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Nothing But The Best of You

Time is Golden and The Legacy of Big Smoke’s Adrian Slattery.

On September 22, 2016 » By DARREN LEVIN

Big Smoke

“Wouldn’t it be weird to be a cook?,” asks producer Shawn Everett as an episode of Chef’s Table plays on a giant screen behind a mixing desk.

It’s a freezing Friday night in Melbourne, and Shawn is talking about the idea of art as legacy in a small studio hidden in the backstreets of the inner-city suburb of Northcote. He’s working against the clock on an album called Time Is Golden, and it’s like nothing this Grammy-winning producer has ever experienced before – or likely will again.

“Cooks work their whole life perfecting something,” he continues while a sous chef carefully plates some micro-herbs in the background. “And then after you die it’s gone.”

We’re talking about legacy because the person who wrote every song on this record isn’t here. His name is Adrian Slattery, and he died from oesophageal cancer in May. In the months before his death, Adrian worked feverishly on the debut album for his band Big Smoke, finishing off that last guitar overdub just two weeks before the end. He was also reading a lot of Raymond Carver, especially A New Path To The Waterfall, a collection of poetry written while the author’s brain and lungs were ravaged by cancer.

Carver’s fierce desire to keep writing throughout this period inspired Adrian’s determination to leave his own mark on the world. As he sings on “Kiss Me Once” – a moment of beautiful catharsis when he looks death straight in the eyes, as harmonies and guitars swirl around him – “I will not go quietly/I will rage in the eye of the storm.”

“At the worst times when everything was just horrible for him, and he was bed ridden in his house, I’d ask him if there was anything I could do,” his ex-wife and best friend Paige Clark – ever-present in these sessions – says. “And he’d be like, ‘You just keep working on my legacy.’”

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Adrian during some down time at a Big Smoke festival appearance.
Adrian during some down time at a Big Smoke festival appearance. Photo by Paige Clark

Adrian played in a lot of bands in his 30 years. None were big or even remotely successful, but they were well loved. I remember seeing him with the Weezer-ish Major Major in the mid-2000s. There must’ve been 20 people in the room but they knew every word, and they needed no coaxing to get as close as they could to the front. To him.

Adrian had something magnetic, intangible. He had energy to burn and a strong work ethic too. Following his death, Wil Wagner of Melbourne’s Smith Street Band was one of the first to pay tribute. Adrian played guitar and sang on Wil’s 2008 album Us Boys Run. “He was one of the first people who really believed in me,” Wil said in a touching Facebook post following his death, “and he gave me the confidence to write songs and play shows.

After Major Major disbanded in 2009, Adrian was at a bit of a crossroads. He was playing under the Big Smoke moniker with a band whose commitment was split between families, day jobs, real life. Around 2014, he drafted in bassist Alex O’Gorman and drummer Luke Brennan. They knew if they knuckled down and became a formidable trio, the players would come to them. And they did. Guitarist Tim ‘Big Dog’ Baker and Joe Cope – two local guns for hire – joined shortly after the Lately EP, and Adrian’s dream band was born.

“The sound we ended up with and what’s on the record is incomplete without Tim and Joe,” Luke says. “Tim’s classic lead guitar and Joe’s organic keyboard sounds is really integral to the ‘70s Americana sound we ended up with. When you add those guys, that’s how we ended up sounding like we do.”

It's a little after 9 p.m. when I enter the studio through a non-descript roller door in a complex that resembles a storage facility. It's called St Charles Studios and you can’t find it on Google Maps.

The studio is accessed through a huge mechanics garage filled with old cars, parts of old cars and random junk. The control room is slick and modern. There are flowers on the table brought in by drummer Luke (the "vibes guy") and as we enter the home stretch of this 12-hour session, food is on the screen and on the brain.

"Do we have any chips?" asks Shawn.

"We have Cruskits," says Big Smoke bassist Alex, pointing to a box of the iconic Aussie snack. "It's kinda like a big chip."

The first track I hear is “Woman,” a barnstorming country rocker with a step-down chord progression that instantly conjures the Band. The song – the “most recorded in Big Smoke history” – ends with Adrian winding his voice up into an almighty howl. This is one of several times you really feel his presence in this room. “I love that part,” says Shawn, as Alex plays air drums on his lap.

It was Adrian’s voice that drew Shawn to this project in the first place.

Alex: “So you liked his voice?”

Shawn: “Yeah, I loved his voice. Voices can be cheesy, but he had such a cool voice.”

Alex: “He would’ve loved to have heard that … because he always thought it wasn’t the strongest thing.

“I always loved working with Adrian because his persona was so powerful,” Alex continues. “He was cool. He didn’t have a heck of a lot of faith in himself at the start. For me to hear that makes me so proud that it was his voice that attracted you to this. For him to hear that – he would be in tears right now.”

Paige, who overhears this exchange from a couch in the corner, suddenly pricks up. “He probably wouldn’t though. He hardly ever cried.”

Everyone laughs.

“But he would’ve been very happy.”

Luke Brennan, Paige Clark, Shawn Everett, and Alex O’Gorman (from left) take a break in the studio as they finish mastering Time is Golden.
Luke Brennan, Paige Clark, Shawn Everett, and Alex O’Gorman (from left) take a break in the studio as they finish mastering Time is Golden. Photo by Tajette O'Halloran

In early 2015, Big Smoke were reaching what felt like the start of an apex; they were touring heavily, and after years spent grinding it out in Melbourne’s local music scene, Adrian was on the cusp of something bigger. The band were holding on to a bunch of songs they wanted to record for their inevitable LP, which they planned to record in stages once they got off tour in May. Adrian had been feeling sick on tour, and went to the doctor when they got back.

“We’d just come back from a tour and Adrian was feeling horrible, and we just attributed it to being on tour, and eating horribly and being on the road,” Alex says. “He went to the doctor and got his terminal diagnosis basically right away, and it was very grim. But we knew straight away that we needed to start right away. But nothing really changed for recording the album. We were going to do it once we got off tour anyway. But we now needed to do it quick.”

Time is Golden was 75% recorded in a span of three days last fall. The vocals were recorded over the course of a couple weeks after that.

“We had to juggle the vocals around with Adrian’s treatments. He’d go in, and then we’d have a couple days to do vocals,” Alex says. “We had to schedule around Adrian’s treatments and he was going really hard. He just kept going; the treatments didn’t even really slow him down.”

“We were talking about this record for a year. We all had such a good feeling we were on the right track once we got to the mixing,” Luke added. “There was never any pressure, or any freaking out; we knew exactly how we wanted the album to sound. It was very much an image in our minds we were working towards.”

Luke and Alex quit their day jobs and switched to jobs that were less stressful and demanding of their time over the course of the recording of the album, to make sure they could help their friend and finish their album.

“Anyone that has lost someone knows that the hardest part is you can’t do anything for that person anymore,” Alex said “The joy of life and relationships is being able to do something for a relationship and that other person. But when someone’s gone, you can’t do anything for them anymore. For me, I was lucky, because I realized I could do something directly for Adrian.”

The plan, once the album was recorded, was to leave the tapes to Paige, Alex and Luke to finish. The initial idea was that Alex and Luke would mix it themselves, but Alex says he felt too “close to the project.” Shawn Everett was the first name that popped into the trio’s head.

One of the reasons they sought out Shawn was his work on the first Blake Mills record and of course, Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color, which won him a Grammy. They loved the way he made classic songwriting sound modern, and they also loved the way he’d weave “lots of weird shit” into pop songs.

They managed to get some rough mixes into Shawn’s hands via their Melbourne-based label, Barely Dressed. Struck by Adrian’s voice and the band’s reckless spirit, Shawn agreed to make some time for the project. And then he won that damn Grammy.

“We had to wait a little while because Shawn was wanted by everyone,” says Alex. “I was like, ‘Fuck! Why did he have to win that Grammy?’ Because now he’s not going to want to do this thing!”

But Shawn stayed true to his word. He sandwiched this seven-day stint between a vacation in Tokyo with his wife Belgica and an urgent commitment in Los Angeles with a well-known pop singer that cannot be named. His only exposure to Melbourne has been an Airbnb with a great record collection and the inside of this studio. He’s been here since midday, in three-quarter-length shorts and red sneakers, drinking local beer and trying to refine the grand vision of a man he’s never met.

Before mixing a song Shawn usually asks the bands for a visual, rather than sonic reference point. On “Woman,” his mix was inspired by a shot of the Band on the back cover of “The Brown Album.” They’re sitting worse for wear in a ramshackle studio – not too dissimilar from Soundpark – with instruments in their hands and a sense of purpose on their faces.

“Sonically I was thinking about that picture,” says Shawn, as Paige starts flicking through photos on her iPhone.

“There’s a photo of the guys in the studio that looks a lot like the Band’s photo,” she says. “I think that’s what you’ve captured, Shawn, more so than the photo of the Band. It’s a bit cleaner, a bit more modern but very close.”

“It’s interesting,” says Alex, “because Adrian was a visual guy, a big cinema guy. He was all about vibe and story and intention and meaning. The album is otherworldly in that way. A lot of the songs are massive. They’d start off really small and they’d end up being monstrous.”

“Lean On The Fire” is blaring at high volume from the studio speakers, and the full vision for Big Smoke emerges in a thick haze of reverbed guitars and swirling organs. Alex describes the track as “proggy,” before quickly retracting his quote. "Don't use proggy,” he says, “Adrian wouldn't like that." His presence always looms large here.

“We had these amazing players, Tim and Joe, and we just had to let them loose,” says Alex, as another ‘Big Dog’ solo pushes the band into double time. “With this one we tried all the shit that audio engineers tell you not to do.”

“Like panning all the drums to the right,” adds Shawn, “and everything else to the left.”

Time is Golden is like a Band album played by Big Star in between their first two LPs. It’s a rich, ambitious album that feels unglued from time; it feels like it could have come out in 1973, 1967, 1985, or basically any time since a guy stuck a power cord into the side of a guitar.

Even without knowing Adrian’s backstory, and the illness that has made the story around Time is Golden very different, it doesn’t take long with Time is Golden to hear the big themes he was grappling with in his songwriting. Remembering to take a minute to appreciate life. The way that companionship makes life worth living. How the only things worth doing are things you can give your best to. How even the best laid plans can go awry. And most importantly, how golden our time on earth is.

It’s tempting to write narratives around Adrian’s cancer and those lyrics, but a lot of the songs on Time is Golden are a couple years old. The emotional resonance comes after.

“We were saving these songs for this album, because some of them were Adrian’s best songs,” Alex says. “A lot of these songs have meanings that changed. Like “time is golden” (on “Best of You”) and, “But we can’t stop now/ we gotta find out how/ to turn it into something good” (on “Something Good”) were written before he was sick, but it’s almost like the song was always there, but it got a new meaning.”

“When Adrian was faced with life and death, he was still sort of on the same track he was before,” Luke says. “He used music to espouse this message, either way. He always had this broad way of thinking about “why do rock and roll music.” He saw it as salvation. So it’s no surprise he was singing things like “time is golden” before he got sick.”

“You can listen to Adrian’s songs and it applies to you,” Alex continues. “It’s very universal writing. Anyone can look at it, no matter what they’ve got going on in their life, and it can make sense to them and help them. That’s what it really did for him after he got sick. The time he had left was so limited, but it was truly golden.”

It’s getting close to midnight now and Shawn is still thinking about legacy and how it informs everything he does. He lifts his shirt to a reveal a tattoo of the fictional British detective Sexton Blake.

“Legacy is so important to me that my grandfather and my great-grandfather both wrote books about this character and I feel most connected to them. I was able to find those books, read them, and hear their voice through those books … Anyone trying to preserve their legacy speaks to me.”

For Alex, Time Is Golden isn’t just about Adrian’s legacy, it’s given Big Smoke a raison d'être in the absence of its driving force.

“At the start of this process it was a bitter pill, because I thought nothing could happen after this record comes out. We can’t tour and we can’t play. But it’s the opposite. Because you just release it into the world and you just don’t know. I just hope it affects someone, hopefully someone detached from all this. People could pick it up and maybe think that’s he’s still alive.”

“Somewhat ironically the performances sound more alive than a lot of the bands I’ve worked with,” Shawn jokes.

“This is a good story,” Alex continues. “It’s sad, but I don’t think there’s anything better that someone could leave behind than a record … It’s better than a book, because it’s pure joy. You can hear him.”

Here's the music video for Big Smoke's new single, “Best of You,” which we're premiering here on Vinyl Me, Please.

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Additional reporting by Andrew Winistorfer

DARREN LEVIN

Darren Levin is the Australian-based managing editor for Junkee Media. His work has appeared on Junkee, Rolling Stone, Guardian, The Age, and more.