When the going gets tough, the tough up and move to just down the road from Disneyland, or at least the same can be said for The Red Paintings frontman, Trash McSweeney. When you’re chatting to the vocalist of the avant-garde five-piece, no topic is off limits. McSweeney fires off at the flailing Australian music industry, talks about how the production of the band’s long-awaited LP, The Revolution is Never Coming is bigger than Ben Hur and how you can even expect to see astronaut-suit-wearing Geisha featured on the album’s cover. By Emily Swanson.
You’ve been touring abroad for a while, are you guys looking forward to coming back to Australia?
Yeah, I wasn’t gonna come back for a while as the record’s actually coming out in America before Australia, but there was a lot of talk of us coming back last year, but it didn’t end up happening as there’s a lot of things happening in the US because I live in Los Angeles, which is extremely fun when you’ve got Disneyland down the road. Basically, we put a post on our Facebook saying that if over a thousand people liked it, we’d come back over the summer and I personally didn’t think it was gonna happen, but we got over a thousand likes and we were obligated to do it. It worked out pretty well as we’ve got a new music video to release, so we’re excited to come back. It’ll be great.
I was gonna ask about that, about how you posted it on Facebook. You’ve actually earned quite a following from your social networking sites. Was that a conscious decision? Or did it just sort of pan out that way.
Not really, the Internet is obviously the revolution of the 21st century, it’s just the way people communicate and socialise, which can be a negative, but I think we’ve gotten most of our fans through touring with bands like the Dresden Dolls and we did a tour with Saul Williams and whatnot, but that’s where we’ve gotten the biggest fan base. Word of mouth. Somebody sees a band and they really like them, they become obsessed with them and try and support them, so then they tell their friends and before you know it their friends are coming to your gigs. We do what we can. We run a lot of competitions and give the fans things and try to be as creative as possible.
With up and moving to LA, do you think it’s kind of a sign that the Australian music industry is struggling if even our own acts have to relocate to the US to really make things happen?
The US is definitely struggling itself, it’s just that there are different things to struggle with. I think for a band like The Red Paintings, it’s very creative and more left of centre; we were doing quite well with the underground scene, but we were never going to get to the place that I wanted the band to get to, so I made the decision to move to Los Angeles. What can I say about the Australian music industry. I guess the ARIAS said it all. Julia Gillard having to go out and give Kylie Minogue her award… I think it was a publicity stunt that was really kind of lame to be honest. I think you should stick to your politics. What I think is interesting and what I’ve come to realise more and more as I’m in this industry game, and I do call the music industry a game ‘cos it really is, is that it’s all about business. And when you’re bringing politics into it, Australia only really has the ARIAS and only really has Triple J when it comes to more alternative bands I guess, and now they’re bringing politics and business together and putting it all on the same platform and that’s really scary. It ultimately means that the one commodity, money, controls it all and that’s another reason why I wanted to get out of there. There’s just a bigger platform in the US for a band like us than there is in Australia and it’s probably better for us to keep the fans excited and come back once a year and be releasing new music and new videos and still keep doing exciting things and making sure that we still remember that we’re from Australia, well I definitely am. Seeing the Occupy Rallies and how negative things are, you’ve gotta be as positive as possible. I guess be aggressive in your music and try and create change through ideas and messages, but try and give hope as well. People want to be inspired and if you inspire people, they can do amazing things.
You sound quite inspired yourself. With the music industry being the way it is, what made you want to take the gamble and pursue being in a band?
I like turning negatives into positives, I find that a huge challenge, and I knew creating a band like The Red Paintings was going to be a real challenge and sometimes I wish I didn’t create it ‘cos it’s been pretty hard, I mean I work full time on this band, I haven’t stopped doing it. I started the band because I truly believe in art and music being a unit and I could see colours in music at a young age and so I started creating an idea, a project called The Red Paintings that was based on art and music and people painting and collaborating and the band being a form of therapy and helping people. The other thing to note is that we debate a lot of animal rights stuff, so we have people talking at our shows and discussing what we’re doing to animals on the planet and whether we should be eating them and why people eat them, and there’s a lot of fans that have created a community through The Red Paintings and have vegan/vegetarian communities where they’re helping each other with their diets and sending recipes and it’s a really cool thing that the band’s been able to create. It’s probably been over a thousand people that have gone vegetarian/vegan because of the band’s discussion, which I think is really good. It’s not about being religiously like a Jehovah’s Witness and brainwashing people, it’s just having a little think about what’s happening outside of your own space and realising there’s a lot more than meets the eye. What’s the point of just getting up there and playing music and taking money home and then buying a house? I’m not doing this to buy a house so to speak, I don’t live like that. Whatever money we make goes back into the band to do bigger and more educational stage shows or art performances through music. That’s The Red Paintings.
I actually read that the idea for starting the band, it all kind of came after you had quite a violent seizure about ten years ago now… What actually happened there?
In a nutshell, I was in a supermarket and I went into the meat section. I saw the minced meat and it started going really wobbly, and I was like, ‘Am I hallucinating? I haven’t done LSD or anything’ and then all of a sudden my eyes went to the back of my head and I can vividly remember that while I was in the seizure, it felt like I was falling really quickly down a tunnel and then I remember waking up in an ambulance. I think light came through and I woke up and the paramedics were asking me my name and my address and I couldn’t remember anything, so I had amnesia for at least half an hour, which is really odd. And the best way I can explain it, it was like there were bits of a puzzle, let’s say there were numbers, and they were really blurry but they were spacing around in my head and I could just make out what they were and they were getting more and more into focus and getting closer and closer to my eyes inside my head and I remember realising that my memory was coming back. I remember whilst that was happening, I was hearing music and I was starting to see it as colour. It was like someone had a paintbrush and they were painting the front of my brain. It was really bright and really obvious to me, and it just kind of clicked. I can now literally feel and see music notation as colour. I remember I came out of the hospital and my mum picked me up after a day or two and I remember just going up to my room, shutting my door, and I started doing all of these pictures all over my room and then I started looking at actual artworks. At the time, I was obsessed with Brett Whiteley and another artist called Mark Ryden, and I just started to look at their artworks and the brush strokes and the shades of green, and I started to find compositions and chord structures on guitar and violin that related to what I was seeing in my head. It’s really how the whole band and the whole idea started forming.
You’re releasing your long awaited LP, ‘The Revolution is Never Coming’, quite soon. You’ve spent five years working on it, so it’s been a long time coming. Is it safe to assume that you’re a bit of a perfectionist then?
[Laughs] I wouldn’t say I’m a perfectionist as I probably got 90% of what I wanted, but I guess what I can say is that The Red Paintings have never released an album. Here’s a band that’s been around for a decade working really hard and touring overseas and Australia, and we never gave our fans a thirteen track or a twelve track record. I feel like with our previous EPs I never really got to the level that I wanted to get to in production because we were either always getting rushed or we never had money. We’ve never really had record label money; no one’s ever really pumped the band cash, so to speak. And so I had this quest where I wanted to make the biggest most epic record of the songs that I’ve been thinking about my entire life right up ‘til today sort of thing.
What was the recording process like?
Well, I planned it all out on paper, I spent six months pre-producing it, and then I got an engineer and started raising funds for the record. In the end we raised about $160,000, just with bands donating $40 and some bands donating a bit more. We also allowed the fans to come into the studio as well, so we had a 45-piece orchestra, the Brisbane Philharmonic, and what we realised was that a lot of people are attracted to The Red Paintings because of the string section, and you’ve got string players out there who are really intrigued by the band, so we brought them on board so that people who had donated money could come in and actually play on the outside of the orchestra. We’d already done the score, so there was a 260-page score, so they just had to sit there and play it and we conducted them. In the end, it’s the best record I’ve ever made and it was a huge adventure and I don’t think that too many bands, especially in Australia, will work with a 45-piece string section. We ended up with 180 tracks and then we had to try and mix it. When you’re working with engineers like I was in Australia, who never ever make records this big, they don’t know how to compress things properly and all of this amazing colour that’s coming out of the instruments is getting neglected, so after six months I had this record in my hands and I was like, ‘Dude, this is not the production of Muse or Radiohead or these amazing bands that I love and it needs to be that good’. Red Paintings fans can’t wait this long and then get this record and go ‘Oh, the production kinda sucks’. I put the record in my back pocket so to speak and I took a plane to Canada and LA and started having meetings and five years later, I had to remix it eight times to get it right and but I finished it a few months ago I probably had my first big sleep and started dreaming again for the first time in five years. It’s really taken a massive gap out of my life. I gave everything to this record and I’ve lost friends from it and had family problems, I will never own a house in my life just through finances through the record and all the problems we’ve had, but I did it. I stuck to my guns. I said that I would create this record, I said it would be huge and I said it would have everything that I promised it would have and I’ve finally done it.
What actually is the message of the record? I know it’s titled The Revolution is Never Coming; what are you trying to convey with this album?
That’s probably the idea, that people would question it and kind of go, there’s revolutions all the time, or is there? I won’t go into it too much because I think when the record comes out, I’ll let people listen to all of the songs and then they can kind of come up with their own conclusion as to whether that title’s right for it, but in a nutshell, it’s a massive contradiction, because I believe there is going to be a revolution and I think there’s gonna be one last revolution for all humanity and it’s gonna change everything. It’s hard to describe, but the album cover really sums up everything as well. I can tell you that it involves Japanese geishas in astronaut suits. With preparing for the tour, we’ve been working so hard to get the new songs to sound as big as they do on the record, and so I’ve had to bring in two drummers, so we have the American drummer and the Australian drummer, and two drum kits playing this tour. I’ve never done that before. We have ten-fifteen minute songs that are like epic journeys, and to be able to have two drum kits and to be able to play off each one, it just really creates such a different vibe. It’s very exciting for me. It actually brings the songs back to life, because if you think about it, we’ve been working on these songs for five years and I’ve been hearing my voice over and over again and having to remix it, sometimes I can’t stand myself. I just want to rip my vocal chords out and put new vocal chords in. I’m just so over hearing it, but I’ve been able to reinvent everything and make it really exciting even for myself, which is a real challenge at times.
When you’re playing these longer songs live, is it particularly taxing or draining to do that in a live setting?
It’s emotional, and I’m a pretty strong character. I’ve been doing this for a while and when we tour we’ll do three or four weeks and play every night, so you kind of get yourself emotionally and mentally prepared before you go on tour. I can tell you on three big tours that we’ve done, I collapsed basically at each of the last shows. I didn’t realise that I’d been holding myself up and I’ve been put in hospital twice. I’ve had four seizures whilst touring and doing stuff for this band, so I think I do, I think I get emotionally distraught and I put so much into it, that my body holds out for me going, ‘Alright, you’ve got another gig, keep going’ and then at the end, my body just shuts down and myself and the band won’t talk for maybe four weeks until I come to again and then we start back up again. If you come to a Red Paintings show you’ll see that we just give everything. Most bands do, everybody’s trying to give the best that they can, but this band is a little more unique in the sense that you’ve got these painters and these people doing things in real time and reflecting their energies and creating this kind of diary with paint. I think it’s really awesome. I love it so much.
I read that music labels in both the US and the UK, they’re showing a lot of interest in the LP, but you seem quite determined to release it independently. Is there any specific reason behind taking this route?
There is, because I have my own ideas on how music should be marketed and I don’t wanna go down the norm and do it how everybody else is doing it, because I see a record lasting maybe two to four weeks on radio and then it’s gone. People have such a short attention span. I want to be able to control every aspect of this record and everything that it does, so until the record label sits down with me, and they give me a win-win situation, and they understand everything that I wanna do visually and agree with it and we do it, then I’ll just do everything on my own.
If you haven’t already, you can catch The Red Paintings art and music extravaganza at a venue near you:
The Black Paintings Tour
Wed Jan 11th – Factory Theatre, Sydney
Thu Jan 12th – Tuggeranong Alliance, Canberra (AA)
Fri Jan 13th – The HiFi, Melbourne
Sat Jan 14th – Fowlers Live, Adelaide (AA)
Thu Jan 19th – The Bakery, Perth
Fri Jan 20th – Railway Express, Darwin