19th January, 2014

Interview with Michael in The Pen’s Eye View

It’s not easy to describe and categorize the style and influences of one Mr. Michael Cullen – the singer/songwriter based out of Australia (though born in England) has enjoyed a long career in the music industry, starting in the 90’s with bands like The Hardheads and Watershed. Through releases such as The Long Goodbye (1993), You Buried Me(1995), and Sour Pop (1997), Cullen’s musical palette started to take shape, and in 2002 with his first solo record, Love Transmitter, we finally heard what Mr. Cullen was all about.

However, as Cullen moves forward on crafting his latest album, we’re learning that his sound continues to evolve; the main goal being quality, not consistency. He says of the upcoming album, “I hope it’s something well crafted, something sincere, something romantic but with a nice quota of randomness too. Tim Powles (producer) is great with recognizing what is a good accident and then insisting that we keep it.” He told us more about his re-mastered album, Love Transmitter (re-mastered for us folks in the US), saying “I wrote the album one cold winter in my spare bedroom using a drum machine, a 57, a 58 and aforementioned Maton guitar recorded into what was then eMagic Logic…If I were to try and describe the music I make it would be in terms of an emotional and sensual palette…I want to make great records that will stand the test of time.”

Cullen and Powles are busy working away right now creating the latest offering, so keep an eye out. Click to to check out the tunes, and look for a local show as Cullen prepares to take his tunes from Down Under to stateside. There’s still much more to get into, so read on for all the answers to the XXQs below.

PensEyeView.com (PEV): How would you describe your sound and what makes you stand out from others in your genre?

Michael Cullen (MC): I have never understood what my genre is. Others may be able to detect patterns or tendencies in my music, but for me I just take each song as it comes and try to work it through to a satisfactory conclusion. If I were to try and describe the music I make, it would be in terms of an emotional and sensual palette, not whether its trip hop or indie rock or punk (and all those words have been used by people at one time or another) – I always liked the title of Frank Sinatra’s album, Songs for Swinging Lovers (great album too!), so maybe that’s a good enough description.

PEV: What kind of music were you into growing up? Do you remember your first concert?

MC: The Beatles Red and Blue albums, Abba and Neil Diamond were always on rotation in our house when I was a kid so I must have absorbed that stuff. The British post punk bands were very important for me – Joy Division, The Cure, The Psychedelic Furs, Siouxsie (all of those bands first 3 or 4 albums were influential – two in the case of Joy Division of course). Elvis Costello had a big impact from My Aim Is True all the way through to Imperial Bedroom. He was such a talent, so well read musically. In fact, the American Songbook, Mowtown, RnB, Country, the Brill Building and a whole lot of things influenced me through him even though I didn’t hear the original sources till much later. Bowie, of course, especially the Berlin period as well as The Man Who Sold the World and Scary Monsters albums, those two records more or less book ending the great run he had.

I live in Australia, even though I am English originally, so a lot of local things here had an effect. Early AC/DC (which is somewhat different to the band known around the world today) was very influential due to the brilliant pop production of their mentor’s Vanda and (George) Young, Bon Scott’s mischievous wit and Malcolm Young’s huge rhythm guitar playing. As British music fizzled in the mid 80s, the great generation of Australian art rock – the Go Betweens, the Laughing Clowns, the Birthday Party (and later Nick Cave) and the Church became my guiding light for a while. Much later I discovered artists like Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tom Waits and Miles Davis. It’s all in there somewhere.

The first real concert I went to was Elvis Costello and the Attractions This Years Model tour. They were cranky fuckers and played under an hour with no encore but my recollection is they definitely cut it. I have listened to live recordings from that tour since and it sounds like a bit of a mess but at the time it was like having the truth injected directly into my veins.

PEV: What was it like trying to break into the music scene when you first started? What was your first show like?

MC: I’m still trying to break into the music scene!! It’s always been hard. Everyone’s first show sucked and mine was no exception.

PEV: What can fans expect from a live Michael Cullen show?

MC: A Michael Cullen show is short on show business antics, no dance routines – definitely no twerking!  Maybe one day I will lighten up but my wife doesn’t think so.

PEV: What is the first thing that comes to mind when you step on stage to perform?

MC: My main guitar is an old Australian semi-acoustic, a Maton ES 330. It goes out of tune real easy and I always worry about that.

PEV: What is the best part about being on stage in front of an audience?

MC: When you have cut loose from the normal temporal constraints i.e when a show is going well, you are outside the normal rules of time, I think. You are perpetually in the moment as you have ceased to be concerned about what just happened and what is about to happen. In the world that we now live in, that is a beautiful thing.

PEV: What is the underlining inspiration for your music?

MC: I want to make great records that will stand the test of time. In recent years I have spent a lot of time listening to the Beatle’s back catalog and, apart from the moments when I find the standard of their work intimidating, I take inspiration from their resolve to keep moving ahead and concentrate on making the next fresh piece of sonic art.

PEV: Thinking back to when you first started out, do you ever look back on your career and think about your earlier days and how you’ve arrived where you are today?

MC: Yes, but the real thing that matters is recording the next song.

PEV: What’s one thing we’d be surprised to hear about you?

MC: I make a great lasagne. If you are ever in Australia…

PEV: What do you do when you hit a brick wall in your writing? What are some methods to get over that?

MC: I can’t say I really hit brick walls. My output has been reasonably modest over the years so I haven’t ever felt the well was empty. I have had a fairly standard working approach for a long time.I am not one to write a song on an acoustic guitar or a piano. Typically, I build from the beat on some kind of drum machine (the dumber the better), slip some chords over the top and then a phrase or two will pop out of my head and after that it’s just perspiration and time. From start to finish, most of my songs take months, even years to complete even though the kernel of the song may have been created in 30 minutes.

PEV: How do you think the industry has changed over the years, since you first started out?

MC: There is not a single thing that hasn’t changed – delivery media, business model, consumer attitude, everything. In previous decades, the owners of the vertically integrated music industry (EMI, Columbia etc), for all their numerous failings, did know something about music and had some kind of belief in themselves as ‘artistic’ enterprises. Over the last decade and a half, all of those companies have been absorbed into industrial conglomerates who wouldn’t know a good song if it bit them on the arse. It is a positive that as the profit margins have shrunk, the number of profiteers and gatekeepers has also decreased. But where to from here is anyone’s guess.

PEV: What can fans expect from your upcoming release, Love Transmitter? What is the writing process like for this album? What’s the story behind the name of the album?

MC: Well I hope something well crafted, something sincere, something romantic but with a nice quota of randomness too. Tim Powles (producer) is great with recognizing what is a good accident and then insisting that we keep it.

I wrote the album one cold winter in my spare bedroom using a drum machine, a 57, a 58 and aforementioned Maton guitar recorded into what was then eMagic Logic.  The following spring I went to Tim’s studio in Glebe in Sydney where he was also using Logic as the central DAW which meant we could load my demos straight into his system and then recreate what we needed to but also retain what was good. A lot of stuff on the album is from the original demos. It was a great time in my life coming out of the period in which the songs were written.

The title of the album is drawn specifically from the song “Transmission” and works at a number of different levels. I would prefer the listener to come to their own conclusions.

PEV: With all your traveling, is there one area you wish you could travel around and play that you have not yet?

MC: Well, part of the reason to re-master the original Australian release was with a view to the US market, so logically that is my next destination.

PEV: How have all your friends and family reacted to your career?

MC: They are not particularly fussed one way or the other. They don’t confuse the art with the artist.

PEV: What can we find you doing in your spare time, aside from playing/writing music?

MC: I don’t see how any time is spare when life is such a finite commodity. So I generally reject the concept of relaxing, hanging out or going on ‘island holidays’. Having said that, my wife and I like listening to Miles Davis records, listening to chansons (French songs) with our children and watching BBC adaptations of John Le Carre’s novels. We are watching the 1979 version of ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ at the moment and it is very juicy.

PEV: Name one present and past artist or group that would be your dream collaboration. Why?

MC: Would love to make a record with Brian Eno and in the past with George Martin. These men are, in their very different ways, great enablers in the recording studio who can see how to get hard things done, but they must also have ability to let things happen in a constructive way and really importantly they have great taste. Their respective contributions to the musical body of work that you might broadly call ‘western pop’ is peerless.

PEV: Is there an up and coming band or artist you think we should all be looking out for now?

MC: I don’t feel qualified to judge; I have put all my time into making my own work as good as it can be – I have no idea what is going on out there. My favorite live band at the moment is The Beasts of Bourbon and they’ve been going for 30 years on and off.

PEV: If playing music wasn’t your life (or life’s goal), what would you do for a career?

MC: If I hadn’t joined a band when I was a teenager, I would have gone to law school, which would have meant at this time in my life I would have a whole different set of problems. So I guess I can be thankful. I am thankful.

PEV: So, what is next for Michael Cullen?

MC: I have been working with Tim Powles again as well as English producer Danton Supple on my next album and it has been very inspiring having such great collaborators. The record will be out some time next year. It will be a beauty!

read the original interview here

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