While we’ve seen plenty of excellent debut records come out this year, there may be none finer than Jagwar Ma’s Howlin. Hailing from Sydney, Australia, singer/guitarist Gabriel Winterfield and producer Jono Ma make dance rock like you’ve never heard it before. The band wants to resist the psychedelic label, so know this: you will hear the past on Howlin while feeling completely present.
It’s a powerfully engaging record, conjuring dancefloor bliss and tropical hues when those things are far out of reach. The lighthearted vibe they have offstage translates onto their radiant, joyful performances, where the duo’s joined by bassist Jack Freeman. Live, the pulsating urgency that drives tracks like “Uncertainty” and “The Throw” is even more magnetic, creating a truly transportive experience.
I talked to Jagwar Ma earlier this fall, on their first trip to the US. They’re currently on a more extensive tour of North America, and I’m already looking forward to the next time they come back. Howlin is out now on Mom + Pop.
What’s the biggest difference that you’ve seen so far in America?
Gabriel Winterfield: I think Americans, in general, are quite aware of the fact that it’s America and that it’s quite a significant thing. Australians, on the other hand, are very much aware of the fact that they’re not significant at all. It’s a strange sort of novelty country in the global perspective, do you know what I mean? That’s of the main things. You guys are one of the main players, we’re just that fit sub that kind of just sits on the sidelines, waiting for a mention.
Jack Freeman: That, and you drive on the other side of the road.
GW: But that’s one of the little differences. Have you ever been to Australia?
No. Not going to lie, everything I know about Australia comes from a couple of my friends and Summer Heights High.
JF: Summer Heights High is pretty close to the truth.
GW: Summer Heights High is quite accurate. I wouldn’t say Crocodile Dundee is, and I’m glad that’s kind of starting to be forgotten about.
Does coming here feel like a big milestone for you?
GW: Last night, normally we’ll say something like, “It’s great to finally have made it here.” We said that at our first show in Paris, Berlin. I guess I was nervous, I didn’t even say anything about the fact that we were in New York and it was our first show in the US. It meant a lot to us, but we didn’t say anything.
Jono Ma: I said something about it, but I didn’t have a microphone, so no one heard. I just mumbled it.
GW: He said it in binary with his 808.
JM: I was doing it in morse code.
Jono, it’s cool to see someone doing everything you do without being hunched over a laptop the whole time.
JM: I love analog gear, and the way we did the record was very much analog. The laptop, we were using it like a tape machine, it was just recording stuff. But almost all the sounds are generated from samplers, 808s, voices, guitars. There’s very little midi instruments, software synths or anything like that. We wanted to carry that through to the live show as well. But obviously because it’s electronic music, you still need machines to do some of the work.
GW: Like Jono said, we use analog equipment but use the power of digital to organize, tame them.
JF: They’re all just little creatures.
Was that an approach that you particularly wanted to take, given the current state of dance music?
JM: It wasn’t a conscious thing, I’ve always been drawn to the process of analog, the way you interact with a drum machine or a synth. It’s just more tactile, the way you interact with it, compared to scrolling around with a mouse on a computer screen to generate sounds. It’s no better or worse, it’s just what we prefer.
You also get caught up in defying genre descriptions.
GW: I think that’s winning, to be honest. That’s a victory, if you can dodge pigeonholes for as long as possible, that’s a good game to keep up. I almost feel like that’s going to be something of a status quo for my career, to constantly be changing and moving around. At the same time, people will still always find a way, and obviously there are the comparisons to the early 90s and the dance thing in Europe and parts of the UK. But we never want to downplay it, because I think that would be apologetic for your influences. But at the same time, you don’t want to exaggerate your influences. Ultimately, with musicians, I find it really interesting that people are curious as to what music you listen to. Like yeah, I listen to x, y, and z, but I’m not here because of what I listen to, I’m here because of what I make. We’d always rather be talking about the creative side, we could talk about that for ages, as opposed to talking about our favorite Queens of the Stone Age record or something.
JF: It’s something we talk about a lot.
JM: Which was a big influence on the record, quite clearly.
Well, what’s something you like that people might not expect you to like?
GW: I dunno, I was wearing a Metallica t-shirt last night. I don’t think you’d hear that.
JM: I’m wearing an In Utero t-shirt right now.
JF: I’m wearing a Polo t-shirt.
JM: You probably wouldn’t expect us to be into heavier bands like that. I think we all kind of grew up listening to punk and the harder rock side of things. We were all in bands before this, and those bands were quite indie-based, shoegaze-y, classic sort of guitar bands. That might not be obvious in a record like Howlin.
I’ve met other artists who were like, “Yeah, we used to be in a hardcore band, but now we love Fleetwood Mac and Michael McDonald.”
JM: That’s not the case [with us], but that’s also not that uncommon. When you’re younger, you grow up listening to your parents’ music when you’re really young, and then you hit a point where you want to react against everything you listened to with them, and you find the antithesis. For some people, that’s metal or industrial or grunge, or techno or rave music or whatever. Then you almost kind of return to your younger roots. I definitely felt I went on that journey, I got massively into punk rock because my parents hated it and it felt like it was mine. Then I slowly started going back to listening to the Beatles again and appreciating them. I used to listen to them with my parents when I was really young. You don’t lose the influences. I don’t turn back and regret anything I’ve loved, it’s like you’re just building up this giant catalog of musical influences and things that help shape you as a musician, as a listener and a creator.
Why do you think psychedelic music is having a moment right now?
GW: Do you think it is? I don’t know.
JM: I don’t think it’s having a moment.
GW: I think the word is having a moment.
JM: It’s not the music.
JF: There’s also something to be said about the fact that it’s being reinterpreted with modern technology, which makes it sound very different from the way it used to sound.
GW: Speaking of genres and things like that, I think with the word psychedelic, you have to take it back to the meaning of the word. Psychedelic music should be early Pink Floyd, 13th Floor Elevators, that was it. “Incense and Peppermints,” Strawberry Alarm Clock. That is psychedelic music, I don’t think Animal Collective is psychedelic, or Tame Impala. And us as well, we get comparisons to psychedelic stuff, but there have to be other words in the vocabulary that you can use to describe music.
JM: I don’t think psychedelia ever left. Once it arrived, I feel like there was definitely a symbiosis with technology that allowed [it to continue]. Originally, you just had acoustic instruments, then the electric guitar was created, and amps and effects are created, echoes and reverbs and all these ways of manipulating sound. We created synthesizers, that was a technological advancement that happened. Naturally, people are going to dismantle and misuse technology in interesting and creative ways. I think the fruit of that is often out-there music, or elements of it in pop, even. After psychedelia arrived, it went through loads of transformations and house music arrived, acid house. I don’t think it’s come back, I think it’s always been in music since electricity in music became the norm.
GW: It’s like that Paul McCartney record, I think it’s McCartney II, and it’s got “Check My Machine.” He wrote that song just checking a tape or something like that, it’s kind of the best song on the record because it’s a creative misuse of technology. And it’s obviously Paul McCartney as well, that doesn’t hurt.
Is Paul your favorite Beatle?
GW: No, mine would have to be Stuart Sutcliffe.
JF: Best-looking one by far.
GW: I dunno, I don’t have a favorite Beatle.
JM: Mine’s George Martin, certainly.
GW: Exactly. John for Monday, Paul for Tuesday, George for Wednesday, Ringo for Thursday, George Martin for Friday, Ravi Shankar for Saturday, and Epstein on Sundays. Epstein and little cocktails on Sunday.
You also paid tribute to the Cardigans a little bit, with the “Lovefool” cover in your show. Is that something you normally do?
GW: We’ve done it a few times. I just kind of like how that lyric in the original song is so sincere, then when you sing it over something else, it sounds really sarcastic. I enjoy that.
Is that sort of vibe something you want to channel in your own music, something that could sound two different ways?
GW: Yeah, I think you always look for a few meanings in lyrics so they can be left to interpretation. But no, we’re not going to sound like the Cardigans anytime soon.
I did get this very optimistic feeling out of your record.
GW: I think generally, the tone of the record is quite optimistic. Lyrically speaking, there’s quite an element of melodrama. I don’t want to say it, but I guess people like how in Kanye’s records, that is melodrama, but it’s also incredibly entertaining. Not to be taking a leaf out of that book, but I do admire his writing skills as much as Dylan, he’s kind of as good. When we writing these songs, the thoughtful lyrics were always pushing this sort of hyperbole. When I write the lyrics, they go through lots of transitions, so they’ll start out meaning one thing, but then we’ll cut them up and another meaning will rise out of it. I think it was Bowie who used to cut newspapers up and that would be a lyric or tapestry. Then it speaks the voice, not just of you, but there’s a social conscious that’s actually not you. There’s actually a Google software that’s like writelyrics.com and it’ll just randomly pick a bunch of words from the internet and start writing poetry via the internet. You can pick trends that you want, so if you want to write about love or Halloween, it’ll pick out all of these words and you get this sort of beat poetry that is bang on. It’s systemically identifying what would actually resonate with people now. I do it sometimes because I’m bored, there’s something cool about that.
Speaking of melodrama, you dressed up as Team Zissou from The Life Aquatic for a festival this summer. Are you big Wes Anderson fans?
JF: Yeah, we like The Life Aquatic.
JM: I loved Fantastic Mr. Fox as well.
Is that your favorite of his films?
JF: The Life Aquatic would be my favorite, I’d say.
JM: But I really liked Moonrise Kingdom.
GW: I find him a bit annoying, to be honest, but I did like him a lot when…
JF: It’s very teenage.
GF: Yeah, like The Royal Tenenbaums is perfect for that.
JF: When you’re 14, yeah.
GW: And when you’re discovering bands like the Velvet Underground, his soundtracks are a great gateway to the whole New York thing, which he likes to to showcase a lot. But I’m almost tempted to say his best work may be behind him. Don’t you think? He’s got an amazing body of work. If he didn’t do another thing, it would be [fine].
Personally, Rushmore is my favorite, which was his second film.
GW: Yeah, after Bottle Rocket. Rushmore‘s good.
JM: Rushmore‘s great, but I felt like The Life Aquatic was kind of the opus to me, it started to expand visually. Rushmore would almost work as a play, it’s a great script and storyline, but The Life Aquatic had all the elements of a great film. Visually, it was incredible.
GW: Totally, The Life Aquatic is a straight-up screenplay, because it’s contained on one set pretty much throughout the whole thing.
Except when they get taken to the pirate island and the other ship.
JM: Ping Island, which is also known as Australia.
GW: Which is why we’re so upbeat!