Northeast Party House aren’t even close to their Shelf Life
On their third album Shelf Life, the Melbourne six-piece team up with The Presets’ Kim Moyes to set their sights on the club.
It takes about seven minutes to realise that Northeast Party House’s new record, Shelf Life, is unlike the two records that came before it. The Melbourne-based group have always been a party band - their music feels like backing track of a Skins warehouse party (“it’s why we wanted to start the band,” says the band’s Sean Kenihan on the TV show’s infamous Foals cameo) coming together with the dance-rock explosion that gave bands like Cut Copy a place in the mid-2000s bloghouse era - but at this point seven minutes in, it’s clear that something is a little different.
This moment comes with the start of the album’s eponymous title-track, a sprawling, five-minute-long epic that takes a sound meticulously crafted across two records - 2014’s band-introducing debut Any Given Weekend and its triumphant, 2016 follow-up Dare - and throws it into an overstimulating, strobe-lit dancefloor full of hedonism and indulgence that’ll soon become the album’s home turf. Written after a trip to Berlin’s infamous Berghain Nightclub, Shelf Life is a song that musically personifies the pleasure of a night out with the pain that comes the next day, chants to “keep on dancing” ricocheting off quick-firing synth arpeggios and pulsing bass rhythms that suddenly disappear. “I’ve reached my shelf life,” speak-sings lead vocalist Zach Hamilton-Reeves as the track’s heaving pulse is replaced by a chirping whistle, a stark contrast to the high-BPM flurry that came before it.
As a record, Shelf Life feels built around this sense of contrast, albeit not always in the context of the club. Magnify, a song about the blossoming new romance of the band’s Mitch Ansell, finds itself nestled amongst tracks that detail the opposite, the end of Zach’s relationship paved out on songs like the deeply reflective Tear In The Club. Elsewhere, and perhaps in this contrast’s most cosmetic sense, songs like the acid-house-leaning Lose Control are a far-flung distance from the album’s more subtle tracks, often about the deterioration of that aforementioned relationship that finds itself spread across more tracks on the album: American Diamond and St Valentine particularly.
However, one thing that feels definite across the entirety of Shelf Life is the fact that it’s easily Northeast Party House’s best record to date, and one that opens the potential-holding doors for many more of a similar scope to come. Produced alongside The Presets’ Kim Moyes, Shelf Life is a record that expertly takes the sounds of yesteryear and modernises them with a distinctly Northeast Party House twist; this as-mentioned Foals-meet-Cut Copy comparison blossoming into something much bigger and individually characteristic of Northeast Party House - a difficult feat to achieve, let alone one that many artists that defined this exact generation of dance music are capable of doing.
Lose Control is a track that emphasises this ability. It’s the track where Kim Moyes’ early input feels its most clear-cut, with storming synth and a relentless, tech-adjacent beat taking the genre-paving abrasiveness of The Chemical Brothers’ work in the late-90s and injecting with a modern touch that gives Lose Control its distinct, unique touch. Shelf Life is another, while Magnify, Dominos and The Desert - the three other tracks released before the album’s full arrival - interject it with more pop-centric songwriting that mirrors a modern-day Midnight Juggernauts; that weird, confusing river between ‘live band’ and ‘club DJ’ cliff-faces united in a way that mould together organic instrumentation with that synthetic-typical ‘oomph’ factor.
However, the record isn’t go-go-go for its entire duration. Shelf Life is a record that sees Northeast Party House expand on sounds and aim for maximalism in a way, yet there are moments which definitely strip things down to their most raw - emotionally and musically. Tear In The Club sees Zach Hamilton-Reeves front and centre; his vocal growing amongst a crescendoing production that steadily rises from a subtle synth melody to a climactic wall of distortion. American Diamond is another, contrasting the more indie-esque side of Northeast Party House in its verses to the steady, crisp breakdowns that occupy its vocal-chopping choruses.
“That's something I'm really proud of,” says Mitch Ansell on the album. “For the whole group to have built ourselves to this point where we can listen back to the record and it's exactly what we wanted and that extra bit of time and effort put in was worth it.” It’s been four years since Dare came out, but Mitch is right: Shelf Life is a slick, polished record - except where it needs to be - that is worth the long wait.
I want to kick this off by going a bit back in time to before this record was concepted, because Dare - the last album - was a pretty big moment for the group and you guys really went to the next level in terms of popularity because of that. Do you think that the success of that record impacted the way you guys approached concepting and then conceiving this album?
To a certain degree, yes. We started off writing this album by just giving ourselves six months of time off just writing whatever we want. The success of the last album gave us some income; it's the first time the band has actually started to make enough money to pay six people a living wage. I think just having some financial support from that record allowed us to take some time to just write whatever we wanted, whenever we were inspired to do so and then from that initial six month period of us just writing freely, that's when we started to kind of piece together the sound of this next album.
We didn't go into the record thinking, "Okay, well this is what we did on the last record, we need to do that again." I think certain people in music think that way and other people think more along the lines of "we're going to write whatever we want." At the same time though, coincidentally, some songs from the last project end up sounding similar to the next one, purely just based on which songs we ended up choosing to get put on the record, and which ones we like the most. We had like 200 tracks that were not finished - a long way to finished, actually - but definitely in contention for being on the album. So, if there's any connection between the two, it's a little bit of chance and then the fact that we're obviously the same members writing together. There's no clear thought pattern as a group of like, "Okay, what worked on the last one? Let's do that again."
It's interesting that you guys did that and spent three or four years trying to perfect this record, tinkering with it to what it is now. Nowadays, it seems like bands and artists are pressured to go album-album-album with no breaks between them. Did you guys feel like you had to ease into it?
I think we were naive and thought, "We can live off the band now. Let's enjoy this and take some time to write music.” We've been under a lot of pressure in the past, since the band started. Our ‘break’ happened when triple j offered us the Pyramid Rock show in 2010 as an Unearthed Winner and at that time, we only had two songs on the internet - we hadn't released, or maybe even recorded our debut EP yet. We only had a small number of songs that we were proud of or excited about, and the songs we were playing out at shows at that point were these sprawling, hectic, messy, jams. So, from the band’s first moment of recognition, we've always been under some pressure to keep music coming out.
It's taken however many years since our last album came out to write this record, but the songs have been written and ready for at least six months, and then the six months before that was just the post-production process of fine-tweaking and mixing the songs. A lot of it has been caught up in business; when you’re gonna release an album is always an interesting question because you wanted to get it out it straight away and put it out there, but then you have to drip feed a single and announce it at a certain time and then book shows for a tour to promote the record and so on. This record feels like it's been a long time coming, but only two years of that time we were really writing and recording the record. All the other stuff that goes around releasing a record.
It sounds like there’s a lot of power and creative control within the group, both from what you’ve told me and also the fact that you guys do your own music videos and things like that. How do you find that balance between having creative control, but also not trying to do every single thing?
We're involved in every single decision that happens as a group, to give people in the band more autonomy to make decisions on their own, because we realise that's important and it's a much better way for people to operate with each other. We kind of split it up though: you work across the artwork, the other two do the merchandising, another one can do this or that. That way not everyone has to thumbs up every process, but there is always at least a couple of people in the band who are involved in every aspect. It's all stuff a band of our size would have management doing or the label doing. Now we're with Sony, they do take on some of that load, which has been really awesome - but we still can't help but be involved. I don't know if that’s because we're perfectionists, although none of us think what we're doing is getting close to a perfect level, so maybe it’s another thing.
I also think we do it because we feel like some people struggle to get the band, and this gives us a chance to work on showing it off to the world how we think best represents the band. Like if someone hasn't seen us live, they will listen to our songs and find that it’s indie-pop but also a bit rock-y and a bit dance-y. When you come to see us live, it makes sense and people just have a great time. I think when you're releasing tracks and you're looking for someone to do a video clip or you're looking for someone to do your artwork, you always want to work with people who get you and understand this, and I think sometimes we find that difficult, so it's easier for us just to do it ourselves.
I was reading that this album was made with that live show in mind, to emphasise it in a way.
We always try and think "How is this going to represent itself live? How are we gonna do this live?" But I think actually this album is probably the album we've tried to do that the least. When we were writing it, we did that to a certain extent, but I think in the past albums, we've been much more focused on being like, "Okay, where are the two guitars? Where's the bass guitar and where are all these elements? Let's make sure they're all playing so it's going to make sense live." With this album it was a bit more like, “Let's not think about that too much while we're writing, let's just write and if it something sounds good, let's just pursue it and then when it comes to playing live, we'll figure out how to do it when it comes to that moment.”
Having said that, what we did want to do is have some moments on this album that we felt like captured the energy that the band has live. When we play live there's six of us on stage that always have a lot of energy, and we've always really loved tracks that hit hard and really get the audience jumping up and down. We wanted some of those moments on the actual album this time; we just wanted tracks that were a bit more like four-to-the-floor bass that kind of reach those same energy levels, just because we've been doing that live and we really wanted to have it on an album. We tried to just be creative; just do whatever we want and not be restricted and then figure it out later if we have to.
This album is definitely a lot more club-focused than your last ones, is that where this came from?
Yeah. We're in a weird spot for a band to be in, and we still are in that strange spot where it's like, "Are we a bunch of producers making dance music? Or are we a rock band with electronic elements?" I think it's often to our detriment that you can't put us in those boxes, because if you're playing music at a club, you want to play a track that stacks up to the rest of all the dance tracks you play, which is not something with live drums and live vocals can do. It's more sampled vocals, big 808s kicks and claps. You want like a FISHER track, you want it to be totally stomping. We can't do that though, because when we'll go to play live, people are going to rock up and be like “What the fuck is this? It's a six-piece band!”
I think sometimes it hurts that you can't really put us in one box or the other. I think the only place where it really, really benefits us - which is where we've always had our home - is at our live shows. We get to create this really hard-out stomping dance energy, but we get to do it with the ‘oomph’ of having like the collaborative dynamic that comes from having six people with lots of energy on stage, and it brings it to life. I think like a lot of what we do revolves around our experience at our gigs, and that energy is where we get a lot of the textural inspiration for this record.
You have songs like Lose Control and Shelf Life, which are very club-centric and four-on-the-floor, but you also have songs like St. Valentine and Tear In A Club which are almost the opposite; they’re quite sombre and indie-pop-aligning. Was there an effort in balancing those sides out?
It's interesting, because when we present our 'art' to the world, it's perceived as a premeditated and complete package. For us, it's just six guys trying to make music they like with each other and for each other, and it's a long process in which there's probably 500 meetings that are we comparing tracks and taking notes on what we should do, getting everyone else’s opinions. There are all these decisions made along the way that are little commitments to the next stage of the process, and when you look back at the songs that end up on the album, they are the songs that come out the other end of that process. That's why with our music, we've always had songs on the album that are a bit different. If you wrote a whole album with one or two people in a space of a month, it's gonna have a similar kind of texture because you listen to the same things around the same time and we'll all be inspired by the same things and using the same equipment. But, when you write an album that's divided between six different people writing separately and together - spread out over two years - you end up coming out the other end with something that's quite diverse, and there's never one cohesive theme put into the album.
We try and pick songs in the end that sound like they go together. We've never gone into the process with restrictions on exactly what we're going to write, or what the genre is going to be exactly or what instruments we're going to use. We're trying to leave it open so that everyone enjoys the process and then at the end, we can pick our favourite track. Our albums are always quite diverse and they do have those different moments that reflect different parts of the band and they also generally reflect different aspects of the people in the band.
St. Valentine and Tear In A Club, for example, are tracks that Zach wrote 100% of the lyrics and most of the instrumentation to, so there is a real honest reflection of life where he was at that certain point time. Tear In A Club specifically, that song is just Zach and I.
I wanted to come back to Kim [Moyes, of The Presets] and his involvement in the record, because there’s a lot of nods to his era of dance music in the album. Lose Control, for example, sounds like an early Chemical Brothers song and Shelf Life takes bits and pieces from that indie-dance, Midnight Juggernauts-esque world. What was his influence on the record?
I think our music will always have nostalgia from that time period. That's when the band started and those are all the bands that we were listening to at the time: Foals, The Presets, LCD Soundsystem, Bloc Party. That was our era and that's when - and why - we started the band.
When we started to build this record, we were like “Okay, who do we like that we should use on the album?” Kim's name is one of the ones that got thrown up and we were just instantly wanting to make it happen, it just made sense. At the point where Kim got involved, we were already beginning to make songs for the record, and they were all heading into an electronic direction with these influences in them. When Kim came on board, we played him five tracks, and of those five, two made it onto the album. Then, we made another 10 or so that we put a little more effort into when we knew Kim was going to be working on the record. Having him come on board was the first instigator of songs starting to have that flavour, because we thought "Fuck, if we've got Kim Moyes coming on board, then we should show him the songs we have that we think he'll love." We wanted to impress The Presets basically, so we showed him the songs that we thought would work - Lose Control and Shelf Life included.
Hiring him to produce the album actually shaped the album more than his production input on the album. We went to The Grove and we recorded drums, some synth and some guitars with him, and it was great to get his mind on us because again, we're a hard band to pin down and understand. He really wanted live drums to sound like live drums, and he really wanted more guitars and more elements that made us, us. It was like he was playing devil's advocate with himself; we got him because we love The Presets, but then he didn't want us to sound like The Presets, and he didn't want us to sound like too electronic like because he felt like our strong points were in other places than just big dance records. In the end, all those notes and all those 2000s-feeling synths and instrumentation would have been there without Kim's involvement, but it probably wouldn't have been there as much.
To end this off, I wanted to circle back to where we started. We talked about how Dare set you up to give you a bit of financial stability, and give the band the time to work on this record and make it all happen. How do you see Shelf Life shaping what comes next?
I have no idea. That's the thing about being a musician and being a band: you're always the next thing you make. It could continue your career or it could just demolish it. Unless you've made a bunch of massive hits and you're a band no one's ever gonna forget, then your career is always resting on the current. When you're a band that's always judged off of its latest material, it's always just winging it and putting faith into what you're doing and trying to trust it. I try not to think too much about what I think other people want to hear. It's more like, “Do I like this? Would I go and see this? Would I pay to go and see this? Would I listen to this album?” I think you have to trust that, because that's part of being a musician and being an artist: having that trust in your own abilities and your own tastes and putting it out there. It's always a risk.
I have no idea if we're going to still be doing this in another 10 years or even another two years, it’s just something we have to face every time it's a new album: it's just something new for your audience to either accept or deny, and have the band’s fate in their hands while doing so.
Northeast Party House's third album, Shelf Life, is out Friday February 28th via Sony Music Australia.
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