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The Mess Hall

When it comes to producing an album, it’s all about compatibility of styles. So when The Mess Hall announced that Burke Reid – of electro-indie stalwarts Gerling – was making his producing debut with their second album Devil’s Elbow, it was hard to see what he would bring to the band’s fuzzy, grungy dirt-rock.

The fears were groundless – Elbow combined the chunky riffs of Jed Kurtzel, the driving drums of Cec Condon, and Reid’s electric roots with accomplished ease, and won them the Australian Music Prize. So much so, in fact, that they brought him back for their third album. For The Birds sees the band losing some of their power-chords in exchange for softer, bluesier numbers, and FasterLouder spoke to Kurtzel about the new album, working with Reid, and why his favourite night involves the Foo Fighters.

“It comes pretty naturally,” says Kurtzel of their writing style. “We do it in a different way than most bands do it. We just sorta work in a rehearsal room for a year or so and just keep writing bits and pieces – sometimes whole songs, sometimes just odds and ends. It’s never been something that we’ve set out to do, it just sorta naturally happens. We tried doing it the other way and it never really worked for us, so we stick to what we do best.”

And since there’s just the two of them, do they have to put in extra effort to make new songs sound different from previous works, since they only have the two instruments? “Yeah, definitely. We work pretty hard with different rhythms and processes. If we can get the song sounding great with just the two of us, then that’s great. We’ve never really thought about getting a third person – we’ve never really had a problem. Not that we haven’t been tempted, but our kinda thing is that if we wanted to do that, we would.”

And so how does this album compare to their first two? “I think it’s just as good, but it’s a different kind of album. The only preconceived notion was to make something more groovy, rather than four-on-the-floor. We’d been listening to a lot of – œ50s stuff, so we weren’t really influenced by the straightforward rock stuff that we had been before.”

This time round, Burke Reid has a swag of credits to his name, but in 1997 he was making his production debut. “The last one, that was the first thing he’d ever done, so it was taking a risk,” Kurtzel confirms. “But that was the way we wanted it to be, and along the way we felt like we were making good mistakes.”

“We wanted to do something different, and since we knew he’d done some other albums, and gotten that practice, so we felt really comfortably that he’d be able to do something different with us.”

Unfortunately, Kurtzel says we probably won’t see a full Mess Hall tour until February. “At the moment we’re working with bits and pieces – pretty much just kinda getting these songs up, and working out the best way to play them. The shows will be in clubs, or pubs, or other spaces, so we’re trying to figure out the best way to present the songs, depending on where we are.”

And what is Kurtzel’s favourite Mess Hall show? “It’s hard to say – it depends on the circumstances. One of our favourite shows ever was Meredith, I think in ‘05 or ‘06, and it was midnight on a Friday night, and the crowd was just getting into it so much. I guess that’s the reason you do it, you’re always chasing that kinda show, the one that blows your mind.

“The other one that stands out is the night we played support for the Foo Fighters, and then raced across town to play our own show. Both of the crowds really got into it, at both places, so it was great to just play to so many people in one night.”

For The Birds is out now on Ivy League Records. The Mess Hall play the Beck’s Festival Bar in Sydney on Friday 15 January.

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