Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #130. Subscribe to our print edition here!
By self-titling their fourth album, Dead Letter Circus have made a poignant statement. Sarah Comey noodles through its importance with axemen Luke Palmer and Clint Vincent.
Three years after bringing the Australian prog scene to a standstill with Aesthesis, the frenetic fretboard masters in Dead Letter Circus have returned with what might just be their magnum opus. The self-titled fourth album shines a rawer, more honest light on the fivesome, highlighting virtuosic interplay between axemen Luke Palmer and Clint Vincent, with frontman Kim Benzie belting out some of his most striking vocal performances to date.
The decision to self-title the LP came early in the mix, when the band decided that, as they reach their 14th year of time-signature defiant riffery, they were due for a minor rebirth. It’s their first record on a major label, and the first to see them truly shed their preconceived (and perhaps misguided) concepts of what it means to write and record as a band. Dead Letter Circus is the band’s most dynamic and authentic record yet, and to figure out how they made that so, we dug into the philosophies of the two guitarists behind it.
On the importance of going back to basics...
“I think we approached this album in a similar way to Aesthesis,” Palmer explains, “In that we all got into a room and jammed the music out – y’know, what a normal band would normally do in a normal process – whereas previously, because we’re all engineers and producers in our own rights, we’d just record ideas on our own and then share Pro Tools sessions with each other. It was a bit like a correspondent writing process, and it was very disconnected – we never really got too much of that vibe.
“But I think with this one, we very intentionally set out to write the songs in the same room as each other. And the way that played out on the record is that there’s not a lot of programming or synths or any production tricks going on. This one is very much a rock album by a rock band – y’know, just five dudes playing their instruments.”
On using programming as a tool for creative expansion, not a cheat code...
“We love using Axe-FX because you can be smashing out the heaviest part of the song, but then you take your headphones off and it’s dead silent,” Palmer says. “There’s something about that where if you need to take a break while the bass player and the drummer smash out a section, you can do that, and you don’t get as fatigued as you normally would from a massive day of jamming and being in a blistering loud room with a band thrashing out.”
“But we’re musicians first. Y’know, I grew up using real amps and recording everything with analog gear, but I think it’s all about utilising the technology to your advantage. It’s not about cheating – and you can totally cheat things like timing and all of that stuff, but we don’t edit any of our guitar parts.
“We’re not chopping everything up and moving it around with Pro Tools. We’re all about capturing the performance, so we don’t delve into that side of Pro Tools where you’re just faking your groove, but we definitely will utilise elements of the digital realm that help us to improve our playing – like Axe-FX and digital reverbs and delays, and all sorts of plugins.”
On being a realistic gear nerd...
“My main guitar is a Fender Telecaster,” Palmer boasts. “It’s a 2012 US Deluxe in black and gold, and it’s really, really awesome. It’s got noiseless pickups and it just has a very modern sound to it. I also have a Gretsch Duo Jet – it’s silver and sparkly and it’s got a Bigsby on it, which is pretty rad; I’ve probably only used it once or twice on the record. And then I also have a Fender Jazzmaster that I used on one or two little bits.
“Don’t get me wrong, I am a complete gear nerd – I have epic amounts of gear – but at the end of the day, it’s all about the performance. I think so much of a player’s tone is in their fingers, and it’s important not to lose sight of that. Y’know, the guitars and effects and whatnot are definitely helpful tools, and you’ve gotta use good gear to make your playing sound good, but the technique always comes first.”
On writing songs, not just riffs...
“I always thing about a song on a songwriting level before I think about it on a guitar level,” Vincent explains. “Once it comes to tracking the guitars, I’m in guitar world. But in the lead-up, I’m always like, ‘Okay, what songs are we going to write? How are we going to make this an album full of amazing songs?’
“And then once you get in there for the pre-production and you’re refining your parts, that’s when you go, ‘Cool, now I can explore the space on a guitar level.’ We’re always questioning each part along the way, and we’re always trying to go, ‘Have we done that before? What’s new? What’s pushing us to play something fresh, rather than just resolve back to the tricks we know we can do and we’ve done before?’”
On being selective with your improv skills...
“When we write, it’s all improvisational – we jam to jam,” Vincent says. “But when it comes to performing, the live show is pretty much us playing what we settled on in that jam. I would say live, personally, there might be three percent improvisation on my level. Like yeah, I might tweak a little bit here and there and change some bits slightly, but it’s only ever that slight amount because when I get on that stage, I know what the best way to play the song is.”
“In the writing process, being that it is so organic and jammy, and it’s about us coming up with the ideas, improvisation is a big part of it – we’re figuring out the best way to build the song structure – but we’re not looking for the best bits when we’re playing live, because we feel like we’ve already found them by then.
When I’m tracking guitar parts, I’m not just tracking a bit and then looking to Luke and going, ‘Cool, execute it.’ We’re there, we’re analysing it, we’re going, ‘Okay, how ‘bout we try this?’
“Even if a part is 90 percent done, some people might say, ‘F***, that’s awesome,’ but it’s like, ‘No. I know it can be better, let’s push it.’ And so once we feel like we’ve got a song to the level where it’s good enough to be on the record, there’s no point exploring it anymore by the time we get to the performance stage.”
Dead Letter Circus
Thursday November 29th - Prince Of Wales, Bunbury
Friday November 30th - Settlers Tavern, Margaret River
Saturday December 1st - Capitol, Perth
Thursday December 6th - Coolangatta Hotel, Coolangatta
Friday December 7th - Sol Bar, Maroochydore
Saturday December 8th - The Valley Drive-In, Brisbane
Thursday December 13th - Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle
Friday December 14th - Metro Theatre, Sydney
Saturday December 15th - Uni Bar, Wollongong
Sunday December 16th - ANU Bar, Canberra
Wednesday December 19th - Tap House, Bendigo
Thursday December 20th - Barwon Club, Geelong
Friday December 21st - 170 Russell, Melbourne
Saturday December 22nd - Governor Hindmarsh Hotel, Adelaide