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Youth Group booking


Sydney band Youth Group’s story-to-date reads something like a three-act play. The first act begins in 1998, with founding members Toby Martin and Danny Allen forming an indie rock band that releases its debut album ‘Urban & Eastern’ in 2000. Out of print since 2003, the album will be re-released in July 2006 after the band discovers not only are secondhand copies going for up $90 at Redeye Records, but that they themselves no longer have copies. ‘Urban & Eastern’ establishes Youth Group as one of Australia’s best kept underground secrets.

Cut to the second act of the play and things aren’t quite as rosy. Occasional shitty gigs, money issues, day jobs and departing members make things a little tough, and it takes the whole of 2003 for the band to get it all together and record its second album, ‘Skeleton Jar’. But what a record it turns out to be.

The release of ‘Skeleton Jar’ in April 2004 ushers in the third act, and marks a turning point for the heroes of our play. With the album garnering four and five star reviews, the word on Youth Group begins to spread, and listeners are transformed into true-believers by the skill and warmth of the extraordinary songwriting.

Guitarist Cameron Emerson-Elliott (ex The John Reed Club) and bassist Patrick Matthews (ex The Vines) join the cast shortly after the release of ‘Skeleton Jar’, while world-renowned LA record label Epitaph offers the band a US/Europe deal in December 2004, even though they’ve never seen them play live.

Tours in the US and UK follow, with American band Death Cab For Cutie becoming fans and offering Youth Group a support slot on a leg of its sold-out US tour in October 2005. It’s also thanks to Death Cab guitarist and producer Chris Walla that a copy of ‘Skeleton Jar’ falls into the hands of the music director of TV show ‘The O.C.’ Single ‘Shadowland’ is played on the hit drama, and the reaction is so great that Youth Group is invited by ‘The O.C’ to put its own stamp on the 80s hit ‘Forever Young’ for a crucial scene in the show.

It’s at this point that the tale veers down an unexpected path. Starting out at community radio and JJJ, ‘Forever Young’ is then used in an O.C promo and suddenly every radio station in the country has added the track. The single goes on to reach #1 on the ARIA singles chart in the first week of April 2006 and achieve platinum sales.

And so the stage is set for the band to release its third LP, ‘Casino Twilight Dogs’, on July 15. Again produced by Wayne Connolly (You Am I, The Vines, Dallas Crane), ‘Casino Twilight Dogs’ is a career-making record for Youth Group.

Tracked in Sydney in December 2005 and February 2006 and with the recording completed and mixed in LA in April 2006, the album follows the examples set by many of the great recordings of the past – recorded live-to-tape wherever possible. ‘Forever Young’ was recorded as such, and it was this method that informed the album’s concise arrangements.

All up, ‘Casino Twilight Dogs’ is about experimentation and the first single, ‘Catching and Killing’, is the boldest example of this. The song’s story is one of process and method. Originally Cameron came up with the title and the riff. He’d made a drum loop with samples from The Stone Roses and Arab Strap and laid some close-harmonised guitar parts over it. From there, as Toby says: “I tried to write some words from the title. The lyrics began as a cut-up of Australian Shooter magazine and ended up as a drunken free-form rant in the studio. We cobbled together a version from about 30 takes.”

The second track is ‘On A String’, a song that walks the line between off-the-cuff breeziness and an intricate concentration of ideas. Toby explains the song thus: “The words are what you would say to your therapist if you wanted to impress them with your wit and objectivity.” Musically taking the Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ record as inspiration, the guitar parts fit closely together, the bass part is doubled on a six-string bass as it was on much of ‘Pet Sounds’, and numerous over-dubs of 12-string guitar and Mellotron and the like are orchestrated together in a baroque and roll exercise.

‘Let It Go’ is a stand-out track. Shirley Simms (Magnetic Fields’ ‘69 Love Songs’) adds harmonies and the band blows out an arrangement finished only minutes before recording. Youth Group played hundreds of shows following the release of ‘Skeleton Jar’ and ‘Let It Go’ is a song that was partially inspired “on the road”. Toby explains: “We’d stopped in Eau Clair, Wisconsin, for the night. Cam and I went to a bar to blow off some van cobwebs. While waiting for my beer a huge dude with a flat top took my head between his hands. Like a grape in a vice. He said my hair was disrespecting the American troops. Cam said it was like he was on the edge of a nervous breakdown. I felt like giving him some sort of new-age lecture, ‘Man, just let it all go… feel a white light travelling through your body,’ and watch him breakdown into atoms in front of me.” ‘Let It Go’ is that message.

The song that most reflects the time that Youth Group has spent overseas is ‘The Destruction of Laurel Canyon’. Says Toby: “Musically, this was originally two separate songs. After about a year of not being able to finish either I had the idea to join them together, thus not having to finish them at all. Lyrically, it is inspired by the Los Angeles mudslides of February 2005. That was the first time we went over and met Epitaph. Epitaph’s music room at their Sunset Boulevard offices was destroyed by a mudslide just days after we were in there playing them some new mixes. It’s not supposed to be a ‘see, this is what happens if your life is too decadent. God will punish you’, but more about destruction and rebirth in general -  the dance of Shiva. I actually quite like Hollywood and I don’t wish it to slide anywhere.”

Start Today Tomorrow’ is the song Toby is most proud of writing for ‘Casino Twilight Dogs’. In his words: “A paean to idleness. It came from a phone conversation. Jane my girlfriend was putting something off and said, ‘maybe I’ll just start today tomorrow’. I wanted it to sound like a rainy day that never begins.  It only ends.” The song also features new directions for Youth Group: a beautiful string arrangement counterpoints the melody while LA session legend Carol Kaye (who played with the Beach Boys, Elvis Presley and the Ronnettes to name but a few) lends a traveling bass-line.

Dead Zoo’’s macabre title came from the mouth of Toby’s cousin’s 3-year-old who called the stuffed animals in a museum a dead zoo. In recording great care was taken to augment the chiming live guitars with 12-string over-dubs to get the shimmering, sparkling guitar sound.

The stomping ‘Under The Underpass’ is explained by Toby thus: “Sometimes I have an image of a real place in my mind when I write a song. This is very much a ‘Canberra’ song, even though I wrote it in Perth. Freeways, storm water drains, and overgrown median strips – this is about the geography of teenage trysts. It’s also supposed to be the musical version of a Bill Henson photograph.”

A few of the songs on the record are written in character – ‘Daisychains’, ‘Sicily’ and ‘Sorry’. Says Toby: “In ‘Daisychains’ I imagined myself as someone much tougher and dismissive than I am. It actually didn’t come out as misogynistic as I thought it might. ‘Sicily’ I never thought of as a ‘serious’ song. It’s got the word ‘babe’ in it. I wrote it more to entertain myself than anything else. Then I played it to Danny and he said he couldn’t believe I’d written it. I took that as a good sign. ‘Sorry’ is a splenetic, sarcastic apology to a wandering lover.”

Toby says of ‘TJ’: “This was written after TJ Hickey’s death in Redfern. TJ was a kid who died after falling off his bike while two cops were chasing him. At the time there was a lot of talk about whose fault it was – TJ’s or the police. I wanted to write something about how it felt to live so close to where something like that happened. And how it was so easy to forget it happened at all. And how it was easy to pretend I wasn’t involved. But we are involved in what happens in Redfern. Sometimes taking sides and laying blame is a way of negating our involvement.”

Youth Group booking 2


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