Lawrence Arabia: TAS In Session
New Zealand's James Milne — best known by his moniker, Lawrence Arabia — is a savvy guy when it comes to recruiting his friends and fellow musicians: his third and latest album, The Sparrow, features the likes of Connan Mockasin and Elroy Finn and his touring band includes pal Liam Finn.
The Sparrow also marks a shift in Lawrence Arabia's sound; while songs still unfold with brisk, rapturous hooks, Milne takes a more expansive chamber pop turn on this album.
Lawrence Arabia is touring the States at a somewhat leisurely pace (accommodating his bandmates' obligations too), heading to the West coast at the end of the month to play Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland. During a recent New York visit, Milne and bandmates Elroy Finn (durms), Liam Finn (bass) and Andrew Keoghan (piano) visited The Alternate Side's Studio A to play songs like "Early Kneecappings" and "Travelling Shoes." Watch the videos and read highlights of the interview below:
Alisa: So you call yourself Lawrence now? I thought your name was James.
James Milne: I demand to be called Lawrence.
Alisa: Did you do a legal name change?
James: No. No, I guess I don’t have any right to demand to be called Lawrence.
Alisa: This record is pretty different from [2010's] Chant Darling, your last record. This is an intentional change? Why?
James: I think every record I’ve made has been very different, at least in my own head, from the previous one. It’s about not wanting to stay still. I’ve talked about it a lot in press releases and feel like I’ve been saying it every day, but I went really mad making Chant Darling. It took ages and I got really frustrated and I was being a really self-indulgent, petulant, whining little b****h.
Alisa: I understand that you’re sick of Pro Tools.
James: I still use Pro Tools, but I just got sick [of it]. I got to be a very self-indulgent 26-year-old who was frustrated with his life at the time. Even if this doesn’t sound like a more fun record — it’s actually a more serious record — the actual process of making it was very joyful. I wanted more fun making a really serious, dark record (laughs).
Alisa: Is it fun to play live?
James: Yes, it’s really fun. I’ve been changing the lineup every single tour — for financial reasons, really. We did a tour in Australia as a four-piece and in New Zealand we had a string quartet with us and ended playing with about nine to eleven people. And then I brought these fine, fun chaps with me here [to America] because they’re living in New York.
Alisa: So these are different players, aside from Elroy. Liam, are you on the album?
Liam Finn: No, I’m taking over for Connan Mockasin. We all share each others’ women and food.
Alisa: Who were the players you enlisted to put this together?
James: Elroy [Finn] and Connan. We did a recording in Surrey in England. We hadn’t rehearsed or anything; we just played. Some of of them were sketches and some were full songs. We were there for five days and recorded the whole thing. When I got back to New Zealand, over the last year, I slowly put together the rest of the record. Andrew was helping with the string arrangements and I murmured little string parts into garage band and he deciphered my weird little squealing noises and turned them into string parts. We had a couple of string parts and a couple of friends who helped out with parts.
Alisa: Can you play violin?
James: No. I can do a guitar [and] ukulele. I tried [violin] the other day and it’s really difficult. It was horrible, the sound that came out.
Alisa: What’s the next song you’re going to play and can you tell us a little about it?
James: It’s a song called “Early Kneecappings.” There’s a lyric in it — “crude moustache, exposed brains” — and I was actually thinking about calling the album Crude Moustache, Exposed Brains, but it’s not super-catchy. But that’s where the concept for the album artwork came from.
Alisa: [I read that you were] in a New York City subway and saw a picture of Zac Efron.
James: He’s like a porcelain-composite-robot man. Teen hearthrob. He has a very nice complexion. Beautiful arms. (laughs). With that hint of vein. He’s a bit passé now. He was in some Disney thing.
Liam Finn: Why are we talking about this?
Alisa: Well, [James] saw a picture of Zac Efron and someone had drawn a moustache on Zac. That inspired this song.
James: I think they’d actually torn away a little bit of the poster and drawn some brain. It’s quite common to draw things on subway posters.
Alisa: We’ll do that later.
Alisa: ["Early Kneecappings'] was one of the songs that influenced the rest of the songs on the record?
James: Yes, it definitely felt like I’d written a very different song. It guided where I was aiming for the whole record. I wanted it to have some sort of uniformity and not be jumping all over the place stylistically. As soon as I started writing the song, I was singing the little violin parts on the first time I wrote the song, I was improvising on the piano. I started coming up with instrumental parts and I knew it was going to be a violin, so [the song] instantly revealed itself. It’s hard to explain, but once I could sense how it was going to turn out, I had an idea what I wanted the rest of the album to sound like.
Alisa: Where did “Early Kneecappings” come in the writing process? If it informed the rest of the songs, that must have been a lot of work for you to go back and make everything sound like that.
James: We hadn’t recorded everything, but it was quite late in the writing process. I had gone through a lot of different phases and places of writing. I had someone’s house in London and I went through a period of walking around town with an iPod and one of those little microphones, whispering little ideas into it. I didn’t want to look like an insane person, but I was walking around parks, mumbling parts to myself. I’m really self-conscious, so I was really hiding it.
Alisa: You had a frenzied writing session when you were coming up with all of the lyrics for the record?
James: It accelerated up to the point when we had this session booked. We hadn’t written everything so I was still trying to write up to the last minute and was writing while we were in the recording session. We’d been touring most of the year and I was sick of not being able to be creative in that way. It’s a repetitive thing, touring. I was excited about the idea of recording again. When “Early Kneecappings” was recorded, I booked a little rehearsal space; just a room with a piano in it. I’d go in a few hours a day and force myself to write songs — not the normal, romantic way of writing songs in a country house or a cottage in a forest.
Alisa: Well, you did go to that house in Surrey.
James: Yes, it was big, amazing house overlooking the Surrey downs with the river trickling down into the valley. I enjoy writing lyrics to some degree, but it’s really hard to coax them out to begin with. Once I’m in the middle of a song and the theme or the general concept of it seems to have revealed itself, that’s actually enjoyable. But sitting in front of a demo that’s already got a melody and wondering what to write about is a little bit terrifying and horrible. Once you’ve got that sorted out, it’s exciting when it starts to reveal itself.
Alisa: You do have an unique style, sir.
James: Thanks! I was just thinking [during “Travelling Shoes”] how I felt that I’d let you down by not dressing up a bit more. New York is so hot. You can’t be bothered putting a nice 100 percent cotton shirt.
Alisa: I have heard people call you dapper. I’ve seen pictures of you in magazines and you’re always wearing a suit. Sometimes a tie. But that’s okay. You don’t have to dress up for the radio.
James: Yeah, that’s the other thing I was thinking. But radio is always filmed these days.
Alisa: That’s true. [Listeners] can check out what [your] wearing and be disappointed for yourselves. No, you look fine! You look dapper!
Liam: I think you look great, James.
Andrew Keoghan: You’ve got a bit more style than Zac Efron.
Alisa: That’s for sure. Speaking of New York, I heard some rumblings of you moving to New York. You’re considering it?
James: Yeah, it’s a good place. I’m really fond of New Zealand as well.
Alisa: What does [New Zealand] have that we don’t?
James: There’s more time. We’ve got cricket.
Alisa: Time is an illusion, my friend.
James: No, time is a constant. Time is reality (laughs).
Alisa: It’s a made-up thing. We can be here forever.
James: We’ve got a taxi coming at 4:30.
Alisa: Can you say what inspired [“Listening Times”]?
James: It was written mid-hangover. It’s just about how people need to go to bed. It’s just about people talking rubbish at 6 o’clock in the morning when you feel like you’re really sticking it to the man and doing something amazing.
Alisa: And meanwhile, you’re just blabbering on about foolishness and the fact that time does or doesn’t exist.
James: Yeah, all sorts of that pseudo-spiritual rubbish that you come up with when you think you’re transcending your post-industrial reality but you should actually go to bed (laughs).