or there'd be an extra surprise to it, whether that be involved in the lighting or the sound design or the visuals. So, with this (tour) we felt like we sort of peaked with what we could achieve on this cycle, getting to headline The Metro in Sydney earlier this year, which was really a big, cool cinematic rock show. And with these shows coming up, we were thinking how to keep this special, and how to make people want to come back and see this band maybe twice in one year. And we thought "we'll completely flip this on its head, and take this band back to where we started", which was in these smaller clubs. sleepmakeswaves was inspired by bands like At The Drive In and Converge and Botch, and really kind of visceral, heavy, in-your-face rock and roll...so we were keen to do that, and pairing this location shift with a band like Rosetta, who are very much in that vein of a wall of noise and a visceral experience, I think really works. I think it's the perfect line-up for this kind of step back, which makes it all the more special. They're smaller rooms, the tickets are a bit more limited, but we're really looking forward to this heat and this connection of being really up close with people in the room and really sharing that with people and providing something a little bit special.
TIANA: I was stoked to see you guys were doing the Oxford Arts Factory in Sydney, I always feel that sort of venue strips down that barrier between the crowd and the stage, and it feels so much more immersive.
OTTO: Yeah, it's a rock and roll show, you know, and so many cool bands have been through that venue and we love playing that room. We're very excited!
TIANA: Another major, major highlight that is coming up for you guys before that tour kicks off...as of November 28th, sleepmakeswaves will be chalking up your third ARIA nomination in the Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal category...Is 2017 finally your year?!
OTTO: (laughs) Oh man. I really doubt it, hey! (laughs) I think there'd be rioting in the streets from true metal fans if we picked up this little pointy silver thing.
TIANA: I feel like this category is so contentious, do you think that this Heavy category needs amending because it seems lately there is always controversy no matter what the outcome is!?
OTTO: Look, music is split like a rainbow spectrum into so many different categories now, I think it would be hard to do justice. I think if you split this into two you'd just have twice as many people annoyed that they weren't in the right category, and I think it would just start a whole thing. But that said, I think you could do hardcore/punk category as opposed to a metal/rock category...that could be a potential way around this. Jeez, I don't even know which one sleepmakeswaves would fit into, maybe we'd be less likely to get nominated for either (laughs).
TIANA: Just make your own category, fly the flag for post-rock and demand your own category.
OTTO: (laughs) Post-rock category that the same five bands are nominated for every year (laughs). That'd be fun! Yeah, look I don't hold out a lot of hope for a win, I think there's a lot of really fine acts nominated, but it is immensely flattering to be nominated and we'll go along and drink a lot of beer and eat from the chocolate fountain and pretend that we belong there.
TIANA: And I did briefly touch on this already, but earlier this year you guys hit a milestone on Triple J marking the first time ever that thecover and original songs were instrumentals. You busted out your own track 'Tundra', but then you did a version of Robert Miles 'Children'. How did you narrow it down to choose this particular song?
OTTO: It was really amazing, we chose this song quite a while ago. There were some discussions with the J's back in...I think it was 2015 to jump in and do something like this. And we had our eyes on a couple of songs, but we got as far as demo-ing 'Children' and we ended up not being able to make it in that time due to a bunch of scheduling issues. So we sort of just held it up our sleeve and when we were invited back, I think that the team over there were keen for us to re-hash that one, so we dug it back up again and started jamming on it, and it just really clicked for us and felt really good. But then, what was amazing and kind of sad was that a couple of weeks out of us actually going in to perform this track, Robert Miles passed away unexpectedly. So the whole thing felt very serendipitous and we were able to kind of dedicate it to him because he did give the world this beautiful, haunting, nostalgic melody that we were so attracted to, not only because everyone has a memory of this song but because the melody is so melancholy and it lent itself to our approach of using textures and dynamics to lift that melody. It was an instrumental track that didn't feel diminished by us covering it, which is what we worried about with, say, a song that had vocals.
TIANA: I nearly had to pull my car over when you announced the cover, it was such an epic flashback and seemed to resonate so heavily with so many people.
OTTO: It's been really lovely that that song's connected with people, we just got back from Europe and we had people demanding it almost every night, which was kind of a surprise! It just goes to show the reach of something like Like A Version, which was an immensely cool thing for us to be able to do and we're very grateful that we got that opportunity.
TIANA: In terms of actual music you listen to personally, is there anything that you listen to that may surprise people? Obviously you're usually surrounded by so much dense, textured and insanely immersive music...is there anything a bit left-of-centre that you listen to in your so-called downtime?
OTTO: Yeah, I'm a sucker for pop music hey. I really love The 1975, I love Carly Rae Jepsen, I love Taylor Swift...I really enjoy just munging out to that stuff, and just enjoying the work of thousands of hours of people's focused labour into these incredible gems of precision. That's how I see pop music now, it's like looking at a satellite where you're like "man, some really smart people have created this!". But in addition to that, there's a lot of stuff that you'd expect nerds like me would listen to, bands like Isis and Deftones and all that. But the three records that I've listened to most this year are 'Peripheral Vision' by a band called Turnover, which I absolutely love...an album called 'Tired of Tomorrow' by a band called Nothing, which is like a really dark, shoegaze record...and then this record from like 2001 by a band called The Dismemberment Plan called 'Change', which I can't get enough of, it's this beautiful ode to anxiety and alienation and feeling not quite at ease with the world, and it's a wonderful reflection on those themes. It's a really special album.
TIANA: To wrap things up, we've extensively covered a lot of what sleepmakeswaves have got up to this year...but how on earth are you going to top what you've done in 2017 next year?
OTTO: (laughs) I don't know! I don't think it'll be possible to top it in terms of miles travelled, but I am looking forward to putting our focus into some slightly adjacent areas, I want to look at visuals, both onstage and video content, and working on what we can do visually to extend the reach of what sleepmakeswaves is about. We've been so busy on the road this year that I feel like 90% of what we've done is perform in front of people and I'd like to just sit back and create some stuff again. So, I'm hoping that we'll be able to get into a space where we can actually write again as a band, and just toss some riffs around. I'd like to get some more music out sooner rather than later to be honest. As for shows, I think it's gonna be a little bit of a step back, I don't think we could do a repeat of what we've done this year, I think it's been like eight separate tours this year in various places so I think we're gonna take a bit of a break. I'm about to release a solo record next year or late this year depending on how it goes as well, so we've got a few little tricks up our sleeves that we're gonna be focusing on next year.
TIANA: Awesome, very exciting news and cannot wait to see you close out this year with your headline tour and see what's gonna pop up next for sleepmakeswaves! Thank you so much for your time!
OTTO: Thanks man, I appreciate it!
sleepmakeswaves will be rocking out some intimate shows alongside post-metal legends Rosetta in December - for ticket info and more head to: www.sleepmakeswaves.com
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BY TIANA SPETER