Interview by Kara Zosha
Moving to Melbourne I knew it would be an artsy place filled with talented people, but little did I know the depth and significance of the music scene down here. I had been in Australia for about a month at this point and as much as I loved this journey I embarked on, I was deeply lonely. I was approaching what I thought was a carnival, which now I know was Moomba Festival, and saw that there was live music. As someone who moved over ten thousand miles away from home, the one thing that kept me company was music.
The first time I heard The Clever References was at this Moomba Festival followed by other great artists like Kitty Rae and Fat Picnic, but something about The Clever References stood out to me. If you’re anything like me and love quirky song titles like Dream Face Reveal and Animal Crossing and Literally Nothing Else they would catch your attention too. But the thing that I loved about them was how much fun they were having on stage and that they felt so genuine. I was lucky enough a few months later to sit down with the entire band, eat some pizza, and chat about their new album All Good.
All Good touches on themes of the dichotomy between the digital world and the real world, how does the digital world impact you and affect how you navigate the real world?
Mel: I think it’s interesting because during the pandemic, well Ash you were in Indonesia for almost two years and were still writing, so having the digital world was pretty handy. Otherwise, it would’ve been pretty difficult to continue as a band. We’d communicate on messenger, and each of us would record our part of the song to put it together. It kept us going in a way.
Sam: From my perspective, I didn’t officially join the band until around May / June of 2020, so we were deep in lockdown; in separate countries, in separate states, physically unable to rehearse as a band. For a while, it felt like we were in a band, but we weren’t at the same time. I think that struggle has come out in some of the songs.
Ash: In terms of themes, we’re in the digital world – yeah if we use it correctly like Mel was saying, we can collaborate and make good stuff online even though we’re in different states and countries, but we’re noticing that there’s a lot more loneliness and isolation that’s happening. A lot of people, especially in lockdown, were only interacting with the digital world and if you’re not approaching it correctly can put you in a situation where you feel more alone than ever. With this album that’s kinda a manifestation of the reality that we live in.
What’s the story behind the band, how did you guys become The Clever References?
Ash: It started with the two of us. [Ash nods at Emma]
Emma: We met on this Facebook group. There’s a Facebook group that is called ‘implying we can discuss music’ kinda was a spin-off of this four-chan board that got on to Facebook, then there was an Indonesian spin-off version of it. We were both in that group and Ash posted something.
Ash: Do you know the Facebook group called ‘Uni Melb Love Letters? [no, what is that? I asked]. It’s a bunch of anonymous love letters and sometimes friends would ‘auction’ off their friends and cute stuff like that. Sometimes because of the anonymous nature of it, it gets really unhinged.
The first line of one of them was ‘I’m keeping the baby because you look like my Oppa.’ I was like ‘What is happening here’, screenshot it and put it into the Indonesian version of the Facebook group, and then this person Emma says ‘Why is this here, why is there a Melbourne post here?’ – I was like ‘Oh I live in Melbourne now,’ so we talked and stuff like that and then I was like ‘do you play the drums?’ and that’s it.
We did a lot of open mics, just the two of us. If you go to The Clever References’ youtube page one of our early videos is our first open mic. We document everything. There’s no gig we haven’t documented and if there is it’s because of equipment failure. We did like twenty open mics in three months and at one of those open mics we met Sam.
Sam: I have a solo project aside from the band I’ve had for a while – kind of an electronic thing. I was going out around 2019, it was my first year properly having the freedom to go out and try to do that live because I thought it’d be really cool to perform, so over that year I was going to a lot of mic nights and you guys [Ash and Emma] were playing a lot of mic nights, and we met. I think it was a university event and I just remember thinking you guys were really cool and had something going on, I didn’t realize you guys had the same feeling about my set at the time. It was a while after that, that I joined.
Mel: Actually you guys had contacted me at the time on Bandmix, which is a website where musicians go and try to form bands, but I’m terrible with my email so I actually didn’t check the message. I was playing bass with another band at the time and we ended up on the same lineup for a show. I think you [Ash] were interviewing that band at the time – Ash would interview different bands from Melbourne and get a bit of a snapshot of the Melbourne music scene.
Ash: It was like this actually: They were introducing themselves and when it got to Mel I was like ‘Why didn’t you respond to my email?? Just kidding’ and then afterward you were like ‘Do you still need a bassist? Because I can jam out with you guys.’
Before, in the early days of trying to find a bassist – this was like 2019 early 2020, we went to this free workshop at Abby Road Institute. I was really new to Melbourne still and very eager to go anywhere and dragging Emma with me. One of the people there was Mini.
Mini: I was pretty new to music as well, so I was going to many free workshops. I met Ash and Em there and asked me if I played bass. I was like ‘I don’t play bass, I play keys, sorry, and also I’m about to go to Japan for holiday, I’m really busy.’ Then we kept in touch and kept bumping into each other. I released some of my own music in between that, Ash ended up interviewing me, and we kept in touch until the end of last year. Later Ash was like ‘Can you play bass again?’ and I was like ‘What? No, I don’t play bass.’ Then he’s like we can use the sampler so it sounds like a bass guitar, but you can play it on the keyboard.’ I was like ‘Alright, let’s try it!’ and I think it’s working.
Ash: I had an old band and originally when I came to Australia, I wanted to continue that name. Then I realized this is the perfect opportunity to wipe the slate clean, get all that experience I learned from that old band, and start a new life. A new band means you need a new band name, so we had a list of band names – they were all terrible. Then we realized that all band names are actually terrible and all band names are just clever references. Led Zepplin, The Beatles, Nirvana, The 1975, every band name is just a dumb clever reference. We made a band name that represents what all band names actually are – Clever References.
What is your favorite song off of All Good or the song that impacted you the most?
Emma: Original opinion, Tell Ben Kate is pretty good. [everyone bursted out laughing since the entire band was gushing about how much they enjoy the song minutes before].
Sam: Dream Face Reveal for me
Mel: Animal Crossing … It was the first time we had this song that was not like this traditional rock combo.
Mini: I was going to say Animal Crossing too, it’s especially fun to play.
Ash: I guess for me Aesthetic Boys, Aesthetic Girls. It’s very easy to sing, super catchy, and I don’t know man – if I feel bad I just listen to Aesthetic Boys, Aesthetic Girls and go ‘I wrote this!’ It’s a song with no chorus and just moves forward.
What are your biggest musical influences both as a band and individually?
Ash: I really do admire those mid-’90s good songs played with loud guitars, I know Animal Crossing isn’t one of those, but my background is a lot of bubble grunge like The Breeders, Nirvana, Weezer. I really do feel like The Clever References is the tension of loving and hating Weezer. [everyone started laughing].
Emma: Drumming-wise, I’d definitely say Britt Walford from Slint.
Sam: Based on the sorta stuff I bring, I guess a lot of … 100 gecs probably. I try weird things out and see if they stick.
Mel: I started learning guitar playing a lot of pop-rock like a lot of ’90s and 2000s bands, then over the past few years I’ve been listening to a lot of funk and jazz, which is very different to the sound of The Clever References.
Mini: I grew up in the ’90s and 2000s as well, so I’m a real rnb girl at heart. I love Alicia Keys, TLC, Janet Jackson, but then in the 2000s electronic music [came about]. We love Rüfüs Du Sol and Flume sorta stuff too. I listen to a bit of everything, so I love that my music taste is typically different from The Clever References and I like learning our songs and opening my musical palate.
Ash: The thing about The Clever References is that we are very song-oriented. Sam and I really worship those sixties songwriters that would go in and write a hundred songs based on things like ‘the melody needs to be like this and we need to hit these cords.’ Our love for that kind of songwriting is what maybe differentiate us from the rest of the other bands out there.
For most of these songs, if I have an idea for a song I would sit and put down cords, then lyrics, and just sing a voice note. I’ve been sending Emma a lot of voice notes – we’re a voice note based band [laughs]. As long as we have a verse and a chorus, I stop writing until the next rehearsal. I purposely go into rehearsals not having a full song and, even when it was just me and Emma, I’d be like ‘Okay I have this song’ and then Emma would play whatever drums underneath – It’s usually the best thing ever, and that’s the song! When we added new members we didn’t stop doing that.
Sometimes when you add an additional band member the hardest part is to not make that band member feel singled out. When you replace one member it’s usually like the rest of the band know the songs already and ‘it’s up to you to catch up’ and I don’t want want to create that type of environment. Every time a member jumps in we write a song together from scratch, so we’re all producing. Like Tell Ben Kate wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t do that for Mel. Also when we are writing songs we sorta think about ‘Is this a Sam song? Is this an Emma song? Is this an Ash song?’ – like primarily who is the ‘feature performer’ here? Each song is a different showcase of someone.
How would you describe The Clever References in one word to someone who’s never listened to your music before?
Mini: Bubble grunge. It’s something that we discovered recently and I love the description of it
Mel: Quirky, but in a good way.
Emma: I’d say fun.
Ash: I’ll double down on fun, we wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t fun. We try to translate the fun we’re having on stage to the audience.
Stream All Good now