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Melbourne rising star Jarrow discusses second album

In March 2016, Melbourne-based singer/songwriter Dan Oke (AKA Jarrow) quietly uploaded his debut album to Bandcamp. Months later, Jarrow was picked up by indie label Barely Dressed, eventually earning his band festival slots and support gigs with the likes of Car Seat Headrest and The Wombats. We caught up with Dan fresh off the release of his second album, Expensive Hugs to talk about his inspirations, lyric writing and the process of collaboration.

Congratulations on the release of your new album, Expensive Hugs. How would you say this one differs lyrically from your past work?
Lyrically, I decided to focus less on the storytelling elements of the past couple of albums, and be a bit more fluid with it. I took inspiration from Bradford Cox from Deerhunter; he focuses a lot on stream-of-consciousness songwriting. I don’t know if that’s on purpose, but that’s his style of lyric writing and I decided to focus more on the melody of the lyrics, rather than the actual content. I mean, the songs still tell a story each, but it’s a little bit more vague, and I like leaving it up to the listener’s interpretation a lot more, for this album especially.

It’s probably the closest to a proper “live” Jarrow album that’s not involving the band.

And you play all the instruments on the album?
Yeah. It’s probably the closest to a proper “live” Jarrow album that’s not involving the band. Jacky Winter, he did the engineering for the album, and he took on production duties a little bit as well – he definitely focused on the performance of the album, which was something I wasn’t as conscious of going in, but that’s just how it came to be in terms of the tracking of the music and whatnot. So, that made me definitely focus on, both vocal-wise and performance-wise, making sure that everything stayed pretty concise. Some days were harder than others to get certain parts finished, but I think the album speaks for itself in that sense.

In the album’s final track, “Wash (Off)”, you sing “they don’t call me Jarrow just for my name”. So why do they call you Jarrow?
(Laughs) Why do they call me Jarrow? I think the comment I was trying to make there was – it’s funny, actually, the amount of people in other interviews just think my actual name is Jarrow, I think that was the comment I was making. Recently, I was doing an interview spot and they called me Jared, which I thought was pretty funny. I think there’s something fascinating about people who use different names for their projects, rather than using their own names. And it’s great, ‘cause for the live shows, when we play that song, I change “me” to “us” when they’re playing as the band, just to confuse people a little bit more. I also think it’s really interesting just name-dropping your own band in a song, I thought that would be funny to try out.

You’ve played with a number of other local Melbourne bands aside from your own. Given your recent success, do you plan to continue with these projects or do you feel that stepping back from them is inevitable?
I think one of the luxuries of being in a project like Jarrow is that I have a lot of control over the amount that I’m doing for it. In terms of my life, I spend a lot of my time with taking part in other projects. And, my group of friends especially are very involved in a lot of the music scene in Melbourne and it’s pretty rewarding to still be a part of it. So, I don’t see myself taking a break from it anytime soon, and there’s always something new happening that I like to be a part of. But yeah, especially with the album coming out, I definitely want to do more Jarrow things, I want to play more shows. That’s definitely my biggest focus, but I like to keep myself involved in different ways. Especially at the moment, my friend Calum, his project’s called Candy and I offered maybe two years ago to play drums for his band, and he just recently said – I’ve started an actual band now and I want to get you on drums, so we’ve just started recently playing shows and that’s been really fun, it’s cool to take a break from my own project and focus on a different instrument as well.

I played drums for the church band every weekend for the first couple of years that I started doing drums. So, that was me developing my skills as an improviser.

Your father David plays saxophone on 2003 Dream’s opener “Cube”. How would you say he has influenced you musically and do you plan to collaborate with him again in the future?
My parents are both musicians themselves. I basically learned church music, I played drums for the church band every weekend for the first couple of years that I started doing drums. So, that was me developing my skills as an improviser. There were lots of songs that followed the same structures, so being able to develop an idea of verse and chorus which is pretty important as a musician; very similar chord progressions – a lot of which are used in modern pop music, are pretty prominent in church music as well. But also outside of that, they introduced me to bands like The Beatles, that were really big, they were into a lot of 70s and 80s Australian rock, which I don’t listen to very closely, but it’s very important for me in terms of my progression and developing my knowledge bank of music as well. And, to the second part, not only do I want to get involved with dad more in the future, my next focus I think would be involving other musicians on Jarrow recordings. Whatever the next release will be, I want to either get my own band more involved with the recording process, or I’ve always thought about getting either a brass or a string section for a song – I think that would be really cool to experiment with, and kind of reach outside of the rock band set-up that I usually go with for the recordings.

I understand that 2003 was a pivotal moment for you in knowing you wanted to make music. Was there a specific occurrence that inspired this, or was it just a general shift in thinking?
I think it was around that time that I wanted to do more music, I’d taken up drums around that year, so that just opened my eyes up towards the journey I would take as a musician, and just picking up more influences from the music around me, and the stuff that I was listening to. I don’t think there was any specific moment that that happened, but certainly I took music a little bit more seriously from that time period onwards.

Jarrow performing live at The Evelyn Hotel, Melbourne. Photo: Liam Brownlie

What’s with the Frank Sidebottom-esque papier-mâché head in your recent video and promo shots?
(Laughs) My idea for the “Emoji” video – I was involved with a guy called Hayden Nettle, he’s a video director from Tassie, and I pretty much came to him with the idea for someone with a giant papier-mâché emoji head, and he built it himself, he took influences from stuff like Frank and… other projects that have involved papier-mâché heads. It’s something I still own, I still have the head, it’s sitting in the back room of my parents’ house at the moment. But it’s a very striking visual image, I think, and for the first video we wanted to have something that people could easily spot, like a visual cue, so I think the head worked really well. And actually, the promo shots that were used for it were very last minute, we actually came up with it a day before the song came out, so we did a very last-minute shoot. You can see in one photo I posted recently, that it’s literally just me stood in front of a whiteboard, that’s the shot we took and kind of just Photoshopped it together after that. But yeah, everyone really enjoyed that video, and it tells its own story, I think. Which, like I said before, it wasn’t something I wanted to do with any of the songs on the album, but the collaboration process with all the video makers on each of the songs we put out as releases, kinda tell their own stories, which I think is really cool, I think that’s something that goes back to other peoples’ interpretations being very important.

How did the cover art for this new album come about?
I am friends with an artist named Liam Brownlie, who has spent the last year and a half, maybe more, taking lots of photos of Melbourne bands and artists. I really love his photography, I love the way that he makes any artist basically look good, which is hard to do, especially with a face like mine, which is hard to get looking great on camera. He took a bunch of photos of a show at Yah Yah’s, with a band I was playing with at the time called Culte, and I loved the way that the curtains at the back of the band looked on camera, the way the lighting was showing, everything just gelled together really nicely and with his permission, I was able to use those photos and blow them up and manipulate them so the curtains were the main focus. Once I put up the text of the album, I was able to make this little collage of colour and somehow it suited really nicely with the way the album looked.

You’ve played with a number of pretty big international acts. Is there a particular highlight that comes to mind?
On the end of our last tour with Good Boy, back in April of last year, we found out that we had been offered a show with The Wombats, which was so crazy to me, like, we were already in the middle of another tour and this crazy offer came up and we said that we were available, and they were going to check later on if that was going to be possible, and then we found out a day before the show happened that they wanted us to play. Like, we waited a long time to hear their response, and then we found out the morning that we were playing, which was so crazy, and we made the big announcement and we went to Festival Hall that night and we played the show. And it happened so quickly, it was such a surreal time, so much to take in at once. They got up to perform after our set, we were in the crowd to watch them, was like, wow, I can’t believe that was the same show we played. Yeah, it was really somethin’. I met the singer afterwards, we got to sit and chat to them after the show, and they seemed pretty worn out from doing lots of touring, ‘cause they were doing Groovin’ the Moo at the time. But they were pretty nice to us, they were pretty appreciative of us playing. Really puts perspective on what life is like as a touring musician, especially in another country.

What are some recent musical releases you’ve been enjoying lately?
I’ve been listening to the new Ought album a lot, I’ve really been enjoying that. There’s a band called Palm, from Philadelphia – they don’t like being called math rock, ‘cause it isn’t really math rock, but they experiment a lot with time signatures. The guitarist has a MIDI sensor on his guitar, so he’s able to manipulate steel drum sounds and whatnot, and it sounds excellent, I really love the style of the record and it’s something I’ve been influenced by a little bit in terms of some of the songs on Expensive Hugs as well. But most of the Melbourne scene has so much great music that I listen to pretty constantly as well.

If you could collaborate with any artist, in any medium, past or present, who would it be and what would you ideally create?
Wow, that’s a big question. I’ve always wanted to try and work on a soundtrack for a visual piece, something maybe of an ambient type of project. There’s been recent shows where bands have created their own soundtrack over previously created films, and that’s something I’d really like to try and do in real time, I suppose. Definitely some sort of visual artist would be cool, but I can’t even think of any right now… In terms of musical artists, I’d really love to work with David Byrne from Talking Heads. He’s one of my favourite creative people of all time, and he’s someone that I really aspire to and look up to as a poet, as an artist, as an innovator in their own way. So that’s probably the one that comes to mind first, but there’s so many different mediums, so many different artists that I can think of.