After introducing y’all to Lawrence Arabia last week, I’m pleased to present to you a full-length interview with the man behind the machine, James Milne. He provides some very interesting commentary on the unique music culture of New Zealand, and explains some of the themes of his latest album, The Sparrow. Consequently, Lawrence Arabia will be performing at the Middle East in Boston on November, 11 in support of their aforementioned, new album. So, without further ado… James Milne.
PRM: Traveling to the states from New Zealand has to wear on you a bit, do you ever have difficulties adjusting? Is there something you miss the most about home while on tour?
JM: Well the novelty of being here normally gives me the energy to overlook any creeping vestiges of homesickness, but having been here a few months, I do miss the quietness of New Zealand, the familiarity of a boring home routine. I miss the understatedness of New Zealanders too.
PRM: I’ve read that due to New Zealand’s size and culture, you said it has less of a career-driven view of music and more of a bohemian view. Could you elaborate on that culture a bit more, and how it differs with the American music-scene?
JM: Ambition has always been viewed with a degree of suspicion in New Zealand, although probably decreasingly so as the isolation the country once enjoyed/suffered has been erased by the reach of the internet. The post-punk movement in New Zealand which was embodied by Flying Nun Records had a strong emphasis on attacking cultural totems, puncturing the self-seriousness and sincerity of the country’s mediocre big fish–small pond types. As a consequence, humour and a kind of career nihilism (often paired with narcotic or alcoholic intake) were valued as traits in the true New Zealand artist. This strain certainly remains, though as the aforementioned loss of isolation happened, global possibilities were revealed, and consequently there’s been more overt ambition and a fair degree of stylistic and thematic homogenisation going on with other worldwide music trends.
PRM: Do you feel that Americans receive your style of music and personality differently than New Zealanders?
JM: I’m not totally certain that Americans as are quite as responsive to the humorous side of my music as compared to say the harmonies or the fact that it sounds a bit like the Beatles sometimes. But I haven’t played here a heck of a lot and I’m keen to explore that relationship more.
PRM: Listening to your latest album The Sparrow, I can’t help but notice the sheer quantity of instruments and unique melodies. How do you go about the production of these many-layered tracks? Is it more gradual, or do you start off with an overall vision for the composition?
JM: With this album I had quite a strong vision of the way I wanted it to sound from an early stage. Orchestrated, but elemental and focused. Some of the songs almost arranged themselves from a very early moment in the writing process, and this informed the way the other songs were arranged too.
PRM: Your lyrics often reflect on personal experiences and struggles; as a more experienced artist do you feel more comfortable sharing yourself with listeners or is this something you’ve always attempted to do?
JM: In the past I’d tended to rely on poetic wit, and let the sub-conscious speak through wordplay. The ego tends to reveal itself through the id. But the lyrics of this were generally more consciously wrought, and did tend to be sketched from personal experience. Consequently, I suppose these have come to be more autobiographical than lyrics I’ve written in the past, but there’s always been at least a grain of autobiography in there. It’s important for me to communicate something – not a political message or a call to arms, but a palpable image.
PRM: On your website, you have a very powerful quote about “the sparrow”, would you care to explain the quote a bit and describe what the sparrow means to you, and the album as a whole?
“As one man findeth shelter under the eaves of his neighbour’s wife, so shall he be plagued by the sparrow. And lo, where fields of wheat once grew lush upon the soil, lies now the infernal desert of the pestilential sparrow.” – Lawrence Arabia, 2011.
JM: Well the quote’s a bit of faux-biblical silliness really! I was trying to evoke something of the role of the sparrow in the album’s genesis, which was simply as something I idly and unthinkingly wrote in my songwriting notebook that somehow influenced the sound and themes of the album. I imagined it as a malevolent creature ruining things wherever it went. A rather difficult to describe aesthetic muse.
PRM: People may confuse your latest nom de plume, Lawrence Arabia, with the Lawrence of Arabia that appears in history textbooks. What led you to choose this name? Do you have any special connection to the historical figure?
JM: No connection at all. I just needed a heroic pseudonym to hang my outrageous dreams on, cos my regular self was too modest and self-deprecating to get anywhere in this cruel world.