Art Of Fighting’s Ollie Browne ‘Wires’ memoir 21 years later
In 2022 while preparing the anniversary tour and vinyl reissue of AOF’s revered debut album, Ollie Browne began reflecting on the original experience.
Wires was written in the little apartment above the convenience store on the corner of Rathdowne and Princes Streets in Carlton North, Melbourne, which was home at the time for myself and Peggy Frew. The songs were sketched out on a $200 cutaway Yamaha acoustic with a pretty questionable action. They were mostly written late at night, which is probably obvious. There were street lights outside the lounge room window that cast a pallid light in, and I remember it often being cold. Most of the record was probably written over the winter of 2000, although some of the songs had been around in some form or another for at least a couple of years. It was only Reasons Are All I Have Left that came to life quickly, the rest of the songs were, as simple as they are, very hard to write.
There were a couple of curiosities on the demos we recorded for Wires. Moonlight was originally a Remotes song (co-written in a duo I played in with S:Bahn guitarist Kristin Brenchley), and In No Good Way had been around for a while and was initially recorded in 1999 with our earlier drummer Cam Grant, and released prior to Wires as a split 7” with the awesomely talented Sydney band 2 Litre Dolby. It was re-recorded for the album with Marty on drums.
The songs on Wires were really written by Art Of Fighting, the band. What I (and Peggy for her song I Don’t Keep A Record) brought was germinal chord structures, with prototype words and melodies. These were the sketches. It was the band who endlessly etched away at the shapes of the songs and pulled them apart like so much Lego and put them back together again in new ways. And the final songs are only alive because the band animated them into a life of their own: Peggy’s melodic and peripatetic bass lines, Miles’ spindly, ghostly guitar leads and op-shop keyboard roulades, and Marty’s stately, steady drums. (Marty also played all the Rhodes on the record). The band is the thing that ultimately made Wires, but I guess I’ve been tasked with writing this little history of the album, so of course it will be mostly my perspective.
One of my most vivid memories of that time and place was turning on the radio one Sunday morning and arriving one-third of the way through Gillian Welch’s I Dream a Highway. I was spellbound for the remaining eight or so minutes – I’d never heard it before. It was so slow and warm and patient and beautiful. Welch mines a very different genre of music than we do, obviously, but that song (and album) felt like it was in step with what AOF was trying to achieve at the time: playing as quietly and slowly as possible, almost as an act of defiance.
Until Wires, Art Of Fighting had been more of a traditional ‘indie rock’ band. We’d always been a bit less noisy than our contemporaries, but our first four-track TASCAM demo tapes bore tribute to our heroes from the US: Pavement, Sonic Youth, Sebadoh. It was around 1998 that we started to experiment with a slower, softer approach and the songs on our first two EPs were starting to be more subtle and spacious – although you can hear in that music that the band was still searching for something.
Demos and Recording
One of our all-time musical heroes is the inimitable Sydney band Crow. In the late 90s, whenever AOF was Tarago-ing into Sydney for a gig, for the last hour of the trip we’d put on Crow’s 1995 album ‘Li-Lo-Ing’. We’d listen in reverence as we switched to Sydney mode and mentally prepared for our gig that eve. It’s an incredible album, lush and spacious but arresting and eerie. It was recorded by producer Tim Whitten at Megaphon Studios in Sydney. Both ‘Tim Whitten’ and ‘Megaphon’ were like mythical, unattainable aspirations for us. But with some publishing money from Mushroom as well as some of our own hard-earned gig cash, and with encouragement from excellent peers in Gersey and Gaslight Radio (Tim also recorded both of their wonderful late-nineties debut albums Hope Springs and Hitch on the Leaves respectively), we plucked up the courage to contact Tim and Megaphon and set up the sessions that would become Wires.
Of course, being the pedantic and detail obsessed band that we are, we’d already recorded Wires once before, in its entirety. We demoed the entire record down to the very last overdub at Marty’s studio in the front room of his share house in Rae Street, North Fitzroy. We were blessed – Marty had a 24-track reel-to-reel and some good microphones – and we patiently went about mapping Wires out in minute detail. Given our fears of throwing all of our savings at the upcoming expensive and time constrained sessions with Tim at Megaphon, we wanted tomake sure we knew every last detail in advance. Some of the songs, Moonlight, Just Say I’m Right and Find You Lost, had been in the live set for a while, so they had mostly found their (slow) rhythms, but others, such as Something New and Skeletons, were new, and very glacial, even for us. And given we planned to record them live for Wires (as in, all four of us in one take), this first pass was essential in honing their fragile dynamics. There’s always been fierce but jovial debate amongst the band about whether some of these demos are actually superior to the versions on Wires. Who knows, maybe these demos will be released in some form one day.
With the demos signed off on, we once again piled all of our gear, plus an extra special guitar and amp lent to us by Leif from 2 Litre Dolby, into the trusty rented Tarago and hit the Hume. We stayed in a pretty insalubrious high rise apartment-style hotel in Surry Hills. We arrived on the eve of the first session, decamped to our two-room, and (probably over a few beers) nervously discussed the imminent task before collapsing one by one. At 7am – the dead of night for young musicians – huge booming noises roused us from slumber. As it turned out, not one, but two adjacent buildings were being demolished. This cacophony continued throughout the sessions, and being that we were by necessity very budget-focussed, we stayed the course. In hindsight we should perhaps have moved hotel.
Despite these rude early morning wake-ups, the sessions themselves were calm and orderly, and Tim was patient and sage-like. All of the songs were recorded live to 2-inch reel-to-reel synched up with protools running on Tim’s rig for the vocals. The final vocals were overdubbed later if needed, which was mostly the case. Lots of effort went into making sure we could hear each other properly in order to capture the energy and tentativeness of the songs and the interaction between the instruments, and the takes varied quite a lot in feel. The studio was under a flight path, which created challenges for tracking live. (What was it with all this extraneous noise for such a quiet band?!) Based on the demos, we had strong views about the speed each song needed to be, so Marty would start most of the songs with a click track that Tim turned off a verse or so in so that the song then could take its own path. Some songs were transformed by the room and the particular per-take performance, particularly Moonlight and Just Say I’m Right.
At one point I was having difficulty pitching my voice while wearing headphones. Tim sympathetically (and ingeniously) constructed a little speaker-on-a-stand device that played the music at a low volume from around a metre away so I could sing to that, ears freed up. Most of the vocals were then done that way. I remember we had reams of paper for each song with all the overdubs listed on them, and we’d tick them off as we went. It became – ironically, given our early morning building-smashing neighbours – a very constructive and matter-of-fact way of making an album. Perhaps it was too orderly, but at the very least it tricked a confidence in the process that allowed a very nervous band to focus on getting everything we needed. And while those five days passed in a blur, I remember it being a very creatively satisfying time.
The mixing of the album occurred in separate sessions, and was mainly left in the hands and ears of Tim, who would shoo us away to listlessly amble around Kings Cross before inviting us back to the studio to hear his suggested mix for a particular song. Which – and this is why he’s so great – was almost always spot on. And then we’d ‘stick a fork in it’ (because it was done, like a dinner). The songs on Wires were really written by Art Of Fighting, the band. What I (and Peggy for her song I Don’t Keep A Record) brought was germinal chord structures, with prototype words and melodies. These were the sketches. It was the band who endlessly etched away at the shapes of the songs and pulled them apart like so much Lego and put them back together again in new ways. And the final songs are only alive because the band animated them into a life of their own: Peggy’s melodic and peripatetic bass lines, Miles’ spindly, ghostly guitar leads and op-shop keyboard roulades, and Marty’s stately, steady drums. (Marty also played all the Rhodes on the record). The band is the thing that ultimately made Wires, but I guess I’ve been tasked with writing this little history of the album, so of course it will be mostly my perspective.
It was during a night passing time waiting for Tim at a Kings Cross pub that we decided on the name Wires. We had been struggling to land on something that worked with the lyrical themes and feel of the music. We had considered Murder in the Dark, but it didn’t really capture the feeling of the album, and was a little too intense. (A little?!!) The self-titled tenth track on the album, the instrumental Wires, was based on a comment one of us made one long night – ‘You want to put wires in my brain’ and as we thought about the sound of the record and the themes, it was that line, and that specific word, that we kept coming back to. Simple is always best.
The final pillar of the Wires experience, I believe, is its cover. I created it with Architecture in Helsinki’s Cameron Bird on an old Gateway tower PC with a CRT screen running a very primitive version of Photoshop. I’d worked with Cameron on the covers for our 1998 and 1999 EPs, which very accurately visualised our minimalistic approach. But with this one I feel we really nailed it. We spent hours moving little buildings around, trying to mimic the negative space and angular dynamics of the music. It was all Cameron’s eye: he tapped into the stringy, dangling power-line fragility of the music and its urban, shadow-of-the-city scrim. The collaged cityscape and the wispy clouds on the pale yellow sky created a little universe that acted as a stage backdrop to the intimate but commonplace romantic dramas in the songs. It’s wonderful how an album’s cover can be such a large part of its identity and the ‘place’ of Wires, to me, will always be that strange little broken city on the cover.
Wires also became an international passport for AOF. The album eventually released on Wonderground Records in Japan, White Wabbit records in Taiwan and in the US on the Three Beads of Sweat imprint. It also gathered quite a bit of attention in Europe on radio there, specifically in Germany. Aside from purely creative aspirations we’d never been a particularly careerist band, but these releases and the interest abroad allowed us our first opportunities to tour internationally. In the year after the release of Wires we toured Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Ireland and the UK. The tours were piecemeal and precarious and arduous and a lot of fun. We relied a lot on the generosity of hosts but we felt the gigs made up for it.
Incredibly, Wires also won the 2001 ARIA for Best Alternative Release. Being nominated at all was completely outside of our universe so when the decision needed to be made about whether we’d alter or cancel our long-in-the-making European tour in order to be at the ARIAs, it was a no-brainer. Nomination aside, winning such a thing wasn’t even in our sphere of reality when we realised we were up against Something for Kate, Magic Dirt, Big Heavy Stuff and You Am I. These bands were our older siblings and we loved and respected them and it would almost be an insult to get the gong over them. So, being the realists that we were, we embarked on our European trek and our impossible dream of ARIAs glory faded behind the itinerancy of day-to-day touring.
On one nondescript mid-tour day in Krefeld, while we were sleepily loading our gear out of the previous night’s venue, my old Nokia buzzed to life. It was Miles’ and my younger brother Billy calling from the ARIA awards. Billy was screaming something or other down the crackly, calling-card mobile line and it took me a while to register what he was saying. ‘You guys won!’ I remember us all being delirious and in disbelief, staring at each other incredulously, amps and guitars dropped unceremoniously on the roadside. After the shock settled in we jumped around like a bunch of kids and then I’m pretty sure we all drank way too much after that night’s gig.
“…it felt like a secret privilege that the songs were ours, or that we’d stolen them off a better band.”
I don’t really know what it is, but sometimes a bunch of random things happen in the creative process and you end up with something better than you planned. I still grin from ear to ear when we hit the crescendos of Akula or slowly swell and sway at the end of Something New. There was always something in the songs and the music of Wires that was a little bit beyond my understanding, as if the music happened to us and not the other way around. When we toured Wires it felt like a secret privilege that the songs were ours, or that we’d stolen them off a better band. There was a moment in Sydney at the Annandale Hotel, a packed room, easily the biggest audience we’d played to at that point, and we hit one of those Wires highs and it seemed like the whole room went completely wild – that people were screaming in joy or sorrow or both. It felt like everyone was lost to the music, which is exactly the aim of the whole endeavour. This is one of my favourite memories and one I still revisit.
On reflection, after 25 years as a band, my feeling is that the ultimate idea for Art Of Fighting has always been this: What if you took a bunch of pretty good pop songs, with good hooks and memorable enough lyrics, and slowed them right down and extended them out so they could breathe and be as abundantly sad and indulgent and beautiful and tragically uplifting as they needed to be. And I think, with Wires, we came pretty close to doing that.
Ollie Browne, June 2022
Wires was reissued on gatefold double vinyl by Hobbledehoy in 2022.