INTERVIEW: Sam Cromack (BALL PARK MUSIC)
With their effortless allure and affable indie whimsy, Brisbane's Ball Park Music are as beloved for their creamy tunes as they are for their cheeky wit since first gracing airwaves back in 2008. A steady success story, with their last four albums debuting in the top 10 ARIA charts, relentless critical acclaim and appearances on international film and TV soundtracks, Ball Park Music possess a chameleon-esque knack for fusing intimate complexities with stadium crowd-pleasers; a fact that boils down to an innate curiosity and passion for sonic exploration across the board in the kingdom of Ball Park Music.
With their ARIA nominated album Good Mood looming large in the rear-view mirror from 2018, the next step for BPM was always bound to be something special; but few would ever have guessed the group's sixth studio album would be borne amongst ever-growing chaos, from noisy surrounds to catastrophic bushfires and global pandemics piling on from day one in a cavalcade of challenges. But it would take a hell of a lot more than the end of the world to halt this prodigious Brisbane quintet - and against all odds, Ball Park Music now sit poised on the release of what has now become their sixth studio album, fittingly self-titled and also marking the most hands-on that the band has ever been (and also marking the maiden release on the group's new label Prawn Records). And while there's just under two weeks to go before Ball Park Music finally finds its way into the world, today come dive into a chat with frontman Sam Cromack talking holistic creativity, spirit animals and the eventful journey to bring this new album to life. Interview below.
TIANA SPETER: Hey Sam, how's it going?
SAM CROMACK: Good! How are you?
TIANA: Yeah I'm not too bad, I'm currently sitting in a slightly abandoned carpark so it's shaping up to be a pretty eventful day for me...
SAM: (laughs) Just finding somewhere nice and slow-paced to do an interview!
TIANA: That's it! Well thank you for chatting today, I know it's obviously been a less than stellar year for many of us overall. But! There are finally a few beautiful lights starting to appear at the end of the 2020 tunnel, and one of those lights is, of course, the release of Ball Park Music, your sixth studio album! First and foremost, how does it feel to finally be at this stage of release after such an intense couple of months in the lead-up?
SAM: Really good, yeah! It definitely takes you by surprise a bit, it's such a funny process making a record even when there's no pandemic. You finish it sort of months in advance and, naturally, with all the promo and release schedule and the production times and stuff like that - there's always this big, weird gap between finishing it and sharing it. But I think in light of having no clear schedule of shows this year, we've really leaned into our record release more than ever before. Which has sort of been a silver lining I guess, with all of us thinking about how we can get the most of out of releasing this music. With each single we've put our best efforts into it, and same with the release. So - yeah! It's really dawning on me now that the whole record's about to be heard by people in a couple of weeks, and that's really exciting actually!
TIANA: Yeah it's funny, it's not so much a limbo, but that little dip in between you guys having it complete and actual release. And now finally the rest of us can catch up with you, everyone can enjoy it with you soon enough!
SAM: Yeah! I think all of us in the band, naturally you're binging it so much as you're finishing it, like you've finished the recordings, they get mixed, they get mastered, and you're just listening to it so much, and there's still a lot of excitement there. Then you kinda finish it and, again, you're sort of trying to get really familiar with this product that you've made. And then...yeah, the last few months I've listened to it way less, and that's what I would almost want to describe as the "danger zone" (laughs). Where all this doubt and anxiety creeps in, you start to think "oh is this good enough?!" or "should we have changed this?!". So, I kind of need to part ways with it (laughs).
TIANA: Yes! And then you can't go back and forth about it constantly, it's done and it's dusted. The album is amazing as well by the way, you guys have knocked it out of the park...no pun intended. That was genuinely accidental...
SAM: Ohh, thank you!
TIANA: Undoubtedly you all wouldn't necessarily have predicted you would be finishing this album in isolation or, I believe you were also recording during the bushfires...can you take me back to the start of this whole process for a moment before a pandemic and toilet paper bandits kind of took over our existence...what were the plans going into this album process from day one, and how did it evolve from being called 'Mostly Sunny' into a self-titled affair?
SAM: It's been a kind of strange but also fun journey, really. We did our last record 'Good Mood', and we self-produced that in just a little studio we had here in Brisbane. And when I say studio - it was literally a rehearsal room, probably like 3m x 6m, it was a tiny little room we did the whole album in. But we just had such a good time doing it, and we sort of felt like we'd turned over this new leaf, we were happy and...I don't know, it was such a fun, breezy record to make. We recorded it in winter, we normally never remember to do that and it's so great recording during the colder months of the year! And I think in our minds we sort of thought that this new record would be like doing 'Good Mood' again; but it'd be even better because we moved studios into an even bigger room within the same complex that we were in. So we were thinking "new record, bigger room, 'Good Mood' was great, the world's our oyster!" kind of thing...but our new room proved to be a nightmare to work in! On one side of us we had a mechanic, and then on every other side we had all these drummers in their rehearsal rooms. And just the amount of noise in the room was so hard to work with, it really killed the momentum of so many recording sessions. It was seriously challenging! We also recorded through summer, which is just brutally hot. And just when we thought our own petty problems were as bad as it was gonna get - then the whole world kind of turned to shit (laughs). We took a break for summer, just the usual Christmas and New Year's break, and we were actually pretty flat when we ended the end of 2019 because the room was just proving so challenging and we were feeling a bit unsure about a bunch of the songs we'd recorded, and it was a really sad feeling ending on a bit of a sour note. Then it was a weird summer/Christmas time watching the bushfires and all that stuff...and I think when we came back to the studio we did come in with a really renewed spirit and a good attitude, we were like "come on, let's just dig in and finish this off and do a great job!". And we did our best, and we really enjoyed it - and then COVID started! Thankfully we were mostly finished the record by then, but we still had to finish off a few bits remotely, just recording things at people's houses and sending files and putting it all together. I think around that time, we were all locked down, the record was suddenly finished and that was when we'd already announced the title as 'Mostly Sunny', which always felt kind of like a sequel to 'Good Mood', just the nature of the title with the two words and the rhythm of it, it felt like some kind of continuation. But I think between everything we'd experienced and how the record was starting to sound, we were just suddenly like: "it's just not that. It feels like a different record". Someone suggested self-titling, which is something we'd always joked about. But then we were like: "actually, that feels perfect! Let's do it!". It was so exciting to announce that we were changing it after we'd already announced the title...it's been a wild ride.
TIANA: Wild indeed! And the interesting thing is...it's not that this doesn't sound like a Ball Park Music album, but what I really like is how there are all these little stylistic twists and turns that happen. You've kept the core of your sound, but there's a lot going on throughout the album, which we've heard hints of already in the singles you guys have released in the lead-up. But was it kind of cathartic to dive beyond what might be, for lack of a better word, "expected" from a Ball Park Music album, considering you guys have been doing this now for over a decade?
SAM: That's really nice to hear you say that and that's how you perceive it because that's kinda what we were going for! I think we've always wrestled a bit with the fact that, at least to us...it didn't feel like we had a rock-solid "sound" in our band. I'm sure other people feel like we have some consistent elements that make up our sound, but to us - we never felt like stylistically we knew exactly what to do. We felt that all our records were kind of eclectic in a way, and we always, like I said, we wrestled with that and never felt like we were doing a good job. And this time around, I guess our one guiding philosophy when making the record was: let's just lean into it. And we tried to approach the record like you might approach a mixtape, rather than an album. We we're like: "let's not aim for consistency and cohesion, let's work on each individual song and just lean into that song and go wherever it wants to take us. Put blinders on and not worry about the rest of the album - we'll put it together at the end". And that felt really fun doing that, and I think that really helped us get the album in a good spot.
TIANA: Absolutely! Another awesome thing about the album too, as if it's not enough that you guys are self-producing, recording and writing - you're also releasing this one as the very first album release on your label Prawn Records! Soon enough you'll just be doing literally everything, how are you going to top this one!?
SAM: (laughs) Yeah, Christ! There's not many jobs left to do!
TIANA: I'm trying to think of what else you've got left, you've got promotion, videos...
SAM: (laughs) We do a lot of that too! We do a lot of the videos, and Dean (Dean Hanson - guitar) and I do all the artwork and design for all the records. There's a moment after you finish the record and you're sort of like patting yourself on the back like: "hooray the album's done!". And then he and I are like..."oh....Christ! We've got so much work to do that we've gotta start thinking about, album artwork and the videos and thinking about the aesthetic of the campaign"...it feels like you become a politician for a bit (laughs).
TIANA: Do you just absolutely love that whole hands-on aspect, is that why you guys and the band do it the way that you do and keep adding aspects into the process each time, rather than slimming down and outsourcing with each release?
SAM: Yeah, for sure! Of course, naturally, there's still times where you're feeling a bit bombarded with the workload, but that'll happen in any line of work I guess. And I think as we've moved through our career, we've ended up having a go at a lot of aspects of the whole kind of package because of the cost of things. We're just always staggered by the cost of outsourcing so many things, so many times we've just been like: "let's just have a go at it ourselves! Let's just try and take our own press photos, or let's do the artwork ourselves, or the poster or the video or whatever". And I think in the process of trying, Dean and I in particular kind of got really into it. Like, once you start learning new skills you just naturally get the appetite for it, and we've just expanded on that.There's still many things that we have not even remotely mastered and we leave it to the pros, but certainly the design is one thing that Dean and I have become more confident with. We really enjoyed doing the artwork for the record, it was fun. And it really feels like the whole thing is of our own making, it feels so personal and I think fans can sense that, and we love doing that. Especially as we get older too, it's sort of like a thrill to feel like we run this business that does so many different creative things, and you're getting to have a go at so many of them! It's quite rewarding!
TIANA: And it seems very fitting there's so much hands-on with this album being self-titled! And hats off to you, I don't know many people who would so actively enjoy the challenges that come with what you took on, it's really nice you're so creatively inspired and in control with the album.
SAM: Oh, thank you! We do still love it, honestly. It's definitely a labour of love, and I think when we meet young artists on tour who are naturally like: "you got any tips?!"...I think one of our most common things we say is basically: "be as DIY as you can for as long as you can, with everything". That way you can figure out what skills you do have that you can use. And you will know when you come up against something and you're out of your depth, and that's when it's time to pay for someone else to do it. But definitely don't just start paying a million people to do everything when you can probably have a go at a lot of it yourself, you know?
TIANA: Yeah, 100%! It's a really important thing to consider, and you never know unless you try! And if it doesn't work, it doesn't work, at least you can say you gave it a red hot go....
SAM: Yes! And you definitely know when it's not working (laughs). I had a go at some video stuff and I've just sat there and gone: "ohh.....this is fucked!" (laughs). We definitely didn't go to film school (laughs)
TIANA: Well, what do they say, it's like a "rustic" aesthetic you were going for maybe? I always use "rustic" if I'm trying to nicely say something hasn't worked out quite how I planned.
SAM: Oh yeah, I feel like the word rustic would be pushing it. It was really bad (laughs).
TIANA: Well, I won't keep you much longer, but obviously as a proud Brisbane band, I know you guys will be kicking off a residency at The Triffid, and slowly live music is coming back into the mix, particularly in QLD. But is there a song off the upcoming album that you haven't played live yet that you are most excited to bust out? Or is that choice perhaps ever-changing at the moment?
SAM: Well, I think naturally there's songs that you're always eager to perform. But it's funny that it's all in theory at the moment, you listen to the record and you're like "oh, I think I'd like to perform this one!". But I think part of the beauty of touring and performing, especially when you make a new record, is that you just throw a bunch of the songs from the record into the set-list - and you really have no idea just exactly how those songs are gonna hold their own in the live space until you do it! And that's always full of surprises, you might think "this song's gonna be amazing!". But, yeah, just over the years we've been so surprised by which songs just, for whatever reason, really resonate when we play them live. So, I honestly can't predict what songs will go off...but I'm really proud of 'Day & Age' and 'Cherub', and I'm excited to perform both of those. I think we all really love 'Day & Age' because it feels like it fills this weird gap that we've had in our live performances of a song that feels really special to us, but is a little bit more restrained. It's sort of a bit more laid-back and mid-tempo, we don't have anything like that in the set that we can sort of really enjoy but also relax on. So, I'm excited for that! And excited to do 'Cherub' just because it's getting such a good reception, and the outro is so massive. I think we're excited to just (laughs) blast the audience with that!
TIANA: Hell yes! It's gonna be amazing. And that actually perfectly brings me to my last question, a "very" hard-hitting one...I have been informed that the music video for 'Cherub' was actually filmed in Dean's backyard after he discovered a colony of butterflies living there - which clumsily segues me into this last question: what is your spirit animal, or insect in case it's a butterfly, and why?
SAM: (laughs) Well, I think mine is a chicken. Because...I never had a nickname in my childhood, and then Dean used to think that I reminded him of a fluffy baby chicken, I think just because I never brushed my hair. And he saved my contact profile in his phone so that whenever I called, this baby chicken picture popped up. And then he started calling me Chook - then everyone started calling me Chook. And now everyone I know calls me Chook, including my wife, and my school friends who never called me a nickname back in the day. It's just so weird when you've never had a nickname and you totally don't force it at all, and one actually just catches on (laughs). And now so many people know me as Chook, and I figure it must catch on because it must make sense, I think I must just be this awkward kind of goofy chicken man bouncing around (laughs).
TIANA: I love that though, it's very endearing! And it's made an awesome answer to that question, so I'm very onboard with the spontaneous nickname! Well Sam, I'm so grateful to grab some time with you today, and I'm so excited for you all to have the new release out in the world in just a few weeks! Congrats on such an amazing album, and hopefully it won't be long til we can all get together and enjoy some tunes from Ball Park Music live in action very soon!
SAM: Oh yeah! We can't wait, we've missed it so bad! It's gonna be amazing, and hopefully not too far away.
TIANA: Yes, and in the meantime enjoy the lead-up to the release, and thanks for the chat! Enjoy the rest of your day, I'm gonna get out of this creepy carpark!
SAM: (laughs) Stop looking so suss, would you?!
TIANA: I'll try, I'll try my very best! Thanks Sam!
SAM: Take care, thank you!