Slowly Slowly’s Ben Stewart is super hungover by the time he jumps on the other end of the conference call for our interview together during the final days of April. While the guitarist and singer for these soulful Melbourne rockers might be planning a nice quiet night in, tough luck! Because I had some questions for the always straight-up frontman about his band’s incredible and wholesome new record, the touching and deep ‘St. Leonards’.
So, first things first: the cover photo used for Slowly Slowly’s wonderful second LP. “That’s actually my kitchen from inside my house. I took it on a disposable camera and put that cover together myself”, mentions Ben.
And the infinite question there is, of course, why?
“That’s actually what I spent a lot of the time piecing the parts together for it in that room“, he says. “I like that it was black all around it with the window as the only opening. I wanted to think that it was like you were seeing the reverse of looking out of a spaceship; it’s contained, and you can’t make anything out in the room. Like looking out of a window on a submarine maybe? It just seemed really fitting for it”.
There’s indeed a real correlation there with one of the record’s later songs, the little acoustic gem of ‘The Butcher’s Window’ (which we’ll get to later on), and that makes for a true connection between the personal nature of Slowly Slowly’s latest and the listener(s). Something that they’ve really excelled upon since 2016’s solid debut album, ‘Chamomile‘. (Which I really quite liked).
“In terms of ‘The Butcher’s Window’, that song details the upbringing of one of my family members, but I didn’t even think about that connection now until you just mentioned it” admits Ben. But then he gets right to the topic at hand, saying, “My writing has always been really autobiographical. So having that homely vibe, where the back cover is a photo my brother took and the front cover is my photo from my house, it fitted the music of just being so DIY. I just wanted it to feel as close to home as possible”.
A big part of why I think this also works so well for Slowly Slowly is that it comes down to this new record’s friendly, warm, and homey production; a lovely charm that their fellow Melbourne peers in Ceres also capture so brilliantly in their own vocals and instrumentation. Here, it all just feels lived in, and it takes the listener on a proper journey, as the Slowly Slowly frontman himself puts it.
“We really slaved over the tones and the arrangements and everything to put the lyrics and the story at the forefront, so that nothing was too jarring. We just want to take people on a bit of a subliminal journey.”
While there’s plenty of awesome catchy melodies, soothing instrumentals, and calming production to be had here, I personally adore the gorgeous lead guitar tones found throughout this stellar album. That was something that helped to define the sound of ‘Chamomile’ on certain tracks (‘New York, Paris‘ and ‘PMTWGR‘) but it’s really been expanded upon here, and as I tell Ben, I just think it’s all really fucking cool!
“That’s awesome, man, thank you! Me and Alex, as well as Albert [the band’s lead guitarist], shared the playing of lead lines on the album; just brainstorming. So it’s a mixed bag between who played what on it. The way we recorded this album was to record into the wee hours of the morning, out of hours. We did it that way as Alex runs a studio so we’d go in at 9pm and go off into the night. As for the tones, we weren’t AB-ing between songs on the console to try and match sounds, it was just that we had the time to dial it in and say, “What does this song need?” We had this beautiful luxury to go back and re-record things. It was kinda like wandering around in the dark and finding a great space for the songs tonally. Take a song like ‘Ten Leaf Clover’, with all the weird bends at the start, that’s just from hours of bleary-eyed experimentation. It was lovely to have that at our disposal, though.”
That added effort and care put into the band’s songwriting detail this time around is what makes this second LP such an engaging listen. Just as Ben puts it to me, “this record felt really measured and retrospective, and we wanted to sit with it and digest it better; not to rush it”. And that’s really paid off for them in the end-product! As ‘Ten Leaf Clover‘ shows:
Any Melbournians and Victorians reading this piece will likely pick up that the album’s title refers to the St. Leonards beach from out Geelong way. In this darkened title song, however, Ben talks about a miracle he once saw occur out at this local beach. Like anything with Slowly Slowly, is that just a metaphorical correlation for the music or something very personal from his own life? As it turns out, much like some of the other songs from this new record, it’s all about family.
“My family had a beach house out there, a place my grandfather bought it when he came to Australia [from Cicilie]” recalls Ben. “Even after being here for 40 years he could still barely speak English. He was such a character, just a really skinny and small but upbeat firecracker. He was so much fun to be around; just a legend who made everyone laugh. But he passed away recently, and the house was recently sold as there was no use for it anymore, as he was this central member of our family that tied everyone together. That’s what that song circulates around: saying goodbye to familiarity.”
He continues. “As a lot of people can probably relate, there’s that textbook image of family, and that doesn’t exist for most people. When you look at your own family, it doesn’t fit the mould, you know? Everybody’s got that. Those snapshots I have of St Leonards, spending time there when I was young and naive and unafraid of the world, which was just such a beautiful and innocent time for me. Times were it was protected and felt right. It’s a strange song as it has those sinister elements sprinkled through it about loss, as when my grandfather was gone there was a lot of dead air left in the room”.
“I didn’t really know it at the time that it was so special. I think it was in retrospect that you see everyone come together for the family cornerstone, my grandfather. It was sad to watch the house get sold and probably turned into units. It was sad to watch the town that just once had a fish n’ chip shop and a mill bar and now it has 15 cafes in the main street. It’s just a song about change, really”.
As selfish as it is, this particular song hits hard at home for me, as my own grandfather’s health isn’t looking so good lately; most likely, he won’t see the end of 2018, sadly. Yet to get back to the topic at hand, that’s the great thing about Slowly Slowly’s music: it’s so relatable and comforting. It comfortably nestles into the pours of your own little world, sticking there right through the good and the hard times. That’s the beauty of ‘St. Leonards‘.
When I first heard this beautiful LP, I thought that all of those songs were written about old friends or old partners, but as Ben and I talked this out, I realise that it’s so much closer to home than I first believed. While there’s a variety of themes that ebb and flow from these 13 new songs, his family is a big part of it.
“They all definitely come from different aspects, but some of it does come from a turbulent family upbringing. Stuff that I got to put to bed here, and it was a nice cathartic process to now give that stuff a home. I wasn’t originally planning to write a record about any of these things, I just wrote as much as I could over the past year and a half and then pulled out the things that resonated the most.”
“There isn’t really a particular theme on the album, it’s more of a collection. It’s like standing right up close to a painting and then moving back and seeing how it was exactly my life over the past year and a half. I’m so happy about how honest it came out as I’m not as concerned if people don’t like it this time around. I’m certain I did the best I could with the time I had – I’m in a good place with it all.”
And he’s right: ‘St. Leonards‘ is an incredibly honest creation. Which is why I love it, and why with the added studio time they took makes it sound and feel so much more fleshed out than ‘Chamomile’ could have ever hoped to be. It just expands upon that core sound bed so much, and Ben actually has a reasoning behind why this improvement might have occurred.
“I played the drums for years, only stepping onto the guitar for ‘Chamomile’. The way that that came about was that it was just a recording project between me and Alex. I played every instrument on that album and we couldn’t really bash it out then listen back; they were all created in the studio and then we found other people to come in and play. It was a big first foot for me as a songwriter, so that’s probably why it feels and sounds more coherent this time around. As I got to really focus on my writing and we have a really strong band and network, whereas before it was me stepping out into the unknown; like putting a shaky hand to paper.”
Which I feel all shows in lyricism coming out stronger, the themes becoming even more relatable, and Ben as a musician stepping further into the role of the band’s frontman too. Songs like ‘Aliens‘ show-off that new confidence and growth in droves, I find.
Getting back to something Ben said earlier about ‘The Butcher’s Window‘, who was it actually written about it?
“It centres around my dad’s upbringing. I’d never really written a song like that before – written about someone else’s life. I’ve head so many stories over the years and I just felt like, “he’s not a songwriter, and I want him to have a song”. He started way below zero and he caught his way up of his own accord. He was raised in a boy’s home, and like most people his age back then, he left home at 16. Yet he still had this jovial sense of humour despite whatever tragedy happened in his life.”
“What I mean by ‘The Butcher’s Window’ metaphor was that he saved up all of his money from a young teenager and the first thing bought a glass cutter. He didn’t like the local butcher, so he cut a perfect circle out of the guy’s front window one night and then snuck back into the boy’s home. The butcher had to get the whole thing replaced… and then my dad just did it again! Which just represents my dad’s upbringing I think. To have this tough stuff happen early out on in Broadmeadows and Glenroy, and then that was his first bit of focus when he had money. He’s a really easy-going guy and it makes me laugh when I think about it.”
Personally, I love that level of spite to not just annoy and bother someone once, but a second time right afterwards. However, has Ben’s old man heard the song in questions, and if so what did he think? I got my answer:
“Yeah, I sent it to him right after it was done to get his blessing and get all of the facts right. It was the first time I’ve written about something that wasn’t myself. So I needed him to sign off on it, he said that I got it right and that he loved it too, which made me feel really good”.
While there are some loving and positive songs sowed right into the bones of the record, there are some songs that aren’t as bathed in light. ‘The Cold War’ is about interpersonal relationships poised in harsh words and manipulations; something more passive aggressive than outward action, hence the name. ‘Smile Lines‘ is a Jekel & Hyde rollercoaster about the many up and down moods that drive relationships forwards (or backwards). ‘Aliens’ is a stream of consciousness track lyrically about all of the shitty and weird life cycles that we just fall into; kinda like a person’s entire life laid out into a single song. And other songs, with their various titles and lyrics, all tell stories about things just coming to an end: opening pair ‘Dinosaurs’ and ‘Extinction’, for instance.
The way I’ve always interpreted Slowly Slowly’s music is that it’s like a comforting hand on your shoulder from a close friend. But sometimes, that hand moves from your shoulder and over to your chest, pulling out your heartstrings with a scary level of ease. One such moment arrives towards the end of the record, on the second-to-last track, ‘Song For Shae‘. The big question here is who exactly was Shae and how does she pertain to Ben personally – what relation does she have to his life and how she sadly passed away? It’s a very tough topic for the singer, but he explains.
“My partner, her sister passed away when she was four, under some pretty tragic circumstances. She was too young to really understand what had happened or remember properly, as my partner was only one or two years old. We’ve been together a really long time now, I spend a lot of time around her family and we still get together and celebrate Shae’s birthday, her anniversary of when she passed. That song is still… super difficult for me to play. I’ve played it live maybe once at one show. Even when I first wrote the song, I couldn’t get through it without stopping and crying, as it’s really heavy stuff for me. It’s really close to home for me and my partner. It’s a crazy heavy story, but I want people to remember Shae through the song. I think that songs live forever and I love the sentiment of putting that into music. I wanted a celebratory song that wasn’t bogged down in tragic details or trapped in grief for anyone in the situation. It was something that people could sway to and sing her name. Shae’s niece, Zoe, she’s my little niece, she is just the spitting image of her and the same personality as people say. She’s three years old now and I wanted to tie into that sentiment of Shae being alive in Zoe.”
“Again, it’s not really my story to tell but I wanted to do it in a really respectable way and I ran it all past the family before I put it together. I hope that there is a time where I can play that live and people are singing back to have a really nice moment of remembrance. Its probably beyond my vocabulary to talk about a song like this and I apologize if I’m stumbling around it, but it’s a tricky topic”.
Yet there are no apologies needed here I feel, as Ben and Slowly Slowly have handled such tricky topics and tough memories with genuine heart, proper respect and real honesty, which makes for such gripping and intimate music.
The magical ‘St. Leondards‘ is out this Friday, May 11th (tomorrow) via UNFD and it’s bloody fantastic!
Header PC: the man, Kane Hibberd.