Nonsemble – Spaceship Earth EP (2016)

Label: bigo and twigetti
Format: Digital and CD
Release Date: 24/03/2016

Nonsemble’s Spaceship Earth EP is a set of unlikely pop songs exploring themes of modern failure. I wrote these songs for Nonsemble (piano, violins, viola, cello, bass, drums) with a guest vocalist on each track. The vocalists are all Brisbane artists who I’ve admired for a long time, so it was very exciting to collaborate with them.

It’s a kind of experiment in the art-pop song – the arrangements are complex, full of tricky rhythms and intricate string quartet details, but the songs themselves aim to be immediate and accessible.

We produced, recorded, and mixed this EP ourselves for the most part, aside from the drums recorded by our friend Tom Green and the mastering which was done by Mike Marsh at the Exchange. I mixed it with the help of Briony Luttrell, Nonsemble’s cellist. The artwork is by rumoko.

The lyrical themes conceptually run on from Practical Mechanics, critiquing 20th-century ways of thinking about the world as an entirely rational system that can be understood in systems of discrete symbols. There is a lengthy exegesis here for those who wish to delve deeper.


Chris Cobcoft for 4ZZZ

Nonsemble, is a group founded on the premise of blurring the line between classical and indie music. Two musical labels that are troubling enough by themselves are pressed into a sweaty, overly intellectual and potentially even more troubling whole. That wasn’t enough for Chris Perren and his large crew of conspirators, who have loaded down Nonsemble’s back catalogue with even more burdensome ideas: concept albums interrogating western zeitgeists or compositions based around the mathematical principles of a game of Go. It’s a good thing they make pretty sweet music because the odds of getting away with all this are pretty slim. One of their biggest advantages, in all of Chris’ prolific output you’ll always notice his innate ability to nab catchy hooks -useful for someone who’s trying to bring indie-pop qualities to the complexity of classical- and it’s a quality which never gets lost amongst the conceptual baggage.

Audiences have taken to the poppier elements of Nonsemble’s music and with particular enthusiasm to their regular covers of well-known folks like Bon IverSigur Rós or Sia. I think the group were a bit bemused, finding themselves being celebrated as a covers band. Every now and then it must have felt a bit less like the Brodsky Quartet collaborating with Björk and a bit more like André Rieu doing ABBA.

Fortunately, on their latest release they’ve found a way to have their pop and receive all the royalties too; well, most of them anyway. Spaceship Earth is about as literal an evocation of chamber-pop as you’re ever going to hear. It’s helped in this endeavour by collaborations with a roster of local indie-pop stars taking the vocals duties on every track.

Never fear, it’s still a concept record: this time Chris has waded into the work of Buckminster Fuller, popular 20th century architect and thinker (he came up with Geodesic Domes! #Future!). Spaceship Earth is his own term and with it he tried to capture the idea of the planet as a complex set of systems that needed careful maintenance in order to run. At the time it was a great way to get people thinking about unfamiliar concepts like ‘the environment’, but it was also a bit naive, utopian and rooted in the idea that men, thinking and machines would fix it all. Honestly, it’s a problem we’re still grappling with and here, Nonsemble are having a go too, with music.

On first listen to the EP, unless you’re being very careful, I swear you wouldn’t know what it’s about and that’s not a problem. Whatever its conceptual pretensions, Spaceship Earth is some of the most immediate and inviting indie-pop I’ve heard this year. Teaming up with all the singers was such a great idea.

Hungry Kids Of Hungary and Rolls Bayce frontman Dean McGrath just kills it in the chorus of TruckseaMalo Zima’s Amela Duheric makes a more wistful contribution to a more melancholy song in Unkind, but the strings, piano and her yearning tones recall the better bits of Regina Spektor (and those are very good). Shem Allen, formerly of art-pop livewires Skinny Jean pulls one right out of the hat on a track called Bricks, after a long, slow burn, he finds his Jeff Buckley, flying all the way up to a high E. I wonder how many times that one will be performed in public? Cam Bower of prog-rockers Big Dead goes the opposite way, channelling Thom Yorke at his most exhausted, allowing the strings to play an energetic counterpoint on Sovereign Murders. Closer, Somnambulists, has Little Scout’s Mel Tickle doing an urgent, bittersweet but finally optimistic duet with Shem Allen and still sounding as sweet as her former band ever did.

I wonder if it required just a little stylistic nudge or a huge shift in thinking to get Nonsemble to make a solidly chamber-pop record? You can still hear the Philip Glass loops rolling round in the orchestration, but, often this feels like a whole new thing. These are hardly weightless pop songs, but they’ve got the hooks; it’s good to have those multiple layers, giving staying power down the track if – like some of the ideas of Buckminster Fuller- the immediate shine starts to fade. At any rate, Nonsemble are never shallowly utopian and although this is just a little EP, it does sound like a sweet new era for the band.

Independent Clauses

Classical music has a long history of being intense; The Rite of Spring nearly caused a riot on its debut. But “intense,” “aggressive,” and “forceful” are probably not words many people think of when thinking of music for strings today. Enter Nonsemble, a chamber orchestra from Australia. Their Spaceship Earth EP wrecks expectations left and right, from their inclusion of kit drums to their revolving cast of vocalists to their powerful arrangements.

“Bricks” moves from an oddly syncopated piano line supported by kit drums to a roaring high point with dramatic strings and Shem Allen belting out “Monsters!” at the top of his lungs. “Trucksea” also gets pretty wild at its conclusion. “Sovereign Murders” (not your grandpa’s classical music titles here) includes speedy violin bowing and abstract, almost math-rock patterns for the rest of the strings. When a hip-hop kit beat comes in, the song is something completely other: Nonsemble has transcended the labels of chamber orchestra and indie-rock altogether.

Even when Nonsemble chooses to conform to the traditional understanding of chamber-pop with rapidfire pizzicato notes and delicate melodies (“Sonambulists”), they do with such fervor and panache that it doesn’t feel like anything else happening. If you’re into strings, adventurous listening, or Joanna Newsom-style re-imagining of what indie-rock means, Spaceship Earth should be on your radar.