Interview: Tam Vantage

by Chris Liberato

Laughing Gas & Apple Pie and picking up where Pop Singles left off

Photo credit: Kayley Langdon

Laughing Gas & Apple Pie is the record that Tam Richards-Matlakowski, solo artist and bandmate to many in Melbourne’s fertile indie scene, has always wanted to make. 

His third album under the moniker Tam Vantage picks up where Pop Singles, the much-loved and moody indie rock trio he fronted in his early twenties, left off almost a decade ago. But probably not in the ways that fans of the band’s sole LP, All Gone, would imagine. ‘We never felt like the album represented what we were like as a band,’ Richards-Matlakowski told me via Skype about the album’s stark, jangly sound. 

‘We were pretty aggressive and harsh in our live shows. A lot of people didn’t get a chance to hear it.’ The band was doing a similar thing, he thought, to a couple of groups from Brisbane with whom they occasionally shared bills: Kitchen’s Floor and Per Purpose. Pop Singles’ true sound went largely undocumented save for a few compilation tracks and a lone YouTube clip.

When I clicked on the link to this rare footage he emailed me, the first thing that came to mind was Nirvana’s video for Smells Like Teen Spirit: harsh basement lighting, lots of hair bouncing around, a lanky bassist teetering across the floor on the balls of his feet. A then 20-year-old Richards-Matlakowski, with his red Rickenbacker slung low, looks like one of those kids from any town: rail-thin, shaggy hair, dark baggy clothes, gloomy aura — the guitar-playing frontman in a rock band, naturally.  

An interesting shift in energy happens about three-quarters of the way through the clip when drummer Ashleigh Wyatt (who went on to front primal punkers Red Red Krovvy) stops playing. While adjusting her kit, she mouths something to bassist Peter Bramley and they exchange a smile and a nod, synching back up. Richards-Matlakowski turns his gaze towards his bandmates a moment too late and misses their exchange. He’d been too focused on delivering the song’s mantra-like chorus: 

There’s always a way to make sense of things 

There’s always a way to change what it means 

There’s always a way to say that you care 

And always a place to hide when you’re scared

Wyatt reenters the fray a second later with a buzzing momentum which Bramley feeds off of, lurching backward across the floor towards the crowd while she punishes her cymbals. The two of them ride this energy out to the song’s end. Richards-Matlakowski, meanwhile, is stiff and distant, off in his own world. He offers a mere ‘thanks’ to the crowd before he sets his guitar down and turns away from them. It was the last song of the set.

‘In hindsight, I’m happier that All Gone came out the way it did because it let the songs shine,’ Richards-Matlakowski told me. ‘I love the album. I feel so proud of it. But as a band, we all really liked aggressive things. We were into bands like Big Black, and we all really liked Black Flag, The Wipers, and Hüsker Dü, and maybe My Bloody Valentine as well.’

Speaking from his current home in Alphington, in the city’s northern suburbs, the lifelong Melburnian was calm, composed, and enjoying a couple of beers. ‘I know it’s my fault if I say something stupid because I’m drinking,’ he joked at one point. His face — sensible glasses, polite smile, and dark, wavy hair hanging at its sides — was tightly framed by the camera, obscuring the room behind him.

This relaxed and ready image was a disarming contrast to the one he projected ahead of the call, when he voiced anxious concerns about the virtual interview format (‘I worry I would feel self-conscious’), the effect of being profiled (‘I worry that my ego will get too big’), and the bother the process might cause his friends (‘I worry that it could be annoying for anyone you ask [to comment]’). He might reach a point, he cautioned me, where he’d find it all too emotionally draining and wouldn’t want to share things anymore. But at the same time, he was excited about the opportunity because he wants to connect with people through his music right now, which is a desire that comes and goes.

Laughing Gas & Apple Pie, as I noted when I reviewed the album, shares an aesthetic idea with the early solo work of Julian Cope: hard-edged and strangely unsettling psychedelic guitar pop that goes down smooth. ‘I find that description very flattering,’ Richards-Matlakowski told me. ‘I love Julian Cope. Not many of my friends are big fans, but he’s bloody fantastic, isn’t he!?’ Pop Singles used to cover Ouch Monkeys by Cope’s old band, Teardrop Explodes, in their live sets. He’s sure Cope’s sense of melody is deeply ingrained in his music even if it wasn’t something he was conscious of while making the record.

To his mind, Laughing Gas & Apple Pie wears its eighties and nineties American influences loud and proud: Sonic Youth, The Pixies, Nirvana, Metallica, and his old favorites, Hüsker Dü. ‘I wanted to get real fuzzy, aggressive metallic tones,’ Richards-Matlakowski said. The MXR Distortion Plus pedal is all over the record. He bought one off eBay hoping to replicate Bob Mould’s guitar tone, but when it arrived he found it was lacking that ‘special magic.’ The certain something he was looking for, he later discovered, came from the model of transistor Mould used which hasn’t been manufactured since the eighties. ‘Maybe I’m a dunce, but it’s still my favorite guitar pedal.’

The Zone is the album’s most pummeling number. It’s also a potent example of what Simon Grounds (who produced the first Vantage album, Life In High Definition) calls the ‘propulsive and dramatic energy’ in Richards-Matlakowski’s music. The song’s rhythm — charged, militant, a bit futuristic — is the first thing that hits you. Richards-Matlakowski plays insistent, ascending guitar trills that evoke tense film score violins, the kind that might accompany a combat scene. When its chorus arrives the second time, and the song lets a little air in, you notice that the rhythm has changed to the pounding thud thud of a racing heart. The track pulses and blinks to a halt half a minute later, cutting quickly to the next one and leaving streaks of sweat in its wake. ‘I think I’ve put more anger and frustration into this record,’ he said. ‘But it’s still probably pretty tame compared to what a lot of other people do.’

Inspired by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 sci-fi masterpiece, Stalker, The Zone is the name of the supernatural wasteland through which the film’s main character guides a pair of tourists. In the movie, when the trio crosses over from the real world to the Zone, it shifts from sepia tone to dazzling technicolor, creating a spell-like effect from which it’s hard to avert your attention. As a listening experience, Laughing Gas & Apple Pie works in a similar way — a result of Richards-Matlakowski’s attention to production and practice, and what Grounds calls ‘deep hooks.’ One good example of this is the album-opener Living On The Outside, which comes driving out of the speakers, brilliantly alive, pulling you with it into the album’s universe. Its guitar lead is instantly catchy yet odd and twisty — almost proggy. The track is one of a handful on the album, including Dissociation and A Butterfly, that unspool in your subconscious slowly, continuing to reveal their melodic complexity days and weeks later. ‘The guitar parts I didn’t really have to challenge myself with,’ Richards-Matlakowski said. ‘Most of that stuff is pretty easy for me to play.’

Richards-Matlakowski is especially proud of this record because he played all the instruments himself. ‘I put the drums first,’ he explained of the process. ‘I know for a lot of people, it might not be the hardest album to drum for, but for me, this was like: I don’t think I’m ever going to drum this well in my life again!’ To prepare, he booked recording time with engineer Jesse Williams (his ex-bandmate in indie pop outfit, Girlatones) and then practiced as often as possible in the month leading up to it, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend’s housemates. ‘There’s a little drum room out the back of her house. I was creeping in there every morning and practicing the songs and driving them mad.’ 

The night before the interview, he’d played his first show on drums (with Chook Race, one of the three proper bands of which he’s currently a member) after almost two years of lockdown. He said, ‘It was hard! I had to do the Lars Ulrich sort of tennis player stretches before I played!’ 

He also put ‘heaps of work’ into overdubbing and mixing the record. Understandably, Richards-Matlakowski gets frustrated that the ‘lo-fi’ tag gets thrown at his music because he’s always strived for the highest possible fidelity. ‘A lot of people can’t get their head around this kind of thing because they depend on prescribed genres and categorizations,’ he vented. ‘It’s a great source of frustration for me, but luckily I’ve got friends, fellow musicians, and some wonderful fans who do ‘get it.’ I shouldn’t really be complaining . . . but I’m going to anyway.’

The decision to go things alone on Laughing Gas & Apple Pie doesn’t signal a new ethos for Richards-Matlakowski; it comes from a long-held desire to experiment with new approaches. On his first solo album, Life in High Definition, he tapped a select few friends for musical contributions, and Grounds to man the controls (‘he’s recorded an epic amount of Melbourne music I like’). The record saw him headed, purposefully, in the musically-opposite direction from Pop Singles, embracing big, psychedelic guitar pop with an eighties’ sheen (think Starfish-era The Church) on tracks like High Definition. There are also obvious nods to the sixties on the Lennon-esque lead single, The Boy Who Always Wins. That song, which contains the lines ‘He thinks he’s enlightened, he thinks he knows the way/ He thinks everyone else is a fool and he hides away,’ was the first new material Richards-Matlakowski released after going radio silent, two years earlier, following Pop Singles’ implosion.

Returning a couple of years later with a full four-piece band (T.V.) and a different producer (John Lee) in tow, Richards-Matlakowski released a follow-up, Show Me To The Sun. The 2017 collection found him in languid, mid-tempo mode, his vocals evoking the world-weary sneer of Peter Perrett of The Only Ones. The moments when the record presses on the gas pedal a bit (the title track, for instance), breaking up the downcast pace, also happen to be some of its strongest. He described both of these records as ‘spotty’ while still containing moments of which he’s really proud. ‘Neither really seem to resonate with other people,’ he admitted. ‘And maybe it’s just because they weren’t that good and that’s fine.’

Pop Singles’ All Gone, on the other hand, has continued to connect with listeners despite remaining out of print in physical format since its release (it’s available in digital form on Bandcamp as a free download). When you encounter someone who likes the album, they tend to really like it. Much of its enduring power comes from the universal way it reflects sadness — Richards-Matlakowski’s sadness, that is. This is something that even his own bandmates weren’t immune to. Peter Bramley told one journalist in 2012 that he’s cried listening to All Gone and not because of his connection to his bandmate: ‘I relate it to situations in my own life — relationships with my family, with certain friends, with people I’ve lost touch with. The lyrics are quite heartbreaking, but there is a sense of hope in it.’

The record, in a way, sounds like something Australian indie legends the Go-Betweens might have come up with after Before Hollywood if they’d kept their lineup and arrangements lean and their tone dour. But at the same time, it’s unmistakably Pop Singles’ own. Ashleigh Wyatt’s drumming is bounding and insistent one second, while trailing off like skipped stones across the water the next. Bramley’s bass elasticizes the melodies, nudging them out in determined, stuttering bits at some points, and in long, chewing-gum pulls in others. And there’s Richards-Matlakowski at the center of it, with his ‘wandering, internally-unresolved chords’ (another Grounds-ism), mannerly voice, and words that evoke the sensibility of someone decades older than their owner. How else to describe lines like, ‘All my life I’ve been looking for something’ or ‘It’s all gone, there goes the dream,’ delivered by a 22-year-old?

‘I just felt so vulnerable putting that out there,’ Richards-Matlakowski told me about All Gone. ‘It didn’t feel good to have everyone hear how sad I was, but hopefully it felt good for them. And it seemed like it did for a lot of people. But I couldn’t do that to myself again, I didn’t think. Maybe I can. Maybe I’ll make my best album and be even more miserable than that, in the future — but I’d prefer to just be happy.’

Why did Pop Singles break up? ‘I just feel like I was too much all about me,’ Richards-Matlakowski confided. ‘I just thought about myself more than I thought about other people.’ But that’s all he wished to say about that, and for good reason: ‘My bandmates probably suffered most of all. But, I don’t think I’ve got more to say about it because I haven’t repaired those relationships and I would like to.’

Richards-Matlakowski started as a musician at a young age, taking up classical piano at age seven, and then picking up guitar a few years later, inspired in part by his late father, folk singer Neil Richards. ‘I looked up to him, and he made playing music seem like a cool thing to do.’ Still Traveller Records, the label Richards-Matlakowski and his partner, Kayley Langdon, recently started (Laughing Gas & Apple Pie is its inaugural release), takes its name from the title of one of Richard’s original compositions and is an homage to his lifestyle: ‘My father never traveled overseas in his lifetime; he hardly even left the state of Victoria,’ explained Richards-Matlakowski. ‘Instead, he lived his life through books, film, TV, art, and music. It’s a tendency that he passed on to me.’

‘Meeting Tam came at the right time,’ said Alex Macfarlane (his ex-bandmate in The Stevens), who’s known Richards-Matlakowski since primary school, and released Richards’ debut record via his Hobbies Galore label last year. ‘Finding someone else who was also out of place in a relatively affluent area meant a lot. Both of us being dropped to school by fathers with long hair and holes in their shoes.’ The two bonded over a mutual shame, he said, that eventually faded and helped to pave their paths forward as broke rockers.

Macfarlane also spoke about the savant-like quality of his friend’s musicianship, which was apparent to him from the day they met. ‘Whether he was entertaining friends and family on a wheezing foot pump organ among the towering piles of VHS tapes in his parents’ living room, playing all of [Slayer’s] Reign in Blood at the correct tempo seemingly as soon as he moved to guitar, or writing beautiful original compositions on an array of instruments, he was always able to play things clearly, precisely and effortlessly.’

But as a teenager, Richards-Matlakowski was turning to music to cope with a handful of problems that were hitting him all at once. He grew up living in share houses (‘apparently some of them were quite dodgy, I don’t remember’) with his parents in south suburban Melbourne but was oblivious to any notion of inequality. It only started to register that his family wasn’t very well off when they moved to Highett — where he met Macfarlane — to live with his grandmother. ‘She was an unhappy person and there was always a lot of arguing in the house,’ he said. His mother would leave for months-long stretches during this period, to receive electroconvulsive therapy treatments at a psychiatric hospital. Meanwhile, his androgynous first name wasn’t helping him to fit in at school. To cope, most of the time Richards-Matlakowski would keep to himself and escape through video games and music. Other times, he would visit the comments section of Megadeth music videos, simply write Megadeth Suck, and then sit back and watch all hell break loose. 

Since going solo as Tam Vantage in 2014, Richards-Matlakowski has been developing healthier relationships with the things that affect his livelihood, and distancing himself from some of the antisocial tendencies he developed during his teenage years. Technology, for example, has been one of his work’s ever-present themes. And while it may be a subtler presence on Laughing Gas & Apple Pie than on the previous LPs, he assured me that it’s still there. ‘I think that I need to take more responsibility for my relationship with technology, instead of just pointing the finger and saying that it’s the root of all evil like I used to do,’ he offered on the subject. ‘These days, I want to engage with technology in a way that leaves me feeling empowered. To me, it’s about honesty and openness. When I’m honest with myself and with others, then technology assumes the role of being a tool and doesn’t feel as isolating.’ He said he tries to engage with things that offer depth, and to filter out the superficial. This is a very different Richards-Matlakowski than the one, in his debut music video, who smashed to bits every electronic gadget within his reach. Or the one who, in 2016, concluded bluntly of technology: ‘I really fucking hate it.’ 

He’s likewise learning to compartmentalize things in live and collaborative settings. In the past, he’s called live shows ‘the ideal format,’ while at the same acknowledging the conflict they create with his introverted personality. ‘I find it really hard to perform my own songs in front of people,’ he said. ‘It takes a lot out of me, and it has, at times, left me feeling drained and embittered. There have been a lot of shows that I forced myself to play because I thought it was the only way that I would be able to reach people with my music, and also because I was seeking the validation and attention of others. But if you do it for those reasons, you end up feeling like either a performing monkey or a washed-up nobody.’

When Richards-Matlakowski plays shows these days, he wants them to be purposeful and meaningful. Currently, he’s involved in four projects besides Tam Vantage; in the years prior to the pandemic, that number was up to as many as seven. ‘I do get a lot of enjoyment out of playing in bands like Permits, Carpet Burn, and Chook Race, where people collaborate on the music together,’ he says. ‘The shared experience makes it easier to handle, and more fulfilling.’ But if he’s not as involved in the songwriting process and decision-making side of things as he’d like to be, he tends to move on. 

Yet working all by himself on his latest record is where Richards-Matlakowski sounds more comfortable, and more in control, than ever. There’s always been a sense of hopefulness in his songs, but it’s never been a driving force like it is, at points, on Laughing Gas & Apple Pie. ‘Forget about that world and look into yourself/ Forget about yourself and look out at the world,’ he sings on Colour Blind, centering himself, or perhaps passing the sentiment forward to the listener. Is the album a reflection of a more optimistic personal outlook? ‘I just feel confident,’ he said. ‘I think that’s it. I don’t know if I feel more optimistic or less optimistic. I sort of fluctuate on those fronts. I do kind of feel more hopeful than I have in a long time, though I’m not sure if I could articulate it.’ But then again, maybe he already has: ‘Been living on the outside / For so long that all the fear and doubt is gone.’

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