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Mood making for real: Q&A with Surprise Chef

Surprise Chef crafts mood-evoking music, blending vivid arrangements with influences from 70s film scores, jazz funk, and hip-hop samples. The majority of the band lives together in a Melbourne sharehouse, which informs their process. We caught up with band member Lachlan Stuckey to get a better idea of how exactly their magical sounds are created, and what we can look forward to at their show in Noosaville next month.

Photo: Izzie Austin

The Shelter: Your music creates a feeling of ease, and at other times darkness. What do you hope your audiences experience listening to your music?

Lachlan Stuckey: I think the honest answer is we’re probably more concerned with executing the musical vision than exactly how people will feel when they hear the outcome. Whilst our music is definitely intended to elicit an emotional interpretation, our goals when making the music exist within musical parameters rather than the listener’s interpretation. I really like it when I can focus in on specific elements within an arrangement, like listening to the bass part or the vibraphone part, as well as enjoying the piece as a whole. I hope that people can have that experience with our music.

Photo: Izzie Austin

TS: Each song seems a bit like a journey through time. To what extent do you know what you're playing when you're on stage and to what extent is it an adventure? Are there improvisational elements?

LS: Our music is pretty heavily arranged, so when we play live there’s a considerable focus on executing the arrangements accurately. With that said, we try to put an emphasis on being in the moment and not just going through the motions when we play live. I think it’s important for the tunes to maintain structure and focus throughout a gig, otherwise things can easily become jammy, meandering or directionless. At the same time, we want to make enough space within the arrangement for the players to feel empowered to express themselves on the gig.

The improvisational element often manifests itself in dynamics, which is to say that we tend to play passages within tunes loudly or softly depending on where the energy is going during a gig. Lengths of sections are also often subject to improvisation; sometimes we collectively feel an urge to stretch out and sit on a given section for longer than usual, whilst other times we might move through sections more quickly. It’s about striking the balance between maintaining commitment to the arrangement and keeping things fresh and authentic to the moment.

Photo: Izzie Austin

TS: You're like a community of musicians. What are the collective inspirations that inform your work?

LS: We’re always motivated and inspired by the stuff everyone else in the crew is making. Hudson is constantly making amazing records with his other projects The Pro-Teens, Brenda and Karate Boogaloo. Henry Jenkins who produces all our records makes ridiculous music as JNBO, as well as being in Karate Boogaloo and Frollen Music Library with Hudson and Darvid Thor from KB. Those guys have made countless records together that have inspired Surprise Chef, dating back before Surprise Chef existed. The Putbacks are the real deal when it comes to instrumental music in Australia, and nothing puts the wind in our sails like seeing them play live. Watching them play reminds me why soul music turns me on so much. We’ve taken a lot out their playbook, especially the way they communicate on stage. They always give the sense that they’re just having fun playing together; they’re not playing up to the audience, rather the audience is simply observing them doing their thing. That’s dope.

Other shit we love includes Emma Donovan, Ella Thompson, Brainstory, Menahan Street Band, El Michels Affair, Lady Wray, MF DOOM, David Axelrod, Barrington Levy, Frollen Music Library, Ahmad Jamal, Wu Tang, Liam Bailey, Let Your Hair Down, Jackie Mittoo, Missy Elliott, Curtis Mayfield, and on and on…

Photo: Will Hamilton-Coates

TS: We're loving the Friendship EP. We can hear low dynamics and everything feels delicate. What technical elements do you draw upon to create your atmospheric style?

LS: Space is really important in our music. It’s almost always better to play less than more. Problems within an arrangement can often be solved with the addition by subtraction approach. We make our records on tape, start to finish. Pretty much everything is recorded live together, with only a few overdubs. This means we have to play the tunes really well as a unit, because nothing can be tidied up on a computer. That’s a big factor in our records sounding the way they do. We record to 8 tracks, so the number of ‘things’ we put on the tunes is limited, which stops things getting too dense.

Photo: Izzie Austin

TS: We hear you all live together in the same house in Melbourne. What's it like to live, work and play in the same home? How does this feed into or impact your creative process?

LS: Three out of five of us live in a house in Coburg. We rehearse and record in the house, so we spend a lot of time together there. We generally play together at least once a week. I think living, working and making music together has meant we’ve developed a genuine sense of togetherness and a greater understanding of each other’s personalities and emotions. I’d like to think that comes through in the music. The sense of everyone respecting each other’s space should be represented in the arrangements; everyone is giving everyone else room to be, not pushing in front of one another or stepping on toes.

Photo: Izzie Austin

Together with Jet Black Cat, we're bringing Surprise Chef to the Sunshine Coast to play Noosaville 8 December. Get you tickets here.



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