Even in a world crowded with bands vying for your attention, The Red Paintings stand out from the melee. A band formed from the unique perspective of Trash McSweeney, a musician who, following a seizure, found that he suffers from a rare form of synesthesia that allows him to hear music in colour. Trash’s ensuing search to share his gift with the world via the potentially mundane medium of a band has led to The Red Paintings becoming one of Australia’s most unique, challenging and celebrated bands, to the extent that they were even the subject of a full-length documentary (‘seizure and synesthesia’ which documents the band’s tour with the equally intense Dresden Dolls). With a new album (‘the revolution is never coming’) available to order, The Red Paintings have been hitting the promotional trail and we were lucky enough to be able to pose a few questions, via email, to Trash McSweeney.
Sonic Abuse interview with Trash McSweeney of The Red Paintings
The Red Paintings are very ambitious in both sound and design, how difficult is it to achieve those ambitions and do you feel you’ve fully realised your potential yet, or are you still working towards a final representation of your vision?
I don’t think I will ever truly achieve what I see and feel in my head and heart, but I commit myself mind, body and soul to everything I do in the band and even outside of the band for that matter. The result of this is a completed album which I think is a true indication of my thoughts and beliefs on the planet we live in and its potential future. It really sums up my everything in all 13 songs. “The Revolution Is Never Coming” is about a beginning, an ending and a new beginning. There’s hope in it, but it’s a very negative record for the right reasons. It mentions certain subject areas that people throw about but never get serious about. They’re just words… This album is saying, “Well we’re actually going to do this! We’re not just going to say it for once.” For example, I’m launching the album in space. We put this project together around the world with 13 geisha balloons being launched in 13 different countries with the album attached to it, being played in real time. It’s going to go up to space, with cameras attached to it, streamed in real time to our website. Our fans around the world can see exactly what the balloon sees as it goes into space. We want to do more than just two or three tours and be done with it. We want to take it further. I looked up at the stars and thought, “why can’t I tour the universe?” And that’s what I’m doing. I’m sending my music into the universe. So yes – everything in TRP world is ambitious – but I think in this day and age you have to dig deeper to connect with people. Our hope is to do just that.
Given the importance of the visual element have you considered releasing a more multi-media style album (for example Beck released ‘Guero’ as a DVD with visual elements for every track) or do you not want to prescribe what the listener should see when experiencing your music?
Of course – but let’s start with the album first and then move on to more innovative ideas as we progresd. It’s so easy to jump ahead into new ideas, leaving what could be good ones behind in the excitement. I try to capitalise on all TRP art to the best of my or our team’s abilities. There is so much we have rolling out across the world that I don’t even know where to start sometimes.
The lesson that I learnt was, always stick to the vision that you love. Don’t compromise it. Even though it might take you longer than you think, and you might have goals set for a certain time in your life when you want to achieve them, you have to realise that you might not achieve them then. You can strive and go a little bit harder and a little bit longer. Maybe you’ll achieve them later? I’m an example of that. I said to myself, “okay, this band one day is going to have an orchestra and it’s going to make an album. I don’t know how we’re going to do it… I can’t even afford to put $2000 together to do an EP. But it’ll happen.” Years down the track, I did it, and I’m suddenly touring the world! I just did a world tour and I’m about to do another one! It’s so freaky for me.
It’s a matter of record that ‘The Revolution Is Never Coming’ was not easy to record. Recently a letter Steve Albini wrote to Nirvana has surfaced stating that one of the key problems with many producers is that they treat a record as a ‘project’ rather than an artistic statement and this makes it hard for the artist to truly represent themselves without interference – is this what you found when recording your album?
Actually trying to get this vision out of my head and onto an audiotape, CD, vinyl, whatever, has been an absolute mission and a nightmare! It took me five years to create a ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’ of an artwork in just an album. Just having to work with a 35-piece orchestra, choirs, and harpists… oh my God, the list goes on! It has been a really big task for an independent band financially and it was just so hard to find the money. We had to go to our fan base to get their help to support us financially. Working with people, producers around the world who had a different vision and a different idea of how to approach an album this big, was difficult for me. This is our first album, so it was extremely hard to get right!
Some artists find that it’s not just the creation of the music that is difficult, but also the specific sequencing of the record in order to make the whole piece ebb and flow across its run time – is that something that you found challenging?
Well as I’ve said before, some people write an album around a life – I wrote a life around an album. It took me on this epic journey around the world to create it. It almost felt like it really created a life of its own. However I already had my song order sorted before venturing into it, I knew the connection and collation of each song and for each song before and after it so it was just about implementing or mixing and creating each song or artwork so that it sounded and felt coherent. Kind of like watching all 3 Lord Of The Rings movies (or reading all 3 books) I guess. Previously we had some of the tracks released on EPs to keep the band moving forward, because we never had the resources to make a full length record. But to me it just didn’t make sense unless all the pieces of the puzzle were put together in one place on this album.
Obviously the internet can both take away the visual side of music (by encouraging users to listen without looking at album art) but it can also enhance projects by allowing videos and the like to be disseminated more freely – have you found it has helped or hindered The Red Paintings?
That I don’t know really. I think ultimately I would have preferred people to base their live experience of TRP on seeing it first hand through word of mouth. Sadly we have lost touch with that mystery in our time on the planet. In the past we have played some shows where we asked people to remove all technology and then handed it back at the end of the show. I found people were sometimes upset at first, but the end of it were thankful that it helped them to have more valuable and focused experience. It’s important we inject small wake up calls into our lives. I see that as one of my jobs.
If the album represents the ultimate expression of what you see when you hear music, to what extent is the vision compromised when you have to take your music to the stage? Is your use of painters on stage a way of developing spontaneous visual element that is the equivalent of what you experience and externalising it for the audience?
Yes it very much is. It’s about the audience member being able to capture a fragment of time that fits the moment. Inviting people to feel part of our world is an important experience for an artist or human canvas on stage and for us as a band. It keeps our shows constantly challenging, exciting and every show is never the same as the last. Plus there’s the fact we have an evolving stage show every tour with all new painters and ideas keep the creative juices flowing while and keep us constantly pushing our own boundaries.
Much is made of your interest in Dr Seuss – what was it particularly about that author that inspired you?
The political meanings behind his words and visual content. He really dressed up subjects of human disgust that I also do in my own way in TRP. I think Seuss and I are probably the same breed of people!
The Red Paintings are not a band that are easily classifiable – something that can lead to problems with a music press who love to pigeon-hole – and yet you have received a very positive reaction to your work – do you feel that part of the positive reaction is a result of the fact that the music you make is linked to the images that you see and therefore it elicits a very specific response in the listener?
It’s a hard question, because I think we all sound like everything and a repeat of history itself. There’s nothing that’s ever fresh, right? The only difference would be two things… the media have said a lot that we sound like “orchestral sci-fi art rock”, and I guess this was my mission for the band. I wanted it orchestral, to have a more sci-fi energy about it with all the sounds, and the art rock elements to make the compositions have a difference from your everyday norm pop music. The second would be our art-themed stage shows as I mentioned earlier.
Any final words for your UK fans before your tour in Nov/Dec?
It’s very important to me for our fans to collaborate with us on stage and to let themselves go on a canvas or body canvas. This has been the best way to bring unity between us and our audience. The art being submitted so far for our next UK and Europe dates are on par with the best I’ve ever seen – see them on our stage artists page at www.facebook.com/TRPartistpage. We’re always on the lookout for new stage painters and human canvases to join our creative circus, so contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved.the artistic delirium!