On a fairly grey Melbourne morning, I set myself up in an armchair with my cat and a coffee, preparing to speak on the phone with Ben Stewart; vocalist/frontman/songwriter of Slowly Slowly. The Melbourne based rock quartet have their second album St. Leonards on the way, and also recently signed with independent heavy record label UNFD. I wanted to talk about these things and more.
We bonded over the awkwardness of phone interviews, especially ones with voice delay (as we unfortunately had..) where talking over each other or awkward pauses was a given, and Ben finished preparing a curry. From the gigantic ball of questions I wanted to ask, I started from the start, asking Ben how he got into music in the first place.
Music began for Ben in primary school and playing the drums. It continued into teenage years with him smashing drums with ‘weird instrumental heavy bands’. All the while though, he was writing songs in his bedroom. Songs that he referred to as ‘softer, and really revealing about my life’, the kind of music he’d never heard before, and didn’t feel comfortable in sharing. In his later teenage years, Ben began to hear singer/songwriter music, relieved that there were musicians making music just like what he’d kept hidden away.
“Alex always believed in my ability from the get-go”
It was only in later high school years when he met Alex Quayle (who plays bass with Slowly Slowly, as well as produces the band’s music behind the scenes) that Ben stopped having his embarrassment about these songs have him continue to keep playing drums. “Alex always.. I don’t know how to say it without being cliché .. he always believed in my ability from the get-go, and that filled me with confidence. From there we ended up forming Slowly Slowly.” Ben says that since then he’s been rolling with the punches, even though it’s not how a much younger Ben thought his musical career was going to go.
When you listen to Slowly Slowly’s music, a passionate appreciation for words and metaphor becomes obvious in the very densely crafted lyrics. When I asked about this, Ben shared that the appreciation of words spurred from his own fascination with lyrical content of bands he enjoyed. He’d re-write lyrics and explore the songs through the lens of words. With song lyrics being part of the inspiration behind my own personal music fascination, Ben and I swapped memories of growing up with CD liner notes in hand, pouring over song lyrics. Ben shared that he was so all-in with this that he could tell you exactly where and which paragraph in the song booklet the lyrics were for a particular song.
He expressed his aversion for ‘placeholder lyrics’ when it comes to how Slowly Slowly operate. “We can have a really tight musical arrangement that we’re all really happy with and it sounds cool and I can write something over the top of it and we’ll play it. But if it’s not feeling lyrically like it’s all there, I gravitate away from it immediately.” To Slowly Slowly, lyrics are make or break for a song, and are the reason as to which songs appear St. Leonards. In his words “We wrote a heap of songs for St. Leonards. The ones that survived were ones that really meant something. I hope that comes across.” It definitely does. My approach to reviewing albums had me see each song of St. Leonards as a cryptic puzzle at times, having to collect the lyrical metaphors like pieces and put them together to see the full(er) picture of the song meaning.
Getting more specific about Slowly Slowly’s lyrical content, I began by talking about “Dinosaurs”; a lilting, playful-edged song refusing the status quo of societal expectations. Ben shared that he was in ‘the glummest state’ when he wrote the song, a time when he didn’t leave the house, didn’t talk to friends, and was looking outward at the world from this insular state. He sees both “Dinosaurs” and “Aliens” as reflective of that time of cynicism, sharing “the pains of modern life”. Ben wanted it to sound childlike, with the imagery of society going wrong juxtaposed against childlike innocence and naivety. He refers to it as “classic nostalgia”, where it seems everything was better when you were a kid. Acknowledging that this may have been done before, musically, he sought to give the theme a new breath of life.
To me the songs carry inspiration in them by way of following creative paths (such as music) and breaking free of other expectations. Ben seems to live this, sharing that he teaches drums and guitar at primary schools, and also runs a weekly band mentoring program at a youth centre. About it he shares “That’s my most favourite thing. Other than playing and writing music. I love inspiring it in other people. I think it’s the key to overcoming a lot of mental hurdles that may manifest themselves in that modern life. And I think if you’re doing something creative, that’s something you can pin your name on. No matter what that is. It’s a really good remedy for some of these things.”
By way of using music to overcome hurdles, I asked Ben about a track on St. Leonards, “The Cold War”, where he seems to be describing a pretty emotionally heavy conflict and the inner fallout from that. Initially skirting around the emotional factor, Ben spoke about the construction of the song, with it written while traveling overseas sans guitar. He found himself with a random guitar in the back of a cottage in a farm in the Tuscan hills fitting together words into a chord progression. Not wanting to spend all his time traveling writing songs, he ended up ducking into every guitar shop he saw on the trip to continue working on the track. “So the song was finished like that, and then when I came home I tried to piece all the arrangement together in my bedroom.”
He admits that the story behind “The Cold War” is ‘hyperpersonal’ and one he felt insecure about in terms of its presence on the record. “I thought it was something I was creating for me.” Exhaling, he described how he was encouraged by fellow members of the band and a few close friends to ‘just do it’. “Life is warts and all and you’re trying to be autobiographical and trying to show that, and I guess you have to show the flip side of the coin.”
“I liked that I could kind of cover everything in a level of impenetrable metaphors.”
Given the importance that Ben places upon lyrics as well as the autobiographical nature of St. Leonards, I had to ask whether some of the metaphor usage was a way to partially soften, mask, or hide some of the more difficult emotions or subject matter. He shared how a desire to keep things private had him gravitate to the metaphor-rich writing style early on. “I liked the release of writing but I didn’t want anyone to know what I was writing about. So I liked that I could kind of cover everything in a level of impenetrable metaphors. It developed like that and it kind of became the way I thought about things.”
As someone who enjoys the the same in thought and in my own writing, we spoke more about this. The sheer difference between “I’m reading my diary over the top of some music” lyricism and the very dense way to make some meaning almost undiscoverable, as well as the fact that some songs on St. Leonards were perplexing to me by way of meaning.
“Ten Leaf Clover” was an example of one of these songs that felt buried in metaphor, and Ben revealed that it’s going to be the next single from St. Leonards. He sounded excited as he talked about the band hiring a roller rink for the music video shoot next week “We have this amazing talented figure skater who’s going to do some stuff. It’s the first time we’ve had a properly planned video.”
“I don’t know if you’ve seen the music video for “Alchemy” but it’s like.. two streets away from my house. I said “I’ll just walk, how about that?””.
Taking 18 takes, Ben described the sore shoulder he had for a week after filming “Alchemy”, due to his guitarist (Albert Doan) hip and shouldering him at the start of the video. In this simple and authentic music video, Ben described the part with the cigarette lighter as the reason for so many re-takes. “If the lighter didn’t go, we had to start again. It’s all one take and because the clip is slowed down but singing in time, recorded to a sped up version of the song. So in real-time the whole thing is over in like two minutes with chipmunk voices playing over the top. You didn’t really have a second to make a mistake.”
Ben had a lot to say about UNFD and how the signing unfolded. The process began with a few members of UNFD seeing the band’s show at Howler and liking what they saw, beginning a conversation for months. Slowly Slowly sent through the album in progress, with general understanding of what would be on it and a meeting was struck. “They were so passionate about the songs. The team there is really really intelligent, lovely people, great communicators. It all just fit together.”
“We kind of had this hole in the team”
He spoke about how the DIY approach that the band had in recording everything themselves, it allowed them to work right up to the deadline and be preoccupied with making ongoing tweaks. “We kind of had this hole in the team”, Ben shared, acknowledging that the handling of the bigger picture for the band, and giving structure and schedule “that we’d never really thought about” is something they’re enjoying with the support of UNFD. “Everything is planned so far in advance and they look at the bigger picture where we’re stuck in ‘Art Land’ where you can’t see past your nose”.
He continues “I’m still at the ‘very hands on’ part. It’s my life, my project, I love it. Because I’m still at the nucleus of it all, I’m dealing with members from the team at UNFD on a daily basis. Even though I’m still hands on with it, I’m still able to focus a bit more on the output of music. And I think it’s a lovely thing that the band has grown, but it’s got to a point before UNFD where it was detracting a little bit from the time I had to write music, by way of the admin side of things. It gets a little bit exhausting.”
The behind the scenes work on Slowly Slowly’s music has always been Ben and Alex, with no aspirations to change this any time soon. Ben elaborated saying “We’ve always done it ourselves. It always felt right, and I’ve always enjoyed the process of it. My favourite bit is being in the studio and figuring out problems and bashing brains with Alex and trying to figure stuff out. If you took that away from me it’d be a lot of the joy of it. I don’t want to just write it and get the reward of it with a vinyl test press in the mail months later. I want to sit there and mix it, talk about microphone placement when we record. It’s a really fun part for me.”
With the album seeming to thematically to touch on many different elements and angles of life in recent history as well as childhood, Ben confirmed that this is the essence of St. Leonards. “We put it all together and stepped back and were like ‘I get this, it feels like an album. It feels like it has peaks and valleys’. But I don’t think there’s anything that necessarily ties it all together. It’s just my life.” He made it clear that in terms of writing and creating, Slowly Slowly embrace the mess and unpredictability of life, while also adding that he hopes it doesn’t detract from it. It does not.
“Song For Shae” captures something that I feel wouldn’t necessarily suit straight down the line lyricism as well as how Slowly Slowly have shared it through metaphor and tenderness. Moving to the extreme as a listener, the song speaks directly toward a child (Shae) who had passed away at the age of four, and works beautifully and respectfully as a celebration of her, as well as the love that still exists for her, truly feeling like a beautiful collective that are keeping her alive. Ben acknowledges the emotional difficulty, in being not just difficult to write the song but to play it. “I don’t think we’ve played it in full for months. I’d play through a burst and have to stop.” Shae is his partner’s sister who passed away after a tragic accident, and Ben felt compelled to write the song after returning home from a gathering with Shae’s family on her 30th birthday. I acknowledged the power behind creative expression which can speak on behalf of people who may not feel understood. Grief can be isolating and the moving song will be a comfort to many other families who lost a child too soon.
After spending the time talking with Ben, I felt even more inspired to return back to my St. Leonards review and take the time to enjoy and inspect the metaphors that Ben has wrapped around his life’s experiences, warts and all.
St. Leonards releases on 11th May and you’ll want to hit this link to pre-order it: https://unfd.lnk.to/stleonards