July 21, 2008

Darren Hayes: This bird has flown.

This week Darren Hayes releases the concert film of 2007's Time Machine Tour. Though the show sold out London’s Royal Albert Hall, it wasn't possible to bring it to the States, so the DVD will be of particular interest to American fans unable to see the full spectacle.

The tour featured Darren's most theatrical stage show, primarily designed to present This Delicate Thing We've Made, his 2007 double album (my review), though the setlist also incorporated songs from his 12 years in the music business, including Savage Garden hits and earlier solo work.

Delicate's co-producer, Justin Shave, acted as the
tour's musical directer and the staging was done by designer Willie Williams, the man responsible for the last several U2 tours - he did the iconic lemon on U2's 1997 PopMart Tour - and George Michael's current stage set. For the Time Machine Tour, Williams built a 24-foot animatronic steel and neon origami bird, around which the performance took place. Here is a preview:

I decided this was a good moment to interview Darren for this blog. I didn't want to wait 2 or 3 years for a new record. Luckily, he agreed...

XO: Do you see a lot of live shows? Do they inspire certain staging ideas or ways of presenting songs?

Darren Hayes: Not in this decade, sadly, no. Most of my influences are worn pretty heavily on my sleeve. Laurie Anderson is a huge inspiration. As was U2’s ZooTV. David Bowie’s Glass Spider tour (watch) and of course Peter Gabriel’s Secret World tour (watch). All of these artists were combining elements of theatre and specifically theatre design into their shows.

hese days all you need is a video screen and you’ve got a show. That bores me and certainly frustrates [show designer] Willie Williams (having virtually invented the "TV as a concept" idea for rock shows).

I can honestly say the only show that has remotely made me go "wow" recently is the Kanye West tour.

The opening song seems crucial to any live show. A grand entrance is important! In this case, it seems to me there was a lyric that begged to open the show…

Oh, the opening is incredibly important – and it’s fun because you can always use a song that isn’t necessarily a ‘hit’ or an obvious song. You’ve got the audience’s attention purely because you’re suddenly there. So using Future Holds A Lion's Heart was a great way to not only say ‘hello’ but to drop people into the Time Travel theme from song one.

The set looks complex. Did it malfunction along the way? I know performers often love to talk backstage about what went wrong, but the audience usually has no idea.

Sometimes that damned bird wouldn’t fit into theatres (what with them being Victorian and all – access was sometimes limited). Once it didn’t open at all until midway through the next song. When it eventually did, the audience roared with a mixture of joy and relief as I did!

It’ll be interesting to see which songs from Delicate get played the next time you tour with a new record. Do you ever create songs with the idea that maybe they won’t ever be played live?

The concept stuff is going to be hard to play again, [like] The Future Holds A Lion’s Heart or Neverland. I suppose even How to Build a Time Machine. They make sense within the context of the album and the tour but I’m not so sure they would separately.
We’ll see. It is nice to draw a line in the sand with some songs, though I’d much rather take an axe to some Savage Garden songs than recent solo ones!

I loved the presentation of Casey with the street (or tunnel) lights and then the flame effect at the end. That song is inspired by your youth. Wasn’t it emotional singing it in Australia, I assume directly to those who influenced it? How do you keep your composure?

Well, this is a real trainspotters moment here – but in the album I mention a childhood friend called Troy Clifford. I hadn’t seen him for 15 years and he was in the audience that night as were my entire family. Casey (video), to me, is essentially a metaphor for my sister’s car and the freedom it represented. Imagine spending your entire life trying to escape a town – and then finally returning home triumphantly and astride a massive bird!

o say it was emotional would be to under sell it. It was transformative.

I read a droll quote about the tour from Willie Williams:
“In Act III we sink into the emotional abyss, which is a place we always have to go with Darren.”

Well this is the third solo tour Willie and I have done together and right off the bat we joined forces when I made The Tension and The Spark – which was all about darkness really. And it’s a theme in my life I guess – escaping that darkness. Moments of gloom and small brief windows of joy. So naturally my shows sort of reflect that.

oing down the dark tunnel makes the light at the end of seem so much brighter.

In America there is a weird disconnect. I cannot tell you how many times I’m in a store or restaurant and hear your voice on the sound system, and yet, by name / face, you are virtually unknown. On the plus side, I can imagine there is more anonymity in the States. On the negative side, I sense it affected your touring options?

It’s frustrating all over the world really. The only places I’m truly known as a solo artist are the UK and Australia. And that’s lucky in a lot of ways because I live in both places.

n terms of the U.S, honestly, I totally blame Columbia records for dropping the ball with me. They had an artist who was coming off the back of all those millions of album sales and they literally gave up after one single. To them it was another tax write off. To me, obviously it was my career. As much as I hate to admit it – radio airplay does relate directly to sales and bums on seats. If people don’t know you have a record out, they can’t buy it. If they don’t know who you are, you can’t tour to more than a group of loyal followers. So it was frustrating. But I accept it now.

It’s like Robbie or Kylie. I’m lucky I have a career elsewhere and that the cool kids know who I am. ;) I’ll always keep coming back to America because I love it and it just means that the prospect of enormous origami birds on stage is probably not going to be a reality.

For Delicate, you wrote with a lot of people, like Peter John Vetesse, Guy Chambers and Eg White. Is that model still relevant or have you become more DIY with Robert Conley and Shave? It sounds like you may end up working with Shave again?

I can’t imagine I’d work with so many songwriters again. That only happened because I spent time after The Tension and the Spark kind of wounded, stupidly listening to advice that I should work with as many people as possible, ie never make The Tension and The Spark again. Stupid advice in many ways although it gave me some brilliant songs (Words for example and Who Would Have Thought). But the process was ultimately confusing artistically, which is why I ended up ditching most of those outside collaborations.

It’s safe to assume I’ll never make the same album twice.
So I can’t tell you what the next one would be aside from that it would probably start where it left off – with Justin and Robert.

Do you follow the other work of the writers I mentioned above? Eg White did some stuff with Adele and Duffy, for instance…

I’m going to sound like a snob here – but I don’t really get that whole moment. I think there’s a whole bunch of female singers who have launched as a reaction to Amy Winehouse.

I worked with Eg White purely as a suggestion and it was a happy accident because I discovered at the heart he’s a massive Prince fan, as am I. So I connected with him on that level. I don’t necessarily connect on the mainstream side of what he does with other artists. But that’s a testament to his versatility really – that he could write a song like Shiver for Natalie Imbruglia (video) and then with me do something that had more in common with 10cc and certainly not sound like anything he’s doing at the moment. Clever man.

I hear you use the word "mainstream" in the negative, when some of your songs - old and new - are quite mainstream. Not just Savage Garden tunes, but something recent, like The Sun Is Always Blinding Me. Are you consciously moving away from the "mainstream"? It's clear with a song like Casey that you were aiming to be more ambitious in song structure than mainstream radio tunes.

Very good question. I think I'm confused [by] my identity based on radio really! I agree, I'm not indie. Not by any stretch of the imagination. But ironically bands like MGMT are as quirky as quirk gets, but sell records and get played on Radio 1. Similarly the Scissor Sisters.

I guess I just refer to not getting played on the radio or perhaps to better describe it not being considered cool. I don't pay attention to being hip or not and by that definition I am not mainstream in any sense. Does that make sense? I've always loved pop songs and don't distinguish between songs other than if they're good or not.

It's actually a worse prognosis in America, where even Scissor Sisters cannot get played. They're too "deviant" I guess. [sigh] You really have to follow the status quo here. Justin Timberlake is pop, but it's accepted hybrid hip hop/r’n’b. Pop music in its Eurodisco form – or in a more ornate way, like your album - has been trashed in the last few years. Lots of great albums failing to catch on and sell. That’s not a new problem, as good music often does not get heard. Madonna’s work with Timbaland seems indicative of the broader hip hop-influenced trend, but now we have people like Ne-Yo and Chris Brown bucking that by bringing back pop that isn’t hewn with r’n’b.

I’m completely tired of hearing Timbaland. So you can imagine my thoughts on the Madonna album. I think the unfortunate thing with trends in music is that we tend to take things to the point of nausea before we move on. And I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of the hip hop (well it’s more hip POP) sound that seems to dominate every single thing on U.S radio. Maybe that’s easy for me to say since I could never pull off that kind of vibe anyway. But my head, certainly for the last decade, has not at all been focused on what’s in the chart.

I think great records often get missed or ignored, but there’s a beauty in that because they become our secrets. I quite love where I’m at these days. I’d like to sell more records but I like the level of respect I get.

You alluded to not liking Hard Candy. It's controversial, but the debate isn't about artistic content. This time it's purely, “Does it suck or not?”

It’s incredibly disappointing as a Madonna album. There’s no Madonna on there. It sounds like the second time in her career she was lost musically and has fallen back on a trend instead of creating one. The first was the album Bedtime Stories which I just can’t bear. She worked with Babyface. I say no more.

What we love about Madonna is completely missing from Hard Candy. And that’s Madonna.

I'm surprised you don't like Babyface, given some of your own love songs that still get radio play (I Knew I Loved You, Truly Madly Deeply). Some of his songs now sound like lean, organic pop ballads based on strong melodies - meaning not Timbaland. What was it about Babyface - aside from his dumb stage name! - that bothered you?

It's the production on those 90's Babyface records I don't like. I adore some of the songs he's written, especially [Toni Braxton's] Breathe Again (video). However my overall impression of his production was that everyone did it. Hence my problem with Madge - she seemed to be the last person in line on that trend.

Though it's weird how you can't control what you write or make. Because I agree that the Savage Garden ballads and bits of my first solo record probably are similar.

It surely behooves any artist to try and write a hit because they need the funding to create the art they want to create. Is that also the idea behind writing for other artists?

See, I don’t subscribe that notion at all. Never have. My ‘hits’ have been happy accidents. Albeit financially rewarding ones. But I’d hate to feel I had to write a ‘hit’ to be grafted on to my album just to sell it. Me writing for other people is an experiment really. For two reasons. Firstly, I love pop songs. I love a lot more than I record. And I certainly can write more types of music than I would want to record as myself. Which leaves me with all these pregnant melodies just sitting in my head with nowhere to go.

Secondly, I’ve had everyone who loves me tell me that my songwriting is a skill or a trade that I under use. So I’m going to take time this year writing for things other than myself and see where that goes.

Do you worry about giving up a great song ? Or is it a conscious decision to say, "Let's do something that I wouldn't or couldn't do." Which I suppose begs the question, "Why can't you?"

Just because you can doesn't mean you should. I have written a country song. It's gorgeous. It will never have a home unless I give it away because I don't want to make a country album. Similarly, if you look at my own career - it's taken me a while to find an identity as a solo performer. On Spin, there were a few moments that personally I don't think I should have gone to. I did because I could. Perhaps giving up or giving over some of the songs I can write, but don't choose to record, is a way to give that part of me a voice.

Secretly, I think it’s just a way for me to keep busy and to avoid a follow up to my last album, which I think is going to be tough!

What's the cliche? Good things come to those who wait.

5 songs Darren Hayes has been playing recently:

Electric Feel MGMT video
The Wolves, Act 1 and 2 Bon Iver video
I Know Ur Girlfriend Hates Me Annie video
Until Tomorrow Then Ed Harcourt video [xo: it's swoony]
Just Dance Lady Ga Ga video

Note: Darren's myspace blog often has musical recommendations.

If you're a stage/design geek, you should read this interview with Willie Williams about his work on The Time Machine Tour. Click here for more Darren Hayes posts.


Phil said...

Loved the Darren Hayes interview. I've never really liked his voice (it's an accquired taste) so it stops me from 'trying' with him, but he's an interesting man. Very astute.

Glad he likes it up the bum as well. We need more out gayers in the charts.

xolondon said...

Oh that is a comment for the ages!

But really, only a few people know if he actually likes it up the bum. Make no assumptions, Philly Cheesesteak.

Anonymous said...

Great interview thanks for that. Love that the guy has a brain and an opinion as well as talent.

Brad said...

Simply excellent, Steve. Thank you! He really does prove to be very self-aware in this interview which is so desirable in a pop star. I love his views, and agree with much of what he said including the Winehouse reaction and, of course, the lost Madonna.

I know being massive everywhere is the ideal, but Darren being "our little secret" is still fine with me :)

countpopula said...

What a FANTASTIC interview! And what a scoop! I remember when Savage Garden debuted ten years ago and I thought "nice but kinda cheesy", and now I look at what he's been creating as a solo artist, and am generally impressed. He may have fewer listeners, but his material will hopefully carry him for much longer. So cool to hear him namecheck Laurie Anderson among others as visual inspiration!

I just bought my copy of the DVD, and WOW, what a show us Americans missed! Spectacular visuals and solid music..."Casey" was truly cathartic and beautiful. Darren is right that it will be difficult to follow such an ambitious album as Delicate, but please don't make us wait too long!

Once again, brilliant interview!

Myfizzypop said...

Such an amazing interview - you came up with great great questions. Now i really want you to interview Ciccone!! Anyway, I kind of fell off the darren wagon with this album (though i adored all his previous group and solo work) - it just seemed "too cool" for me and I felt battered over the head to like it with the incessant blog worship (cos i would never do that with Will Young, Maroon 5, Feeling etc!!! haha) - anyway time has passed and although i don't think it's a masterpiece, i am starting to appreciate. It's reviews and interviews like yours that kept me trying because I knew there was something there i would like and your words got me to continue.

I wouldn't be surprised if that was one of Darren's fave interviews he has done. Though for some reason i am very rankled by the line "It’s like Robbie or Kylie. I’m lucky I have a career elsewhere and that the cool kids know who I am. ;)" really rankles me. gosh knows why! I'll sleep on it... :P

Sterling work monsieur!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, excellent interview!
Been wondering should I buy the DVD or not, but now I'm sure; gotta have it!

Adem With An E said...

Brilliant interview. I like that he's not frightened to speak his mind on the current pop state; Madonna and his dislike of her new album, The Winehouse factor, etc. A really likeable guy, though, in all the interviews I've seen of him I've never found he's awful in any of them. A true showman.

I managed to watch the DVD last weekend and truly loved it, thought it was stunning and visually outstanding. Breathtaking in places even.

That said, I *did* think Confessions was moreso on all regards though and really think it was much better than Kanye's last tour output, so a little disappointed he didn't mention that.

xolondon said...

Paul - I think re: Kylie/Robbie he is saying that like them he has a big career in other places, so America does not sting. And he considers his fans there to be the cool kids.

Dan said...

I think what this interview proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the caliber of the questions is as important as the answers. This is truly a perfect marriage of fantastic questions and very well thought out answers that don't sound canned.

I have always kind of thought that the Confessions Tour DVD didn't really look like the actual tour either, and I could never really put my finger on why. But he's right - it was totally overlit. Not that I'm complaining because at least we got a DVD of that tour.

Hopefully my Time Machine Tour DVD arrives from Amazon today!

Again, a stellar interview.

xolondon said...

Thanks Dan! Re Madonna's DVD - I wonder if it was a decision to present the concert film as its own thing and exploit the possibilities. At moments that film is totally overlayered and frenetic (see Music Inferno, which is good but looks more like a music video).

Yuяi said...

Way to rock that interview, Xo! I loved how brainy and so non-bloggerish your questions were and that Darren was totally engaged with you. Excellent! That comment about Babyface and Madge! I guess he forgot that the Babyface-produced "Take a Bow" was her biggest hit ever! D'oh!

Fae said...

Thanks for recently posting a link to this on twitter, I missed it the first time around.
I'm a big Darren Hayes fan, so I really enjoyed this interview. Its my first time seeing your blog, but I've subscribed now and will be checking back. Thanks again =)

xolondon said...

Thanks so much Fae!