Anyone with even a passing interest in the Australian music scene over the past decade should be aware of the work of Brisbane musician Ben Salter, although which of his diverse array of musical projects they will have encountered is another matter entirely.
After a nerdy adolescence spent in the dusty garrison city of Townsville, North Queensland, Salter’s ambitions drew him south to the Brisbane, where after a few false starts he formed self proclaimed ‘intelligent hard rock’ outfit Giants Of Science in the late nineties. Still a going concern, the Giants have thus far released two critically acclaimed albums and a pair of EPs, as well as performing with the likes of The MC5, Swervedriver, McLusky, JSBX and Radio Birdman.
In 2004, after five years of intensive touring with Giants, Salter began performing with a disparate group of like-minded musicians he’d met at a weekly open mic night he hosted. A few hastily arranged recording sessions later, The Gin Club was born. With their unique amalgam of folk, rock, country, soul and pop, this free-wheeling collective – featuring no less than seven singer/songwriters – have released four acclaimed albums and played nearly every festival on the Australian circuit, as well as taking their music as far afield as the United States and Canada.
Never one to knowingly sit still, Salter also found time to write and record two albums with another collective of sorts, The Wilson Pickers, whose strong songwriting and captivating live shows quickly earned them a swag of fans around the country, as well as an ARIA nomination for their debut album Land Of the Powerful Owl.
Then there are the six albums recorded with garage skuzz merchants The Young Liberals, and numerous other collaborations and short-lived outfits such as The Hi Waves, Fatal 4, and Megafauna.
Yet all the while, in parallel to all these other projects, Salter continued to write, record and perform his solo material, songs that either would not work in any other format or he was reluctant to part with. And now, after a decade of empty threats, he is finally releasing his debut album under his own name, The Cat.
Recorded and produced with Gareth Liddiard and Robert F. Cranny at Liddiard’s rural studio in Havilah, Victoria, The Cat is easily the most assured work of Salter’s career. Whilst occasionally (and understandably) reminiscent of his other incarnations, The Cat is its own beast entirely, an intoxicating blend of avant-garde pop, rock and folk that is at once conventional and defiantly odd.
“Gareth gets bored pretty easily, as do I…”, says Salter. “So we just wanted to approach these songs, some of which are over ten years old, in an unconventional manner. Thus, no hi-hats. Hurdy Gurdy, saxophone.. Swedish bagpipes! The songs themselves aren’t terribly radical, to be honest, but the treatment is pretty strange in parts. It’s not black metal, but it’s not Wet Wet Wet either.”
Salter had no shortage of friends to call on for help when it finally came time to put The Cat together. Gin Club alumni Gus Agars and Ola Karlsson played drums and bass respectively, while the quest for weirdness led to him employing legendary Melbourne jazz saxophonist Julien Wilson, multi-instrumentalist Peter Novotnik, and Australian rock’n’roll luminaries Joel Silbersher, Tom Lyncolgn and Steve Hesketh.
“Tom and Joel, not to mention Gareth, are absolute legends, people that I really admire and look up to both as musicians and as people. So I was thrilled when they agreed to be a part of the project”, Salter says. “Most of the songs were kind of in place as far as arrangements and lyrics and stuff, but my work with The Young Liberals in particular has made me realize the importance of organized chaos, for want of a better expression; something random. So we set aside a day to get (Tom & Joel) up to Havilah to do some overdubs on some of the songs. I’d become somewhat taken with Scott Walker through the documentary, 30th Century Man, and particularly with the revelation that Walker would often not let his musicians hear much (or all) of the tracks they were working on before recording their parts. So I endeavoured to do the same with Joel and Tom. There were no guidelines, no playbacks before their takes and a maximum of three passes at each song. I wrote out the chords for them so they weren’t completely in the dark, but that was it. I didn’t answer any of their questions regarding whether they were doing the right thing or not. And the results were stunning – Joel’s Korg flourishes on West End Girls or the duelling guitar parts on The Cat… you just could not plan that stuff, it was exactly what I was after. I was in heaven.”
The Cat covers an extraordinary amount of musical terrain over the course of its ten songs, the layers of sounds and textures giving the songs a depth that far transcends the already considerable beauty of the compositions themselves. The title track is a case in point, a stunning composition with some of the most powerful lyrics Salter has ever put to paper. “’The Cat’ features some of my own favourite lyrics. It started out as a poem that came to me very quickly after I spied one of the neighbourhood cats being tormented by a gang of crows or magpies. I could see the cat plotting dreadful revenge and it was kind of tragic. The music took ages and ages though, trying to get some chords and a melody that would suit the song. But the addition of Julien’s sax solo really took the song into outer space.”
With this album, Salter begins an exciting new chapter in what is already an illustrious and highly decorated career.