KARL SMITH, when not being mistaken for Tom Verlaine, is leading a very different band than the one that brought him international renown, as ANDY HAZEL learns of Lee Memorial.
“I was mistaken for Tom Verlaine in Sydney once by this guy who refused to believe I wasn’t him,” laughs Karl Smith in an uncharacteristically boisterous way. “So I gave an autograph as Tom Verlaine, I was like ‘well, why can’t I be from Television?’” Despite being a good 30 years younger than the revered punk icon, the wisdom and insight inherent in Smith’s lyrics and quietly confident delivery belie his age. The latest vehicle for these songs, following the fading of Sodastream’s hushed pop, is Lee Memorial.
“I was studying in the last year of Sodastream,” explains Smith of the intervening year between their 2007 demise and the birth of Lee Memorial. “I threw myself into study the year after that, I was pretty burned out and needed to figure out what to do next. I did a writing course, and since then writing prose is something that I’ve focused on a lot.” Storytelling is a tricky taskmaster and a strong feature of the new album The Lives of Lee Memorial, becoming as much a trademark as Smith’s elliptically suggestive haikus in Sodastream. “The prose and songwriting overlap. The songs on this record are a lot more stories than songs about my own life, I wanted to stop being so self-absorbed and look out into the world a bit more; your own POV is not the be all and end all. I’m working on a novel and a script so I was playing around with characters and found that quite freeing. I’ve incorporated situations and settings into my songs more than the atmosphere of the stories. I’ve never really been much of a storyteller in songs as it seemed telling a story would force the structure to be obvious - I crave something new. I’d rather play characters and not revisit the worst days and nights of my life every time I play a gig.”
With several thousand fans spread around the world, it’s fair to say a lot of people are going to be interested in Smith’s new incarnation, so much so that it’s easy to forget the stellar band of local luminaries roped in to make up the band. Ninetynine, The Nation Blue, and The Paradise Motel…you’re clearly busting some big songwriting chops. “I’d known Laura [McFarlane, drums] and Matt [Bailey, bass] for a long time and we’d enjoyed working together on Small Sips,” he explains. “Tom [Lyngcoln, guitar] I met working at the Shock warehouse, which is also where I met Matt. I was amazed and relieved when everyone said ‘yes’.”
“I’d never try to repeat what Pete and I did in Sodastream,” he says seriously. “We were working with such a limited palate and forced to come up with interesting ways to play. I’d feel it was inferior if I tried to do quiet acoustic music. I just wanted to play with other people and have more noise on stage. If I drop a chord or two it doesn’t matter because I’ve got this squalling guitar behind me,” he laughs.
Despite having some busy musicians in the band, Smith finds benefits in the lack of time his bandmates can give. Surely few bands assemble for the first time after they’ve made their record. “We didn’t play much last year - just the odd show as duo or trio - so it’s been really fun to get back into the songs and playing as a five piece. Our first full rehearsal on Monday…it was strange all being in the same room for a practice, which had never happened before. There was always someone couldn’t make it, and that kept the tension up so you have to step up to it and stay focused. If everyone was devoted to it, we’d burn ourselves out quickly. With everyone being in other bands there’s always people coming up with ideas,” something it seems like he’ll never be short of.