From Q Bar to Domestic La La: The definitive story of Dear Seattle
With a quickly-selling national tour in May/June, the Northern Beaches band get real on their debut album, Don't Let Go.
Nestled down a dimly lit hallway and up a sketchy roach-infested staircase laid one of Sydney’s most deceivingly crucial live music hotspots. Q Bar - infamously known as either Saturday’s home-away-from-home house party Wasted Years or it’s amped up Thursday night counterpart Hot Damn! – was an alternative hub where the worlds of punk, hardcore and hip hop collided with live art, Tony Hawk PlayStation 2 games, and a whole lot of debauchery. It was a place where you could smash a few tins in-between belting out Killing In The Name Of, slide down a skate ramp with the fuel of a couple of inked bodies egging you on, or just sit in a corner taking the chaos in and watching shady characters slyly duck into the unisex toilets together. Q Bar wasn’t the holy grail of high-class entertainment venues, but it was a place where a bunch of misfit twenty-somethings could get together and thrash around for a few hours just for the hell of it. And, if you were around and about five years ago, chances are you probably witnessed the beginning of Sydney’s Dear Seattle.
The early days of Dear Seattle were spent in the same way most bands spend their early days – playing to a handful of friends, sandwiched between a pop-punk outfit playing their first gig and a local hardcore act with a big cult following and even bigger egos. They, like so many others, spent the first few years of their existence finding a sound they resonated with and a purpose to what they were doing that stretched beyond just jamming with mates. From frontman Brae Fisher’s early musical memories with his late dad, to lead guitarist Lachlan Simpson’s stints in hardcore bands throughout high school, the musical veins that bind Dear Seattle together have always come from a place of genuine appreciation and interest. After a change in sound and line-up shake-up, the newly revamped four-piece focused on “writing what was natural and honest” while never losing sight of the people who gave them a platform in the very beginning. “We look back at [Wasted Years] and you see some of the bills... It was us, Perspectives, Trophy Eyes, Metcalfe - bands that are doing really well now,” Fisher explained. “It’s hectic to think that came from just a bunch of dudes in a sweaty room bashing around.”
It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon and the Northern Beaches outfit (minus drummer Josh McKay) have casually gathered in a backyard, ready to talk shop about their debut album Don’t Let Go and the wild ride it’s taken to get here. As with most artists, their success can’t be limited to one thing or another, instead, it comes down to a melting pot of years of gigging in dingy venues to a handful of people, a constant need to write, re-write and record, and the willingness to tell intimate stories without fear. A surface level glance of the band’s first EP – a 2013 emo compilation titled Words Are Often Useless– seems like a far cry from their current jangly, tongue-in-cheek demeanour. Sullen melodies, heavy vocals, and clear inspiration from the likes of Title Fight, La Dispute and Pianos Become The Teeth all stand tall, with their now-signature chanting nowhere to be found. However, it’s clear to see in the heartfelt lyricism and call-to-arms mateship, where the core of Dear Seattle has and will always be.
The band’s self-proclaimed “emotionally charged” music first struck a chord on a national scale after a simple Facebook share of their 2016 single The Meadows went viral. At that time Dear Seattle was still a passion project – in fact, Fisher was about to embark on a twelve-month trip to South America, something he cancelled three weeks out after thinking “well shit, I may as well do this because if I don’t do it now, there may not be another opportunity.” It was an average day for the rest of the guys, who were at work when their phones started blowing up from texts, calls and tags in a triple j Unearthed post introducing new band Dear Seattle and their “absolute monster” track. Considering the song had been hiding in the boys’ back pocket for over a year and sitting pretty online for about two months after release by this point, it was a shock to see The Meadows suddenly take off – garnering radio play, a ton of reviews, and comparisons graciously drawn to Violent Soho, Luca Brasi and Ceres. “We didn’t expect any of that kind of love,” Simpson admitted. “We owe a lot to triple j Unearthed, they gave us such a head start and gave us that exposure that we didn’t have.”
The Meadows’ chorus “fuck being sad, I’m so over it” is so simple and widely accessible to young people struggling, that there’s really no wonder why it’s still the song that to this day has the biggest crowd response. The sentiment is so unabashedly relatable that it’s led to multiple fan tattoos – some of which are accompanied by tins of VB, a fitting tribute in the eyes of Dear Seattle, despite the internal questioning they faced about whether the chorus was just too much. “That’s the funny thing. I remember at The Meadows - where we wrote The Meadows - that was a point of discussion for a while. Do we put fuck being sad? Is that too stupid or too basic?” Simpson said. “I think I wrote it as place sitter lyrics originally,” added Fisher. “I was asking these guys is this too corny? Is it too straight up? And we couldn’t think of anything to swap it out for that really said it as plainly and simply as that. So, it stayed.” Feeling so passionately about his lyrics, Fisher even admitted to making an anonymous Reddit account to combat haters who were commenting “the lyrics are so plain, how does anyone get anything out of this?” and explain why the chorus was written the way it was. “That’s so petty... I love it,” Simpson laughed. In the end, the “simplicity of the lyrics and punchy chorus” prevailed alongside the “chunky and fat” production by Fletcher Matthews, which the band believe made the single not just stand out but propel forward.
Much like their previous cuts, Dear Seattle’s self-titled 2017 EP tapped into some of their rawest experiences. Along with blossoming cult classic The Meadows, came sing-a-long favourite Afterthought (“hope tells me that I’m getting somewhere soon” often breaks through the roof at gigs) and the pop-infused Cut You Deep – both songs that saw the band experiment with new textures and tinge their melodic roots with a new ‘pubwave’ feel. More than an EP centred around breakups and break downs, the release solidified what it means to be at a point in your life where everything just feels a bit shit, but you know there’s a way to get through it. “It’s a lot to do with personal experiences, raw lyrics, and things that aren’t too metaphorical, and often quite frontal in face value,” Fisher explained of Dear Seattle’s music.
The band’s stellar debut album Don’t Let Go expands on the idea of maintaining hope through the darkness by pairing them with the everyday experiences of a bunch of twenty-something-year-olds who woke up one day suddenly a little closer to their dreams. There’s the quintessential Dear Seattle injection of playfulness, heard in Daytime TV’s ironic ode to WikiHow relationship articles and that ridiculous breakdown at the end of A Modest Mind, but there’s also introspective discussions on recognising and dealing with anxiety (Bigger Than My Brain), mature admittance to faults in a broken relationship (You), and the reality of losing a loved one (I Keep Dreaming). If their self-titled 2017 EP was the house party, then Don’t Let Go is the comedown – signalling a shift from thrashing party anthems to intimate and self-aware conversations. Ultimately, they tap into sectors of our lives as misfit millennials – love and heartache, self-destruction and self-reflection, growing up and staying hopeful – and make them seem less isolating.
It’s been a fair few years between your debut EP Words Are Often Useless and your debut album Don’t Let Go. Do you think the Dear Seattle sound has changed drastically between now and then?
Brae: I think it’s mainly just not trying to chase a certain sound anymore. It’s just writing as naturally as possible and as genuine to DS as possible. Obviously, when we started out we had our favourite bands we wanted to sound like – Title Fight, La Dispute, Pianos Become The Teeth – that was pretty much it. It was like ‘oh I wanna give this a crack and see if we can write music as cool as that!’ Whereas nowadays we’ve kind of found our feet more and cut out a bit of a niche that’s more DS.
Lachlan: I suppose there are some similarities between our new stuff and words in terms of dynamics, there are some [qualities] that are residual, like having soft verses and heavy choruses are kind of a DS staple by this point, so that’s carried across.
Jeremy: I think [Brae] just writes whatever’s going on at the time.
Brae: Yeah, whatever’s sad in my life. When everything’s good, I try to make it sad [laughs]. This album was really hard to write because nothing is really wrong at the moment, at least not in comparison to the self-titled EP which is a breakup EP. In comparison to that… it was like ‘oh I forgot we’re an emo band, what the hell am I supposed to write about now?’
Did it feel natural to start writing again, despite not having that usual inspiration?
Brae: It was definitely more difficult, but I liked the challenge of it and it definitely made me think outside the box in terms of concepts for songs. I started to set up my room as a home studio [and] it accumulated songs over the next two years until we went away to The Meadows again and started writing a bunch as a band. By the end of it, I think we had a pool of about 25 tracks that we had altogether and had to cut down. It was hard! We rocked up to the studio with 14 tracks and were like, 'we’ll just do a 14-track album and it’ll be sweet.'
Lachlan: I think [James] Tidswell nearly fainted, he was like ‘are you kidding me? We were thinking maybe 11.’
Brae: This just kind of plays into how hilariously underprepared we were before we got into the studio. We were so used to recording EPs with mates, like Fletcher Matthews, and it was all very cruisey, you’re only really tackling 4-6 songs at a time. This was double that and I don’t think we even considered how much time you would need to do that.
Lachlan: I remember James saying to us ‘I love how chilled out you’re all being about this, but I’m pulling my hair out.' We wanted every song sounded like a single. That was an aim of ours, to have each song stand alone and not need the rest of the songs. We didn’t want any filler.
Where were you at in life when you first started writing the album?
Brae: During that period of my life after the EP, I was getting over the breakup the EP was about, everything with DS was going well and kicking off, and I think I started to come to the realisation that every experience in your life has positives and negatives to it, regardless of how it first appears to you.
For example, the last song on the record I Keep Dreaming is about my dad passing when I was seven, which is obviously at the time one of the worst things you could imagine and still is probably one of the worst things to happen to me. But at the same time, it’s resulted in some of the best things that have happened in my life as well. Even just moving back to Australia, living here and growing up here, stuff like that. There are so many positives you can drag from that situation.
I had this overwhelming feeling that you have to choose what you want to give energy to, the positives or the negatives, and that dictates how you experience your life. That ties into the name of the album as well, Don’t Let Go. There’s a story why it’s called [that]. It ties into that theme of don’t let go of your terrible experiences and things you wish that you could forget because there’s a lot of experiences from it that can be really good for you. Even though it can be really hard being in a band, don’t let go of that dream you have, make sure you keep striving for it and pushing on even though there’s going to be hardships along the way.
Can you explain the story behind the title Don’t Let Go?
Brae: When we were recording I Keep Dreaming, we were tracking the guitars for it and it got to the last take and Jon Grace [Sound Engineer] was like ‘okay I really want you to tap into the emotion of this song, think about your dad, remember what he was like and try to let that emotion come through.’ We had all the takes we needed, but we might get some magic in this. I really tapped into it and zoned out of everything else, did the last strum of the chord, and he taps me on the shoulder and says to me ‘don’t let go’ in a really soft and sombre voice. It almost made me fucking bawl my eyes out on the spot! It hit me like a train, but I realised all he was saying was don’t let go of the guitar because if you do, it’ll start buzzing and ruin the take.
It sounds like I Keep Dreaming is one of the most important songs on the album. Where did the inspiration for a song about your dad come from?
Brae: It came from watching a Pink Floyd documentary, as the start of the song suggests, and it was about the Wish You Were Here album. I don’t know whether it was just because I kept hearing the words ‘wish you were here’ over and over in the doco... Dad is the reason I’m into music at all in the first place, and [the headline EP release tour] gave me the overwhelming sense of ‘man I wish you were here to see it, I know you would love every bit of it.’ I stopped the documentary and started jamming because I had an idea and it just spewed out.
Do you ever get nervous thinking about all the people who are going to listen to that song, and hear you be so vulnerable?
Brae: I never really thought about other people listening to it.. [it was only] by the time we had everything finished in the studio I was like oh yeah shit people are going to hear this. Actually, [a friend from another band] came up to me after our show at the Lansdowne and he just said to me, ‘man, my dad just passed away like four months ago. I've been entirely lost and had no idea what the hell to do about it; my family's basically in shambles as a result. It just hit me so hard to hear that song because it's someone who's obviously been through it and is on the other side and is now comfortable enough and at terms with the fact that they've lost their dad, enough to be able to write a song and turn it into something beautiful. Something that people can listen to and relate to and even just get a bit of comfort in knowing that someone else is going through it.’ I think that's a lot of what Dear Seattle is about in general, writing music that people can associate with and really just look at and be like, alright, I’m glad to hear someone has been through all of this as well and came out the other side.
One of the issues you touch on more in Don’t Let Go than previous releases is the music industry in general, which makes sense since you’re more involved in the business side of things now. How have you found this jump from a hobby to a career?
Lachlan: It’s a bit of an adjustment. Before you’re in the industry, you have an idea in your head of what it’s going to be like and then… it’s pretty different to what we thought. It’s extremely difficult to make money, everyone’s taking money from the band and its hard, very competitive.
Brae: Yeah, the band is always the last people to get a cut of the royalties from their own music.
Lachlan: We’ve found it’s also cut throat with certain people in the industry, getting pitted against each other, but luckily with Domestic La La, [James] Tidswell has kind of sheltered us from a lot of that shit.
Brae: I think the main thing with the industry is a lot of people treat artists as commodities as opposed to humans who have feelings and are just trying to do something creative and put their art out there; rather than looking at it as a creative field, they see it as a business. That’s something I’ve found really hard to get used to because you start to realise that a lot of the time you can be the only person who cares about the thing that you’re trying to get across… For me, a lot of it was just to do with getting used to surrounding yourself with people who care about you more personally than as a business – which is exactly what our team is now.
What was it about Domestic La La that made you feel comfortable enough to sign with them?
Brae: We weren’t ever planning on signing a record deal until maybe album two or three... [but with Tidswell], we felt like we were in such safe hands, for a lot of reasons.
Lachlan: He was transparent from the first time we met him. Previously to that, we’d had meetings with other labels, and they gave us the industry spiel, just the bullshit they feed you, ‘you’re going to be a huge band, you’re going to make money…’ It’s just so false. With James, it was like ‘it’s going to be a while until you make money.’ He was bluntly honest with us.
Brae: It was ‘you play rock music, don’t expect cash.’
Lachlan: We appreciated his honesty more than industry jargon.
Who is James Tidswell to each of you?
Brae: James Tidswell is me in twenty years’ time. It’s hectic to have someone who is so on the same page as you, who’s done it all before. I can chat to him and he’ll be like ‘oh yeah man exactly, I 100 per cent get where you’re coming from because I had that exact same idea 20 years ago and we tried it, and it didn’t work out, so let’s stay away from it!’ He’s done it [all before] and wants to cut down how long it took for Violent Soho to get where they are, with us.
Jeremy: He’s always been a bit of a hero.
Lachlan: Dude, that story of you at the show is the coolest thing ever. You should go into it again.
Jeremy: Oh, I was at a show at university - Winterfest 2014 - and Soho were playing. I went for a crowd surf and was thrown over the barrier. There was only one security guard there and he grabbed me and started pulling me out of the venue. I was taken to the top where the exit was, and [Tidswell] came running behind up the stairs and was like ‘let this guy back in, why are you dragging him out?’ He ran back down to the stage and said he wasn’t playing until they let me back in, which is pretty fucking cool. Apparently, people started chanting “Jeremy,” and then the tour manager dragged me back down and I got to hang side stage. That was years before we met him! It’s pretty crazy to think about.
Lachlan: He’s been there and done that and has the experience to know what we need to know. He has the right attitude about stuff as well; there are always things about community over profit. He’s that kind of guy, he wants to promote the scene. He’s a good role model to look up to.
Brae: Yeah, he’s a very grassroots, alternative kid – he cares a lot about people being real and doing things for the fans as opposed to making money and turning a profit. He’s always like ‘we’re going to make you the coolest band ever’ and it’s like well alright, coming from someone who’s been in one of the coolest bands in Australia! [laughs]
Actually, that’s a good point as well. Violent Soho broke in alternative music back into the mainstream again in such a big way. Even having him as a part of that, so many people who are into alternative music see them as trailblazers of the revival in the Australian scene, at least. [Big rock festival headliners] were dying out so hard, and then they brought it right back. To even be associated and have someone from that helping us out in so many ways is pretty amazing.
What’s it like being in a position where you’re about to release something as daunting as a debut album? Do you have any advice for others when it comes to this?
Brae: It's intense. It really is full on like just having yeah two years’ worth of work built up and then it all comes down to one day. It's like you know you put your fucking heart (and wallet) down and then you put out there and on social media, they can just tear it to shreds if they want. That’s a hectically daunting thing, but I guess at the end of the day you just gotta remember you put together the best album you possibly could, and you love the songs for your own reasons. That’s all that really matters.
Lachlan: Adding on to that, I think if a band is honestly genuine and authentic in their approach to writing an album, the aftermath of the album is going to be way more significant. If you put out a genuine album, all the criticism that comes towards your way - if there is any - you can be like whatever, I tried my best. This is me.
Do you worry about people who are already familiar with your music, not being able to pigeon-hole Don’t Let Go into one set genre?
Brae: We made it a big point [of that], we feel like the album has a lot of variety across like a bunch of different genres. There's so much in there that I honestly feel like, for every DS fan that we had before, there will be something in the album that they'll love.
Lachlan: I think at the end of the day with us we won't know what we’re going to sound like until we go and write songs together again. So, we're not going to pigeonhole ourselves into one genre or the other one, we're just going to write as a band see what we come up with.
What do you want people to expect from Don’t Let Go?
Brae: It's just us. We absolutely love every song on it and… the two singles that we put out definitely don't dictate what the album is like, there's so much more depth. So yeah, I think I just want people to pay attention to that and look into it a bit more than just face value because there is a lot that went into it over the last two years of our lives.
Lachlan: And I guess just don’t expect that kind of that beer drinking party music anymore, we're a bit older now and we're kind of moving away from that.
Brae: Yeah we've got beer bellies now, we realised there are cons to the party lifestyle.
Jeremy: But we still love beer.