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:: Spotlight :: Paul Mac - Creating His Own Musical Boundaries

By: Carmine Pascuzzi

Paul Mac is one of the leading electronic music figures in Australia, having being a part of the musical groups, Itch-e And Scratch-e, Boo Boo And Mace, The Lab, and The Dissociatives. Paul has received ARIA Awards and several nominations and has worked alongside many of the country’s top performers. He has recently released his second solo album, again bringing together some of Australia’s fine female voices, plus a couple of international singers. For the first time, he has brought in a male vocalist, Luke Steele of The Sleepy Jackson. The new album is titled ‘Panic Room’ and I caught up with Paul in Sydney as he prepares for a series of shows around Australia.

You seem to produce music ahead of its time…

I am just trying not to sound like “now”. I make music that’s real and not sound dated in five years time. It’s not for a particular period. Hopefully, it is honest and connects with people.

Were you surprised by the success of the first album?

That took me completely by surprise. Until then all I’d done was weirdo music like Itch-e & Scratch-e or produce albums like Kiva. A few thousand people would have heard them. Then, to write an album of songs, which I thought would do the same as those previously, and get a great reaction, came as a shock.

Several of those songs struck a note with the public…

Yes, it was simply writing honest music from the heart. People do react to that and hopefully it becomes hugely popular. If you try and write music to be popular, you fail.

You had success with The Dissociatives in between the two solo albums. Was that the project you had to do?

I think so. The first album did catch me off guard and I thought, “What will I do now? How do I top that?” For about a year I thought that I couldn’t do anything as good as that. I was trying to write hits instead of writing songs. Then The Dissociatives just happened at that time. It was the best thing that could have happened. It meant that I had time to think of what to do next. The Dissociatives was so much fun and so musical. It was a good learning experience that, when I came back to doing my stuff, I felt free again. That gave me the freedom and impetus to do some of the more melancholy material on this new album. I could experiment a bit further. It’s more electronic than the last album. I missed some of the bleeping. I’ve been listening to different rhythms and not just house or techno music. There is more R&B and hip-hop coming through too. I wanted to be a bit more playful and rhythmic. I was enjoying writing the rhythms this time – new sounds and something personal. I didn’t want to sound like anyone else.

You moved back into the city to do this record. How was the change in lifestyle again?

I didn’t want to repeat myself. The Blue Mountains time was cool, a really good period in my life. I did lots of thinking and managed to get my name sound together. I worked on lots of ideas. I loved the last album and it wouldn’t have happened had I not moved to the Blue Mountains. I was there for about five years and then it was time to move on. By returning to the city I surrounded myself with different people and a different energy. I was writing different things.

How do you work your ideas into songs?

Nearly all of these songs start off on a piano. Then I get on my motorbike and let the idea go around my head. The melody then falls into place. Bit by bit the words fall out. The mood comes before I take it into the studio to add the sound and rhythms. I get a vocalist to paint it. You just let it build.

Sarah McLeod and Luke Steele perform a couple of the more interesting tracks. Sarah’s song has a dreamy, hypnotic feel and you can hardly pick Sarah as the vocalist. Luke sings a song that has a special meaning for you…

When we finished Sarah's track we used it as a bit of a game. I’d play it and ask people, “Guess the vocalist?” Nobody would get it right. I love taking singers out of what they normally do. The same occurred with Luke Steele. I’d never heard him without guitars. It was great fun to put them into a different atmosphere.

Luke’s an inspired choice for the track in question…

Yes, I met Luke backstage at a silverchair concert. Sleepy Jackson (his band) supported them. We got on really well and he has an interesting voice. I filed it away in my head for when I would need a male vocalist. When this particular song was written, and being a very personal song, I needed a male vocal to represent my perspective and I just called Luke to see if he wanted to give it a go. He did an awesome job. A few months later he said that he couldn’t get the song out of his head. He came in and did it a second time and it sounded even better.

How long had you worked on the follow-up album?

The whole process for the album has taken three years. One of the reasons it took a while was because of the last track. It is sung by Abby Dobson and has a baby girl’s voice. It’s my goddaughter - Andy Rantzen’s child. That song has been going for three years. I tried her out when she was 3-years-old but she was just too young. Now she is 6-years-old and just right to do it. From New Zealand there’s Aaradhna. I heard some demos of her and loved her voice. From Papua New Guinea there’s Ngaiire. She was on Australian Idol and I tracked her down to try out a song. Then there’s Lenka, from Decoder Ring, who has a gorgeous voice. I got her to do the song ‘Panic Room’. We also tried ‘Heaven’ as well. She has an interesting voice and it worked well on these songs.

You also have the remixes disc…

Yes, I love the Itch-e & Scratch-e one. It’s the first thing we’ve done in about five years. I just rang Andy and said, “Do you wanna do a remix?” It was bloody hilarious. It’s so much fun doing that.

How do you see your maturity as an artist over the past fifteen years?

I really like being at the point now where I have got better at what I do. There is more discipline about my ideas, my mixes, and my arrangements/production. You can hear what I do now, and with The Dissociatives, building a body of work. People make sense of what you do and identify with you. With The Dissociatives you can’t even tell what I was doing because Daniel was singing. You can hear the different personalities come through. I just got better at expressing the personality. ‘Panic Room’ has this mood about it that is 100% me. This is what the real Paul Mac is like. Because I am not singing, it gives you a freedom to write the lyrics in a way to explore your personality and mood. I can cast a vocalist in that part. It’s a good way of working.

You’ve had a good time touring The Dissociatives this year…

The Dissociatives shows in Europe were a killer. For the Australian tour we did, we were still working out how to do it, but when we got overseas it worked better because we were together longer and had it planned well. It sets us up well for the next time. There will definitely be a second Dissociatives album at some stage. It’s total musical freedom.

What have you got planned in bringing the album to the live stage?

I’ve assembled this awesome band of different players that I like and backing vocalists. I’ll have at least three of the lead vocalists available and some of the shows will see some of the locally based artists get involved, like Sarah and Lenka in Sydney perhaps. If Luke’s around, he’ll jump up too. It will be a big band. I’m looking forward to it now, more than the last time.

Check our What's On Gig Guide for Paul's national tour dates.

He will also feature in a live webcast on Monday, November 28, which will be shown on Australian television in the next few weeks. Keep an eye on your TV guides for Live At The Chapel each Tuesday on Network Ten, plus FOXTEL channels.

For more information, visit

www.paulmac.com.au