Words By: Laurent Shervington
Following the release of his third solo album ‘faulty landscape’ under the name Ermine Coat, we swapped questions for answers with Alex Griffin about influences, names, Robin Thicke and happy endings.
What’s in the name ‘faulty landscape’?
Haha, it’s a weird answer. But the name came from a Duchamp artwork, a readymade named Paysage Fautif that he sent privately to Maria Martins, a woman he had shared a relationship with when they were both married. It didn’t wash up until many years later, I am told. I was extremely taken with it visually – it kept sticking in my craw – but I found out waaay later that the piece was comprised of (from the catalogue) “seminal fluid on Astralon, backed with black satin”.
This threw me, but it began to chime with the themes that were in the songs, which takes some explaining. Justifying? Like, the title can be translated as faulty landscape, and ‘fautif’ I believe also has connotations of ‘incorrect’ or ‘offending’? So it’s this very self-reflexive thing – ‘this is a pretty gift, it’s also my semen, which is also totally gross, but, I am aware of this, but this is an expression of my deep and complex and also very simple feelings,’ maybe – so it sits in this ridiculous no-man’s land of being like, Marcel, what the fuck, and also maybe loving, maybe tender.
Like, I don’t know what Maria thought about it, or whether she knew what Marcel was painting with, but she kept it. And like, so many expressions of desire or affection are complex or contradictory; for example, when you tug on your boyfriend’s hair or something, or tease someone or pinch your Person’s arm when they’re not paying attention – that is to say, whatever things you can do to or with them that is something they’d never let anyone else do – so much intimacy translates as permission to act out unacceptable or transgressive desires, which then paradoxically just brings you closer together. I was reading a lot of Adam Phillips, I should mention,
It’s weird because we define pornography on that ‘know it when you see it’ scale, but like, the erotic, when it happens in space and time – or what I really mean to say, like the personal-intimate – is that which you couldn’t really identify on the surface, because it’s all mentally charged. It’s private, it happens between the ears, just like that Duchamp, but it also means interacting with an object or a person, in space, to express or reveal our feelings about someone.
Like in Eileen Myles poems where she talks about someone’s “new white hair”, it’s not the white hair – that’s aesthetic – it’s the fact of the ‘new’, of change, of just recognising the fact of them being alive and in flux and close. “I want to read the words you circled over and over again,” in ‘Each Defeat’. Things become magical once and because they’ve been touched, you know?
There’s no way to know that his little bit of body-painting is semen until you’re told, that this is not just an image, but like, amorous and emotional longing in all its gross, Twitter DM level raw and wild need. And it’s the same with any like, longing gesture that could be read as just, picking up a frying pan in someone’s kitchen when you are waiting for them, or watching a clock in an airport, or seeing a strand of someone’s hair caught in your jumper as you’re walking to the bus stop.
Like, have you ever just looked at the way someone hung up a shirt as they left their room and walked to go and shower, start the day or whathaveyou, and been left staring at this shirt, just hopelessly, hopelessly in love, staring at a shirt which is completely innocent in this whole mess? It’s just a shirt!
And a lot of the songs were on some level about trying and giving or receiving or unwittingly taking something to/from someone you love, and not knowing how you’re receiving, or what you’ve received, or given. Are you on the same level, or even in the same language? So the idea of Duchamp’s present, a lover’s gift which has this whole range of semiotic and like physical and grotesque meanings which are completely not transparent chimed with me. It talked about the impossibility of like, a piece of communication being fully understood by both parties in a conversation, but still expressing the necessity of trying to show or give someone you love all your nerves thrown on a screen, but not giving everything away, either.
I used to think a lot about that bit at the start of A Tale of Two Cities where Dickens writes about rushing in a carriage through a great city at night past the graveyard, and the thoughts of those beneath the ground being as remote, abstract and unknowable as those warm, living people trying to sleep on the seat across from you. How do we know? I guess the idea is that you stop reading Dickens and you just come to know someone, the real live warm true thing in front of you, as best you can and you try and figure out a way to trust each other that means you don’t need to be checking in and thinking about those basic planks, you can focus on getting to the deeper, harder, truer things, but all along the way there are all these slippages of not knowing, and it was those thorny, misstep-like things that I wanted to think about.
And that’s what faulty landscape felt like it was telling me, what Duchamp was trying to say, in his own, gross way, and it was those things I was trying to figure out when I was making music, those feelings that fall down the side of the fridge. And there’s the layer that most people probably wouldn’t know what it meant until it was explained to it, so I liked that. Though I really didn’t want to call it faulty landscape because of the whole fact that it relates to a dead white male artist’s cum, but it’s a lo-fi album, so irony, right???!
Compared to the rest of your catalogue the majority of lyrics on the record seem more first person and anecdotal, was this something you found creeping into your music or a decision you made when composing the songs?
I think it’s really important to be specific, but at the same time I wanted it to read (at least on paper) gender neutral. Like it is first person and anecdotal, but a song doesn’t feel finished to me until I’ve kind of scraped me out of it to the point where it feels like just a situation floating in space, like I’ve dissociated myself out of the painting.
Detail is so important!
I think proper nouns and colours and times of day are things you need in lyrics if you’re trying to tell stories or convey like, things that necessarily aren’t eternal or universal but experiential, like, whatever is not an MBV song.
Love and falling out of love is a consistent theme on the majority of songs here, does releasing the songs carry any kind of therapeutic effect to you in this regard?
The first song on the album I wrote a long while ago now, and I sat on it because I was kind of overwhelmed by it, it meant a lot. But the rest work differently. I only sing because I am really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really bad at talking about what needs to be said, or knowing how I’m feeling, or understanding like, anything. I guess I am not really looking to promote it much after this, it’s just there, and if someone gets something out of listening to it, that will be a good thing. It’s just getting stuff out of my system, to call something learnt and move on.
Re: the theme you point out, I was re-reading I Love Dick by Chris Kraus a lot while recording, and trying to understand all of the valencies and ways or making art about emotions that you’ve experienced in dialogue with other people, without directly imbricating or like, trying to dominate or silence or speak for the person you’re speaking from, without constructing the Other and like covering yourself in emotional glory. I was trying to think about the photonegative of her work, because that’s really important reclamatory work that comes from a completely different subjectivity to mine. I thought about not just doing anything anymore, but I can’t, I feel like I have to keep making art, it’s compulsive, I lose my shape without doing it.
But, imagine being Sara, Dylan’s ex-wife, having to listen Blood on the Tracks. That’s ridiculous! It’s ridiculous music. A CORKSCREW! TO! THE! HEART! And if you’re like, a young white male with a guitar, you’re instantly entering into pretty much the most histrionic tradition of music there is. So much is beyond hysterical, and I kind of was like, ok, draw a line, try and think like you’re outside of the action, not trapped within it, tread gentle and try and see what’s where. So like for example, Uneasy Riders is about three people not talking to each other, and it’s first person, but at the same time, it’s sort of present and past tense. It’s more of trying to map out a feeling than cry out the feeling.
Do you believe in happy endings?
So my instinct was to be like, “but that’s a construct of narratology, which is necessary post facto and a construction, Todorov, no conclusion!!!!!” but then I realised that’s why I’m an awful person, and I cried a lot after going to see Carol – like, all the way out of the cinema and then from East Perth to Coolbinia – so yes, very much. But no one and nothing owes you one.
Given the fact the record jumps between lo-fi styles so effortlessly it’s hard to narrow down a consistent influence on the record as a whole, what artists/bands/people stand out as direct inspiration on the album?
It’s kind of weird because whenever I write music, I’m really conscious of everything I’m referencing, like every part is connected to something else I’ve heard, so it’s hard to actually decide to make the music because it doesn’t feel like it belongs to me until it’s finished. It’s all just collage to me.
But Instinct by the Moles! It’s this weird early 90s Australian pop record made in New York by a guy Richard Davies who sorta quit music to become an industrial relations lawyer in Arizona? Something like that. I think Hamish Kilgour is in there somewhere. It’s like a heap of Bacharach songs trying to tear themselves apart.
The records my friends have made though, really; Katharine Daly from Platypus Freaks and Crotch, Laurel Fixation, Sam Atkin, Golden String, Emlyn Johnson, Leonie Brialey, Shit Narnia, A.R. Jones, so many people. Having really talented people who can describe the world you’re in together and aren’t unforthcoming about sharing it is really important to me, it’s the opposite of loneliness. Beth Common’s songwriting in pool boy has been a big thing for me — like, to just out and fuckin’ say it, especially when the thing you need to say is actually incredibly hard and awful.
And then there’s the stuff I’ve been obsessed with since I was sixteen, like Young Marble Giants, Cat Power; there was a period where I was just listening to ‘In This Hole’ like, Howard Hughes style in my room over and over. Chloe Escott and the Native Cats! I started listening to a lot of Nina Simone, Drag City, 70s Neil Young and Joni.
How do we abet the ego? The alternative is to play big riff psych rock, and I think that’s the worst thing you can do in 2016. But I don’t know how to have fun.
There’s some pretty tasty synthesizer tones on there, what did you use for those?
I am really not technically minded at all, which is why I am very grateful that Mitch Henderson put some tones on my Microkorg for me back in 2013. I’ve just been using them since. Rupert from Erasers gave me a Casiotone which features very heavily on ‘Splendour ’04’. Most of them were from the Garageband app on my iPhone though, which I gave a 5 on the app store.
The final track ‘Robin Thicke Alone in the Studio’ is an incredibly unique track both instrumentally and lyrically, where did that one come from?
The song is built from a pitched and slowed-down sample of Robin Thicke’s “Sex Therapy”. I guess I made that sample two years ago, so I’ve been sitting on it. Thicke released a dreadful album that was targeted at ‘getting back’ his ex wife, and I was horrified by the ego and blindness and cruelty involved in that, the idea that millions of dollars would be spent on what was basically a dragnet for a straw man, all in the name of love.
I guess I was playing with and imagining through this kind of framing the Artist at Work, and how process and intentionality and content can totally diverge, and trying to imagine just how he was trying to build this awful, awful mountain through all of the work of putting an album together. There’s an early Smog song called ‘Prince Alone in the Studio’, so my song co-opted that, which was fun to bounce off. To use your art as a personal and kind of sexual weapon when you’re someone in that position is so bad it’s perplexing. Please do not sue me, Robin.
Turning to the live setting of your music, how can we expect to experience the songs in your upcoming live date (April the 3rd) at the Bird?
I don’t like performing. What I would really like to do is do a set where I just walk up and sing a song a capella and then walk off and then sit down, and then someone else can sing something they need to get off their chest, and then we keep taking turns until last call. Not the whole song, just enough to convey what they mean. Does this sound like a really twee AA meeting?
I realised too late in life that I get really moved in musicals for a reason, I used to resist that feeling a lot. I want to talk to the animals. I still believe that Zac Efron needs to get his head in the game. I’m not want to live forever and will give showbiz a try and a red hot go. And at the risk of sounding like Bing Crosby’s weird cash-in autobio, there’s nothing finer than people permitting you to sing to them. It’s maybe because I don’t know how to tell people anything, I think, so I have to sing about it, and maybe why I’m answering these questions in so much detail. The problem is that making an album can take a very long time. So hiding anything at a gig seems pointless.
What’s lined up in the world of Ermine Coat after that?
Main priority is new Mining Tax record and tour (hopefully June) and sorting out the Fruity Whites full-length ASAP. Workplace Safety are putting out the insanely gifted Hayden’s record soon as well, which is very exciting. I may put a band together for this record.
But I have another record written in my head, though I need to walk around with it in my head for a little while longer. The idea is that it’ll be very minimal, like Chloe Escott’s, except with like, uh — I’m trying to teach myself to arrange for brass properly, because that was sort of my ‘own the Denver Broncos’ thing in life. Also I don’t own a guitar at the moment. I think it’s important to just use what’s at hand, so I’ll see what falls in my lap.
Stream ‘faulty landscape’ in it’s entirety here
Ermine Coat will be playing The Bird on the 3rd of April, the Facebook event is here.