Track x Track: Obscura Hail - 'Playing Dead' LP

Track x Track: Obscura Hail - 'Playing Dead' LP

Naarm/Melbourne alt/indie trio take us through their highly anticipated debut album, track by track

Image credit: Rick Clifford

Four years on from the release of Siren/Zero, the acclaimed double EP courtesy of Obscura Hail, the wait for the debut album is now over, with the exploratory and playful sounds of Playing Dead now out to the world.

Comprised of multi-instrumentalist & vocalist Sean Conran, bassist Tamara Issa and drummer Kaelan Edmond, Obscura Hail spent two years crafting what would become Playing Dead, undergoing a number of revisions regarding final track listing and the final cuts typically emerging from demos recorded way back when.

Truly embodying the phrase “everything old is new again”, Playing Dead saw the band combining unfinished lyrics and old demos of Conran’s with new additions from Tamara & Kaelan to flesh things out and finalise the compositions. Across fourteen cuts the band fuse jangly bedroom pop, alt-folk and indie rock, with the results far greater than the sum of their parts.

While not a concept album, Playing Dead attempts to satisfy the fantasy surrounding 14 types of death. Conran explains why this is a fantasy, saying “I don’t believe there’s a way to truly mirror death without silence or absence. Instead, we dig them up to play the living, so that we may play the dead.

With Playing Dead out now and Obscura Hail set to play a run of east coast shows in late March (all dates below), Sean Conran was kind enough to take us through the new album, track by track:

Playing Dead is our debut album release through Dot Dash, written/recorded in our familiar ad-hoc home studio in Northcote + with help on particular songs from Sam Swain at Sunset Pig (Collingwood).

It is an account of real and imagined scenarios shaped by overarching themes of bold optimism, irrational fear, and mischievous boredom.

Growing up at the turn of the millennium, pop culture media became our surrogate teachers for empathy and sympathy; particularly the disconnected/abstracted internet social platforms, horror/thriller flicks, violent video games and god-like sims distorted my perspective of other people’s realities. It boosted my imagination, for sure, but it also made life feel too normal, sheltered, and privileged; sometimes I’d float face down in our backyard pool, waiting for my family to discover me and experience a true to life terror that I have the power to relieve at any time.

It’s an attractively dark mindset to host, bordering oblivion to stimulate my reality, and Obscura Hail is the guard rail protecting me from taking the joke too far.

This album, like our previous releases, is very adult in content and playful  in delivery; the positive shapes, uplifting arrangements, and an energetic pulse helps tame what could have spiralled into very self-destructive thoughts. Like most OH releases, these songs were recorded across expansive time scales with varying recording setups, some being fresh takes on 10-year-old tunes from my solo years (the original demo for Limberjack on ‘Pallbearer’ introduces the opening track ‘The Arborist’). Like every OH song, the hastily recorded demos became the foundations buried beneath all future layers.

The usual routine involves creating vertical slices of song sections on my Boss RC-30 to be later arranged in Ableton. From there we thicken layers with Nintendo DS-Korg drums, binaural vocal takes, ancient and current guitar samples, and Tam’s bouncy flat wound bass takes. As usual, we’re obsessed with vocal harmonies, so there’s plenty of swarms on the album, and rarely a voice on its own. We brought the single demos to our producer Sam who helped us crunch some and smooth others. Kaelan’s drums were recorded in these sessions; takes that were bastardised for sibling songs on the album.

Since finalising this album we’ve recorded plenty of new material that we can’t wait to show you, either on stage or online. Hopefully the temporal bottleneck of songwriting constipation will shatter against the hull of this new shipment.

Arborist:

Death via dissociation.

Inspiration: Sun Kil Moon – God Bless Ohio, Broadcast – Echo’s Answer

A song in two parts, ‘The Arborist’ is a sequel to Limberjack (Pallbearer, 2018). Our sombre pyromaniac protagonist is now homeless, alienated and abandoned by purpose, having burned down his livelihood. He finds escape from his guilt and responsibility within a liminal space. Here, there is nothing else to entertain than the discomfort of his mortal vessel and a desire to transcend it.

I guess I’m trying to articulate the ending of a life chapter. You could wander a forest of memories, hacking away at the deadwood so only the fruiting trees remain, or burn it all down and wander in waiting for a new life to grow from the ashes.

The intro is a remnant from the original recorded version of ‘Limberjack’; the opener for my independent release, Pallbearer (2018). I was teaching myself how to play cello at the time, and the mood of the track grew from my persistence to capture some listenable takes. The vocal takes are densely layered for the same reason; it is a way to know the forest from the trees.

OR:

Love and mortality.

Inspiration: Lazlo Bane – Superman, Weetus – Teenage Dirtbag

Empathy for a modern death. The hospital bed, the lovers, the slow death; time for comforts, time for closure, time to apologise, time to regret. If I’ve learned anything from watching Scrubs, it’s that the irrational love of the living outlasts death, and the show’s theme (Lazlo Bane – Superman) was absolutely an inspiration for this track. Melancholic pop rock with some nostalgia sprinkled in there. It’s a serious song about death, empathy, and the afterlife, but given a country kind of optimism. It’s also mainly about me imagining Tamara on her deathbed, and how I’d deal or comfort her, which I reckon would reveal the truth of our love. 

Long Play:

Empathy overdrive.

Inspiration: Angie McMahon – Solo performance at Long Play

Long Play was one of those tracks that came out of a direct experience, line by line; lyrics written frantically in the aftermath of witnessing an intimate show at Long Play in Fitzroy Nth, during an unusually hot Autumn night in 2017.

I (Sean) had recently come out of a dislocating relationship and my empathy drive was buzzing, so I headed out to process my thoughts alone at either a show or a movie, whichever popped up first. All I knew is I was in my vulnerable prime. I saw Angie McMahon was playing a solo show at Long Play, so figured I’d check it out.

The cinema seats were packed, the room was heating up, and everyone was sweating by the middle of the set. Angie hustled the venue to get the air con working, and it kicked in as the artist hit the climax of their next song.

I became hyper aware of the physical and emotional relief that permeated my senses, and the internal dialogue that would eventually become ‘Long Play’ crept over my tongue and through my lips in whispers.

I rushed straight home after the show to write as I recorded, looping Nintendo DS (Korg – M01) beats and synths into my RC-30, layering first or second take acoustics through binaural mics, then finally transferring everything into Ableton to piece the arrangement together. The first improv lyrics/lyric melodies stuck, so I concreted them with some harmonies (all vocals recorded with binaural mics – Freespace 3Dio). The track, made with incredible urgency, was recorded/mixed/mastered by 3am.

Playing Dead:

Teasing death.

Inspiration: Tokyo Police Club – Elephant Shell, Into It. Over It – P R O P E R

Playing Dead sums up the inspiration behind most of these songs on the album. It’s a simulation of trauma to strengthen empathy. Trying to understand what we mean to other people, and to remind ourselves not to take others for granted.

Tam and I recorded each part together through loops on my RC-30 as the music and lyrics came to us. We abandoned no lines or melodies. It was one of the most organically produced songs we’ve ever written together. Sam Swain, who has always understood the intention behind our ad-lib methods, helped us highlight and polish each part we had committed to.

Paranormie:

Entertaining Death.

Inspiration: Lagwagon – May 16, Moondog

The fear and paranoia of the unknown under objective observation.

Written in isolation about a separate period of isolation, during which paranormal incidences may or may not have been experienced. The purpose is not to convince you ghosts exist, of course, ghosts don’t exist, that’s why they’re so frightening. Think of it this way; If you pretend to laugh long enough, you start laughing.

Melody and canons were inspired by Moondog, whose looped lyrical canons really got under the skin. I bastardised the canon from "Each Today Is Yesterday's Tomorrow, Which Is Now". The bagpipes were taken from a 2015 binaural recording of our McKenzie Clans performance, witnessed by my little brother and I, who shares my interest in the paranormal and macabre.

Paper Rock:

Death, the equaliser.

Sounds like: The B52’s – Private Idaho

Tam and I play scissors, paper, rock the ultimate fair way of delegating responsibilities (mainly who makes the next round of tea), but the more we play, the more sinister and primal it feels. It’s a powerful contract defining a sacred process of elimination. The death of an ideal; the death of a plan. We all die a little inside when we lose.

The arrangement evolved from ‘Sin’, a track from our self-released ‘Pizza & Sides’ EP (2018).

We don’t always write rock songs, but when we do, they sound like a B52’s parody.

Apparition:

Long lost recording of my Aunty April playing with the guts of her baby grand.

Foreign Substances:

A path to death.

Inspiration: Andy Shauf - Judy

A personal account of an old friend’s self-abuse spiral that I wrote and released over a decade ago, reimagined with a bit more maturity and optimism. The original lyrics were spiteful, doom and gloomy, and without resolution but now I’m careful to give their story the right kind of closure.

The arrangement aimed for the tenderness of Emiliana Torrini’s ‘Fisherman’s Woman’ and the feel of Norah Jones’s ‘Don’t Know Why’. I always think of Toy Story when I listen to them for some reason.

The first few acoustic guitar layers were recorded in our home office (you can hear Tamara playing Valheim in the background, clicking and shifting in her chair). I loosely adapted the chord structure from an old track of mine called ‘Alzheimer’s’ (2009), and every other layer was built around disguising and accentuating different accidental sounds from those takes.

Amnesia:

Death of memory.

I wanted to simulate my life beyond memory loss, the daily routines of coping with the condition, and the duality of being both writer and listener of my own songs. I imagine I’d have a complacent faith in my caretakers for the stability of my reality, while internally preoccupied with understanding my own condition. My methods of recording and reflecting would surely remain instinctual, but what kind of things would I be conscious enough of to communicate? How would I piece together meaning from this constant stream of unfamiliar events? My only references being bare minimal experiences and anecdotal routines.

Should I develop a condition such as this, I would hope to have the foresight to first arrange a playlist of my music and lyrics in order of appearance.

Moondog was again a big inspiration for the theme, mainly for his circular canons with no strong definition for the start or end of the phrases. While the song is certainly not structurally a canon, the words imply a ‘Groundhog Day’ – like monotony of experience, and do not need to be in any order to understand what’s going on.

The Lighthouse (LJ Segue):

A track stitching together purposeless guitar loops, cello tracks, and ambient binaural recordings captured in my old Wollongong home, sprinkled with Tamara's affected vocal line from ‘Venom’.

Widower:

Death of an elder.

Inspiration: My Bloody Valentine - Loomer

I heard about the history of a late woman named Muriel, who lost her love during WW2.  She developed Alzheimer’s disease later in her life and started regressing back to a time when he was still alive. Tamara’s Teta and J’adore, gave her a dignified existence until her own death, upon which they inherited her home and her belongings.

I thought of my own Granddad, who narrowly dodged being conscripted to live a long life that was ended by a different kind of degeneration. I’m naturally drawn to this kind of tragedy to contextualise the mindless violence in the video games we play. I guess we’re pressing F to pay our respects.

Pins N Needles:

Death of empathy.

Inspiration: (Sandy) Alex G - Judge

Apathy and numbness that follows the anger and frustration during extended isolation. Making a deal with the true self to combat ambiguity and powerlessness.

I forget that much of who I am reflects the people around me. I’m usually insular, with bouts of social extraversion to balance out the inner existential dialogue, but there wasn’t much to stop it this time.

Where's Your Head At:

Brain death.

A simple loop jam cover of Where's Your Head At? (Basement Jaxx). We thought the single line summed up the feeling of dislocation from global events.

Venom:

Extinction.

A track commissioned for National Science Week in 2020, Venom addresses the urgency to prevent a man-made atmospheric catastrophe, imbued with hope of engineering a solution within an extremely short window of time.

          - Sean Conran (Obscura Hail)

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