I recently had the chance to have a chat with Simon Mavin (Hiatus Kaiyote, The PutBacks, Swooping Duck) over breakfast at a café in Brunswick. Simon performed on the Melbourne Town Hall Grand Organ with the kora player Amadou Suso, and the bansuri player Vinod Prasanna, as a part of the closing event of the Melbourne Festival on October 23rd. I had the opportunity to introduce Simon to that particular organ, so we talked about his impression of it, as well as his thoughts on all things music.
Asides from your main projects, Hiatus Kaiyote, The PutBacks, and Swooping Duck, are there any other projects you are involved with at the moment?
There’s a bunch of little projects, but nothing that’s sort of a main thing yet! At the moment, I’m just based in the Melbourne music scene, making as much music as possible really.
The readers of Rehearsal Magazine are usually students at both high school and university, so could you tell us briefly about your educational background?
I did my Bachelor of Music at Monash University, and finished in 2005, but I was actually there for four years! In high school I did Year 11 music in Year 10, and Year 12 music in Year 11 – so that pretty much covered the performance side of first year university. I got into uni first year doing classical at the time, but once I got there I didn’t want to play classical anymore, and got into jazz instead. So I had to complete first year performance subjects again – it was really bizarre! It ended up extending my course an extra year, but to be honest, it was actually pretty good, because all I had to do in my final year was performance. I just played all year, which was great, and I got the highest marks of my class because I just had so much time to work on my performance! I really think it should be more common.
For sure, performance opportunities can be pretty scarce sometimes with a lot of university music students, which can be a bit discouraging.
Yeah, I mean I only know a handful of dudes in my course – literally three or four people who are still playing regularly, maybe less. The rest are probably teaching, or have gotten a real job(!).
People often joke about musicians not having a “real job” – but I mean for musicians, music is literally their full-time job, plus their life!
You’re running a small business by yourself – no one told you that at uni! That really should be curriculum in university degrees. I just don’t understand. They’ve got this idea of creating virtuosic musicians, and creating musicians with no place in the world. It’s insane! You walk out of the door, and you’ve got no idea how to get a gig, how to sell yourself, how to make any money…
That leads on quite nicely to my next question actually – did you struggle between finishing your degree and establishing yourself as a musician?
Well, I just wanted to be a performer from the get go! I just wanted to play gigs. I didn’t care, I wanted to do any gig! I actually did two weeks of a teaching degree – you know, your family wants you to be stable – so I went and did this course, and after two weeks I quit.
I made that decision to be a performer when I quit that teaching course. I had a part-time job, quit that, and decided that I was only going to make money off performing. I went on youth allowance for about a year, whilst I was trying to scrape together gigs and get myself going. Then after probably about 12 to 18 months, I got to the point where I was playing enough regular shows and somehow weaselled my way into the Melbourne music scene. And before I knew it, I was playing in 10 to 15 bands, doing 4 or 5 shows a week – everything: jazz, blues, rock, reggae, funk, pop, Latin music, whatever! People would throw me gigs, and I’d just say yes.
I suppose that was probably an incredible education in itself?
Oh absolutely! In my head, that was the concept of a musician. I didn’t see it as being a classical musician, or a jazz musician, or a pop musician. I just wanted to be a musician, who just appreciates and loves all music. Completely open. It’s always been my approach.
In a way, Hiatus Kaiyote is kind of the epitome of that concept – we can sort of go anywhere, and do anything. That was something that everyone in the band is very aware of: that the project can be pushed in any direction.
So if you were to talk to musicians coming out of uni – what would be your advice on what they should do, or shouldn't do?
Just do whatever you’re feeling! I don’t think you can be told what you want to do – you can be shown certain things, but you have to aspire to do what you want to do. The things that people are best at are the things that they can already hear in their head. Just do whatever the hell you want! It’s a simple concept. The greatest musicians do it.
Sometimes it seems like institutional education can box you in a little bit – that you have to be either a classical musician, or a jazz musician, or whatever.
Yeah exactly! For me, it was the whole concept of being a motherf*cker. That was the word, and probably still is the word going around. Like “oh my god that dude is such a motherf*cker, he can play so good!”, and then you’re like I want to be a motherf*cker too! What does that even mean? It totally distorted my reality on what I wanted to become, as a musician. It’s still buried in the back of my head – that I still want to be a motherf*cker, but I’m never going to reach it, because it’s an endless pursuit of this future me. It’s never going to happen!
Definitely, you can’t just play a certain way or like how some famous musician played a particular piece. You have to interpret it yourself too.
If all the composers came back to life, they’d probably be like “What the hell are you doing man? Play it however you want to play it!”
Like, if Herbie came to a gig, and saw me play one of his pieces, and I played it exactly the same as him – he’d probably slap me in the face. Make it yours.
Speaking of jazz – how did you find the transition between classical and jazz?
Well, I wasn’t the most amazing classical player, I didn’t really treat it that seriously. I had a fantastic teacher for about 12 years though! He really taught me how to play the music, but didn’t really teach me theory. So whilst it was great on one hand, it really set me back because I didn’t know anything about chordal harmony, chord-scale relationships, voicings of chords in general! My whole concept of theory was quite bad really. So I practically had to start from square one again. It was tough. The first year that I started playing jazz was a really difficult year; I worked my arse off! It was the hardest year I’ve ever had, I think.
And going from being a solo player to an ensemble player would have been a big leap too?
Yeah I did some things with other people before, but not that much. Then all of a sudden I’m in bands, and playing in ensembles with people. That was the big element that made me fall in love with music a lot more than ever before.
From playing with other people?
Improvising with other people. I can still remember the first moment I improvised with someone else: it just blew my mind! Literally, tingles down my spine – like the best drug in the world.
With improvisation, you have to be really open – you can’t have any stoppages. If you have any confidence issues that are coming across in your playing, if you have negativity – all these things change the way you communicate with the other artists. And when you’re completely open with each other, that’s what I'm talking about. It’s the most beautiful thing. That was the most interesting thing about this performance too, with Amadou and Vinod.
You had to learn them on the spot I suppose?
Yeah! I didn’t know these guys and had never played with them before – and we had to do a half an hour improvised set. So the only thing that I was thinking about was being as open, as positive, and giving them as much love as possible. I didn’t really care about the music to be honest. Because [the openness and positivity and love] was number one, and once that’s activated, the music just comes. That’s been my attitude to live performing for the last 10 years. Because back then I was playing so much live music, and performing with so many bands, that I can really tell when things weren’t working well, or when things were working well – and that was the reason. It’s incredible!
I remember doing this gig with this band, and we had a show in Byron Bay. It was an older band – and there was this staunch, negative vibe that was emanating from the older players, who had been the founding members of the band, to the newer players. So I just started smiling, and was giving everyone so much love, trying to flip it around. Then everyone just gradually came around, and it was great! Changed the whole dynamic of the gig.
Would you say that applies between the performers and the audience as well?
Absolutely. I mean the audience can definitely feel your feelings, I think. It’s an incredibly simple concept, but the amount of musicians that don’t think about that – how it affects the relationship with the music and what you end up producing, it’s amazing.
How did you approach your gig at the Melbourne Town Hall? It was your first time playing a pipe organ – an instrument that’s both incredibly familiar and completely different at the same time to what you’re used to.
I was sh*tting myself! It was a heavy gig. I always get nervous before improvisations, because I have no idea what’s going to happen. This one was tough because there were a lot of variables. When I was preparing for it, I just tried to improvise and get comfortable with this ridiculous instrument.
I mean, with your own setup, with multiple keyboards, synthesisers and various presets, it’s probably a lot like a pipe organ.
Absolutely, synthesisers are totally the modern-day pipe organs. It’s identical. It’s exactly the same concept – pretty mind boggling that the concept is so old.
I was chatting to a well-known concert organist lately, and he said that was also his approach to learning a new instrument – just improvising away, whilst trying out the different stops to learn their characters.
That was totally my concept! But after three hours, I was just like “oh my god I’m dizzy!” There’s just so much possibility… what do you do with all of it? It’s an insane instrument – there’s nothing like it!
Would you say then that the range of possibilities available on a pipe organ is what interested you the most?
Probably just the sound of the organ really, there’s nothing like it. Especially an instrument of that size and calibre. The sound could be so gentle, and then so thunderous too. But one thing that really astounded me was the sound of the room as well. Being able to hear the sound swell and fill the room, and the reverberation. That was quite incredible. It’s quite a difficult question actually, because pretty much everything was fascinating about the organ. I’d love to go back and record on it!
Featured photo by Paul Mavin of Simon, Amadou and Vinod at the Melbourne Town Hall.