In a year of strong debut efforts, Jagwar Ma's Howlin' is not only a superior maiden release, but one of the most exceptional albums of 2013.
This propulsive, psychedelic synth-rock collection arrived via the talented Australian duo of Jono Ma and Gabriel Winterfield (along with touring bassist Jack Freeman). Back in North America now for one more brief tour, Jagwar Ma are slated for a Rough Trade NYC late show tonight, December 2, and play a sold-out gig at New York's Bowery Ballroom tomorrow night, December 3.
Earlier this autumn, Jagwar Ma came to the Bronx for an FUV Live and TAS in Session set — watch videos and read highlights below — which airs tonight on FUV Live at 9p on 90.7 WFUV (streaming too) and on TAS on 91.5 WNYE this Friday, December 6, at 11am ET, also streaming online.
Jagwar Ma's Howlin' is out now on Mom + Pop Records.
Kara Manning: When did your first single, “Come Save Me,” really come to fruition?
Gabriel Winterfield: Probably a year or a year and a half ago.
Jono Ma: I’ve lost track of time.
Gabriel: Just about two years now since we first started to doing stuff with “Come Save Me.”
Kara: Gab, were you still in Ghostwood at that point and Jono, you were still in Lost Valentinos?
Jono: Yes, but both of our bands were kind of in hiatus. They were still in existence.
Gab: But we weren’t doing much.
Jono: I guess that’s where the impetus for doing something together came from. That hunger to be creative and make music. I guess that wasn’t being fulfilled.
Gab: Or satisfied.
Jono: Yeah, or satisfied by our separate bands. Before we did “Come Save Me,” we were actually playing together in another band called FLRL which was kind of a collective that I’d started with a couple of other guys. [It was] based on loads of Sydney musicians, improvising and rotating members. No two gigs ever being the same, no two band lineups ever being the same. So Gab and I were playing together in that a bit. We’d already established a bit of creative rapport so when we came to “Come Save Me,” it was quite natural and organic and quick.
Kara: Originally, Jono, the idea was a solo project for you?
Jono: Not really. I was doing remixes as Jaguar Paw and that changed to Jaguar Ma. I was just searching for the next thing, really. It felt like the [Lost] Valentinos had run its course so I was doing remixes, producing other bands and then Gab came to me with a whole bunch of demos that he and Jack [Freeman] had done together. It was quite garage-y, rock and roll stuff and I loved it. I had a whole bunch of instrumentals that I’d been working on, one being the instrumental track for “Come Save Me.” I just played that to Gab as well and he really responded it to it, so much so that he began singing over it as I was playing it to him. It was like, “Oh, that’s what this is missing. It’s missing a voice.”
Kara: How did you began building [the songs] on this record? I know that you traveled from studio to studio.
Jono: Generally we’ll start with a beat, loop or instrumental. With “Come Save Me” I had it on loop and record the whole track so that it would just keep cycling, so Gab wouldn’t have to worry too much about arrangement or fitting into a pop song structure. He can just sing and sing and sing and output loads of improvised ideas over a song or a loop or a beat. We make sense of that later and refine it down. But I think that’s why the album does have an element of improvisation because a lot of the final takes were actually from the first time Gab had sung on something.
Gabriel: When we did “Come Save Me,” it was funny because after we’d done the first demo take, as it were, we went back a few weeks and tried to record it again with a better microphone and a proper studio.
Jono: With more intent …
Gabriel: And the original one ended up sounding better.
Jono: We ended up using the first take that Gab ever did on it before the song was even really written or arranged. If you listen carefully, there’s actually bits where the double track will drop out for a word because Gab didn’t sing that word twice. I was trying to make a double track and looping things back on top of it.
Gabriel: In the second part of the verse, where there’s a harmony, I did on the fly, I didn’t do it twice.
Kara: “Uncertainty” is a track that’s really interesting compared to the studio version and hearing you do it live. A song that has expanded in live performance, at least to me. How did that song grow over the course of doing it over a lot of festivals?
Gabriel: “Uncertainty,” when we recorded it, was about five different songs.
Jono: It started with a little loop that I had and then we just looped that and Gab sang over it. We reapproached it and then that loop ended up getting pushed away. I don’t think it’s even there anymore! It evolved so many times and splintered off into different ideas.
Kara: When did Jack step in?
Jono: Jack actually came to France and the studiowhile we were recording and ended up playing bass on a couple of tracks. We did a couple of shows right in the middle of making the record. We wanted to see how [the songs] would work live before we completed the album. We did two shows and Jack came along, we played them together, and it was at that moment that it kind of felt like this was actually becoming a band. Before that, it felt like a studio collaboration side project. It was quite healthy to do that and also see how people responded to the music, the strengths and weaknesses of the arrangements.
Kara: It must have been surprising to see it bouncing off of a live audience for the first time too.
Jono: It was amazing, actually. We played in Nijmegen in Holland, at this festival, and it was the first gig we ever did. The crowd was quite big, a few hundred people deep, and we’d never played before. The band didn’t even exist until a week before that when Jack came down and joined in the festivities in France.
Gabriel: One of the reasons we’re really excited to be playing in the US is hearing what the audience think and thinking what they’re going to compare it too. There was a Pitchfork review and it was the first time that it had ever been compared to Perry Farrell. Jono: The whole Jane’s Addiction thing? No one had said that and obviously we’re fans of Jane’s Addiction and that was a cool thing, that that happened.
Kara: Or Liars too.
Jono: Liars came up too.
Gabriel: Did Liars come up? That’s nice to know. I’m a massive fan of Liars.
Kara: Do you find yourselves listening to other music for production ideas or influences too?
Jono: As musicians we’re constantly listening to musc and part of the reason that this album is being referred to as eclectic, borrowing lots of influences from different eras, is that we’re avid music listeneners. We have really broad tastes as well, so I was listening to loads of old Motown and lots of electronic music as well. Gab was listening to loads of Sinatra and jazz. Jack’s really into hip hop.
Kara: Jack what do you like?
Jack Freeman: I mainly listen to hip hop as modern music goes. As far as my bass influence goes, that’s more Parliament and Bootsy Collins and James Jamerson and stuff like that. As far as modern albums go, I’ve been listening to Doris by Earl Sweatshirt [of Odd Future] which is probably my favorite album at the moment.
Kara: You reached out to Ewan Pearson to mix the album?
Jono: There were two songs that were mixed by Steve Dub [Jones] who mixed all of the Chemical Brothers albums and I mixed one track. Ewan is a really good friend of mine. I’d worked on a record with him on my old band, the [Lost] Valentinos, and we became friends after that. I spent some time in Berlin when I was in that search for the next project. After Gab and I had done “Come Save Me,” I was in Berlin just to hang out with Ewan and I played it to him and he just loved it. He said, “It’s great to hear you make upbeat music.” Both of our last bands were kind of quite serious and sometimes sinister in a way.
Jono: Shoegazey. Which is great! But it was fun to do something that had more of an elated, ecstatic feel to it. Ewan loved it and said, “I want to mix this.”
Kara: You’re also three very happy guys onstage.
Gabriel: I remember someone once told me, if you ever get nervous onstage, just smile. I always try harder to have a good time if I’m nervous. I think we were all a bit nervous last night as it was our first show [in the United States] and people were very much like, “Show us what you got.”
Jack: And we hadn’t had any sleep.
Jono: There was one guy at the front who was just standing there with his arms folded, looking directly at me!
Kara: You also did Glastonbury, the John Peel Stage, which must have been pretty mind-blowing.
Gabriel: That was a weird experience, Glastonbury. Obviously it was mind-blowing, but the actual show was really strange. We went on and we really didn’t say much before we went on and we normally talk before we go onstage. We really didn’t say anything. No one communicated to each other while we played live as well, but there was this telekinesis thing going on. We all walked offstage and were like, “That was perfect.”
Jono: It felt almost spiritual, without sounding like a new age hippie! A couple of weeks before, I’d just come out of an illness, I’d been bedridden for a few months. There was a point that it didn’t even look like I’d be able to play Glastonbury.
Kara: You were hospitalized ...
Jono: Yes, hospitalized. We had actually flown someone else over to the UK while I was still in Australia because it looked like I wasn’t going to be able to do it. Last minute, I had a miracle recovery and made it there in time. There was an added elation there for me because it looked like I wasn’t going to make it and there we were. When we were setting up there were a couple of hundred people out there. I didn’t look at the crowd once until the very end of the set and there was just a sea of 10,000 all jumping to “The Throw.” In the back of my head, I was like, wow. Two weeks ago I was in a bed, feeling sorry for myself, wondering if I was ever going to play live music again and here we were … it was quite strange and spiritual. I would say it was probably one of the best weekends of my life.
Jack: What’s also really special about it is that there’s no footage of the show. We play a club show in front of 200 people and it will probably show up on YouTube. But no one filmed it. The BBC didn’t start filming until 3pm and we played at 1. That kind of makes it even better for me.
Jono: The memory is preserved of it.
Kara: How’s your health now?
Jono: I’m fine, I’m great.
Kara: Because you’re about to commence endless touring on this record.
Jono: I make a point of looking after myself on the road. We’re quite civil.
Gabriel: Without going into too much detail, we have a pretty strict diet! As a result, Jack and I end up eating all of this kale and spinach and coconut water! It’s fine.