Digging into Manganese with Nicholas Allbrook

Digging into Manganese with Nicholas Allbrook

Having just released his fourth solo album Manganese, we catch up with the Pond frontman to talk inspiration (or lack thereof), 80s Aussie rock, running, the least interesting facts about his new album and more

Image credit: Duncan Wright

Nicholas Allbrook should have had some tales of a very recent US tour with Pond when we caught up to chat about his fourth solo album, Manganese. Unfortunately, following a frustrating VISA issue, that was not to be and the band had to cancel. The good news is you don't need a VISA to release an album, and following a string of catchy singles, Manganese is now out to the world.

His most personal and vulnerable record to date, Manganese sees Allbrook further hone his knack for crafting addictive, leftfield psych-infused pop songs, fused with his love of 80s Australian rock classics, resulting in a nine track record that covers a lot of ground while wearing its heart on its sleeve.

Largely inspired by his time spent in regional W.A., both growing up and working recently, the album's title came to Allbrook while doing some work in Port Hedland with people from the Nyamal and Nyangumarta nations and an off-the-cuff statement from a woman named Auntie Tina.

To celebrate the release of Manganese, we jumped on the line with Nicholas to chat all about the record, influences & inspirations, opening up and having a more personal approach to songwriting and more!

So let’s start with the title, Manganese - I read the anecdote about you doing some work out in country with some Aboriginal mobs and there was someone named Aunty Tina whose fourth language was English - which blows my mind - and yeah she inspired the title of the album?

Yeah, I was helping with an archival project up there, recording stories and songs from some of the old, old people up there. They're also trying to try and get some of the meaning from these old wax cylinder recordings that were made in very early colonial times. And yeah, we really hit it off with only Tina. She's really funny and tiny, and just really, really kind of - she's a bad girl *laughs*. But  yeah, she's tough as and just that moment, I mean  it was kind of offhand, I think, from her point of view. So we were in Port Hedland where there’s just these enormous piles of minerals and stuff like that, and she just pointed to one and said “yeah, that’s my manganese”.

I just found it really powerful. It made me sort of reflect a lot about the way we engage with land and the rest of the people who work on these kinds of gigantic projects. You know, young, often desperate people who just need some coin, which everyone does, working on these great big things to make very few people extremely rich. And in the process, kind of passing over some of their soul to do something that they don't really understand or believe in or care about.. Yeah,, no one's implicated in it, you know, miners, and all of that, it's just everyone sort of tied up in this great big project for a very small amount of people who don't care.

And it’s easy to get pessimistic about it I guess, you know, I can’t help but think of songs like Blue Sky Mine by the Oils, these sorts of themes have been around for decades… I don’t even know what my question is here, because it’s not like “what’s the solution?”, but yeah, I guess how do we not be pessimistic about this stuff?

I don’t know. Honestly, when I was listening to Forgotten Years [by Midnight Oil], I’ve fully burst into tears like I don’t think I ever have listening to music, ever, because exactly what you said just hit me really hard. It’s like, these guys actually gave everything, every ounce of energy. That’s so bizarre. They were just dedicated to this cause and I'm still listening to it like “they didn't do it” and it was just like, if they I couldn't do it and they gave every ounce of this enormous wealth of energy - like, look at those guys, it’s the most astonishing display of human energy you’ve ever seen in your life. Rob Hirst, he could power a city, yet they couldn’t stop greed.

From one perspective, I guess, at least it can be inspiring if looking for a silver lining… Let’s not get too depressed, let’s switch lanes and I want to ask about, you know, something like Aunty Tina saying “that’s my Manganese” or other things that inspire you - is it like a light bulb moment at the time, or is it more something like later that night or the next day it pops back into your head?

I think often I’ll just sort of jot it down, that one thing., I've got a lot of stuff like that. Some of it's really hard to integrate into music, because you'll be going through your notes. I'll see , like, I don't know, some billboard I saw in America, that I thought was really profound and inspiring for a moment. But that one day, I don't know how -, it's a bit of a roulette wheel going through my old notes and what fits with music, because there might be some really good pieces of lyrics and stuff, but I’ve had to teach myself to accept when things are just gone, and not to lament the sort of death of something that was was never born, like, “oh, what could have been with this thing”? It's like, well - if it's gone, it's gone. You’ve just gotta fucking move on and hope that more stuff will come.

When did you learn that? Cos I’m sure starting out, it’s like, everything you’re working on probably has to be like “the best song ever”?

Absolutely - it’s hard to learn because I think a lot of people in any capacity - artistic, musical, or just in life, there's always this pull towards thinking that this is your last moment of inspiration and you have to hold it so tight, because it's the last one… but it never is. It’s not like a mine that just gets dug up until there's nothing left - it's a cycle, it's a never ending cycle. As long as humanity keeps going, there's always stuff to reinterpret and be inspired by but yeah, it's that sort of cliche of like the muse - the muse has flown the coop, is pretty hard to to get away from. I always think that after every song, I feel like I’m fucking king shit for a little while… and than a few weeks later I’m like “Oh god, it’s all gone - that was the last thing I ever wrote!” *laughs*

So what do you do in those moments where you feel like it’s all gone? Do you like walk away from the piano or guitar or whatever, go do something else, or do you try and force it?

I try and force it unsuccessfully. And I guess I just sort of descend - you just descend deeper and deeper *laughs* into despair. Until the sort of latent energy of that despair gets so strong that it makes a song and then you're like “I’m back, I'm sick again!”, and then continue.

*laughs* Whatever works, it sounds intense.

Yeah, no, it’s fun. It’s not as grim as I make it sound but that is the cycle though, yeah.

Yep. So 80s Aussie rock, I read you listen to a lot of that when you’re running, perfect. What about when you were growing up, was that a big thing in your life, like your parents cranking a lot of the classics?

Yeah, the Oils were huge. They were so important because my folks were working in the 90s regional Australia, things around Native Title. So obviously, Midnight Oil really spoke to them in a very profound way. Paul Kelly was playing a lot. That was kind of it? They weren't into Cold Chisel. In fact, my dad was always taking the piss out of Barnsey, and I always carried that until recently, when I started listening to it and I was like “Barnesy’s has an insane voice, some of these are classic!”. But yeah, the Oils and Paul Kelly were real big. Now I can’t stop listening to the Divinyls. And The Angels, yeah.

I’m guessing there was probably a period, like teenage years or whatever, where you probably weren’t listening to that stuff, like going against what your parents listened to or whatever?

Yeah, for sure - it took me ages to really capture me. I went through this big phase of like Beastie Boys and Run DMC and Grandmaster Flash and that sort of early hip hop stuff when I was a teenager. Before I discovered the redemptive powers of rock & roll.

I can imagine you covering White Lines or something to be honest, though.

Yeah… we could, it would be cringe.

*laughs* So running, Nick - you’ve done these Jog Dog half marathons and run a lot in general, have you always been into that, like doing athletics as a youngster and stuff?

Nah, not at all. I mean, I was really active, but I think that's just because I grew up in the country where footy is a religion, so I played heaps of footy and cricket, but I didn’t get into running until real late. It's an old story, using running as a bit of a crutch to get out of an unhealthy life cycle, it's pretty amazing for that. Especially if you can kind of recognize that it is a crutch and try to use it in a healthy way. I think it's very easy to use exercise to do a good thing, to do a healthy thing, in an unhealthy way. I think being aware of that has helped me use it to get a bit more balance in my life, which is nice.

So now that running is integrated into your life, how important is it in the creative process?

Honestly, it is. It’s not specifically running - I mean, it’s helpful because it does give me time to not think about anything particularly, you know, thoughts kind of blowing in one ear and out the other, so that does help. But I think anything - like even working, because I do gardening as a job on the side and even that, just doing a kind of menial physical repetitive task like running is just so so good for my creativity. I'm always stopping those menial physical activities to like write something down. I'm productive.

For sure, I think there’s a Hermann Hesse essay or something where he talks about exactly that, but it’s one of those things that until you do it, you might not believe works?

Yeah, but it bloody does! I think also listening to inspiring music, that’s something I used to neglect a lot is feeding the creativity, because you sort of get in this mindset where you think that it's all on you to produce, but likeI said before, it's a cycle, it can't just go one way, you're not like an infinite font of material, it needs to be fed. It’s really important. Like, fucking anything - go to an art gallery, or watch a movie, or go to the movies, by yourself. It feeds it, like fucking rocket fuel, and then combining that with times without music and doing something repetitive and physical, I think is really, really powerful.

So what if we extrapolate that to like literal physical settings, cos the record was recorded between Freo and London - two pretty different areas - so how much does setting play into this?

I'm not sure about the actual physical setting. It's more than that, like what's happening in your life and your heart and all that. But all of the physical stuff does filter in, not in the sense that - it's hard to explain, not in the sense that the music becomes foggy or like grimmer in London. I just might talk about the Tube more. Which is exactly what happened. Like, you know, there's references to my life and fucking going past Lord’s and stuff but yeah, it’s not like it gets more sunny and salty when I’m in Freo, but it does affect it.

So speaking of references to your life and whatnot, and this is your fourth solo record and it’s safe to say your most personal, or like open and honest so far - was that a conscious decision, or something that just happened naturally?

Yeah, actually, weirdly, it was a conscious decision. Yeah, I think it was at one point. I heard a song by The 1975 and he talked about, kind of reflecting on being clean and getting older and not as rock and roll as you once were, drinking kombucha and going up to your hotel room and not being able to go to the toilet when someone else is in the room or something like that. I just though it was really fucking inspired, I thought “fuck, that is such a new level of transparency, that’s really touching”. I think that did inspire me a bit, like fuck, you can just say exactly that. This is the place to say the most embarrassing shit really - I’ve come this far, I may as well just say exactly what’s going on.

And I guess everyone goes through everything, like if anything, it’s going to be more relatable talking about the regular stuff, the majority of life is mundane, right? So like what about when it comes to writing, you know you’ve been writing more personal stuff, but with an initial idea or whatever, how do you know if something might be more suited to a Pond song compared to a Nick Allbrook solo track?

Yeah, it’s sort of touch and go sometimes, it changes. Sometimes I make a demo or I have an idea, and I can't really be bothered trying to explain it and convince people that it's going to be cool when it's done. So if you know inside that there's a way that it'll be cool, but you're only just hanging on by a thread to that belief, the idea of trying to drag four other guys along with you like “I swear to god, at some point, this can work!” is just a bit - I won't put them through that. There are so many songs on this record that I was like,”: surely having a tape loop of an orchestra tuning up and this poem thing will somehow be cool, and not just sound like a pile of dog shit”. Like, I'm not gonna try and convince the other dudes. In fact, they'll be like, “maybe save it for your solo album”. But then sometimes, like, when we're recording Pond albums, we've all got fucking 10 songs each. And nine songs, make it on the album and you’re like “sweet - hand on to those other ones!”. Sometimes they go in the bin, sometimes they make it on to these things, yeah.

And it’s funny that you say nine tracks on the album, the number nine is there again - is there some significance with that number for you, because it does seem to pop up repeatedly?

No, there’s no significance - I was gonna try and make something up, because I remember there’s something really significant about it in some religions.

Yeah, I think in Hindu there’s something about it as a recurring number or something?

Yeah, not at all. It was just the ninth album, and we started off with like, 18 songs and gradually chopped them, then there was nine and it tied up in a neat little package.

And then the same thing again on Manganese, like nine tracks was just the right number?

Is there nine on it again?! *laughs* No, that’s just coincidence.

For sure, I always feel like, you know, shout outs to English Lit in high school where like maybe I’m trying to find meaning that the artist never intended…

Yeah, exactly, and bands have to do that a lot.

Yeah, it’s interesting, it’s fun. Speaking of fun, something I really enjoyed from the press release was you saying that “the least interesting” reason that Commodore is the opening track of the album is that “it’s well poppy” - I love that, perfect justification. I was hoping you could maybe tell us a few of your other least interesting facts about Manganese? And the reason I ask this is oftentimes things artists think are not interesting might actually be pretty interesting to fans.

That’s a great question, I really like that… I’m just looking at the tracks… least interesting stuff… Yeah, OK, so Babbel. Babbel is called Babbel because I talked about the Tower of Babel, and I just spelled it differently when I was saving the file and I didn’t change it.

And then my brain goes “whoa - the story of the Tower of Babel with all the different languages, and you misspell it…”

I did think that, it works quite well actually. Wait, is that like an etymological thing, is that where the word “babbling” comes from?

I have actually never thought of that… mind blown! Anything else, any other least interesting Manganese facts?

Um… I was sort of trying to rip off Live and Let Die with the chorus of Vale the Chord.

Potentially stupid question, but which version of Live and Let Die do you prefer?

I love cheesy fucking rock music - flames, high kicks, you know. Poison are great, Gunners are just a bit…. Gunners and Motley Crew, I think they’re the final frontier for me, I haven’t quite crossed that threshold. I think they give me too much of an arsehole energy field, so yeah, it’s James’ dad’s version of Live and Let Die for sure. It’s so sick. Yeah, there’s lots of uninteresting stuff that happened in the making of this album.

Amazing, I love it - and still find it interesting *laughs* So the album’s out now, and what’s next on the horizon - tour?

Yeah, tour with The Walruses, the Nick Allbrook band - Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and then a show in Perth. Yeah, I think I’m gonna try go to the States again.

I obviously didn’t even bring that up…

Yeah, I don’t even know whether to plan my life around it, or just assume that I won’t go. Yeah, solo stuff, Pond stuff - we’ve just been recording another Pond album in the last week, so we’ll brush that up, make it all good and release it.

Fuck yeah, very excited about that. Amazing, thanks Nick, that was really fun!

Thanks mate, that was really good!

Untitled 6

Nicholas Allbrook's new album Manganese is out now via Spinning Top Records

Nicholas Allbrook 2023 Tour
Australia - Full Band
Wed 14 Jun 2023 – The Lansdowne, Sydney NSW
Thu 15 Jun 2023 – Workers Club, Melbourne VIC
Fri 16 Jun 2023 – Black Bear Lodge, Brisbane QLD
Sun 18 Jun 2023 – Strange Festival, Perth, WA

US - Solo
Thursday 6 July - Baby's All Right, Brooklyn, NY
Saturday 8 July - Club TeeGee, Los Angeles, CA

Follow Nicholas Allbrook: Instagram / Facebook

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