Jack Frost: The Perfect Marriage
by Marci Cohen
Music as marriage. Musicians as newlyweds as they pepper their conversation with compliments for one another. You are cordially invited to the wedding of Jack Frost. One name, two people, one voice. Jack Frost is the band, collaboration, project, all of the above, of Grant McLennan and Steve Kilbey, the former a former Go-Between, the latter of the Church. Ask them questions and they take turns responding. Neither has all the answers; neither merely occupies spaces. In speech, each voice is distinctive; in song, they are indistinguishable to the extent that Grant thinks he is hearing his own voice when Steve sings on their record. Together they have created an utterly listenable album.
Yes, it could invite uninformed record store sales clerks to file it under F. They've already read reviews of the eponymous Arista debut that proclaim, "This guy Jack really has something going." The album cover itself offers no illumination. Steve and Grant's faces appear only on the CD booklet tucked inside the package. Their names are not revealed until that inner sleeve is unfolded. The pair all but stand in the background and let Jack take over. "It took on a life of its own. It deserted us. It controlled us. We didn't have anything to do with it. We just went along. We just got on the ferris wheel and just kept on going round," characterizes Grant, too humble to take credit for their own work. He later reiterates the concept of Jack Frost the recording as a separate lifeform. "The record's already grown beyond how it started. It just started as a lark, as a gamble. And at the moment, it's racing down the street ahead of us. We're trying to catch up . . . It's a proud, defiant little critter. It's running around saying, 'Listen to me. Listen to me.'"
Although both Frost members hail from Down Under, the Australians actually met in New York, Up Over as it were. Steve renders a vaguely implausible tale about his hearing wonderful, slightly familiar music coming from a window while walking the streets of New York, shimmying up a drainpipe towards its source and discovering Grant inside. Grant mentioned wanting to work with Steve then, but it took some time before they could finally do so because of other commitments. But the Go-Betweens called it quits early in 1990. The Church released the wonderful Gold Afternoon Fix shortly thereafter, but toured for only two months, freeing Steve. That winter (a.k.a. summer in this hemisphere), they popped into the studio during a two-week hiatus from their other musical activities.
Grant explains that they didn't even have a rough idea of their game plan when they came together. "We had about three or four songs which we'd written over two days. And then we went in the studio and sort of got those out of the way. And then every day we'd come into the studio not knowing what we were going to do and start doing something new. And at the end of the day, we had a song. And that was pretty much the work process. It was a really intense, high-octane time. We equipped ourselves very well."
The hurried pace was not entirely self-imposed, he notes. "The studio that we recorded at was going out of business. And people were taking things out of the studio every day. So we had to use the reverb unit before they took it away. To keep the studio open, we had to take the studio for two weeks, so it was a two week album. If we had to keep the studio open for a week, we would have done an album in a week."
Even with limited time and minimal pre-planning, they had no problem rounding up a string section and other additional musicians. "They were banging down the door to get in and play with us," jokes Grant. "They were fawning sycophants that had learned to play their instruments in the Australia Symphony Orchestra and they were tired of Mozart and Beethoven and wanted to get their teeth into some real music. They wanted to get their teeth into a bit of Kilbey."
Other bands may brag about how fast they blitz through recording, mistaking the raw for the haphazard. But this quick album holds the rare distinction of sounding complete, not on the verge of unraveling. "I think that's down to the engineering, and the production was very well done," praises Grant. Part of the credit goes to Pryce Surplice, an engineer friend of Steve's who worked behind the boards as well as playing drums and assorted electronic equipment on the album. "The record sounds great, not dodgy or trashy," says Grant before adding a disclaimer. "Oh, it is on one song when we wanted it like that." He refers most likely to "Didn't Know Where I Was," a scrappy romp that rhymes Wisconsin and Charles Bronson. It is unlike anything else on the album, a trait shared by the majority of the tracks. Such diversity was not a preset goal. "It's like every song just fell out of our heads by accident and they were all different to each other. And we looked upon that and it pleased us," says Steve. With the birth of Jack Frost, they freed themselves of the constraining shackles of all previous work. "You're creating expectations rather than living up to them," Steve summarizes. "Jack Frost could be anything. Jack Frost could be folk y or could be nasty or could be melancholy. It could be happy."
And Jack Frost is all of these and then some, full of contrasts while still sounding like a unified body of work. It bridges the wistful spoken word "Trapeze Boy" with the emotive love song "Providence." Steve terms the opening and closing tracks, "Every Hour God Sends" and "Everything Takes Forever" as " . . . very philosophical. Sometimes you take the good with the bad. Easy come, easy go. What goes around comes around." "Thought That I Was Over You" perfectly captures ambivalence towards an ex. Jack Frost is a set of cultured pearls, each song a bead exquisite on its own, but the songwriting strings them together so that the beauty can be appreciated as a whole.
Steve indicates that his method on songwriting varies with each collaborator. "You've got to change your approach. Writing with Grant is different to writing with the Church, and that's different to writing on your own. If you want to write a song with other people, you've got to give and take a bit." To Steve, that need for an altered approach provides part of the appeal of working with others. He and Grant agree that they are unusually attuned to one another and the synergy between them continues.
While Jack Frost are still in the throes of their honeymoon stage, they acknowledge that long-term band monogamy does not exist. Between the Go-Betweens and the Church, the two have experienced every form of "infidelity": solo and side projects, turn over and a break up. Steve generalizes such changes as inevitable for any group. The maximum life span of any single configuration? "Um, a weekend?" he suggests. "I think unless people do things outside, that it won't last. And I think even if they do things outside, there aren't many bands that make: five years. And there's very few that make ten. And over that, it's all lawyers and recording on different days and only speaking by fax and stuff like that."
Both personality and creativity come into play. "You spend a lot of time with the same bunch of people, everybody knows everything about everybody else, so there's no real conversation. Everybody knows everybody's view on everything. So there's no real conflict there. The only thing that you really -- you're bickering over who got the best seat on the aeroplane and why did he get the better hotel room than me. It gets down to all that sort of stuff. And then if you come out the other side of that, which is what the Church did, we went through all that and came out the other side. You might last a bit longer. But that gets most of them."
"And also the thing these days," Steve continues, "there's a lot of pressure. With the advent of the porta-studio, suddenly everybody became a songwriter. Everybody became a producer. And so you've got everyone in the bands writing their own songs and producing it and knowing how they want it to sound. And when the album time comes around, everyone wants to get five of their songs on a record. And when that doesn't happen, people get very disgruntled . And all their friends are saying, 'Your songs are better than his. Why don't you get your songs on the album?' And the whole thing becomes ugly. I think that's what's happening to a lot of bands now."
While Steve and Grant may avoid such ego-induced pitfalls with their numerous projects, they don't leave themselves much down time. Grant has been producing other bands since the demise of the Go-Betweens, with plans to do more. No sooner than they wrapped up with Jack Frost, he went to work on his solo debut. While promoting the American release Jack Frost, he was already scheduling similar efforts for his own album. As for Steve, he enjoys being on stage although he doesn't care for the actual touring process, so he embarked on an informal ("It was very informal. It was informal to the point of collapse.") solo tour last fall. "The solo tour was really just a joke, just a chance to go around America and see some people." After this round of publicity, he was headed back to work on the next Church album.
They don't rule out the possibility of touring. "If it works and we've got time, we'd love to do it. We'd love to take the Frost out on the road and say, 'Hello, Cleveland,'" says Grant. They played a few acoustic shows in the U.S. in conjunction with doing interviews here. At New York's Wetlands, they took to the stage looking as if they had just wandered in from the street, guitars in hands. In concert, their singing voices are so similar that checking for moving lips is the easiest way to tell them apart. Stripped down from all its production values to just two acoustic guitars, "Every Hour God Sends," took on a new light but still came across effectively. They. added timely, humorous couplets to "Everything Takes Forever," obviously having fun with the piece.
After their set, the record business people offered nuptial congratulations to the happy couple and posed them for contrived photographs with the all "relatives." Quickly, the factions split off. The folks from Beggars Banquet, the Go-Betweens' home label, hovered over Grant while the Arista contingent attended to Church member Steve. No ushers needed to announce, "Bride's family on the left; groom's on the right." The division was quite implicit. But neither Steve nor Grant had white lace and veils in mind for their portraits when putting the album together. They were thinking of outlaws, not in-laws. "We were actually posing for the Australian government. It was a 'Wanted' poster. It was going to be put up on walls across Australia. 'Wanted for crimes against music,'" jests Steve about the shot of them on the CD sleeve. "We were trying to sort of look like the James Gang. Not Joe Walsh's old band, the original James Gang."
Call it marital bliss. They talk brightly of tracks they've already recorded for the next Jack Frost album and are blocking out their time to work on it. "We're up on the roof at the moment, screaming at the world. It's a great feeling," declares Grant.