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"It's fun to make cheery drum machine bangers, but it's challenging to write something honest": Finding home with Retiree

21 September 2018 | 9:52 am | Max Lewis

To celebrate the release of trio Retiree's debut LP 'House or Home', we sat down with singer Tori Holleman to unpack the album.

I'll go ahead and say it: RETIREE are the ants pants. They're all about sublime synth-pop bops with toe-tapping drum machine beats, groovy basslines, textured guitar and far-away vocals. Sometimes they're serving up retro-tinged dance numbers, and other times they're dishing out cold and contemplative vibes, but the common denominator is that they're always super duper good. The Sydney/Melbourne based trio have been around for a number of years - with two EPs under their belts - but it's today that they have finally released their debut LP in the form of House or Home via UK imprint, Rhythm Section.

Early Retiree was all about minimal but hook-filled synth-pop, with cuts like 'Gundagai' and 'Jan' sounding like Hall and Oats teamed up with Melbourne electronic pioneers Cut Copy. In the lead up to House or Home, Retiree dropped a trio of songs and videos that showed a different and more nuanced sound. The first of these (and one of my favourite tracks of the year) was 'Pumice Stone'. With its reverb soaked synth lines, spacey guitar and even a danged saxophone section, it was melancholy in the most comforting way. 'Magic Eye' followed soon after, and by teaming up with fellow Melbourne artist Sui Zhen, the gang turned what was already a solid heartbreak song into absolute magic. Rounding out the trilogy on a happy note was 'Another Day', a stream-of-consciousness love song about sharing a spontaneous moment with someone special.

House or Home has been a long time coming for Retiree, and fittingly it's a slow burn that proves rewarding once you peruse its nooks and crannies. To celebrate its release today we sat down with singer Tori Holleman to discuss the themes and process of House or Home, what the future might hold for Retiree, and a surprise appearance from a certain Melbourne electronic legend.

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What is Retiree all about for you?

It's changed a lot over the past few years. At the beginning it was a project for me and a few friends to get together and experiment, jam, hang out, and it's slowly evolved into making records and, I guess even more slowly, evolved into finishing this record finally. Over the time that we've been a band we've sort of changed a little bit, and began writing music a little differently. It's mostly just a platform to hang out and make music and express ourselves.

You're based in Melbourne, and the others are in Sydney, right?

Yeah! Originally I was in Sydney for a few years, which is when we started Retiree. Then I moved over to Europe for a little bit to do some stuff over there, before moving back home to Melbourne. It's been cool, though I think it has a lot to do with the project changing and evolving. It started out as a weekly thing - we used to get together at Troy Horse, just above FBi Radio, and just jam. The whole thing with Plastic World - the first record - happened by chance. One of our friends was in their shop playing some demos we'd recorded on a phone, or one of those field recorder things. And I think James McInnes was in the shop and heard it. From there we just started making stuff. But when I moved to Europe we started writing more songs and refining things more by recording and sharing projects with each other. This record was written and finished over quite a period of time. There's songs that we began two or three years ago, and only finished six months ago - 'Another Day', 'Magic Eye' and 'Pumice Stone' - basically the three singles were songs we started ages ago and finished in the last six months. They changed a lot over that time.

Did you initially intend for House or Home to be so thematically driven? It feels like it's got a lot of concepts going through it.

The title of the album came about halfway through the process, after looking at the tracks we had more or less finished for the record which were 'Another Day', 'Pumice Stone' and 'Magic Eye'. Lyrically, those songs were highly personal and ones we had been refining for a long time. They reflect more on relationships and personal experiences, and the idea of home in a more domestic sense. From there I started thinking more about what that theme means to other people living in Australia, which is a pretty savage subject given the bloody history of white Australia and our current conservative government. These songs were still written from a personal perspective but yeah, maybe a little more zoomed out in the scope of things.

For example, 'Mystery Bay' is about a campground I visited over summer last year where there is an Aboriginal tent embassy occupying a portion of the grounds. The area became a marine national park due to over-fishing, and Aboriginal people who had been sustainably fishing there for thousands of years were being prosecuted for continuing to do so. I only learned this after chatting to people and reading about it. Meanwhile a few kilometres inland there was a mint condition, heritage town preserved by the national trust where you could visit a vintage petrol station and buy some traditional lollies or an ornamental spoon or whatever. It was a pretty poignant example of the kind of thing people visiting that area are exposed to and where private money goes to for conservation. 'Mystery Bay' was actually made a few weeks before we handed in the tracks for mastering.

That makes sense, I noticed it was a bit of an outlier from the rest of the album since it's a lot dancier.

Yeah, it was a weird one! We started writing it with a beat, and it was dancey all the way through. But I couldn't get the drums right, it didn't quite work. I ended up muting the drums, and had a full, well not acapella, but a drumless version of it, which ended up being the first half. It was nice to not limit the record to just stuff we'd done in the past. It's nice to throw some new stuff in sometimes.

What I liked about House or Home in particular was that it felt like each track was a little moment frozen in time, but together they fit into something cohesive. Was that something you set out to do from the start or did it come across unconsciously?

A little bit of both. The kind of music we're making, I really like lyrics that are not too descriptive or narrative based. I like lyrics that are more abstract, reflecting on colours and moods and memories. In that way, they're the sort of lyrics I like writing, and the sort of sound palettes we like creating. We used drum machines and synths and stuff, but we try our best to make earnest music out of it. I think that's a big difference with this record, we're steering away from any kind of pastiche, and just making honest music.

That's what I noticed about House or Home, that it's leaning a lot closer to post-punk-y coldwave than the dancy synthpop of stuff like your first EP This Place. Was there anything in particular that drove this change?

That's a good question. I think when you set out to write a full-length record, you allow yourself to open up a bit more and make music from a slightly different place. You allow the songs to breath a lot more and allow the songs to have a lot more dynamic. You're not necessarily writing one song that has to encapsulate everything about the band, you've got seven, eight, nine or however many songs to convey a bigger idea or feeling. I think what you were saying about the songs being these little snippets of memories, I feel like the record is cinematic like that in a way. The cold thing, I think it just comes down to us making different music, and probably just maturing a little a bit with our songwriting. It's fun to make cheery drum machine bangers, but it's challenging to write songs that express something honest. A lot of our songs in the past, lyrically, have been sort of the same, but the songs sound a bit more cheery so maybe you don't notice the lyrics as much. I suppose the songs on this record are a little bit more...

They're delivered a bit bleaker.

Yeah, definitely. Then again, 'Another Day' is pretty positive.

That's probably my favourite track from the album, it's such a sweet snapshot of something special.

Yeah, we all really love that song. That one was the hardest to make the clip for as well, because it's a pretty specific feeling in that song. But yeah, I think we've gone through more of a journey, sonically and emotionally, and that allows for different moods, not necessarily just funky pop music.

You mentioned working with Sui Zhen on 'Magic Eye' as well, and I found her vocals really gave that track a special place on the album. How did that collaboration come about?

Becky came on tour with us once or twice ages ago, and we just became friends. We're all really big fans of her music as well. The song is a bit of a heartache song, and originally the idea was for her to just do the backing vocals on the chorus, at the end with those ad-libs. I sort of imagined it having a bit of a dark Kate Bush kind of vibe to it. We recorded a bunch of stuff for it and it sounded really good, but it almost sounded too good? It was almost a bit of a tease having such a unique voice just doing backing vocals. We thought it would be nice to include a little more, so she ended up singing the third verse which we wrote together. That song was really strange too, sort of tying into the name of the record. That song started a long time ago, before a big break up, and then it was completed after a big breakup - I'd moved house, all these things had changed in my life. I didn't think the song meant what it did at the time when I started writing it, but I realised what was coming out by the time I finished it. I guess she brought that second voice to the song, made it more of a conversation than just me spilling my guts.

The videos for 'Pumice Stone', 'Magic Eye', and 'Another Day' were some some of my favourite videos to come out this year. How did the idea of doing a connected video trilogy develop?

We actually started with the 'Magic Eye' clip, and we got in touch with a friend of mine, Joey Knox, who ended up directed all three clips. Joey knew Steve Tucker, the guy from all three film clips - he was an extra in one of Joey's films - and he got to see his property. That's his place in the 'Magic Eye' clip, with all the crazy cars and cool stuff, and Joey really wanted to film something there. So we made the video for Magic Eye, which we thought was going to be the single at the time, and then we wanted to make one for Pumice Stone. I'm not sure whose idea it was, but eventually we thought about making two or three different clips and joining them together. When we got that going we felt like Steve would be an interesting link between them. 'Magic Eye' was inspired by the landscape and colours on his farm; it's fairly indicative of the song I think. 'Pumice Stone' was interesting as well, going to this furniture store called Franco Cozzo. Originally we went to suss out filming in the downstairs area with all the shiny couches and mirrors, but we went upstairs and found this crazy storeroom that just went on forever, and was full of all these, I dunno, broken dreams or something. I think that sort of vibe you picked out of the album, of memories frozen in time, it felt sort of like that. We like film clips that aren't too prescriptive or narrative based, so the music and the video can sort of develop a unique narrative within the clip. We just set out to make moods, especially with the colours.

The blue colour grading on 'Pumice Stone' and 'Magic Eye' was so effective in getting that across.

Yeah! With 'Another Day' we were lucky enough to get sunny weather, so we went with a much warmer grade. Ending the series on a positive note.

Looking ahead, what plans do you have for touring House or Home?

We're going to tour nationally this year, Sydney and Melbourne and Perth, still to lock in Adelaide and Brisbane. We've sort of got it in the pipeline to try and get over to Europe and play some shows.

You mentioned at the beginning that Retiree has changed a lot in the four years it's been around - how do you foresee Retiree developing in the future?

I think we want to make a dance record.

That's a logical next step!

We've had our sort of purge of feelings and emotions, all this stuff that built up. I mean, if we make a more upbeat record I think there'll still be similar emotions and themes, but I think it's the next thing on the cards we've started working on. The next thing is just to play lots of shows, then book a house somewhere on the beach, take all our stuff there and just record something.

Do you think it'll be as much of a long process as House or Home was?

I kind of hope not! I have a feeling that this time around - huh, I just walked past Dan Whitford from Cut Copy!

Oh, really?

Yeah, I'm walking along this bike track along Mary Creek on my way home and Dan just walked past me.

That's a weird coincidence; I was just thinking that I was getting a lot of Cut Copy vibes from House or Home.

That's a nice compliment! But yeah, I feel like we've sharpened ourselves a little bit over this last record. There was a lot of stopping and starting in finishing it off. We're thinking about, for this one, putting some time aside to work on it more intensely, since that's how we work now with me being in Melbourne. It ends up being quite productive because it's less of a weekly routine and a lot more active process of getting together and being absorbed in it. I have in mind that it'll be a little bit different.