Great bands are born in the tantalising unknown, the grey area between well-laid plans and mystery. Matt Joe Gow spent years envisaging what The Dead Leaves might be, but even as they fall together on this powerful debut album, they weave their own enigma.
Cities On The Sea is a majestic rock album that conjures its own atmosphere and panorama of emotions and moods, an immersive experience that engulfs the sum of its parts in a unique alchemy of sound and images. Matt is a journeyman songwriter from Melbourne via Dunedin who’s drawn from every well from Joy Division to Johnny Cash “The band was initially formed to serve songs I had written,” he explains. The Messenger, a largely acoustic album credited to Matt Joe Gow and
the Dead Leaves, documented that phase of their trip in 2009.
“Our combined influences and styles gelled in a way that’s bigger than we’d anticipated. We’ve made a very collaborative record – there’s no one member who needs to shine, it’s very much a band and the songs are the priority.” They’re songs of soaring structures, lush layers and intense emotional suggestion, from the
pointedly questioning tone of the propulsive opener, If The Shoe Fits, to the philosophical challenge of This Living (a duet with Gin Wigmore) to the haiku meditation Spare Parts. The radically reinvented Talking Heads song This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody), completes a cycle of songs bookended by questions about domestic bliss, but casting its net as wide as the world in between.
It’s not surprising to learn that Matt studied philosophy at university in Dunedin. Nor that his internal weather is attuned to the early ‘80s musical climate of northern England: his father’s country, where he’s often returned to consult his creative compass. The rest of The Dead Leaves’ architecture is equally carefully considered: the complex rhythmic backbone of drummer Joel Witenberg and bassist Cameron Grindrod, woven with the more ethereal approach of guitarist Andy Pollock and
Matt’s disarmingly intimate lead vocals.
“Andy’s main role was guitars but I collaborated a lot with him in the early stages of songs,” says Matt. “He’s really versatile. He can play a million different styles but we focused on him creating these textured soundscapes.The rhythm section’s job is to really lock down the groove, to hit you in the face with this energy.”
The piece de resistance is the precision production of Scott Horscroft (The Presets, Birds of Tokyo, The Panics) and Eric J Dubowsky (Art vs Science, Weezer), who blend ethereal harmonies, phantom horns, Hammond organ and less definable elements into an absorbing sonic whole. Cities On The Sea was crafted within the walls of BJB Studios in Sydney after intense writing sessions in The Dead Leaves’ hometown of Melbourne.
But in a sense, the completion of the record is just the beginning of the songwriter’s intentions. “In the past I was telling stories that I wanted to tell, more personal and more literal,” Matt says. “These songs are slightly more removed so that people can attach to them and find their own meaning and in that way
I think they can be more powerful. It was difficult transition for me as a lyricist to do that.” The songs are inclusive by name and nature: Ordinary Lot is an anthem for everyday perseverance, the triumph of blood over imperfection. The worldly insecurities, yearnings and absences in songs such as Never Had A Loverand
Everybody’s Lost Someone strike similar universal resonances. “I want to romanticise the everyday man,” says Matt. “I always admired when people like Morrissey did that. It could be emotive and it could be honest and it could be rich with content and still leave room for every listener to find something of their own.”
Just don’t ask The Dead Leaves for too many directions.
“I really like the idea of people finding this record with a blank slate. I know that’s harder than ever to do now because there’s so much information about everything and people only pick up something if they’ve been told it sounds like something else . . .
“But it’d be great if people could pick it up and say ‘This is cool art work’, take a listen . . . and make up their own mind.