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David Bridie
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Act of Free Choice: Interview
by Brian Wise

How does the saying go? Last guys finish nice? Well, somehow over the past fifteen years David Bridie has not only been able to make his mark on the local music scene, but has also managed to retain his perspective on the business to the point where he remains approachable, unguardedly open and (in an increasingly corporate world) still able to wear his heart on his sleeve. That is why as we go to press Bridie will be playing a Reconciliation Benefit - one of many causes he quietly but tangibly supports.  
Bridie’s bands - Not Drowning Waving and My Friend The Chocolate Cake - built cult followings, toured and recorded successfully and also gave the musician a substantial profile (if not huge fame and wealth).  
At the same time Bridie managed to diversify his musical portfolio via his production work, playing with and supporting other musicians (most notably George Telek) and through some acclaimed soundtracks (for which he won an ARIA award this year).  
In many ways Bridie is our equivalent of Peter Gabriel (in fact, he has even recorded at Gabriel’s Real World studios) - a musician who has retained his musical integrity and adventurousness despite the pressures of success (give or take a few million albums). 

In the latter years of Not Drowning Waving Bridie would often postulate on the reasons the band was not more successful - at one stage it seemed to be a recurring theme (particularly after Mushroom invested heavily in Circus, an album that promised much but was ignored by radio).  
In retrospect, it appears that Bridie might not have been cut out for pop success anyway and that part of the reason NDW were not more successful sales-wise was that Bridie’s heart was just not in the endless grind of repetitive touring, recording and promotion. 

These days he appears to be at a creative peak and moves between projects enthusiastically bringing a wealth of talents to bear on his music. However, most importantly, he is an avid music fan, restlessly seeking out new sounds.  
That is most evident on the solo debut album Act Of Free Choice which sums up Bridie’s entire career in eleven beautifully constructed songs. It brims with so many interesting ideas that comparisons with anything else that has ever been done in this country are difficult - it is really Bridie finding his own unique voice. 
The album was recorded in various locations - Bridie’s home studio, Mt. Macedon, Phillip Island and Michael Barker’s house. Bridie was assisted by London producer Ian Caple (Tricky and The Sugarcubes) and he describes the album as "Eleven interlinked short stories to music. The older you get the more confident you get and I realised this is the kind of record that I wanted to make."  
The Koran, The Ghan And A Yarn features a wooden box loop and piano and deals with Marree, a town in outback South Australia, what Bridie describes as 'a strange meeting place of cultures amongst a beautiful but desolate landscape populated by pioneering Afghan camel drivers, strange Europeans - often on the run from something - and the aborigines who had survived earlier atrocities.' Dive was originally co-written with John Phillips for Christine Anu’s Stylin’ Up album. Breath is an atmospheric multi-layered excursion. Kerosene harks back to Not Drowning Waving days. The Deserters features Bridie’s first full orchestral score. Float uses a basic track that Bridie and John Phillips had in the archives. The eerie Sad begins quietly with a morse code-like sound in the background and an unusually haunting vocal treatment. Talk Mister Nation pulses gently along with Michael Barker’s almost occasional drum track over a sparse piano and a whispered voice. The original Salt (I Don’t Want To Go No Further) is on the My Friend The Chocolate Cake's Good Luck but here Bridie only uses the chorus. The Last Great Magician slowly builds to a crescendo with a loping beat and more altered vocals.

One of the deceptive aspects of Act Of Free Choice is the apparent simplicity which hides layers of instrumentation and meaning. To fully reveal the album, crank the volume up and the sounds will leap out and almost overwhelm you in their complex layers.

We begin our conversation with David Bridie discussing his recent work on films.

Congratulations on the ARIA award. It must give you great satisfaction.

The film soundtrack work is something that I really love doing - especially on the right project. It’s creatively challenging and it’s good because it helps in doing something like the solo record. 
Often you are working on ideas or working with sounds that you haven't worked with before, and there's a chance to experiment with that on a film soundtrack. Often I will grab ideas or re-use ideas that worked out in a film soundtrack and use it on the solo record.

It's good, it's funny because I guess composing for soundtracks is often seen as being a classical, or a 'real' musicians' domain and there's sometimes this thing, 'Oh ,this isn't something that rock musicians should be doing.' So it was good from that point of view. I didn’t go to the VCA but I learnt classical piano while I was at school, I was a bit of a mug at it. I enjoyed mucking around and writing my own songs, but I certainly wasn't one to go onto the conservatorium or anything.I think I’m fortunate in that regard and I certainly think I’ve got the motivation to do it all. Certainly this solo record and the live shows are the main things I’m concentrating on at the moment.'

Well thinking about your musical past, it seems perfectly suited to adaptation to film, wouldn't it, a lot of it? 
Yes. I think the more textural area that I work in does blend itself to film scores and I think the way musical technology is now too - having the studio now down the back yard - is good. It means it's not so much a matter of going in and having to get in a full orchestra to come in a do a sound score. I think music technology lends itself to that and the other great thing about that is that often with film scores I get to work with a whole bunch of musicians who I wouldn't always get the opportunity of working with in a band. That's great, I really like that and, as you know, Melbourne has got quite an amazing range of very talented musicians from all different schemes of musical styles.

You have Ian Caple as a co-producer on your album. Why the decision to get a co-producer in? I thought at this stage of your career you could probably quite easily produce it yourself. Did you need that second opinion, someone who was a little bit more objective than you?
I think with a band you use other band members to give you feedback or to say, ‘No I don't think those vocals are as good as you can do, or that's a lazy lyric, or how about we take it in this direction?’
Not having that with a solo record meant the idea of having a producer to be able to be a collaborator on the record. It was something I always wanted to do. I never thought, ‘Look I'll produce it myself.’ 
Having said that, I built up a lot of the record before Ian came along, so a lot of the basic templates for the songs, were already set in place. Even getting to that stage meant working with a lot of people here: Simon Polinski, Michael Barker in building up some songs, Michael Sheridan [guitar] as well and I worked on a couple of ideas with Helen Mountfort.
I was quite deliberate in going out and taping the songs and not being afraid of playing them to people and asking them what they honestly thought. I take those discussions quite seriously and you know whose opinion to trust and where they come from.  
But Ian was fantastic. He came from having done the Tindersticks record. I really liked the organic sound of those records - both in the way that the songs are built up and the way the instruments are recorded. Also having worked on the Tricky records, I think he have a very innovative approach to hard disk recording and to sampling and to looping. Certainly it was an area I was wanting to get into with this record - but to do it in an innovative way and to look at them, the more texture side of things rather than just bunging down a bunch of dance loops, which certainly wasn't the direction I wanted the record to go. 
Ian is in his early 40s so he's been through the whole English school but he was a very very likeable personality too. When you are working at close quarters with someone you often have chats that would lead into politics or sport - just being able to have conversations away from music and enjoy each other's company helped to make it comfortable in the studio.

He also believed in it too - he listened to a whole lot of different stuff I'd done and I never got the impression that he was taking on this job just so he could get a trip down to Australia and pay off his mortgage. He understood where I was coming from and respected what I was doing and vice versa - which I think is quite a strong point for Australian artists. Often we get stuck with a producer and there's some point during the record you are thinking, ‘I don't know how much this person really wants to put themselves on the line with this record and what perspective they are approaching this record from.’ There was certainly never any doubt with Ian and as I said, he's a really good person and all the musicians who came up really enjoyed working with him and liked the way that he got the performances out of them without being a slave master.

You've had a long experience in the music business, do you find it hard to turn over some of the responsibility to someone else?
With Ian I wanted to concentrate on being the artist on this record and being a first solo record I took it very seriously. There was certainly a fear of failure that I had in the back of my head that motivated me quite strongly. So I was very much playing the role of the creator and the artist, as opposed to overseeing the whole project as a producer. I don't think I could self-produce. I don't think I would want to either. Some projects I can, but certainly not for this record, I didn't want to.

You say fear of failure, fear of failure in what sense? 
I wanted to have a record at the end that I was really happy with: that I was really proud of; that I thought was me; that makes sense; that reflected me both musically and lyrically; that was a statement; that reflected what I was doing and where I was at.
Putting my name on the project was a big chance for me. Whilst Not Drowning Waving and Chocolate Cake with the producing and the film stuff says I've been very satisfied and proud of achievements with records and the live shows of those bands, I certainly wanted to prove to myself that I could follow something through from beginning to end, artistically, and for it to be strong - not just here in Australia but overseas as well.  
So I placed a lot of pressure on myself - but not in a bad way. I think that sort of brought the best out of me. Then for the two months leading up before Ian came, I was probably more motivated than I had been in a long time, in terms of setting out with the demo set-up I had and with reworking lyrics or reworking parts or looking at structures. Not to the extent that I was over-working things, but I had written quite a lot of songs, quite of lot of songs to choose from and there was a fair culling process, but yes, I was highly motivated on this one 
It's a very adventurous album, in terms of what you attempted to do. It's an album that's going to have some longevity to it - which I would presume is another goal that you had.

Yes, I think that's a goal in all records that I make. Certainly, my favourite records are ones which you can listen to three, four, five years after they have come out and they can still be relevant. 
I think for any artist, whether it’s a film maker or an author or a visual artist trying to make an artistic statement it is important that it that has some relevance that it hangs around and is fresh and it comes off sounding fresh and it's not too locked into a fad or a certain period of time. I guess you never know whether you have succeeded in that until you get to the stage of being able to look at it in retrospect.

Funnily enough after I listened to the album the first time, for some reason I went back and got out My Life In The Bush of Ghosts [Byrne & Eno] - not because they are musically similar but some of the feeling reminded me of that.

It's a great record.

It's incredibly influential and when you listen back to it now, so far ahead of its time.

What I really liked about My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts is, I realised, the balance between the layers of rhythms. They were all very simple rhythms layered up - which is what I think Byrne and Eno were doing, not just on that record but often on Remain In Light [Talking Heads]. 
On top of that those rhythmic layers, those atmospheres and textures as well as the spoken word stuff is probably an obvious linking point between my record and that one.

They were certainly to me part of the templates of the songs - quite simple songs where the chords were carefully constructed - but they were fairly simple melodies with more complex layers of rhythms and sounds.  
Some non-musical sounds created this bed of textures that it could all sit around. I like the way the Talk Talk records do that, I think Quasimodo's Dream by The Reels does that as well - though obviously in a more analogue electronic way. But they were some of the frames of reference to the record and My Life In The Bush of Ghosts was certainly one of them.

Well, similar to that, you have got a lot happening in this album that takes a while to digest. There's a lot going on there underneath the surface. 
It's quite multi-layered and I love records where when you listen to it for the eighth time it's like listening to something new. That is certainly something I was trying to do.  
Some of them were things I had used in film soundtracks before. There is quite a bit of the In A Savage Land - the orchestra from The Deserters certainly comes from that and there's all those little bleeping noises in Sad - stuff that I had recorded whilst I was up in the Trobriand Islands. Not that they were a Trobriand Island sounds, they were sounds that I just recorded off short wave radio. It was just that I was up there and had the inclination to record that stuff. But I guess that layering was going up, being able to delve into sounds that I had there and saying, that will work quite well with that lyric, or that will work quite well with that instrumentation.

You've certainly got a vast array of talent of musicians, but interestingly enough they come from a variety of musical backgrounds. They are not always musicians that you might have worked with in the past are they?  
I think one of the dangers and one of the fears I had about a solo record was I didn't want it to sound like me and a group of session musicians. So certainly the people that I chose were people who were used in the heart and soul of the record and in some cases it was using those musicians in a different way. Kerri Simpson really enjoyed working on this because I was getting her to sing in ways she doesn't normally sing and asking her to do things quite different, whether it be the blues stuff or the voodoo stuff that she has been doing. I am a big fan of Kerri - I think she's a fantastic song writer and a very underrated one.  
Phil Wales as well I think is a really underrated guitarist. And Michael Sheridan is obviously someone whom I had never worked with before but had always wanted to. So getting him to play on a few tracks was great, and being able to use different musicians for different tracks where their styles suited.  
I was just careful so it didn't sound too disjointed but I think it was obviously enough of me in all the songs to create that constant thread. But it was like horses for courses in a lot of ways.

Three of the tracks on the album were co-written with John Phillips who lives in France now? 
Yes, John bought this most fantastic house in the Dordogne region in the south of France. John moving overseas has quite changed a lot of stuff for me because we worked so closely together, certainly on film soundtracks and stuff and with a lot of production jobs that I have been doing. I was very reliant on him technically. All the gear that we had was always around at Johnny's place, so him going overseas meant that it put a rocket under my bum in some ways and I had to go out and buy a whole lot of the gear myself. 
I also to start collaborating with different people a lot more and those new relationships and having to approach the gear from a different perspective was a really good thing for me. I found it a really liberating experience and helped me feel that I was on top of what I was doing a bit more.

Well I suppose with the internet these days, you can collaborate with someone no matter where they live. 
That is what was great with John's part. He knew the songs, he knew Dive and Float because we had written them together and with Talk Mister Nation it was just a matter of sending him over a CD and he sent me over an audio file back with these three great guitar parts, which pretty much exist as is on the track. The sound quality was brilliant so that was kind of a new thing to do. 
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