This is about how Warmwaters made the world’s first concept EP, and the show which launched it. In doing so, songwriting, playwriting, live performance and recording studio practice flowed together. InExperience is available now to spew out of your favourite music pipe.
Background to the Project
Warmwaters, a collaboration between myself as writer/composer/performer and Bridget Boyle writer/performer, formed in 2012. The aim of the project was simply to make a funny show. Beneath that aspiration was a desire explore musical comedy through experimenting with musical personae in live performance. I wanted to explore the narcissism of singer/songwriters. Bridget’s initial idea was to play with ‘dagaret’, a neologism she’d coined for cabaret done by dags.
We converged these broad ideas into a concept in which the humour was also broad: Warmwaters believe they’re a folk duo, sincerely singing songs of love and other issues, when in fact their material is loaded with innuendo about sex and other bodily functions. Humour emerges from the gap between their aspirations and their actuality, and the tension that this absurd artifice places on their relationship. This is quite an old-fashioned idea in some ways, and we applied ourselves with great joy to unearthing the complexities it presented as post-modern comedy.
The field here is music-driven comedy, and we were mindful of our antecedents and contemporaries, most of whom we found onscreen, rather than onstage. Ricky Gervais’s ‘David Brent’ McKenzie & Clement’s ‘Flight of the Conchords’, Black and Gass’s ‘Tenacious D’, and Christopher Guest (et al)’s cinematic creations Spinal Tap (1984) and its folk companion ‘A Mighty Wind’ (2003).
While not a major influence, the latter movie focuses closely on (a revival of) a particular period of the American folk revival of the 1960’s. Not only does it diffuse the comedy from the focus on the three lead characters in Spinal Tap to a narrative realised by a larger ensemble cast, its musical humour also relies to a large extent, on prior knowledge of the groups and genres it is lampooning. You don’t need to know much about heavy metal to enjoy ‘Spinal Tap’, but a knowledge of folk genres certainly deepens the comedy of ‘A Mighty Wind’. This was a dynamic we were keen to avoid in Warmwaters. We also noted, as you probably already have, that male/female musical comedy duos are a rather rare pairing. We explored this aspect of the work in a conference presentation and working paper titled Onstage couplings: Making beautiful music with the male/ female comic duo. (Megarrity & Boyle, 2018)
We developed Warmwaters over the succeeding five years, in cycles of research, writing, recording, performance, documentation and rewriting, beginning and ending with music. This was a process of genuine play and discovery as we experimented with the various elements of the work on the page, stage and recording studio.
We made an early decision not to be preoccupied with backstory – that the pleasure of Warmwaters was principally in encounter, not exposition. They ‘lived’ only on the stage. The group performed at festivals and venues around our home state of Queensland, and interstate, mostly billed as comedy or cabaret, but occasionally at genuine folk clubs, un-framed as comedy. These gigs were particularly interesting, closer to performance art than comedy.
We discovered that it takes a lot of skill to project apparent musical ineptitude; that it takes a lot of preparation to make it look like you don’t know what you’re doing; that to present the impression of a performance going badly is a distinct challenge requiring reconsideration and recombinations of music and theatre.
This period of work established a particular ‘register’ of creation. The songs had to be music-driven duets, full of unwitting innuendo clear enough for an audience to receive but not so clear that the performers realise they’re transmitting it. Interstitial dialogue was very carefully composed to also carry double meaning, frame the songs and to work rhythmically as the two personae riffed off one another. This work was recognized in performances that were well received and reviewed:
… naïve song birds blissfully unaware that their entire repertoire is jam-packed with double-entendres … The Creative Issue (2016)
Creating beautiful folk music and hilarious comedy together … the audience follow every pun, experience, every passive-aggressive poke made, and laugh consistently at the couple’s expense. DownstageDiscernments (2016)
Neither of us were interested in making fun of particular people, or particular genres of music, and we were deliberately creating between artforms – too theatrical to be called pure music and too musical to be called pure theatre. Additionally it took a long time to fully realise and locate the generative force of the group’s comedy, and this theorising continued throughout and beyond the first cycle of creative work. This research uncovered the term Minippean satire: antiquated and esoteric, perhaps, but it clarified the work of my persona ‘Luke’ in particular.
Oblivious to their own intellectual shortcomings, Menippean narrators are unreliable and usually naifs or reputed intellectuals who travel to fantastic places in search of truth. However, his preaching, theorizing, and criticism are perpetually contradicted by his own person (Cole, 1999 p 24)
We recorded a full album at this time, with a live band, and while happy with the results, noticed that some of the comedy, once transposed to audio only, died in captivity. Some of this morbidity was due to natural causes: having removed the framing of patter and personae in performance, the music alone carried some but not all of the duo’s potential energy. This is a positive outcome for a project that aimed to combine music and theatre so they were indistinguishable, but next time, I thought (if there were to be a next time) what more could we do to keep the comedy as alive in the recording studio as it was onstage?
New Stream: Warmwaters flow again
The humour of Warmwaters was (in terms of my practice) uncharacteristically crude and silly. Bridget and I agreed to keep the project going while it was still fun, and I did have a lot of fun not only working with her in writing, rehearsal and onstage but also finding the subtleties in the vulgarities of the act. There were complementary energies in the collaboration, including Bridget’s hyper-awareness of the audience, based in her long experience of clown and comedy; and my ability to sustain a musical performance for a disinterested audience, born of years in cafes, bars and street performance playing both covers and originals.
We’d wondered what might be next for the duo. Knowing the role the audience had in the success of the group I’d speculated on creating a live album. Or perhaps faking one. There’s a long history of that. Perhaps we could ‘go electric’ just like Bob Dylan supposedly did in 1965. Transition into 1980’s power ballad duets sung in lycra? But these are musical ‘in-jokes’ which I didn’t think were sustainable in the writing, performing or reception.
But what about a concept album recorded by people with no idea?
This would increase the gap between the imagined and actual endeavours of the duo. Ken Scott says “a concept album is in the eye/ear of the beholder (in Letts, 2010, p.48) and may be “unified by a theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, narrative or lyrical.” (Letts, 2010, p.18)
I was stimulated by the idea of a ‘new direction’ towards psychedelia and progressive music (often abbreviated to ‘prog’) which is a way of viewing musicality, as much as a variety of music, which Cotner suggests should be viewed more broadly, not as “a genre or style per se, but as a ‘frame of mind’—a mannerism whereby an artist elaborates a concept, to varying degrees, through both magnification and accumulation, variation and development.” (in Ahlkvist, 2011, p87)
The musical research I did around this idea had its beginnings in my own curious tastes, but stretched towards music of the 1970’s I was aware of, but hadn’t engaged with before. I found, as Murphy (2018) did, that “these songs (these albums) were of their time…and invoke inextricable connotations of the decade itself: bloated, hazy, earnest, misguided, visionary, awkward, awesome.” These qualities seemed perfect for a duo as anachronistic as Warmwaters.
The wellspring of Warmwaters was songwriting: there’s pleasure in sitting down to write a song that’s ‘meant to be bad’ and they often turn out quite well. I found myself writing new material for the band, and the increase in ambition afforded by the loose idea of a ‘concept album’ opened up new lyrical and compositional fields. I wrote eighteen new songs, only six of which were determined as funny enough to move forward with – Bridget’s editorial role here being key to the collaboration.
The ‘Concept Album’ then became a ‘Concept EP’, the reduction in scope having both a practical and comic effect. The phrase ‘it does everything a concept album does…but far more efficiently’ later working itself into the show which emerged from the songs.
The use of the recording studio by ‘prog’ artists not just as space with equipment designed to capture musical performance, but as a kind of ‘instrument’ in itself, with a direct impact on the music that’s made there, was also an exciting prospect given my curiosity around how to maintain generate and enhance musical comedy in the recording studio.
I was always keen to ensure the songs had their own life, and that the humour within them wasn’t entirely dependent upon shared knowledge of external referents, be they musical or lyrical. I was also determined to avoid cruelty in the comedy. The riposte Punk supposedly served to Prog is already coagulated into ‘rock history’.
When recording the first album, I’d specifically avoided parodying particular artists or specific kinds of music, especially in the recording studio, I wondered if in doing this I’d perhaps attenuated the potential for richness of texture afforded by a more consciously playful approach to pastiche, which Petridis says “embraces the imitation through general affection for the source material, whereas postmodern parody mocks the source material.” (2015, p. 732). Thus expressed, this pastiche/parody continuum opened a door that led away from the austerity and acoustic puritanism that characterised the first phase of Warmwaters.
The research, led by creative practice, began with these resolutions:
- To experiment more deliberately with elements of style & pastiche in the writing, while avoiding parody, with particular regard to folk-prog and the concept album.
- Develop humour beyond verbal innuendo in both lyric and music
- To treat live & recorded versions of songs as entirely different entities.
- To record fewer songs, with more layers and depth.
- To utilize a more complex musical palette, including sampling and synthetic instruments.
- Increase intensity and frequency of genre flourishes in the recording studio
- For the concept album to have no concept.
This led to a range of approaches to the artistic tasks of composing, recording, writing, rehearsing and performing. Some of these approaches were predetermined, some forced to appear as a consequence of this new direction, and some which only emerged as part of the creative practice.
Approach to Composition & Curation
The songs for the first album were generally composed lyrics first. This time around the balance was more equal. Sometimes musical experimentation created a ‘gap’ into which words could settle.
At times a genre ‘feel’ of a song was a response to some of the musical research I was doing into folk-prog, psychedelic music and obscure Australian Prog from the 1970’s. The lyrical content started to widen to include wry references to the kind of relevance deprivation experienced by musicians as they leave the flower of youth and hit middle-age. This provided rare relief from the linguistic contortions required to activate lyrics that carried simultaneously covert and overt agendas, related entirely to innuendo.
These songs were ‘demoed’ as audio using easily accessible recording software, with ‘full band’ arrangements including keyboards, drums, bass, multiple guitar and vocal parts, all of which I played or programmed. The only difference between this compositional process, and my usual songwriting methods was pace. I’d tend to work quickly and not be too bothered about quality control. There were several instances in which an apparently ‘completed’ song was subsequently renovated in lyrical content or musical form so it was completely transformed.
Each song went through between 2 and 6 drafts. These demos were then shared with Bridget, who performed the aforementioned editorial role, always with an audience in mind. Generally speaking, I would provide a rough draft of some framing comments: scripted ‘patter’ that would give a sense of how the songs might work in performance. The demos for the EP can be heard here.
Approach to Arrangement
The works, once selected, were rehearsed and arranged for a duo: two vocals, flute and guitar. Sometimes this was as simple as establishing a key change which suited both of us, and at other times was more complex. The multiple sections which may comprise complex ‘prog’ piece are easy to cut and paste as audio, but harder to realise as performance. I noted that the ‘live’ versions were almost always faster in tempo than my demos. The process of composition also spread to the drafting of text that framed the songs. This ‘patter’ is very closely written, and highly rhythmic in its execution.
In this way, the ‘show’ was being written as part of the songwriting process.
These arrangements were road-tested, firstly by incorporating them into our existing show, clearly framed as musical comedy in professional venues and later by an unannounced performance at a real folk club. Someone who witnessed this short show commented that it was ‘like a car crash’. Exactly the effect we were looking for. The playwright in me was pretty sure we were going to have to create a new vehicle for these songs, rather than just adding them in to the existing set list.
Approach to preproduction & recording
I was able to secure recording time at QUT’s Skyline Studios, as well as the expertise of James See, recording engineer, whose involvement not only as an engineer, but as a producer and musical contributor (drums/programming) became a critical success factor. I resolved to record this music in short sessions over a long period, rather than the long sessions over a short period which had resulted in the first album.
Time was limited, and it was incumbent upon me as composer, musician and project leader to engage in a range of preproduction activities that would ensure we used the studio time well, and that the outcomes transcended their humble beginnings.
In the Studio: Predetermined & Consequent
My musical research, a decision to lean away from more obscure influences towards more popular ones and some of the decisions made in arranging the songs for their studio iterations led me to learn some new musical techniques (playing in the style of Jimmy Page, or raga guitar techniques). The aim here was to evoke, not emulate.
My approximation of these styles was workable, but never resulted in humour. I’d wondered if there was such a thing as a ‘funny’ guitar solo. Enquiries made of my musical colleagues usually resulted in puzzlement or inconclusive responses. I quickly found that a ‘funny guitar solo’ was unlikely to be found in isolation, but could received in relation to its musical context and cultural framing: in the eye of the beerholder.
For us, the studio was a musical instrument, just as it had been for the musicians in the sixties and seventies: genre flourishes such as ‘backwards guitar’ were only possible through the use of technology. Bed tracks were recorded to drum loops, but eventually replaced by midi drums, played and edited by James: this enabled more versatility in the mixing stage, and a broader sonic palette.
Musicians at the height of prog often incorporated classical or non-western instruments into their lineups or arrangements. With a flute in the lineup we were already halfway to Jethro Tull. For this recording we increased the ‘artiness’ of Bridget’s playing. We also incorporated other instruments through sampling or guests. Greta Kelly played Shah Kaman, a type of Afghani instrument related to the Kamancheh. Andy Ward played violin. For one song, I sampled and replaced guitar with synthetic sitar, note by note. It occurred to me that in echoing these tropes for the purposes of musical humour we were appropriating cultural appropriation.
I asked Former Go-Between and current Halfway member John Willsteed if he’d be interested in contributing some twin guitar lines to one song, in the mode of America’s ‘Ventura Highway’ or Richard Clapton’s ‘Girls on the Avenue’. He knew immediately what I meant, and appears on the record in the song ‘Middle of the Road’.
In the Studio: Emergent
Once in the studio, we worked quickly, abandoning the approach I’d taken for the last album, in which parts were played live in continuous takes. If a part was good enough, and able to be looped, cut and pasted, we did that. Each overdub was carefully planned and rehearsed to save time in the studio. This allowed more time for experimentation with things like non-musical sounds and pretentious spoken-word sequences.
The use of arbitrary or discontinuous musical styles came to be a motif in the studio versions of the songs, and reliably generated laughter for us, and when played for the un-warned listener. A tune could leap from harmonica-led acoustic balladry to inept hip-hop scratching with no transition. A listener might be vaguely aware that we’re performing a pastiche of a particular style, but that knowledge isn’t necessary to recognize a sudden and radical change in styles within the one song. These jarring leaps became a motif in our arrangement and recording of the songs.
The history of recording concept albums is replete with tales of lengthy sessions dedicated to building epic musical suites. Our version of this was ‘Medieval Ways’ which became a genuinely overcooked endeavor, a ‘studio beast’ including multiple sections of different texture and tempi, spoken word sequences, atmospheric and environmental sounds, hard rock sections, and an acoustic wig-out. Genuinely increasing the scale of ambition beyond the short song flowed directly into the development of the live show, which wasn’t something I’d anticipated.
The ‘concept’ was that there was no concept, but I wanted to explore the musical possibilities of an overture which bookended the EP. This piece, extracted from parts of the final song Call of Nature, was a deliberate attempt to cram in as many clichés as possible from my research into folk-prog, psyechdelic music and tropes of the Concept Album. I also adapted key riffs from all of the songs on the record and ‘quoted’ them in this piece, which gave the recording its name: InExperience.
The role of live performance in the recording studio came into focus, especially when we recorded the vocals. We decided to perform and record these together, in the booth at the same time. This was naturally much easier for songs we’d road-tested, and even for songs we were less familiar with, we recorded as a duo to get spirited performances which we then overdubbed.
It’s more of a technical challenge to mix duet vocals recorded in the same booth, but for the first time we made a distinction between the ‘comedy vocal’, and the ‘musical vocal’. A musical vocal, we determined, was more ‘correct’ in terms of intonation, articulation and phrasing. A comedy vocal was perhaps less so, but contained some other element that made it a keeper – a spirit or spontaneity which communicated something above and beyond its musical context. Every song had a bit of both.
Thinking about the role of the audience in the developing work, we elected to perform a live session in the studio for a small audience. This enabled us to experiment with psychedelic visuals, courtesy of Nathan Sibthorpe, offered an opportunity to premiere a song what I had written during the sessions, called ‘Helping Hand’, but also resulted in an unexpected finding.
We performed behind glass, while the audience sat in the control room. We played acoustically, requiring no monitoring of sound through headphones. The reflective glass and soundproofing meant that we could barely see and hardly hear the audience at all.
A pair of headphones lying on the floor enabled James to communicate with us, and a tiny signal emanated from this source, reassuring us that there was an audience actually out there. Particularly with songs that we’d road-tested, there was an immediate and very disorienting gap where the audience reactions usually were. They were happening, but we just couldn’t hear or see them.
This experiment underlined the role of the audience in co-creating musical comedy in live performance, and also revealed the extent to which we’d metabolized their presence into our musical arrangements, their representation as performance, and in turn their iteration as studio recordings.
Approach to mixing & postproduction
After around 15 months of sporadic sessions, mixing began, an cyclic process conducted both in person and online, mainly between James See and myself. A lot of the work in selecting and compiling vocal and instrumental takes had already been done during the recording sessions.
This recording disturbed certain conventions which applied to ‘straight’ music projects but less to the thing we were making, which I had to keep reminding myself was supposed to be funny. Repeated listening will naturally reduce the element of surprise that much humour is so dependent upon.
Firstly, the comedy/musical vocal, mentioned earlier, came into play, again involving the audience, who responded with laughter to a rough mix of ‘Medieval Ways’ we played them as part of our live in studio session. This mix, capturing the rather spirited duet vocal recorded live in the same booth, contained all our unedited grunts and inconsistencies, the kind of thing we might usually erase – though the performance was technically poor, the enjoyment of the performers was audible. The audience really enjoyed this song, and commented upon this aspect post-show. We kept some of these elements, and found once again, as we mixed, that the vocals worked best higher in the mix that they might have been if this was purely a recording of conventional music.
Secondly, a number of the songs contained sudden gear changes, incongruities which tended towards comic effect. James’s natural instincts as a music producer were to smooth these transitions. We had a number of artist/producer interactions during the mixing in which I encouraged him to radically increase the contrast between these segments, because it seemed funnier if the changes ‘came from nowhere’. Examples include the ‘Jimmy Page’ section of Medieval Ways and the unexpected hip hop breakdown in ‘A Little Bit of We’. This was a musical instance of the usually textual expression of the incongruity theory of humour. (Mulder M, Nijholt A, 2002)
Knowing the music would need to be packaged for release and have associated images generated, I researched the visual tropes of psychedelia and prog, and communicated them to the graphic designer to ensure the recording was framed as a ‘new direction’ for Warmwaters, to distinguish it from our first album.
Paratext, the writing around the recording, sometimes included authentic accounts of research such as this, but also pretentious ‘liner notes’ supplied by a fictitious journalist, Tony Spannington-Feather, a simulation of the historical role the music press had in the reception of this kind of music as ‘art’.
The anachronistc nature of this writing was fun to play with but I didn’t consider it a way of generating popular appeal. However, it did assist in precipitating smaller segments of writing required for marketing and publicity to entice audiences along to the live performances with which we launched the recording once it was complete. This kind of artifice was a kind of ‘world-building’ exercise which fed into the writing and performance of the live show.
Warmwaters had the intimate audience in the palm of their hand…David Megarrity and Bridget Boyle dance on the knife edge of hilariously oblivious and utterly self-aware… Call this comedy with songs, or songs with comedy, there is plenty of both theatrepeople.com.au
Approach to performance
Just as it was tricky to select genres from drop-down lists of online music aggregators to located this music in terms of genre, the live performance of Warmwaters sits somewhere in-between cabaret, comedy stand-up, theatre and music gig.
timeless and universal humour popculture-y.com
Having already scripted and rehearsed a show featuring the songs from our first album, we rebuilt our live presentation to create a new show. This process involved rewriting, editing, rehearsal of musical and ‘dramatic’ elements. We also had to incorporate what we’d learned from recording these songs in the studio into our live presentation, and the long gestation of the recording proved an ample source of material.
If you love music, standup comedy and something in between…Funny and clever, skilfully woven in unexpected ways ridehomereview
As this process developed, Bridget and I found we were more comfortable with abandoning the dramatic arc we’d previously attempted, building instead the duo’s natural musicality and firming up patterns of patter, focusing more strongly on the relationship between the performers, their material, and their presentation of it.
Every stance, every gesture hits its mark; Boyle’s facial expressions alone are cause enough for laughter, a simple sideways glance had the entire front row in shrieks theatrepeople.com.au
With the ‘ambition’ of the group now cemented in the release of what Warmwaters considered ‘the world’s first Concept EP’, we left behind some of the movement sequences that had characterised the first iteration of the duo – the small size of the venues we were performing in also played a role in this decision. We billed the season as our ‘intranational’ tour of Brisbane and Melbourne. We trialled the video projection element in the Brisbane show, in addition to Nathan’s presence as ‘Jeff’, the ‘guy who made the video’. We then played two shows in Melbourne at The Butterfly Club, which received very positive reviews. This process is not over yet- where will Warmwaters flow to next?
They’re like no folkies I remember from the 60’s, the good ones. Melbourne Observer
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Dyer, R(2007) Pastiche: knowing imitation. London UK: Taylor & Francis
Letts, M. (2010). Radiohead and the Resistant Concept Album : How to Disappear Completely. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Megarrity, David & Boyle, Bridget (2018) Onstage couplings: Making beautiful music with the male/ female comic duo. [Working Paper] (Unpublished)
Mulder M, Nijholt A (2002) Humour research: state of the art. Technical Report from the Center for Telematics and Information Technology University of Twente
Petridis, S. (2015). Postmodern Cinema and Copyright Law: The Legal Difference Between Parody and Pastiche. Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 32(8), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1080/10509208.2015.1078273
Warmwaters and Tyrone and Lesley in a Spot (review) June 13, 2016 https://downstagediscernments.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/tyrone-and-lesley-in-a-spot-warmwaters/ accessed Wednesday, 14 August 2019
Warmwaters at The Butterfly Club (Review) Aug 6, 2019 theatrepeople.com.au accessed Wednesday, 14 August 2019
Warmwaters InExperience (review) ridehome review [podcast] https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/ridehomereview/id1343695118 accessed Wednesday, 14 August 2019
Warmwaters Launch In Experience A Concept EP (Review) Aug 3, 2019 https://popculture-y.com/2019/08/review-warmwaters-launch-inexperience-a-concept-ep/ accessed Wednesday, 14 August 2019
Warmwaters (Review) Aug 7, 2019 http://melbobserver.com.au accessed Wednesday, 14 August 2019