"My creativity comes from a level of obsessive compulsion": Q&A with Josh Pyke
Let me take you back to your high school days. You're sitting on the school bus in the morning, shooting emotional, longing glances out of the window. You're feeling sorry for yourself (because you are 14) and you just remembered that you forgot to bring your permission slip for a vague school excursion that you're meant to be going to. Sigh. You plug in your I-pod Mini (or were we up to the shuffle then?) and let the soothing tones of Josh Pyke's Middle of the Hill lull you into a state of calm. He always had your back.
We had the great pleasure of catching up with Josh this week ahead of the regional leg of his Memories and Dust tour, celebrating ten years since its launch. Doesn't that make you feel super fucking old?
Josh dished out some frank advice for budding creatives, told us about the time he punched a dude in the throat at one of his own gigs and confessed to some illegal activity from 'back in the day' that was spurred on by pure laziness.
What can we expect from your upcoming Memories and Dust tour?
It’s going to be the Memories and Dust album played in full, from beginning to end. I’ll be playing solo on the regional run, which is going to be fun. I’ve been doing it with a band for the first run but I think doing it solo will be an intimate and different experience because it will be me playing the songs exactly how they were written originally. I’m looking forward to presenting them in that way.
…and you’re taking a break from touring after this regional leg, what’s next for you?
I feel after a solid 12 years on the road it’s time to take a step back from being out on tour. I’m thinking of it as a long service break. I’m looking forward to having more time. Over the years there have been a bunch of projects that I’ve wanted to get into more deeply but they always get interrupted when I head out on the road so it will be nice to focus on those.
Can you tell us a little bit about those projects?
There’s a bunch of stuff that I want to do; a bit of film and TV stuff. This year I was working on a kid’s TV show with Justine Clarke from Playschool. We wrote a bunch of songs together and I produced and performed them, it comes out in November. I found that to be a really gratifying project to be part of, so I want to do more of that kind of stuff. I’ve got a couple of children’s books that I’d like to pursue and I’ve also been working on a project with an amazing Australian author called Margo Lanagan. We're making a concept album; she’s going to write the lyrics and I’m going to write the music. Beyond that, I just want to be around to take advantage of opportunities as they come up.
Other than through your music, how do you fuel yourself creatively?
I think it’s really important for creative people to be open to everything. You’ve got to fill your creative tank back up. It’s a matter of going to galleries, reading a lot of books and, as clichéd as it sounds, I always like to get out in nature to inspire myself. At the end of the day, my creativity comes from a level of obsessive compulsion. I’m compelled to do creative stuff and I feel wrong in my soul if I don’t do stuff. I’m always writing or doing something that feels right creatively. Even if I’m just playing with my kids, we will do creative stuff like building something in the backyard or rigging up a weird pully system. I just feel like I can’t stop being creative, it’s the thing that gets me up in the morning.
What has been your most memorable performances, for either positive or negative reasons?
One of my most memorable gigs, for negative reasons, happened just last year. I was playing at a place called San Remo down near Phillip Island. It was a solo show and the crowd was really rowdy and drunk. Things ramped up and some people jumped on stage while I was singing Middle of the Hill, which was fine, I was kind of trying to roll with it but then someone stepped on my guitar pedal and it turned my guitar off, which killed the song. Then this guy came up and put his arm around me in this really proprietary way and started singing into the microphone, “Hey Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind, Hey Mickey!” and I just lost my shit. He was in my personal space, randomly singing drunken shit into the microphone and so I punched him in the throat.
I sent him flying back into the crowd and I felt really, really bad about it but in that moment I had felt really threatened and invaded, so I just responded. That was the last song, so I just left and went back to my hotel room and I felt really ashamed of myself because I hate violence. So yeah, that was probably my most memorable gig...
I can’t believe that it’s been 10 years since your first launched Memories and Dust. What has been your proudest moment over those 10 years?
There have been so many moments. I recently had to write down a list of achievements from my career for an interview and I don’t often think back on that stuff in a consolidated way. As an Aussie male, I had this reluctance to feel proud of myself, but I did feel proud in this moment. I thought about how I’ve release a whole bunch of albums, I’ve won awards and other kinds of stuff, so I feel really proud of that. My proudest achievement though is that I’m still doing stuff at a high level after ten years. I also feel really proud of the JP Partnership grant that I started to give emerging Australian musicians money and mentorship. The people that have won that over the last couple of years, like Gordi and Alex Lahey, are absolutely kicking arse. They’re touring around the word and releasing albums with critical and commercial acclaim. So, there has been heaps of stuff that I’m proud of but the most important thing is that I’m still able to do it all.
I know that a lot of people in their 20s, myself included, grew up listening to your music. Memories & Dust takes me right back to my high school days. I’m curious to know what artists or bands shaped your experiences as a late teen into your early 20s?
In my teens I was exclusively listening to punk and heavy metal, I was a grungy kid. Soundgarden was my favourite band. I was in a band called An Empty Flight for years and we played that type of music up until I was about 24. It was the greatest band that never was.
When I was about 21 I heard Elliot Smith for the first time and that really changed things for me. I remember hearing ‘Waltz#2’ and just thinking, “Wow.” It reminded me of all the stuff that I used to listen to from my parent’s record collection when I was a kid first discovering music like: The Beatles, The Beach Boys, James Taylor and Jackson Brown, all that kind of stuff. When I first heard Elliot Smith I was interested because he was someone who was a modern contemporary artist doing stuff that sonically and aesthetically sounded like The Beatles but it has a modern edge; it just really struck a chord with me and that informed where I went after I finished writing punk songs.
What advice would you offer to people in their 20s who are wanting to pursue a creative career but aren’t quite sure how to take that first leap of faith?
It’s a tough question but I think you really have to trust your instincts. The bottom line is that every person that wants to do something creatively thinks that they are good enough to do it and the reality is that not everyone is good enough.
It’s a harsh reality but we see it all the time. You know, a mate will pick up a guitar around the fire and his friends will say, “You’re amazing, you should try and do some gigs,” and then you can spend a lot of time pursuing this type of career and not really getting anywhere. My advice is quite harsh, but I do stand by it, if you’re absolutely compelled to do it and you feel like your soul is going to be sick and that you’ll be a sick person, mentally, if you don’t pursue whatever creative avenue that you want to, then you just have to throw your hat in the ring. You take the hard path and try to make it happen. I don’t have specific advice on how to make that happen because that’s different for every person. You need to apply for grants, get a shitty job, spend time honing your craft because if you do that, all the other people that aren’t as compelled as you are will eventually drop off and you will emerge as the leader. If you’re just really passionate about it and you love doing it but you could equally do something else, I would say relegate it to being a really passionate hobby and you’ll save yourself a lot of heartache.
There are some people that need to be artists and there are some people that just want to be artists. You have to want to do it from the second that you wake up in the morning.
The bottom line for me was that while I was trying to be an artist, all of my mates were getting degrees and having well paid jobs. I was a solid 10 years behind everyone else before I started being able to earn a living as a musician. Thankfully it went well and I was able to provide for my family and create a home but I often think about how bloody lucky I am. It’s why most artists who get a break will work three times as hard as anyone else because they’ve been standing on the edge for so long.
Is there a specific song of yours that you have a special connection with over others?
There are a few. You can’t really go passed Middle of the Hill, it’s about my family and it’s completely auto-biographical. It’s also the song that kicked the doors open for me when I was starting out. Then there’s also Lighthouse Song, which has a lot of meaning for me. It’s hard to pick just one because all of my songs are wrenched from my soul, you know what I mean?
What’s the dumbest thing that you did when you were in your 20s?
Oh my god, so many things! You mean illegal stuff? I stole a car once because I was tired and I didn’t want to walk up a hill in Bronte.
Kate Neilson is the founding editor at Twenty Something Humans and loves to eat her breakfast in bed. She's a list maker and a booty shaker and can be lurked @katiepotatierose.