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Interview with Mark Spence from Royal Chant and Designer Mutts

Mark Spence has had a very busy 2018 putting out released from Royal Chant and Designer Mutts, as well as touring with touring with Phil Jamison and being a drum teacher. Mr Spence took some time out from his busy schedule to talk to Tomatrax about his latest adventures!

What is the difference between Designer Mutts and Royal Chant?

On the most basic level, Royal Chant is a three-piece garage band comprised of people with real names and identities playing music that more of less “means” something, while Designer Mutts is (usually) a two-piece outfit of fictitious band members who play extremely simple songs on a hodgepodge of instruments. You could say that Royal Chant is the “serious” band of the two, but that’s such a stupid claim to make I can’t even bring myself to say it. Oscar Wilde said “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he’ll tell you the truth”, and that resonated with me when I was putting together the Designer Mutts album. Its almost like I’ve been doing Royal Chant so long that it was nice to have another completely different, wildly exaggerated mask to hide and write behind.

When you write songs do you know which “band” will play it?

For this last round of recordings, yes, very much so. Designer Mutts has a certain musical aesthetic, let’s call it “busted anti-folk”, and since many of these songs were being written for and used for the very specific purpose of a film soundtrack, it allowed each band to have a clearer definition of itself.  I think that will continue moving forward, but maybe it will just come down to Royal Chant songs feeling like more proper band and studio efforts, while Designer Mutts will maintain that bedroom aesthetic.

You also put out some solo recordings, are there any plans for any further solo releases?

In theory, yes, but I’m having a hard time truly envisioning that happening in the near future. I mean, I’m always humming and strumming by myself anyways, and still playing the odd solo show here or there, but there hasn’t been any great urge to write strictly for just myself. The majority of my songs could be played by me solo, or in some form as Designer Mutts or Royal Chant. So far, nothing that I have written lately is pulling at my sleeve and telling me to “keep this for yourself.”

Where did the name Virtue Signals come from?

In all the amazing (and long-overdue) social changes that have happened recently here in Australia, America, and around the world, the idea of “virtue signalling” certainly began to piggyback on the conversations and actions of progressive change. It was literally just a cynical term that I had been hearing a lot and contemplating even in my own actions, so it was probably near the surface of my conscious when I was working on the album. It’s just an abstract term that has a variety of concrete meanings when taken in isolation. I’m rather fond of it as a description of human behaviour as well as an album title, but it also implies a level of cynicism that I don’t actually feel. It might strike people as humorous, especially when paired against the album cover, but that was not my intent.

Where did you get the idea for the albums cover?

Those were the first shots we had after we had stumbled on the idea of taking Designer Mutts into a different world, consisting of Johnny Mac and Tyrannosaurus James from Porpoise Spit, Australia There’s something perfect and surreal about it, (to me anyways), and the feeling that comes with saying “This exists because we say it exists”.

What inspired you to include a remake of the previously Royal Chant released ‘Bored Awake’?

That was actually a really old demo of the song, before I ever showed it to the band and before it took on the bruising & blistering form that it has on record. It was originally a bit of a dirge, as you can hear, and it seemed to fit the flow of the Virtue Signals album rather well. It puts the lyrics in a new light with just the affected voice and guitar, and I had always kept the recording in my back pocket for a rainy. One of the films I was working for needed a specific type of song, and nothing I was writing was working, so when I offered this as a last resort they responded with an immediate yes.


You made the album “Name your own price”what made you decide to effectively make the album available for free?

Because very few people are buying music to have in a hard copy these days, which I don’t really mind. The change to streaming has been so swift and absolute, so rather than fight it I’ve tried to make it as easy as possible if anyone actually wants/needs a hard copy for whatever reason.

You’ve been making music for over a decade, is it hard to keep coming up with new ideas?

Yes and no? There are certainly times when I will pick up a guitar and I’m not feeling much and it’s all blah, so when that happens I try to take it as a cue and move on to something more productive and not fret about it.  Having said that, there will always be a fair amount of work that goes into writing anything, and I don’t mind that in the least. I know some people, including me in my former years, who prefer to treat songs and songwriting as something magical and special and fey, but….it can still be all of those thing and take a lot of work, thought, and editing. This past year has been fairly prolific, by my standards anyways, and a lot of material has come within a fairly short amount of time. So, the short answer is: it depends.

Across your projects you’ve played guitar, drums, harmonica, and sung, do you have a favourite instrument to play?

Well, I make my living playing & teaching drums, so I should probably say that, but I feel just as comfortable with a guitar in my hands and singing into a microphone.

Is there any instrument you’d like to play but are yet to?

I had to play piano for a few years in college in order to complete my studies, but I wish I was much, much better at it. I now use the keyboard for writing or for teaching theory or doing really basic lines & parts in songs, but at no point would I ever consider myself a pianist or keyboard player.

Is there any instrument you’d never touch?

I have no real desire to learn any wind or brass instruments, mostly because I’ve been around them for so long and know how much time and work goes into them. They don’t speak to me in that way.

You also teach people to play drums, how does teaching music compare with playing music?

Sometimes I get really tired of music and even sound in general, and sometimes I just get tired of explaining things. It can take a while for my brain to get into a headspace suitable for creation rather than one suited for exposition. They are wildly different, even though they can help and inform each other. Teaching is just like any other job, so of course you can get sick of it and feel drained, but overall, being involved with music and helping shape the next generation of musicians is pretty rewarding.

You’re also a big book reader, what are you reading right now?

The World of Mr. Mulliner, by P.G. Wodehouse. It is extremely light fiction, in the best sense of the word.

Do any of the books you read act as inspiration for your songs?

Most definitely. I used to lift random phrases or images, or rework themes and ideas in my songs, or borrow rhyme schemes from poems I was enamored with. I was open to using or stealing anything and everything, especially because the entire meaning can change by the sheer fact of having a melody or changing the emphasis of of words or phrases. I read a whole lot of non-fiction news & politics, which I have realized is the equivalent of fast food, and it’s really made me rethink the simplistic notion that “reading = good”.  I can feel the difference between reading worthwhile, inspiring material compared to verbal junk. There is a big difference between thinking about and considering an idea rather than just regurgitating facts and whatnot, so I try to take an active, aggressive approach to what I am reading in my spare time.

Check out Royal Chant’s Facebook page, or the Designer Mutts’ Facebook page to find out more!

You can also watch the short film Desire Trilogy here, featuring some of Mark’s music.


Tomatrax’s Triple J Unearthed picks of 2018

We are now into the final month of 2018. That means it is once again to reflect on the great music over the past year.

To kick things off, following an in-depth search through the many songs posted on Triple J’s Unearthed page, here are some of the best songs from independent Australian artists released this past year.

This year’s Unearthed picks playlist is the top play list on the Tomatrax Unearthed page.

Alternatively you can go straight to the Tomatrax Unearthed picks playlist.

You can download all songs for free. At the time of writing this there are 42 tracks up on the list. However, as soon as the artists replace their tracks with new ones they will cease to be on the list, so be sure to get in and download early!








Interview with Jen K. Wilson from Buildings and Food

Buildings and Food have just released the debut album ‘Quick Beat Save’. Hailing from Toronto, this is the artist persona of Jen K. Wilson, an independent Canadian music artist espousing electronic avant pop.

Tomatrax caught up with Jen K. Wilson to ask a few questions.

You’ve just released your new album. How does it feel to have it out?
Cathartic! I spent 3 years on the album, writing the material and recording, mixing and mastering it myself, but also learning and navigating a brand new DAW (digital audio workstation).  In the past, my home recording studio consisted of all analog recording equipment!

Where did you get the title Quick Beat Save?
With my recording software, if the program crashes, it automatically saves a copy of the song and renames it by adding “save” at the end of the title. The song Quick Beat crashed at one point, but when I opened the new file, it had been permanently corrupted. Rather than give up on it, I searched for new sounds for my midi keyboard tracks and ended up being happier than I had been with the original version! After decidingto rename the song Quick Beat Save, my 10 year old son suggested that I keep the original title but name the album Quick Beat Save instead.  Really, I think the title is a good reflection of my recording process on the album, as I really embraced the whole digital thing.

What made you pick ‘Slow to Reverse’ as the album’s lead track?
I thought it was probably the most accessible to the widest audience, but I also think it is quite different from all the other tracks on the album so thought it would be good to keep it separated with the rest of the material by putting it first.

You’ve played in various bands. How does performing solo compare with being in a band?
To be clear, I am currently not a performing artist; just focusing on recording. But working alone is certainly very different in terms of writing and recording. Having total control over all the decisions and playing all the instruments has its pros and cons: it’s the ultimate in creative freedom, but I did miss the feeling of comraderie that you get from being in a band.

You’ve also done work as a visual artist. Are there plans for your music to mix with visual work?
I’ve had notions in the past to create an installation that incorporates visual art and sound/music, but have never done so. I would love to get to that at some point!

What made you decide to return from visual arts to music?
All my life I’ve bounced back and forth between art and music, seldom working on both at the same time. I was taking a break from painting a few years ago and then I came across and fell in love with Glenn Tilbrook’s demo recordings, which he released in instalments; two releases in particular, “Dreams are made of This” and “When Daylight Appears” were such an inspiration to me, both in terms of songwriting and recording sounds/production. Glenn’s true genius is so evident to me on those albums! I love the quality and energy of the home demo as a medium for music – sometimes the big studio can lose some of the beauty of a song.  I tried to keep a sort of demo feeling to my recordings.

Where did the name Buildings and Food come from?
I struggled with a name for a long time and then I went to see David Byrne perform in August/18 in Toronto and it suddenly dawned on me. I’ve always been a huge Brian Eno and Talking Heads fan and especially loved their album More Songs about Buildings and Food when I was first making music. The title always made me think about the notion of infinite songs being created all over the world throughout history and a humble recognition of my little intimate expression of personal things combined with essential life needs appealed to me.

What made you decide to use an Alias rather than your name?
Jen Wilson is a bit boring!

What’s the music scene in Toronto like?
I’ve been out of the music scene for so long that I’m not immersed in it but of course it’s very vibrant, being a large city.  You can see almost any kind of music every day of the week.  Although I haven’t been performing, I still go to see live music everywhere from the small hole-in- the-walls to the largervenues. One of my favourite shows in 2018 was Belle & Sebastian at a beautiful performing arts centre, and I saw a great 1977 Punk tribute at my local pub down the street the other night.

Do you ever listen to your own music?
Because I listen to it so much while working on it, I’m not much inclined to listen to it once it’s finished! I just look forward to the next thing I’m going to work on.

What music do you listen to?
I listen to so many genres of music – some classical, jazz, punk, different world music – but mostly indie alternative pop/rock, house and other dance/electronic, some experimental music.  I love remixes and demos!  VU was always a favourite and early Squeeze.  I’m a long time Underworld fan and I love Dntel and of course, guitar god Stephen Malkmus and Pavement.  I’m always searching for new music to fulfill my obsessive listening habits.  Besides looking for new releases, I love trolling through the past to find stuff I have missed over the years.

Now that your album is out what do you plan on doing next?
I plan on getting back into the studio and writing/recording some new music.

Check out Building and Food’s website to find out more!

Interview with Lisa Caruso


Forced breaks from relapse in sickness, prolific writing, and to London and back again, Lisa Caruso has been relentless in her work toward the completion of a new set of songs that reflect the pause in time since her last releases took off.

Now with brooding guitars, a tight and sometimes rip-roaring rhythm section reminiscent of a 90’s childhood, and an utterly unique vocal that swims between an honest cry and a chilled shaken falsetto. This singer/songwriter is an accomplished Artist ready for the taking.

Tomatrax caught up with Lisa to talk about her latest work!

It’s been two years since you were last featured on Tomatrax, what have you been up to over this time?

I picked up an electric guitar, wrote a heap of songs, played a lot of solo shows and worked on a new album- amidst other life stuff!

Was it hard to get back into it after having a musical hiatus?

No I don’t think so. I knew at least half of what I might be in for this time round. I wasn’t releasing music, but I had been doing a lot behind the scenes.

What made you pick ‘Shake Baby Shake’ as your latest single?

I’d been sick on and off with a Crohns relapse since my last releases, and the song is about that. I had advice from others to put out one of the punchier ones first, but I wanted to be genuine to my artistry and have the ‘comeback’ song be one that represents what life has been like since. My musics always been super honest, so it just felt right. Plus, I do like it a lot. I think it was the first song we worked on, creating this new sound.

What was the inspiration behind the video for ‘Shake baby shake’?

I’d worked on ideas with Adam (DOP) over the space of almost a year! It was really important, because of the subject matter, that I got this clip right. A hall setting was priority to showcase movement, but once we found this dream location, the bathroom grabbed us the most! We loved the retro style of it and thought it a great opportunity to show the ‘invisible illness’ theme that runs through the song. The hall scenes then became what we called the “dream state”. A vision of optimism and strength.

You’ll be putting on a launch show next month, what can fans expect from your show?

It’ll be very different from the experience of my previous releases. More energy and way more edge. With Ben (co-producer), we were able to develop a really cool sound. There was a lot of 90’s indie influences floating around, and he’s just a gun at punching out cool ideas. He’s been the brain helping me articulate some things I cannot.

You can purchase tickets to the Launch Show in Sydney here!

Are there plans for an EP or LP release?

There are! Ben’s back in town in December so we’ll be making tracks to finish off the album!

For your latest work you’ve swapped the acoustic guitar for an electric one, what prompted this change?

Ah, buying the Tele should have happened years ago. Most of the music I like has an electric sound. I’m much more into the tone of an electric, and love that you have a broader scope of sounds and dynamic to play with.

You have quite a unique vocal style, how did this come about?

I’d say vocal style is mostly a subconscious thing. I think you’re born with a certain sound, but then drawn to different stylistic features from eras and genres that you love.

When writing what comes first, the words or the music?

I’ve always done the both together. I generally just pick up the guitar, start with a chord, sing a line, and go from there.

Now that your latest single is out what do you plan on doing next?

I plan to release another single early next year and will then be looking forward to releasing the album! A lot more shows to come.

Check out Lisa Caruso’s Facebook page to find out more!

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