An anomaly in the music world, channeling all manner of inspiration for his new record Mercy, he has found fans in Ellie Goulding and Mikky Ekko, yet remains somewhat of an enigma. Sharing with us his passion for religious iconography, the cult filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, and the mysteries of artistic creation, our conversation with Active Child is a truly illuminating one – we hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
Do you think other artists are afraid to be totally vulnerable and personal? I think that’s a big hallmark to your music. You have this great male falsetto and a very unique sound in this rather predictable pop world.
I think it’s a risky move; it’s not for everyone’s palette. It can be taken both ways; some people can be turned off by that level of emotion and vulnerability whereas some people find it really authentic and really powerful. So, I think it really depends on your listeners. For me, it’s just the style that I write in. I’m not forcing myself to be vulnerable, when I sit down and write that’s what naturally feels the most moving to me. My biggest hope is that people will recognise that authenticity and not see it as pastiche or some sort of novelty, because sometimes it is. I think there’s a fine line between being emotive and being a little sappy.
It’s funny you should say that, because it doesn’t matter if it’s falsetto or cheesy; I listen to a whole plethora of music and, what I’m trying to say is, it just depends on how good the song is and what works.
Yeah, I think that’s definitely true.
Do you feel critics understand you or get you right?
Oh, man. I don’t know. I’m anxious to see how the record will be received, it’s not out yet. I haven’t seen any reviews of it. Up to this point it’s been a mixed bag, I think some people really feel it. It’s not middle-of-the-road music. Yeah, I think I feel misunderstood sometimes by critics, maybe the genres that I’m put under as an artist aren’t necessarily accurate. But, I guess that’s to be expected.
“A few of the songs [from the latest LP] came out of a pretty emotional break-up, from this time last summer. We’ve actually reconnected since then so it’s been a big rollercoaster.”
What do you feel is the most misunderstood aspect of you? I know a lot of artists who have that one review that really ticks them off. Often they wish they could go and meet that reviewer and talk to them about what they said. The reason I am asking is because your music is so personal and unique and there’s a lot to say about it – it’s not so hard to classify – it’s quite masculine and feminine and it can confuse people. Does that resonate with you?
I think it can be a little confusing if you’ve never seen me in person or seen me live. But, I think the opinion that sticks out to me in terms of confusion is feeling sometimes that things can get a little bit mashed into different categories. But, I guess that was part of my goal, to show a little bit more diversity as far as things I could create.
I feel like I get you, if that’s any consolation. I guess it’s how much education you have as a listener because the references grow and the way you understand things kind of widens.
Yeah, I think it just depends on the person. There’s a wide range of people listening, of all ages and ethnicities and whatever.
So, take me through the record. I know it’s been four years, that’s a lot of time for you to reflect. You’ve worked with some cool people; Mikkey Ekko and Ellie Goulding. I think they’re all great names, but it feels like you wanted to hide away and reinvent yourself. The album has some punchy records but also a quiet introspective kind of r’n’b moments – and some really solid confident moments as well.
Maybe talk me through what was going on; what you were listening to or watching film-wise.
It was such a long period of time, my influences were definitely changing a lot near the end. By the time the record comes out, some of the songs don’t feel necessarily relevant to where you’re at as a person. Some of the song were written a few years ago so they don’t feel fresh, but there are other songs on there that are recent and feel very fresh. I was listening to a lot more classical music. I feel like I’ve been in more of a film-score mode for a while. I ended up working on a movie for about six months.
Tell us about that.
I ended up getting fired, but it was definitely fun. I wrote a lot of music that I was really proud of, so it wasn’t a total loss and I learned a lot. It pushed me to write differently in a lot of ways. I think that process of getting out of my usual writing routine led to a lot of the work on the new album – as far as sitting down in front of a piano instead of sitting down in front of an interface and putting together some sort of beat structure. I guess it was more of a foundation working with a piano. There are very real and specific things that are popping out of me; I find sometimes when I write I tend to tune-out a lot of current music that’s out and I get a little bit inside myself; a little bit reclusive and tucked-away in my own mind a little bit.
Do you ever have days where you get frustrated and can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and just want to pack it in? I spoke to an artist yesterday who said something similar; they just find it so formulaic, the whole record making process.
Yeah, there were definitely moments during this last writing process when I was questioning all the basics; things like, “What do I have to say right now? Do I have something to say that’s even important?”
But, the most prolific moments come out of more dramatic moments. For example, a few of the songs [on the latest LP] came out of a pretty emotional break-up, from this time last summer. We’ve actually reconnected since then so it’s been a big rollercoaster. I was sort of getting near to the end of the record and I was struggling to find the last few songs that were worthy of being put on there, so going through that I was really coming back to music as a source of personal healing. That’s really where that album came from, this feeling that I’m lucky enough to sit down and have these cathartic moments and be able to release them and then other people have cathartic moments from that. It’s become a sort of mantra of mine to a certain extent, feeling like music is mercy for me; it allows me to get out what I need to get out, deal with what I need to deal with.
Speaking about dramatic moments, when I first heard the song “Ancient Eye”, I thought it was so bizarre and terrifying – I felt like hiding under my bed.
Haha, yeah. That one came out of left field. It started out with that chord progression and then it kind of goes down a rabbit hole.
It does sound like a rabbit hole. To be totally frank with you, your music is really bizarre, but it puts a smile on my face in the way that, William Basinski or Robert Wyatt do. But then I just talk to you and you’re like a guy in the pub, it doesn’t add up.
Yeah, I get that a lot. Even my friends who I grew up with are surprised. I don’t think that side of me really comes across – a lot of artists tend to be eccentric. But, I meet a lot of artists that I admire and the majority of them are just another dude in the pub. Each one of us has our own crazy thoughts and creative urges. I think as an artists you have the freedom to kind of see what you can pull out. Anyone can create some really strange and beautiful things.
With someone like David Bowie, a lot of his music is really bizarre and I wonder if he’s a bizarre guy in person. I think a lot of artists embody the music itself and it comes off the paper and they live that narrative. Whereas, you don’t live that narrative; you’re not an ancient eye, Pat.
Haha, I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure I’m not. I think certain people inhabit a persona. For me that just feels exhausting, I don’t know how they do it. They must have their own energy or maybe it gives them their energy.
They have a personal assistant who looks after their ego.
Haha, that certainly helps.
Are you allowed to tell us what film that you were working on?
I’m not sure I am allowed to. It was an Australian independent film, it’s actually out now.
I’m always fascinated by working relationships and why they don’t work out.
I think for that one it was a bit of miscommunication. The director seemed genuinely excited but then he all of a sudden said it wasn’t what they wanted. I was just going for it, feeling really inspired by the clips I was seeing and getting excited about writing in a different way to how I had. I was a little bit burnt out.
I’m interested in your background. You said you grew up in Denver and you were a thrash metal singer.
That was more of a joke really; it was me and my buddies drinking beers and banging on instruments, but it was fun.
Do you take influence from fringe-culture, like Thrash Metal, do you ever immerse yourself into areas of fringe-culture?
No, I don’t think so. What would you define as fringe culture?
I think it’s very personal, fringe culture. For a 15 year old listening to pop music, you may be considered fringe culture. For me, I’ll watch random films that are quite out of the “norm”.
Yeah, that’s definitely something I love. I love cult films and film in general. I’m always digging into whatever weirdness I can find out there.
What are your favourite cult films?
I like Akira Kurosawa, all the ones he’s done are pretty amazing. I went into a bit of obsession with old kung fu movies. I watched some old Australian art film with just aboriginals and two kids going out into the desert.
Have you seen the Australian film Picnic at Hanging Rock?
That sounds really familiar.
It’s one of the few Australian films I like – I’m not a big fan of Australian culture, but this one was great. It’s about these students and their teacher who go missing without a trace. It’s a really bizarre film, it’s pretty interesting.
If we could take a U-turn for a second, because I find your music tends to express some kind of spirituality or religiosity, as some would call it, and you don’t seem like a person who has a deep faith, but I can’t help but make the connections, especially with the artwork that’s just come out. You said, “I love the symbology of religious artwork and everything about it – it dominated the art-world for centuries. I think it has definitely crossed over into my work.” Is it just on the surface or is there something deeper going on?
I think, aesthetically, I’ve always been attracted to it. There’s definitely an undercurrent there that I’ve always had trouble articulating. A lot of it can be found in the creative process itself and me feeling that sometimes I don’t know where these sounds and words that come out really come from. Feeling like, without sounding cliche, like a vessel, creatively. Like things can pass through me. There was a really interesting TED talk about the origin of genius, and how the word genius used to describe somebody of extraordinary ability, with great power or beyond the norm. I think initially it stems from this idea of the poets in greek mythology, the myth was that an actual God came down and spoke through them. They weren’t the ones doing the talking. Sometimes you can’t write anything, you don’t have anything to say and out of nowhere something appears – there’s a mystery to it that’s really intriguing to me.
A lot of it goes back to my focus on love, which is this mysterious thing to me and to a lot of people. It’s this untouchable and undefinable thing, and perhaps a hint to something bigger, in a lot of ways. I’m always curious and always digging and questioning whether or not I have faith beyond what’s scientifically proven. I think I’ll always question that; there’s always the unknown.
“I’m always curious and always digging and questioning whether or not I have faith beyond what’s scientifically proven. I think I’ll always question that; there’s always the unknown.”
I’m reminded of a quote by a writer in the early 1930s, “Love is only a dirty trick played on us to achieve continuation of the species”.
But who’s playing the trick though?
Maybe it’s our minds. It’s interesting though. Do you think you have elements of a genius?
No, I don’t at all. I don’t really know how to answer that question. I believe in myself and I think I have a distinct talent and I have a lot of things inside of me that I have yet to live up to. But, no I don’t think I could consider myself anything near that.
I think the word gets thrown around a lot. I don’t even really know what ‘genius’ is. To me, a genius transcends all ability of one discipline and creates a whole new…
Yeah, I think it’s more than just mastering something. That erosion has done more than what was previously known or deemed possible, that’s when you get into that territory. Reinventing something that goes beyond the knowledge of that era.
Who do you think is a genius? Musically or just in general.
I have trouble seeing other musicians as anywhere near a genius. I have lots of musicians who I see as god-like in their ability and everything. I think people really inspire me and do things that have never been done before, like D’Angelo. Seeing him play live and bouncing between instruments and rhythms, I think he comes close to being a genius, but I don’t know.
What did you think of his meltdown?
There’s another side of genius – being overwhelmed by his own talent or whatever it was. That happens to people with that ability, it tends to eat you alive a little bit. But, he’s come back strong. It seems like this record he brought out was a little rushed and it didn’t get the attention it deserved.
Where do you take it from here and what do the next few years look like for you?
I’m just getting my feet back under me and getting back on the road. But, you’re right, I’m already anxious to get back and write – I usually am. I’d like to follow this one up really quickly and have a full-length one out within a year. I’m feeling, not so much anxious, but inspired now, which I think I was lacking on the last little break – I think I just got a little burnt out on music. But, I’m feeling ready to dive back into it.
What would you like your legacy to be?
Without being too idealistic, I would like to carve out my own little space – I think every artist would like to do that – and have something distinctive that’s just me, while staying true to myself and not creating something unique for the sake of uniqueness. It goes back to that feeling that sometimes I get lumped-in with a bunch of other things and I want my own piece of the pie.
Mercy is out now on Vagrant records.
I found this gem in my dads vinyl collection, which eventually became my collection. It still blows me away every time I put it on. The cover calls it the ‘greatest live show ever recorded’ and in my opinion that is not hyperbole.
Pasteis de Nata (or pasteis de belem)
Anyone who knows me well knows my passion for pastries runs deep. Along with my travels usually comes a search for the best local pastries. When I visited Portugal for a show in Lisbon I came across these bite size pieces of perfection and I’ve been scouring bakeries in the US for them ever since.
Big Sur, California
I’ve traveled a fair amount around the world and I feel very lucky to have visited so many beautiful places. But I feel even luckier to have one of the most spectacular coastlines just a few hours drive away. Big Sur has been my place of refuge and source of inspiration many times. One day I hope to move there and live a simple life.