Civil Civic on making music from two different countries2 December 2016
Source-Connect. Gobbler. Aspera’s SAM systems. File encryption in general. Damnit: even paying for a courier to safely deliver a hard-drive.
Nope. Civil Civic don’t use any of these methods to transfer their precious artistic cargo between their two bases in London and Barcelona.
“Nothing so beautiful,” smiles Aaron Cupples, the London component, as we sit in his Tottenham Hale studio. “Just email attachments, maybe a bit of Dropbox or Google Drive. No albino carrier pigeons or such like!” They don’t even extend to DAW-specific file types. “I’d love to send an Ableton Live file to Ben, but he uses Logic, and I use Ableton and Pro Tools. We’re incompatible: so we have to dumb it down.” MP3s, then? “Just MP3s at first with demo ideas,” he admits, “until we approach the point where we might be nailing takes. Then we might send stems.”
Civil Civic are two Australian musicians, originally from near Melbourne, Australia. They made a huge impression on the post-punk, math-rock scene in 2011 with the release of Rules, a noisy, brutal, angular-but-always-melodious album of instrumentals featuring Aaron on guitar and Benjamin Green on bass, plus the band’s mysterious, relentless, ultimately primitive drum machine providing the rhythmic glue.
Green moved to Europe first over a decade ago, eventually settling in in Barcelona. Cupples headed to London in 2007, with a vision for what would later become Civil Civic. Tracking down Green via demos posted myspace (remember that?), Cupples realised he had found the collaborator he needed. “If left to me, the band would probably have been a bit more serious – a bit more pretentious, let’s say,” laughs Cupples, “but Ben bought the fun element in.”
The promotional spin for Rules – effectively a collection of EPs and demos dating from 2009, mostly written by Cupples – was that the pair worked remotely but ultimately came together for final recording (“the old school way”) and, of course, subsequent playing live and touring. The band has just released a second album The Test (cover pictured), featuring ideas of a greater complexity and a wider timbral palette, but the original modus operandi is still in place.
“We utilise the powers of the internet,” Cupples reiterates. “I’m the guitarist, he’s the bass player, but we’ll both play both instruments on our demos. We send stuff to each other via endless streams of emails. We’ve never written a song by sitting in the same room and thrashing it out, which is the romantic idea of songwriting. I’m not sure how many bands actually write songs like that… Probably a lot! [Laughs] But not us.”
Cupples’ has been in his Tottenham studio for around six months (pictured). It’s compact and somewhat chaotic, “but a good size for me”, he says. The styling is all his own, created with acoustic panels and rockwool and a little research. Main monitors are Dynaudio BM6As, with Yamaha NS10s and a ‘Beritone’ for reference. (“It’s a powered Auratone knock-off. I haven’t compared an A/B between the two, but the idea is not to sound hi-fi, is it? I love mixing in mono through that speaker. And when I switch back to the main ones, the mix is generally in a good place.”)
Other go-to kit in Cupples’ cave is a Neve 1073 copy, built from a kit by Brisbane-based supplier JLM Audio (“great, affordable pre-amp kits”). He highlights the PreSonus CentralStation for switching between the headphones and the speakers – and the headphones themselves, a pair of beyerdynamic DT990 Pros. “The [Empirical Labs] Distressor compressor is fantastic too, it’s a real Swiss Army knife.”
When Civil Civic play live, the stage set-up comprises the two musicians separated by a large, battered, box, on top of which rests a couple of beaten-up back-to-back Novation SL37 keyboards. But, you won’t find them using pre-recorded synth parts to any great degree to beef up the sound.
“Synth lines we play. Seriously! That was one of the rules of the band: we wanted to use a drum machine but we didn’t want a laptop on stage. So, the drum machine plays a series of loops, really dumb stuff…
Simple rhythms keep the audience focused on the rich harmonic and melodic content. “To have a really complicated drum line would be too much, because we are so noodly. We’re all over the place – by design.”
Just what is that drumbox then? “It’s a mystery which we can’t really discuss,” laughs Cupples, “a big box-shaped roadcase with lots of flashing lights. It might be an old Dr Who prop or something. It was a founding member of the band – we hope to flesh out its backstory on the third album.” He laughs again. “The machine has a light for the kick, the snare, the percussion and the cymbals: four lights and four tracks to spit out to the FOH for mixing.
The drum machine is one of the more reliable members of the band, jokes Cupples. “Ben made a particularly flamboyant move with his bass during one show and knocked both of the keyboards off the stage. That was a showstopper – literally – for about ten minutes until we’d plugged them back in.”
Cupples (pictured) sees his musical influences in no-wave post-punk bands such as Sonic Youth, alongside The Cure, The Smiths, Gang of Four and Steve Albini’s Big Black, a punk band that used a drum machine rather than a live drummer. But he’s also a producer in his own right, as he was before he left Australia, and has recently been working with Jason Pierce aka J Spaceman of Spiritualized.
Ultimately then, does he see himself as Civil Civic member with a production side-project, or a producer with a Civil Civic band side-poject?
“I think I like to think of Civil Civic as a side project, because it makes me think I can do whatever I want with it. When I think of it like that, it’s more fun and the music is better.
“The first album sounded like it did because we didn’t care: we just made music that we wanted to hear. The second album was harder because suddenly we had booking agents and fans and expectations and managers – and that’s sort of stifling, and stops being fun. I want to make something really noisy but now everyone’s gonna hear it and I don’t know whether that’s going to sell. If it excites me and Ben, that should be the only pre-requisite. So – Civil Civic is a side project that takes up the most of my time.”