The Level Spirits

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The Level Spirits


Julian Matthews, guitarist and songwriter with The Level Spirits, says his expectations for the band he formed a couple of years ago were focused, if not particularly elaborate.

Julian Matthews, guitarist and songwriter with The Level Spirits, says his expectations for the band he formed a couple of years ago were focused, if not particularly elaborate. "Honestly, we just wanted to get together and have a blast," Matthews figures. "I wanted to do a really good record with the sounds and styles that we liked." It’s a pithy – and sincere – attitude that shines through on The Level Spirits’ debut album, Double Crosser . "If we were flicking through a stack of records, The Level Spirits record is one that we’d like to play," he says of how the band arrived at their specific sound.

Long before he formed The Level Spirits, Matthews experienced his own roller-coaster rock ‘n’ roll journey as bass player in legendary Australian garage band The Stems. Matthews grew up in Perth, and joined The Stems in the early 1980s. The Stems’ career trajectory took them to the heights of independent fame and national acclaim, before the intensity of the touring experience, and associated personality conflicts and industry expectations, saw The Stems implode in 1987.

"I had no idea of what to expect when I started playing in The Stems," Matthews recalls. "I was only about 17 or 18 when I first started in The Stems – things were completely different then."

After The Stems’ demise, Matthews teamed up with fellow Stems member Dom Mariani in the DM3, as well as playing in a "stacks of other bands" around his native Perth. "The time I had in Perth was work for me," Matthews remembers. "I had a business, so that was a focus." He moved over to Melbourne for a while, before returning to Perth. When The Stems decided to reform in the early part of this century, Matthews returned to his role as bass guitarist.

By the time The Stems called it a day in 2009, Matthews had returned to live in Melbourne. He set about forming a band to take advantage of his burgeoning interest in songwriting and performing. "When I moved back to Melbourne I had no idea of what I wanted to do," Matthews says. "So I just started looking around."

He quickly found a group of like-minded souls, comprising Mark Mansour from Melbourne psychobilly band KingPin 440 on bass, Robert Urban on drums and Molly Jean Morrison on vocals. Indeed, Morrison had previously managed a burlesque troupe and, while familiar with the performing caper, hadn’t previously sung in a band. "Molly had done performance before, and she’d always wanted to get something together," Matthews explains.

Initially The Level Spirits "learned a whole lot of covers" before the bands look and feel evolved. "After Robert joined on drums, the band changed to become more swampy," Matthews points out. Despite The Level Spirits’ strong ’50s rock ‘n’ roll-meets-’60s garage rock sound, Matthews figures that there wasn’t necessarily an overt style in mind. "I listen to a lot of stuff, and that’s just how it turned out," Matthews says. "That’s how I play guitar. Mark plays double bass a bit like an electric bass, and Molly’s voice lends itself to a bluesy sort of sound."

The Level Spirits have been anything but idle in their performing guise. In the one and a half years since the band’s formation, Matthews estimates The Level Spirits have played "50 or 60 gigs". With the band now having enough experience and songwriting to drop a set of original tracks (as well as a few choice covers), The Level Spirits headed into the studio to record Double Crosser. "We recorded the album, and then we went up to Sydney and did a stint there with Wayne Connolly and Rob Younger," he explains.

Matthews had known Younger for many years, dating back to the 1980s when Younger was Citadel Records’ in-house producer. "Rob’s got such an amazing musical knowledge," Matthews acknowledges. "I’d mention one band that we wanted the record to sound like, and he’d throw ten back at you," he laughs. Connolly and Younger’s contribution was subtle, but important. "They gave it a polish," Matthews admits. "They made some things pump a bit more, but there wasn’t any radical change."

Matthews is currently organising The Level Spirits’ first overseas tour, which will take in Austin, Houston and Los Angeles. "I’ve got no wish to be any particular type of band," Matthews explains. "So far the whole thing has been pretty organic." With the benefit of various international contacts built up from his years playing and touring with The Stems, augmented by on-line media, Matthews says The Level Spirits has already attracted a reasonable amount of overseas interest. "I think it’s a bit of both contacts from my Stems days, and through the internet," he admits. "We’ve got some songs on MySpace and clips on YouTube, and there’s also a bunch of friends and acquaintances."

In the 30 years since Matthews started playing with The Stems, the music industry has undergone radical change – to put it mildly. "I suppose the most significant change has been the move from vinyl to CD, and to digital downloads," Matthews muses. "I think that’s been both a good and a bad thing. Our record is on iTunes, so people can buy it immediately, but at the same time people can also download illegally."

The changes in recording techniques – especially the advent of digital recording tools that can be utilised by unseasoned musicians and producers – has also had an impact. "Even for a rootsier band like The Level Spirits we’ve been able to take advantage of the changes in recording techniques," Matthews points out. "I suppose if I was starting out now with The Stems we’d probably be using technology more to get our music out there."

Back in the here and now, and Matthews and The Level Spirits are focused on upcoming gigs – including the band’s overseas sojourn – as well as well writing material for a second album. "We’ve probably got about half of the next album written," Matthews says, "but we’re holding off doing the record until we’ve done our overseas jaunt." And there’s plenty more gigs to be played locally before then. "Melbourne’s incredible for music," Matthews gushes. "You have places overseas like Austin, where there’s an amazing music scene – but I reckon Melbourne is as good as, and maybe even better."

THE LEVEL SPIRITS launch their un-fucking-real debut album Double Crosser with The Exotics and Wolfy & The Bat Cubs at The Tote this Friday February 11. They also support Imelda May at The Prince Bandroom on March 11. Double Crosser (it was album of the week in Beat a couple of weeks back) is out now through Barely Legal Records.