RENDEZVOUS: A Quick Catch Up With Tesse
"I want them to feel like they’ve had some sort of exchange. Doesn’t matter how they take it, whether they love it or hate it. I think engaging in live music reminds us that it’s important, especially in today’s climate to express something in real life to another person not just via a screen."
Last year, local Sydney artist Tom Stephens started his collaborative project Tesse. It still holds all the sincerity and warmth of his solo work but feels that little bit more expansive. There’s more people, more layers, and a brand new album that is bursting at the seams with depth and dynamism. We caught up with Stephens to chat about the new album How It All Unfolds, recording in analogue in 2018 and how we should all listen to more Thai Funk.
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Have things shifted in any way since releasing music as Tesse, as compared to releasing music as Tom Stephens? What prompted the change?
There’s been a definite shift, mainly in the feeling while performing on stage. I think I’ve always found it kind of bizarre to get up in front of people and play songs with a group of people that are all contributing to the sound and for it to be billed as my birth name. Tom Stephens was written on my school bag and my pencil case, I played under 10s rugby with that name, I think it’s a good thing to separate that particular identity from the creative self in a way. I like the anonymity. Now the experience is more of a collective, collaborative one and I think that’s appropriate, it feels right.
Your debut release as Tesse is quite a thing of beauty. Can you tell us a bit about the recording process?
Thank you. We recorded the album in six days in Castlemaine, Victoria. Castlemaine is an old gold mine town about an hour and a half inland from Melbourne city. A great man by the name of Alex Bennett has an all-analogue studio there. We recorded the nine songs live in the same room in just over four days, mixed it in a day and a half on the desk and then listened back. I think we managed to capture the feeling of the whole process on the record. It was a really positive, cathartic time, five friends coming together and making music, documenting a particular time and place. I think because of how quickly we made the record it’s raw and unaffected and my hope is that that translates to the listener.
Do you think you’re able to communicate a more authentic vintage sound via analogue? Do you wish it was used more in 2018?
Definitely. A lot of our favourite albums were recorded to tape; a lot of the time songs were recorded in one take. There are mistakes and wrong notes all over them, but a feeling is there, an energy that I think click tracks and computers take away a lot of the time. The idea going in was to try and experiment with a limited amount of tracks, placing an intentional limitation on the process. I think anything that is overworked loses its essence and I think when songs are slammed through computers with endless tracks and instruments are quantized, it no longer becomes a thing of expression but an exercise in maths or something. Some people are into that, the precision aspect and that’s cool but I’ve realised that’s not as satisfying creatively. It’s not for everyone; certain styles of music don’t fit the analogue mould, but I think there is a certain sonic quality to tape, people like to call it a ‘warmth’ and I’d agree with that. We’re living in a time where people are consuming so much digitally; it’s a constant barrage of clean, calculated content. I think a raw, unaffected creative expression resonates with people, although it might not make as much initial noise as the other more instantaneous stuff it still makes an impact and people value it.
There’s some really stunning guitar work on your new album. What’s the creative process like when coming together as a full band?
Thank you. I write the songs and have particular ideas for instrumentation, and then we come together and the rest of the guys add their embellishments and their own personal touches to parts. Lead guitarist Monty Richmond has a great ear for melody and sonic textures. He played a big part in the writing process for this album. Keys player Chris Long is great at cutting the fat. Often structures change and take different paths than they would have if it’s just myself steering the ship. I’ve tracked songs by myself and that’s how I’ve been writing and demoing the next album, but if it’s all the one person I think you lose the creative exchange element and I think that’s really important.
What was one of the weirdest instruments or recording techniques you used on the album?
Alex has all of these bizarre vintage trinkets lying around the studio; among them is this Japanese missile thing. I believe we had a late night idea of stroking it with some brushes, as a bit of added texture on one of the songs. I can’t remember if it actually made it. Just want to clear the air and say that if it did make it, there was no violence intended in the act, only for textural purposes.
The track ‘A Line Drawn Through the Air’ is great. What inspired that song and why did you decide to leave the vocals off it?
Around the time of tracking the album I was getting really into krautrock and even put together a band with some friends. It’s called ‘Shelf’ (yet to take a stage but one day). That riff was one that I came up with for that group and I kept playing it, and playing it. ‘A Line Drawn Through the Air’ is actually the name of a spoken word piece of poetry that I wrote and was thinking of tacking onto the end of one of the songs of the album, but upon reflection thought it could be over indulgent. We thought just an instro would be a great way to close side A on the record, a bit of a breath and that instro was the first thing that popped up in my head. We jumped in the studio and recorded it in one take.
The entire album is pretty packed full with emotion. Do you find songwriting helps you to make sense of the world?
It definitely makes me feel less lonely. When I write a song or create in any way there’s a real feeling of connection between my lived experience and my internal experience. It’s really gratifying to be able to voice my internal experience for other people to hear. This record was really focused on my interpersonal relationships around the time of writing and where I was at emotionally with some big changes that had occurred that year. I consider it a big privilege having that outlet; a lot of people don’t have that luxury due to circumstance or whatever. It’s scary putting that stuff out there, being vulnerable, but I think there’s a connection there that I find really encouraging and I hope other people do too.
If you could make music anywhere else in the world, where would it be?
Definitely somewhere in Asia, maybe Thailand? There’s a cool appropriation of Western sounds with traditional Eastern melodies and language that makes for a beautiful meeting, Thai Funk is wild.
You have a couple of shows coming up in July. What do you want people to feel when they walk away from a Tesse show?
I want them to feel like they’ve had some sort of exchange. Doesn’t matter how they take it, whether they love it or hate it. I think engaging in live music reminds us that it’s important, especially in today’s climate to express something in real life to another person not just via a screen. Hopefully they feel encouraged to share something too in whatever way they feel appropriate. Gotta get it out.
Finally, you obviously have an ear for music. How do you go on the dance floor?
I go hard! That is all.