Episode 8 of The Australian Jazz and Groove Podcast is super funky and features new music from Melbourne based funk outfit "Pickpocket" who will be releasing their latest recording on December 18 of 2020. We talk to band leader and bassist Craig Strain about how he put this album together with his "Pickpocket"band mates. Craig gives us an insight into the way he composed this material also how he ventured into the word of lyric writing.
In this episode we also hear a track form Brisbane jazz trio "Nimble" with a track from their 2018 release "From All Sides", and finally a track from Melbourne Jazz royalty Barney Mcall and a track from his 2014 recording "Mooroolbark".
Enjoy this final episode for 2020 and be sure to visit us in 2021 for a new season of the A-JaG Podcast with some fantastic Australian Jazz and Groove composers.
Australian Jazz & Groove Podcast - Series 1 Episode 8 Well welcome to the very last episode of the Australian Jazz and Groove podcast for 2020. Rest assured we will be back in 2021 for another season of the Australian Jazz and Groove Podcast. What a crazy year 2020 has proved to be and it’s been so great to be able to bring some new music to the ears of those that have been home in lockdown or wherever they’ve been throughout the earth and today is no exception today we have a really interesting discussion with bassist and composer Craig Strain who’s based in Melbourne and is also the leader of funk outfit ‘Pickpocket’ now you may recall we’ve played a couple of tracks from ‘Pickpocket’ in previous episode and today we’re showcasing their new recording which is coming out on December 18 2020. He’ll be talking to us about how he got this band together and also how he’s been able to put this music together, is process of writing and then also how he’ll be getting this music out into the streets so people can listen to it. But first of all we have a track from Brisbane based trio ‘Nimble’ now you may recall we played one of their tracks on the very first episode and this is a recording called ‘From All Sides’ and this track is entitled ‘Earthen Vessel’ it features Sophie Minh on piano, Lachlan Hawkins on drums, myself on bass. So enjoy and then we’ll get into our interview.
MUSIC - NIMBLE - FROM ALL SIDES - EARTHEN VESSEL
So that was ‘Nimble’ from their album ‘From All Sides’ released in 2018. Well we’ve now come to our interview with bassist and composer Craig Strain and as we said earlier he’s releasing with his band ‘Pickpocket’ a new recording on December 18, 2020. So to introduce us to Craig’s music and the album let's have a listen to a track off that called ‘Bootstomp’ and then we’ll welcome Craig to the Australian Jazz and Groove podcast.
David: Well Craig Strain welcome to the Australian Jazz and Groove podcast. Great to have you along.
Craig: It’s great to be here David. Thanks for asking me.
David: No worries and you’re a bass player, an electric bass player living in Melbourne but by your accent we can tell you’re from somewhere else so can you just fill us in on your story as a bass player and how you landed in Melbourne.
Craig: Oh geez how long do we have?
David: Not too long but give us the condensed story.
Craig: Um yep so obviously I’m not from around these parts but I grew up in a small town called Kilsyth which is about 20 mins outside of Glasgow and there’s actually a Kilsyth in the suburbs of Melbourne which I was surprised to discover when I moved here. Yeah. But started playing piano when I was in primary school. My mum sang and played piano and I was just kind of always drawn to that and I pestered her for lessons and then so I think I started learning when I was about 8 at piano and I did about 4 years of the royal associated board of music examinations which scared the life out of me. You know you’d have all your piano lessons at home and you’d be all fine and then you go to this big conservatoire and you’d have to wait in a hall and then go in and play scales and stuff and get judged on it and all that. That didn’t agree with me. I didn’t enjoy that critical eye over my music. But I’ve got an older brother whose 7 years older than me so he got into playing guitar round about when I was maybe you know 10 or 12 kind of thing he was right into his guitar so I was drawn to that because that was much more in line with the music that I wanted to check out but of course because he played guitar I wasn’t allowed to play guitar. But he had a bass kicking around one of his friend had loaned him a bass so when he wasn’t there obviously I had a little go on the bass and I was like ‘yeah this is pretty cool I could get the hang of this’ you know it think I knocked out ‘you really got me’ or something like that some ‘Kink’ song to begin with. Yeah and so I just kind of started out jamming with him and then my parents bought me a bass and started getting private lessons and then eventually I went and studied music at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow so I did a 4 year well 3 year degree course 4 years with honours there. There was a course called ‘applied music’ so it was kind of general music industry stuff, tech stuff, performance stuff and in your final year you can kind of specialise in a stream so I specialised in jazz cause that was what kind of gave me the most opportunity to perform. And so yeah graduated there in 2004 and kind of playing in an original pop / rock band we were kind of doing a bit of touring in Europe you know some record deals getting tossed about so that was kind of where my eggs were they were in that basket you know I was going to be in a pop band and tour the world because it was good fun. But like most things they kind of eventually fizzle out and I had to get a real job as they say so that was kind of doing primary school music education and like in a wedding band scene and around that time I also landed a gig in a recording studio so basically a rehearsal studio that had adapted and got a recording side of things happening as well.
David: In Glasgow?
Craig: Just outside so yeah pretty much. So I got a job there as the engineer kind of house engineer doing demos and all kinds of recording projects so that was a great learning platform for me. I’d started to do home recording when I was at uni for my honours project I recorded my bands album so that was kind of my foray into that. And I’ve always been interested in recording and sound production and stuff so I was working in the studio, doing the wedding band thing, some teaching. I did some cruise ship things as well which was awesome.
David: Oh right. You’d have some stories.
Craig: Yep maybe for another podcast. Yeah the cruise ship thing was a real education for me in terms of being a pro musician. Cause coming from where I was in Scotland and the work I was doing it was good but I wasn’t in amongst high quality musicians night and day having to perform at a certain level. And I was lucky that the band that I joined on my first couple of contracts were really they were really good musician cause it was the ‘Royal Caribbean’ so they were the flagships at the time. The largest ones in the world so they kind of had a good band and I was luck enough to get PLONKED? and my reading wasn’t up to scratch but by the end of it I could get that kind of thing so that kind of kicked my arse reading wise and I made some good friends, saw a bit of the world, played some music then around about 2009/2010 I met my current partner Alley while I was living in Scotland and we lived together in Scotland for a bit and then we moved to Melbourne about 2012 for the first time just on a temporary working holiday visa and that was kind of where I kind of got plugged into the scene here. I was really impressed and really accepted quite early on which was amazing.
David: I wanted to talk to you about that because that’s a hard thing to make a it’s hard enough to move say interstate but to move from another country I can imagine that would have been daunting to do that.
Craig: It was and it wasn’t. There’s something about having a clean slate that is a little bit empowering you know you can just rock up and go ‘hey I’ve just moved here. I’m a bass player’ and people go ‘cool well you know if I need you i'll give you a call’ there was no baggage yet. So that was good. I made good friend with Pat Farrell our mutual friend. He helped me out with some dep gigs and showed me around the scene and stuff like that and so I was here for about a year and half and then we moved to Canada for a little bit and I did some playing over there and then we decided to kind of move here permanently in 2014. So I've been here coming up 7 years in January.
David: Fantastic so how did that initial sort of exposure to the piano really help you take on the bass because obviously you’re talking about a classic approach where everything is very critical but then you’re drawn to the bass but can you make some parallels between that early grounding to playing the bass?
Craig: Well I think the piano is king. Piano is the king of the instruments you know. It …. It all you get treble clef, bass clef, melody, harmony, rhythm. So it was good in just giving me that broad musical understanding of how two things sound together you know a bass note and melody note and how that works and obviously reading. My reading wasn’t great but I knew how to read and it was always were I first started to experiment with little compositions. I would often spend more time just exploring and coming ups with little ??? I guess then working on what I should have been working on for my lessons. So that was kind of my piano work in terms of how that crosses over the bass I guess it's just an awareness of how bass can work in the context of harmony.
David: Yeah so has that really informed you from a compositional point of view have you made a definite deliberate foray into composition or is that just an extension of those early times playing the piano and mucking around with notes?
Craig: Yeah I think maybe actually think listening back to my compositions or analysing them there is a definite influence maybe not so much from the piano but from the church from old traditional hymns you know which are obviously played on the organ or on the piano and stuff and how they have that singable melody obviously but there’s always a beautiful point of tension at some point in the song. You know I guess what I strive for is that simplicity but when you dig deeper there’s a you know a depth to I that you can explore and so the composition thing I’ve always been into it. You know when I was talking about the pop/rock band I was kind of heavily involved in not so much the initial ideas but definitely the arranging and lots of stylistic elements and stuff but I was always writing stuff at home that you know ranged from dark synth techno stuff to slap bass extravaganza just you know just because I could because you had the computer and you could just pull up a drum loop and go ‘hey this works with this’ so I guess maybe a lot of it wasn’t composition but just exploring and so when I started to take it seriously was when I was in Canada. So when I was in Melbourne the first time in 2012 that was when I first started ‘Pickpocket’ but it was predominately a cover band we were doing kind of standard funky fusion repertoire and there was one original song in there that I wrote and then when I went to Vancouver I was like ‘hey that was pretty cool having my own band’ and by that point I had built up a folder of musical ideas you know ‘funky bass rift’, ’16’ you know you know how you name things when you ??? Computer stuff I had like folders and eventually I started to whittle it down to ideas that I kept coming back to be it a chord sequence or a melody or a grove and so when I was in Canada and I had some visa issues so I had about 3 or 4 months where I was just kind of holed up waiting to find out what was happening and I used that time to really work on essentially what would become the bassist of ‘Pickpockets’ first album. So it was kind of a culmination of ideas from 7 years worth of ideas. They say you got your whole life to write your first album.
David: I remember when I listened to that first album you could sense a real dept there that I assumed was created over time. How do they differ from those that say that come to you quite quickly are they stronger or not?
Craig: I think it's always a bit of both. You know sometimes the ones that you slave over just don’t happen but one thing I found is trying not to force stuff you know being able to step back and think what does it need as oppose to what do I want it to have and those tend to be the ones that work out best you know as opposed to coming in with a pre-conceived idea of ‘alright I want to write a song like this’. Sometimes like that will happen in the micro sense of the word where you know ill maybe have a groove and a chord sequence maybe I want to have a melody that’s kind of D’Angelo-esque or I want this bass line to have a Prince feel to it but that’s kind of more just single elements to it rather than a broader compositional approach.
David: Yeah so that’s more like the seed that you would sort of draw inspiration from and then from there it just grows into something.
Craig: Yeah exactly and just being critical just listening and going is this worth it? Is it any good? I think that was the benefit of having something stored digitally and accessible was that I could just build up folders of ideas and just listen back to it and you know that’s still my process of going ‘what am I drawn to?’ ‘What keeps speaking to me?’ And I think that if my litmus test is if I want to listen to it lots then hopefully other people will.
MUSIC - PICKPOCKET - REFRACTION - SLEEP IS USELESS
David: So having this band ‘Pickpocket’ as a set group for your music do you find that when you write with them in mind and you take a tune to them having the same players helps you to develop the tunes much better? Like do you get more input out of these guys then if you were to say bring in some freelance guys reading the charts?
Craig: Absolutely and it’s definitely grown over time. You know like the first album is pretty much all my writing and then the second one “Permutations” was more collaboration and then on this one again I’ve kind of delegated more. But its just that when I first started it was like I put the band again so I’ve always felt like I have a responsibility to provide for it if you know what I mean. It wasn’t something that grew organically you know I specifically asked everybody do you want to play some music with me? And stupidly they all said yes. But having the same guys is really good because I can either be really detailed with what I want somebody to do or I can leave it blank and know that they can play to their strengths and come up with something better. But you know and then all the playing live together is difficult with a band of that size to I find anyway to kind of co-ordinate especially from the back you know when I’m so busy kind of playing and trying to make stuff happen but I’m also like directing so that idea of ok what are the band strengths you know and how can I play to that in terms of composing what do we sound best at doing and what do we not so hot at? So over time I’ve figured those things out as well buts it’s always changing.
David: Yeah it just reminded me of trying to run a band. Have you found that you’ve got the balance now between being able to focus on being a member of the band but then also sort of having an eye on I’m kind of leading this band. How have you come to terms with that?
Craig: It kind of depends on how well rehearsed we are.
David: If people have practiced their parts too.
Craig: If people have practiced so usually we’re not that well rehearsed and usually my charts aren’t great. I’m not a great chart writer so I get help from Alex in the horn section he’s kind of my go to guy for all the horns stuff either I can say here’s the melody can you flesh it out or can you come up with a part for this. But yeah being a member and directing is really hard you know I mean somebody that comes to mind that does it really great is Michael League you never feel like he’s not giving it all but yet he’s completely tuned into everything that going on and able to direct that whole ensemble so yeah I think it ultimately comes down to trust and having the same people in the band all the time builds that level of trust where you know I can say you solo here or let's extend it round and everyones ok with it that kind of thing.
David: Yeah cool so these are the guys that you met back in 2012 has the line up changed much since 2012?
Craig: Yeah so this is actually Pickpocket Version 2.5 I guess.
David: You’ve not caught up to the apple update yet number
Craig: The first version so remaining founding members from version 1 would be myself, Neil Boland on guitar and Alex Howroyd. So we’ve been there since year dot and then obviously I moved away and then when I came back I started it again I couldn’t get the same drummer a great drummer called Sam Leskovec he wasn’t available and I kind of wanted to expand it and have a larger ensemble originally we had two guitar players but I really wanted keys I wanted synths and stuff in it so I found Andy Boyle on keys and we did have a second guitar player for quite a while a good friend called Jason Liacos who’s friend with Neil and then Alex I kind of took his advice on who else to get for the horn section so we kind of built it up by recommendations and people that I met and then when we were recording ‘Sojourn’ I got Phil Binotto to do some percussion overdubs and then come the second album I was like ‘hey do you want to be in the band?’ And he said ‘yes’ so that was pretty awesome so yeah it has definitely grown.
David: Yeah cool so do you have plans, its quite a bit ensemble and particularly in this day and age of funding and things like that how do you then manage a band on that level getting gigs and it must be tough?
Craig: Yeah and also in terms of applying for grants and funding and stuff because I’m not from here it usually goes to people from here first which is fair enough but I essentially I try and bank roll everything for a while depending on what the gig is if its like a festival gig that pays good then everybody gets a decent cut. Lots of the club gigs if we were to split the takings up 8 ways you know people are going home with $23.84 so I was like ‘I’m happy to do that’ but the guy were like ‘why don’t we just put it in they kitty and when we do a recording or whatever well do that’. So that kind of how this album was funded was primarily kitty money from essentially playing Paris Cat every couple of months. Paris Cat is our musical home and so we play there and in the odd kind of local festival some of those fees. But like rehearsals and stuff I don’t want the guys to have to pay for stuff when it's essentially my music. Its that fine line between we are a band but you know I’m asking them to play stuff that I’ve written predominately.
David: Yeah it must be nice though to have guys that are in it for the music because they wouldn’t say lets put the money in the kitty if they didn’t have that kind of focus or that commitment to the band. That must be quite refreshing.
Craig: Yeah its you know I’m so lucky to have this band and all these guys that want to play this niche you know instrumental funk fusion whatever you want to call it style music. So that was a big kind of thumbs up with alright I guess everybody’s on board.
David: But it must mean that they must love your music which is cool too.
Craig: Yeah or the free beer occasionally that I bring to rehearsal. Easily pleased. But I’ve kind of really tried to not have it a band where its kind of dep-ing in and out you know mainly because a couple of reasons one I think we’ve built up a sound that is unique to this collection of players and that’s why we get these gigs essentially. Secondly the charts aren’t great. It’s not like I could just give them the book and go ‘alright we’re playing this song and this song’ and they could just read it then start to finish. And plus things have evolved from when they were recorded to how we do them live as well so it would essentially mean a lot of rehearsal to get a dep up and we’ve done it a couple of times. You know we’ve had some sax deps for the keys dep we had Lewis Moody dep on keys for us once and so it’s do-able but its never really the it’s never presented in the way that I would want it to be presented. That’s no slight on any of the guys that have ever sat in with us it’s just that it’s just a unique thing to this collection of players. You know not being hidden by the music stand is really important and to use Snarky Puppy as another example. I mean the complexity of that material that they internalise so fast and perform at such a high level that’s one of the most incredible things for me about that band not that we’re anywhere near that level but you know it enables a more direct connection with the audience I think if they know that its not just being regurgitated from the page. You know if it’s brand new material then for sure guys will have charts on stage and I’m totally fine with that but usually the rhythm section will have stuff down pat after a gig or two and it means that we are more free to play as well you know if you heads not in the page it’s much easier for me to direct if everybody’s kind of paying attention and you notice it with the songs that you know we’ve been playing since ‘Sojourn’ like a track like
‘Junk Trunk’ we never really play it the same way twice and it’s kind of always we’re relaxed and things can happen and it’s fun but some of the newer material that’s maybe a little bit more orchestrated and we haven’t played it that much there’s not as much room for expanding on it cause its ok let’s just try and get it right.
MUSIC - PICKPOCKET - REFRACTION - SORRY IT’S BEEN A WHILE
David: So you’ve delved into having a vocalist is this a new thing for the band or did you write the lyrics as well? How did this happen?
Craig: Yeah so on the new album there’s a track called ‘Love Again’ which features vocal talents of my good friend Sam Joole who’s based in Sydney and he’s been a solo artist and in and out of bands for a while up there and in London and we actually met on a cruise ship not like Loveboat or anything like that. At a cruise ship gig maybe 5 years ago 5/6 years ago something like that and he was the acoustic guitar player he was part of a duo him and this guy Jake. But yeah and we just kind of you know hit it off hanging out and stuff and then he asked me up to Sydney to do some gigs with him so we did some gigs up there and we just kind of he really liked ‘Pickpocket’ he was always strangely complimentary about it and stuff so he loves funk and he loves ‘Prince’ and all that kind of stuff and so I was up there for some gigs and like I was saying I had this little folder of ideas and groove and I sent some to Sam was like ‘what do you think of these?’ And he kind of picked one out and was like ‘this could be something’ so we sat down in his apartment in Byron Bay sorry Bondi over Bondi and we kind of nutted out the lyrics in an afternoon. He just you know had his strumming it on the guitar and were like ‘ok what the what’s the vibe’ so its kind of like one of those things where being in an instrumental fusion band the amount of time people come up to you and go ‘hey you guys are great, you think about getting a singer?’ And I know where they are coming from but at the same time it kind of hurts. It’s like do you think it would be better if we had a singer? Like why are you saying that? You know if you just prefer music that’s got a vocalist that’s fine but my issue has always been I predominately listen to music that is instrumental you know or is not vocal at the front. Its not to say that I don’t listen to it but I’m drawn to kind of instrumental kind of funky fusion stuff so when I write that’s what I write even though my melodies I do approach them from a vocalistic standpoint you know I always try and sing a melody to get it out there. You know and some of the guys in the band will be like ‘hey we should collaborate with this vocalist’ and I didn’t want it to be a thing where it was like just getting somebody on board just because you know Ill write a funky backing and we’ll do kind of like a party song you know I didn’t want it to be forced and so because I had built up a friendship with Sam and he had taken an interest in my music and we kind of wrote it together I was like this you know and we’d kind of been talking about maybe doing our own little project whatever that might be but I thought you know this could be a ‘Pickpocket’ song it feels right.
MUSIC - PICKPOCKET - REFRACTION - LOVE AGAIN
David: So you’re releasing Refraction on December 18, 2020 what do you have planned releasing it during this current climate this pandemic climate. How are you going to get it out there into the ears of people?
Craig: Well I know that gigs are starting to roll again I see Paris Cat are booking shows so and that’s kind of been our spiritual home that kind of where we’ve launched our last album and they’re good to us and we try and be good to them. So potentially I might try and get back in touch with Liz and see if we can do a show in the new year. And as for the album launch it will just be yeah just the usual online barrage of social media posts and begging people to like and subscribe and share and pre-save and download. You know just trying to be heard above the rabble really. And at some point I guess once we’re kind of back gigging relatively regularly I’ll probably look at kind of getting some hard copies down but I mean I’ve still got boxes of ‘Sojourn’ and ‘Permutation’ CD’s but you know why not complete the collection with a third hardcopy.
David: Well thanks so much Craig for stopping by and talking about your musical life here in Australia now and also you the new recording ‘Refraction’ from your band ‘Pickpocket’ which is coming out December 18, 2020. So all the best with the new release and it’s great to see that live music is back in Melbourne in Australia and look forward to catching ‘Pickpocket’ live hopefully somewhere like Paris Cat or other venues soon in Melbourne. So thanks again take care and we’ll catch you soon.
Craig: My pleasure Dave I really appreciate it.
MUSIC - PICKPOCKET - REFRACTION - REFRACTION
That was ‘Refraction’ from ‘Pickpocket’s’ latest release coming out on Friday December 18, 2020. And ‘Pickpocket’ as you could hear from that recording are a very big band and I’d like to just point out who these members are in the band on drums Matthias Edwards, on guitar Neil Boland, on keys Andrew Boyle, on trumpet we have Miles Izzo , we have on trumpet and tenor sax Alex Howroyd, we have on baritone sax Brett Evans, on percussion Phil Binotto and special guest as we heard Sam Joole on vocals on that track ‘Love Again’. We also will hear Joel ??? On Sax on the ‘Bootstomp’ track and also Steve Allen on trumpet and James Bowers on trombone.
Well now we’d like to play for you a track from a very well know artist here in Australian Barney McAll. A lot of you would know Barney’s work and he’s prolific in his compositional work and putting out material all the time. And this is an album, a personal favourite of mine, that he released or recorded sorry in June of 2014 called Mooroolbark and it features on this recording himself on piano, Julien Wilson on tenor saxophone, Steven Magnusson on guitar, Jonathan Zwartz on bass, Simon Barker on drums, Mino Cinelu on percussion and on some tracks also trombonist Shannon Barnett. Now this is a track the very first track off this album its called ‘Nectar Spur’ as we said off his 2014 recording ‘Mooroolbark’ so enjoy this from Barney McAll.
MUSIC - BARNEY MCALL - MOOROOLBARK - NECTAR SPUR
So that was a beautiful track called from Barney McAll’s album ‘Mooroolbark’ and as we said that track was called ‘Nectar Spur’. Well folks we’ve come to the end of our last episode for 2020 and what a crazy year it has been but it’s been so nice to have been able to share some positivity with you and showcase some of these amazing artist we have here in Australia that are continuing to compose beautiful music and record it despite the challenges that have faced them this year. If you would like to support these artists as we’ve mentioned on each episode go and buy their music its the best way that you can show your support. It ensures that they will continue to be able to produce and write more music for the future and as we know it really does bring us so much joy to hear the originality that come from all these artists. A big thank you to all those artists who have taken the time this year in these first 8 episodes to talk to us about how they compose, their musical careers, what lies ahead for the future and just how they approach music its been so insightful and we really hope that you’ve also enjoyed getting to know all these artists a little better. Thank you also to those who have downloaded the podcast and spread the word please continue to do that if you can leave a positive review on whatever platform you download it from that would be fantastic. So what lies ahead? Well 2021 proves to be a really exciting year of bringing new artists to the podcast. So many albums have been released or are being released in the very near future and we really look forward to showcasing them and hopefully picking the brains of the composers that have put this beautiful music together. So for the holiday season coming up please stay safe enjoy your holiday. Thank you again for joining us and we look forward to seeing you again in 2021. Bye for now.