A special, short-run tour souvenir EP from a Sydney tour ’05.
Interview from Cyclic Defrost:::
Scissors for Sparrow
Interview with Jon Tjhia by Dan Rule
The idea of pop music doesnt exactly hold connotations of elaborate musicality. To most minds, pop walks hand-in-hand with elementary instrumentation and rudimentary composition, with notions of achieving beauty in simplicity; perfection in imperfection, if you will. From this perspective, Jon Tjhias Scissors For Sparrow project represents something of a coup for the pop underground. A vaguely rotating group of musicians, working under Tjhias conceptual and compositional guidance, Scissors For Sparrow melds supple, beauteous and endearingly clumsy pop aesthetics with a more experimental, heterogenous and developed sense of musical process. Recording in home-studio environments and playing rare, raw, but rehearsed shows, the project harbours no ambitions of mediocrity. To put simply, Tjhia is a perfectionist there are no half-measures, no untried ideas but simultaneously, perfection is hardly the point of his music. His interests lay in searching out and navigating the potential of writing, recording and performing within a progressive pop context in using an imperfect medium to explore much grander ideas.
Jon Tjhias new house is a shambles sparse, relatively furniture-less, but a shambles all the same. We sit on milk crates for our introductory tea and biscuits, we take a tour of the unmown back lawn, we clear leads, amps and abstract pieces of furniture from what will be our interview setting in the lounge. But its not that Tjhias disorganised, there are just some extenuating circumstances. I hate moving, he groans, waving a disconsolate arm in the general direction of the mess. Theres still a lot to do.
Nevertheless, he is excited about his new set-up. Having shifted out of Northcote, in Melbournes inner northern suburbs, Tjhia has migrated two suburbs further out, to quieter, cheaper Preston. Im still largely operating in fear of the neighbours, he laughs. I just met Francis from next door today. She was really nice; she said she loved music and that her daughter plays music, and that I should go for it: Go play now! Go play loud!
Indeed, his studio is the only room in the house with some vague sense of order. And talking me through its various equipments, its clear that Tjhia sees some interesting potential in the space. The fireplace actually has a chimney that makes whooshy noises, he urges. Sometimes I think it would be great to make a multi-track album that is completely laden with artefacts, so you can hear when a tape track is being put on half way through a song to record an extra vocal, you can hear a dog barking or something. I think that would be a cool idea. As long as the instruments sound good, then whatever else comes is fine.
Its a statement thats somewhat indicative of Tjhias approach. While consistently open to new and ever-changing ideas, his music possesses a strong, unyielding sense of purpose. Scan your way through the Scissors For Sparrows OhHello! EP (released in late 2005) or appearances on Sydney independent label Feral Media comps (Southern Winter) Northern Summer and Plastic Cotton Tree e, and youll find yourself traversing everything from washed out instrumental passages and blocky pop melodies, to spacious atmospherics and densely layered, textural guitars (not to mention a brief bout of stinging, off-kilter electronic beat craft). Yet, despite Scissors For Sparrows stylistic divergence, theres barely a tune that feels inappropriate or out of place. And as Tjhia explains, theres a strong reason for this.
Scissors For Sparrow is quite controlled actually, he offers as we take our seats back in the lounge, because all the other bands Im in are largely centred around improv, or at least the idea of it; like, things come out of it. Whereas I pretty much dont have any jamming in Scissors For Sparrow.
I mean, the big idea behind it, I guess, is playing around with sound and getting really excited about sound in the context of loosely termed pop music. I think in that sense, I want to introduce the ideas of some of my more experimental stuff into pop, but because that can go so wrong, it has to be quite tightly controlled. So yeah, theres no jamming and Im actually a little bit of a tight arse about getting people to play certain things; and if people get a note wrong I dont mind mess, but mess is not the same as noodling, you know. I dont actually like noodling.
Its not that Tjhia, a drummer and multi-instrumentalist, is overly fastidious about the project. Its just that, unlike so many other musicians, he has a well-defined set of creative ideas that hes unafraid to articulate. I think there are three strains of it, he states. Bringing more experimentalism to pop music, bringing more enjoyment to interesting music, and um, what the fuck was the third one? Yeah, something like broadening the idea of what can be considered enjoyable, he laughs.
Say, I really enjoy the sound of someone getting two clubs and banging on a rubbish bin, but I dont really want to record music like that and put it out, and let people just go This is just some guy I think that you can take stuff that you love you know, stupid sounds and whatever things you hear and kind of try to put that into a context which is pop in a looser sense. It doesnt have to be a pop song, but it helps.
He understands US group Radian to be model proponents of such an approach. Have you heard them? he gasps. Theyre kind of like a very experimental band, who have come form jazz and theyre now very weird, kind of pulled-apart, kind of minimal electronic. But theyre just amazing Radian are kind of a really, really experimental band theyre incredibly good at pulling weird sounds form things but theyre also just pop music. Theyve got little features that you can identify on repeat listens that come around at certain times, and theyve got rhythm even though its not a beat as such. Its textural pop music or something. Its brilliant.
Forming as a loose, quasi-group in early 2005 and garnering glowing praise for their genre-bending live sets Scissors For Sparrow has drawn from a vast collection of floating musicians. While the core line-up consists of Melbourne artist and musician Nadia Combe, Mark Gomes (a.k.a. Barrage), Tania Smith and Daniel McLuskey, additional members have included Jacinta Plucinski, Danny Jumpertz, Dale Harrison (The Herd) and Sonia Tsai and Mel Ratliff (Sparrow Hill). Its so much fun to have up to nine or ten people to play with on stage, says Tjhia. Its kind of like a little community thing not a community, but like a family thing. The people I like playing with are dorks, like me, who hang around talking about stripy tops, he laughs. Im really lucky.
Hes not just being polite; Tjhia is fortunate. For such a large group of musicians, Scissors For Sparrow has an unusually singular and vehicular dynamic. To put simply, Tjhia is the man at helm. Most of the recording is done either completely by me or a couple of the recent ones were done as a band in the studio. But the actual recording, Ive tracked that and removed parts that didnt work, or redone parts, or changed my mind about some notes and got rid of them. So Im still producing the recordings, and so ultimately, the decisions are mine.
Yet hes fully aware of his circumstances, and is wary of the potential for their misuse. I mean, it sounds really fucked, and I know it sounds really fucked and really selfish, he says. However, as with everything Tjhia does, theres a well-considered thought process behind the projects make-up. The thing is, you can dick around with pop bands and shit, he says, because everyone has these nutty ideas about what music should be, and no-one can agree, and it becomes all about submission. The best pop music is sparser than it needs to be and has things that no one can really go and do spontaneously as a group. It takes a bit of control.
I try and be as upfront as possible about it. Im actually going to write a bit of a manifesto, just because people have tried or wanted to do certain things certain ways, and its not like a dont respect these peoples opinions theyre great and theyre all fantastic, and thats why I want to play with them but if you dont agree then it becomes really awkward. Its not about disliking peoples ideas, but its just that they might not be right for what youre actually thinking in your head about what you want to do. But I guess it can be a little bit tricky and, especially because theyre all your songs, you feel like youre asking favours from people. I mean, they enjoy it well, I hope they enjoy it, but in the end you still feel like its a favour.
Tjhias life has always oriented itself towards music. Growing up in Melbournes outer east, he took to playing musical instruments at an early age. I started playing when I was in Year One, I think. I really wanted to play piano because everyone else was, it was as simple as that really. And I eventually hated piano, but it was such a good foundation. I took guitar lessons too, for a really short time, then did a whole host of instruments through high school violin, clarinet, sax, guitar, bass Fuck, everything trumpet. But I always wanted to play drums.
It wasnt until late high school that his music started finding a more experimental course. I recorded an album when I was in Year 11. I called myself Yoke and the album was called Sofa, and it was basically 25 tracks of whatever I recorded on my PC, which I did after school Id do a song every couple of days. Its kind of funny; some of it is really embarrassing, like, I sang, but again it was a really weird thing because it was spastic electronic and kind of really earnest stuff and kind of dorky guitar screw-ups.
At only 23, Tjhia has been involved in a number of music, sound and multimedia-based projects he recently worked on sound and music for a narrative digital art installation, Underexposed, and editing and postproduction for a short film. Indeed, Tjhias decidedly prolific in all areas of his life. Aside from working two different jobs with Mac Help and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image he is in the middle of a Masters degree in Multimedia at Swinburne University and has just finished a month-long stint working as producer/editor at ABCs DIG Internet Radio. Then, of course, there are his other band projects, experimental duo ii and improv quartet Fibonache.
But considering Tjhia has such a multitude of projects in full swing breaching all manner of styles and approaches where does Scissors sit in the scheme of things? Indeed, with its manically diverse aesthetics and vast hotchpotch of musicians and instruments, is Scissors For Sparrow even viable as a long-term band project?
Tjhia thinks so, but is conscious of the potential need for compromise. Its that terrible choice that has to be made between being diverse and being cohesive, he posits. Its really hard to think, Well, can I make a snazzy little pop record, or will I chuck in some of that other stuff?. Id like to think that we could do more than one thing. Its a shame to see bands who only do rock, or can only rock out Its really important to have more than one thing in your imagination they inform each other. You can try an idea out in a soft way and it might sound shit for the whole song, but it might have sounded really good for these two bars here or something.
I love doing textural and more ambient stuff, he continues. I guess that stuffs really important to me, but maybe it just needs to be split into different records. Its really hard to play those sorts of things live, because they require more technique. When I pulled together a live band I wanted to start writing songs that like blocky pop tunes anyone, almost, can play; so that people who are really dumb at guitar and shit at keyboard, you know, you could write numbers on the keys and they could play them in time and it would be fairly easy. And that was partly because I thought maybe Id like to travel some day, and itd be nice to be able to have easy songs to teach people who really dont know much.
Thats not to say that Tjhia and his flock of sparrows will settle for mediocrity far from it. With their debut long-player in its early stages, and solid label interest from Feral Media, Tjhia and his group are aiming high.
One of the things we started off saying ages ago was that we werent going to play crappy shows, he explains. We werent just going to play around the traps and do tiny shows that nobody comes to, in hopes of paying the right dues and all of that. I think that we want to do really tight, good shows, and we want to do them to people. It doesnt mean were trying to queue-jump or anything, but I think that if you put a show together in the right way, you dont have to have any big names. Its a matter of explaining things to people properly.
We dont want it to be a chore, he continues. Like, its not, its fun, and hey, maybe we do want to queue-jump and maybe were just fucking snobs, but fuck, Im not going to play at a pub full of old men. Like, whats the point? Youll just wear yourselves out and you wont get excited about playing anymore. Wed like to get some international supports that would let us go on tour, he pauses, glancing towards his cluttered studio. None of my stuff is great yet, but I want it to be.
Tragically, in the time between the story being written and the magazine going to print, Scissors For Sparrow band member Daniel McCluskey passed away. His
band-mates pay him this tribute:
He was the most sincere, humble, funny and perceptive friend, a rare confidant and collaborator. Daniel McCluskey left us on January 20, aged 24. It breaks our hearts; we love him.
released August 1, 2005
1. Youth with a (tele) vision 3:32
2. Pitter Pattern 3:17
3. Hoping, Coping, Hoping 2:30
4. Block Transit 2:13
5. South Sea Syndrome 3:51
6. Top Of The Hill, Bottom Of The Valley... Uhh! 3:47
Staple members are Jon Tjhia (also of ii), Mark Gomes (Barrage), Alex Nosek (ii), Prue Rees-Lee and Nadia Combe (Majorca Building). Additional members have included Jacinta Plucinski, Danny Jumpertz (Alpen / Clairaudience / Plankton / Comatone), Tania Smith, Mel Ratliff (Sparrow Hill), Dale Harrison (The Herd), Jamie Mildren (Architecture in Helsinki), and Sonia Tsai (Sparrow Hill). Daniel McCluskey, a founding member of the group, passed away in January 2006, and the band ceased activity until a November show in Dan's honour provided an opportunity to regroup and start anew.
Appropriated by Jon at Square / Helpscene.
Written by Jon. Enlivened by:
Melbourne: Nadia C, Mark G, Tania S, Daniel M, Jacinta P.
Sydney: Daniel J, Sonia T, Dale H, Mel R, Caroline C.