Sydney's Purplene reflect on small-time success and working with Steve Albini
Sydney’s Purplene didn’t exactly hit meteoric heights in their time together. But their modest fanbase was, and still is, incredibly passionate about the angular, complex
The undoubted peak of their time together was the release of their second album in 2004, a self-titled effort that served as something of an ultimate distillation of the band’s wide-ranging sonic ideas.
This week, for the first time ever, that record will be issued on vinyl through independent label Hobbledehoy Records. In many ways it’s peculiar timing; the band broke up over 12 years ago and haven’t reformed since.
But it’s an opportunity that the band has waited 14 years for, ever since they cut the record with indie rock overlord Steve Albini at his Electrical Audio studios.
“We always envisaged that it would come out on vinyl, that was always the intention,” vocalist and guitarist Matt Blackman says. “From the minute we decided to go ahead and make the record in Chicago, the whole idea was that we would make a record that would be released on vinyl.”
But the logistics didn’t match the idea. Vinyl was scarce in 2004 and pressing a new release was cost-prohibitive.
“The opportunity just never arose,” Blackman says. “Nobody was putting out vinyl back then. We're all so into vinyl - we always have been - and we always felt like vinyl would be its spiritual home.”
A re-release of an old album serves as a perfect opportunity for a band and its fans to revisit a piece of work that they perhaps haven’t engaged with in some time. For a creator, this can be especially profound. For the first time they can hear their work with a sense of distance.
“When you make a record, you become so deeply entwined with it that you lose a certain objectivity,” Blackman explains. “You know it so intimately that you can't really see what it’s like for other people to enjoy it.
“It has retained a vitality that we hoped it would.”
During that time – it was before careers or children or families came along – it was the number one thing in our lives.Matt Blackman — Double J, 2018
It’s also a chance to reconnect with their younger selves. Reflecting on their time as a band, Blackman recalls their dedication in spite of never anticipating it to be financially successful.
“It was pretty all-encompassing at the time,” he remembers. “I can't really speak for the other guys, but we worked together a lot and were all best mates.
“We've always worked fulltime, none of us have ever been professional musicians who relied on our bands for our income and nothing has ever really changed in that regard.
"During that time – it was before careers or children or families came along – it was the number one thing in our lives.
"It was a massive passion of ours and we were really keen and psyched to make the best possible record that we could.”
The lead-up to making Purplene was an especially busy time for the band, as they ensured they arrived at Albini’s studio ready to roll.
“We rehearsed a lot, spent a lot of time writing and refining and demoing in a way that we never really did previously,” Blackman says.
“Having the pressure of going to Chicago to make a record in a really short timeframe was a really good way to just sharpen the focus of what we were trying to do. It was really good in terms of discipline and getting us on the ball.”
So, onto Albini. The guy who made amazing records with Nirvana, Pixies, PJ Harvey, Mogwai, Superchunk and quite literally hundreds of other bands, many of them of incredibly high repute.
Albini fans are a dime-a-dozen. But Purplene’s decision to pool their pennies and work with the great man was thanks to a specific side of his talents.
“At the time, we were listening to a lot of really sparse, mellow stuff,” Blackman explains. “Like Labradford, Low, Ocean Songs by Dirty Three, and a lot of his minimalist records.
“We were really into the idea of taking our weird, angular guitar music into that domain and embracing some of that space.
“He was pretty much in a league of his own in terms of the music we were listening to and the vibe that we were after. It wasn't very hard for us to sit in a room and decide who was our sound engineer of choice. The Australian Dollar was pretty strong at the time, which made it easier.”
The Albini tag generated some interest, but the release of Purplene came after years of building their following. Combine that with a record of undeniable quality and it’s hardly a surprise that the band scored some notoriety as a result.
“We were really psyched at the response. I seem to remember the album launch we did at the Newtown RSL was sold out. There were hundreds more people than ever came to any previous show when the album was launched.
I'm always nicely surprised when I find out that people are even familiar with the band.Matt Blackman — Double J, 2018
“It felt like a really nice, momentous result for what we had done. It's hard to gauge how much of that was because the record was great or whether people were just interested in the Albini tag.”
Popularity aside, the most redeeming quality of the record is what it sums up about Purplene as a band. After all these years it still feels like a perfect snapshot of what they brought to the scene through the late 1990s and early-2000s.
“I think that's the reason we made it a self-titled record,” Blackman says. “We felt like it expressed who we were better than anything previously. It summed up who we were and who we wanted to be as a band. I felt an amazing sense of achievement with it.”
The band’s eventual split, just months after the album’s release, wasn’t due to any acrimony. Members were spread between Newcastle and Sydney and the effort became too great.
“We were all just feeling like we didn't want to keep doing the long-distance band thing anymore,” Blackman says. “We were all keen to start something new. It felt like a natural end. It certainly wasn't anything dramatic or personal or controversial.
“We're all still awesome friends. That was the hardest thing really, knowing we wouldn't have that opportunity to catch up and hang out as mates as regularly.
“We felt like we'd made the record of our dreams, on many levels. We'd done everything on our own terms. We didn't feel like we'd done anything we regretted or felt weird about. It was the right time, I guess.”
The profound impact the band had on its fans belied its modest success. People did, and still do, adore Purplene, both live and on record. The band may be in the past for its members, but its fans haven’t forgotten them.
“I'm always nicely surprised when I find out that people are even familiar with the band,” Blackman says. “It's the ultimate thrill to hear that music was personally affecting or influential.
“Even if you can get one or two people to have some life-changing moment listening to something you've done, you've done your job as a musician. We're really happy to get those little messages over the years.”
And, maybe, we’ll even get to see a Purplene show some time down the track.
“We might,” Blackman says. “We've been talking about it as a possibility., It's just a matter of whether we can all be in the same room at the same time. We're not gonna rule it out just yet.”
Purplene is out now through Hobbledehoy Records