Today's Word Of The Day Is: RAT!hammock
On the eve of Melbourne’s second lockdown we caught up with RAT!hammock frontman Jackson Phelan to chat about their new song, quarter-life crisis, songwriting, production, and tales of dropped chips at Bigsound.
RAT!hammock have quickly established themselves as head turners of the national music scene since they released their breakout single ‘June’ back in 2017. They’ve supported the likes of Last Dinosaurs and Tiny Little Houses on national tours and co headlined with Adelaide mates Horror My Friend. They’ve amassed loyal fans all over the country playing sold out headlining shows of their own, not to mention festival spots at Bigsound, Laneway, Split Milk and NYE On The Hill. Last week saw the release of their brand new single ‘Word Of The Day’ and let’s just say it’s a real gem!
The Creative Issue: The song carries quite a party feel but lyrically there’s something a little less cheery going on. It feels a bit like capturing the head space of the quarter life crisis. What is the story behind the lyrics?
Jackson Phelan: Yeah I guess you’ve kind of hit the nail on the head in that it is that quarter life crisis kind of situation. But it’s definitely not the first song we’ve had about a quarter life crisis, in fact I feel like for probably a year every song we had was about a quarter life crisis. But we just really wanted it to have that cheery fun feel. Because it’s not, I guess, very unique, I feel like I don’t really know anyone who turned 24 or 25 and didn’t experience that kind of thing. That was the main thing, to flip it around and make it funny, and a little bit stupid, and lighthearted.
TCI: There are some really great lines in the song. I mean “It’s all rise and grind in a slow machine. It’s a second hand fear. It’s a first world scream” is really brilliant. Do you have any favourite lyricists?
JP: Oh yeah absolutely. I love lyrics. My favourite growing up was Bright Eyes and Conor Oberst. He was the first person. He was my way into music where lyrics were the most important part. And then with modern writers I really like Dan Kelly, he’s a favourite of mine. And also lots of my friends. I’m not sure if you know Alexander Biggs, but I think he’s one of the best lyricists going around, he’s amazing!
TCI: Is it correct that Sam Swain produced ‘Word Of The Day’? You’ve worked quite a bit together before. How did that partnership come about?
JP: Yeah. Sam was a friend and he used to come down when I used to play this regular show at the Peacock Inn in Northcote. It was a really weird gig that I played every Sunday for almost a year where me and a bunch of friends from uni, like I went to jazz school or whatever, and we’d go down and play jazz standards at the Peacock Inn. Sam had a studio maybe 50 metres down the road from there and he came down maybe two or three times and he used to say “Yo. Let’s bring RAT!hammock into the studio. Let’s just do it.” and he just twisted my arm over and over again. And eventually we did it. We went in and recorded our first EP with him. We knocked it out in two days in the end, and the rest is history, we just haven’t looked back, he’s kind of just part of the family.
TCI: That’s really lovely when you can stick with someone and essentially have, well I guess the fifth part of the band, because you added in a fourth member now is that correct?
JP: Yeah well we’ve always had a fourth member. But we’ve had quite a revolving door of bass players coming and going because we’re quite attracted to bass players that are songwriters and have their own projects. So it gets to a certain point every twelve or so months where schedules don’t really align anymore and people have to move on. But we’ve just added a new bass player, Dom, who had actually been playing with the band on and off for maybe the last eighteen months filling in, and so it was really natural. It was kind of one of those beautiful moments where we were talking and were like “should we ask Dom to be in the band full time. Like I know he’s busy but…” and then when we asked Dom he was like “I was hoping you’d ask.” It was really nice.
TCI: RAT!hammock are often described as “mid-fi” which is quite a cool term. Do you feel like RAT!hammock’s “sound” is more defined by your songwriting, or by the production that you and Sam get, or equal parts of both?
JP: That’s a good question. I’ve never thought about that before. I would say probably equal parts. The production has definitely developed from our first EP, and I guess the songwriting has developed also because it’s very different, but we were probably a Lo-Fi band then. For a little while there we considered ourselves, for media and stuff, Lo-Fi/Hi-Fi, but I think now Mid-Fi is more applicable. I think definitely there has been development. One of the benefits of working with Sam over and over again is that we kind of always miss the mark when we go in to record. We’re never really, really, really happy with it, but that’s quite good because Sam is there the whole time and we learnt together. We do a lot of demos, and do a lot of production, at home and being able to form a really clear way of trying to get what we want across to Sam is slowly getting better. And yeah I’d like to think that the songs perhaps do play a fairly big part also.
TCI: We’ve talked about lyrical inspiration. Where do you draw inspiration from sonically? What are some of the bands/artists you listen to most or look to for production inspiration?
JP: I was always drawn to, and listen to a lot of, Lo-Fi music. For a long time that was my main influence. The obvious one for this track is Neutral Milk Hotel. It’s very similar with the whole super-crushed drums barely there idea. I think initially what I was drawn to was how limited everything was, and that’s something we’ve been pushing against, trying to make things sound a little bit more extensive than we used to, and a little bit more colourful. I always liked Ball Park Music, and we come from some similar influences, like 90’s and 00’s indie-rock but they always put really strange keyboard colours in their songs, and they were quite upbeat. As someone who comes from almost an emo background, it’s quite exciting and challenging to incorporate elements of really positive, really bubbly, sounds into the songs. I like that idea.
TCI: You guys have been very busy since you hit the scene back in 2017. You’ve ticked off a lot of the check-boxes that new-ish bands want to hit. You’ve released a bunch of music, had Triple J rotation, supported some very cool bands and headlined your own tours, not to mention a stack of festival appearances. What have been some of your favourite bits of being RAT!hammock?
JP: We definitely feel very lucky. I mean sometimes it feels like we don’t do anything. But, you’re right, when you put it like that we feel very grateful that we’ve had a lot of opportunities to do the things that any young band starting out wants to do. I think the highlights for us would definitely include playing Laneway, that was really fun and a really good experience. We had a tour as well, not the last tour, but the tour prior to that, right after ‘Ghosts’ came out and we did a little east coast run of Sydney, Brisbane, Wollongong and Melbourne. Sydney, Brisbane and Wollongong all sold out and we’d only played there as a support act prior. It was just amazing to get into a different city and have people singing all the words. I remember we were getting food beforehand and some kids asked for a photo and that felt very strange. So that was really fun. I think that particular tour was pretty special for all of us.
TCI: The video clip for ‘Word Of The Day’ is really fun and really cool. Where did the idea come from and who did you work with for it?
JP: So, we’ve been sitting on this track for a little while. We were in the same situation as anyone in music, and most creative fields. I guess everyone has had to delay everything. The song was meant to come out in February. I think we’d just signed off on the artwork or something and then the day after that they closed down gigs, like first everything over 500 and then 100 and then just everything. So we just waited and waited. Then in lockdown we hadn’t made a clip yet, and the guy we normally work with for our film clips, Mike, had to go back to Canberra to be with his family during the lockdown. So it wasn’t an option to work with him in that capacity. So I just started tinkering with stuff that we could make at home and do ourselves. I made an entire clip that isn’t the clip that we used, it was like a draft really. I sent it to the guys and they recorded their greenscreen bits at home. We were lucky because Dom and Tom actually live together so they could be in some scenes together which was pretty nice. Then we just sent it all to Mike. So we still got to use the same team that we normally use, which was really nice and it felt quite fun. Mike is a really great cinematographer and we’ve always been really, really happy, and loved working with him, and thought he did a great job with the cinematography element. Now we’d really kind of taken that away from him. I think he really stood up to the challenge of working in a medium, or a genre, he’d never really worked before.
TCI: As a final question…We get very excited when you guys say new music is on the way and there has been some background talk that RAT!hammock are working on a full length release. Is there truth to that?
JP: Oooh. Kind of. Kind of “yes” and kind of “no”. The fact is we haven’t told anyone what’s going on. To be honest we don’t really know what’s going on. We had plans and obviously they’re all up in smoke now. We are sitting on a longer release and we’ve got some cool things coming out that aren’t just singles, but I’m not sure when we can put those out anymore. I guess this is kind of a tester to see how it goes. I guess we were hopeful that we could play some shows in a few months time, but now it’s really hard to know.
TCI: Yeah everything has been thrown back into the air again, which is sad because so much of Australia’s great music comes from Melbourne. But Brisbane crowds were absolutely loving it last time you were here so I’m sure they’ll be waiting for you to be back as soon as it’s possible.
JP: We can’t wait to get back. Brisbane is our favourite for sure. Actually one of my favourite memories of the band was when we played Bigsound…this is actually not a very good anecdote and I’m not really sure why I telling it, it’s really long and involved but anyway…basically I just dropped some really delicious chips I got from one of the corner pizza joints, I can’t remember what street it was on, but we talk about it quite a lot because I was really distraught at dropping those chips!
TCI: That sounds more like a bad memory of Brisbane.
JP: Oh no it was a great memory because it was ridiculous. I guess we’d had such a big couple of days there at Bigsound, it was very tiring and exhausting, and we were all a bit delirious by that stage. So yeah, Brisbane will always be special for even just that reason!