In the spotlight: Fendahlene

Fendahlene was formed in Sydney in late 1994 by Paul Whiteley, Ashley Hurst and Ben Felton. After a long run as a live act round Sydney, with two albums and two EPs under their belt, Fendahlene relocated to Europe in 2006 and both Paul and Ashley ended up living in England. After a break they returned to the studio. Their latest album ‘High and Low and Back Again’ was released in July 2020. 

In January 2021 our friend, Sara, from the Bucket Playlist interviewed Fendahlene. In that particular interview you can learn why they are called Fendahlene. They also talk about their album ‘High and Low and Back Again’. You can read the interview here. I caught up with current band members Paul Whiteley (guitar and vocals) and Ashley Hurst (bass).

How did you get into music, and what is your musical background?

Ashley: “I properly got into music about the time I started to venture outside the Top 40, at school in the mid 80s. It was a time when the 60s were becoming cool again. The Sydney indie scene back then was amazing too, Paul got me onto that. The final step for me – of all things – was seeing an TV commercial for T.Rex’s greatest hits collection on cassette. They were so massively out of fashion then, the album was on K-Tel, but there was something about Bolan that just made me want to perform. Went and bought the album then decided to buy a bass.”

Paul: “I’ve been a music fan all life. My Dad and my uncle both had amazing record collections, and when I was 4 years old my uncle gave me his entire collection of Beatles vinyl, so I was off to a flying start! I started playing guitar when I was 13 – my mum arranged for the guy next door to teach me, and I really hated it at first. I didn’t like music theory and I never practised, and I would absolutely dread going to lessons. After about a year my teacher said “you’re obviously not enjoying this, what do you want to learn”, and I said I wanted to learn the guitar solo in ‘Get Back‘. Once I learned that I figured out that I could play by ear, and so the lessons stopped. From that point on I just became obsessed with music – primarily 60s music at that point but then there was also a great indie scene in Sydney with loads of guitar bands playing all sorts of stuff – a lot of it was punk influenced, as well as 60s, but the common denominator was that they were guitar bands and not like the synth pop stuff that was all over radio at that time.”

You met in high school. When did you decide to make music together?

Ashley: “There was a school concert coming up when we were around 15-16. Paul and I had jammed a bit at that stage but nothing too formal – he’d recently been in a band called The Skiffle. Anyway, we decided to go for it and put our names up for the show. There were tons of acts, mostly students from the music department, lots of classical, jazz, folk, and musicals numbers, you know the stuff they taught in high school music. Nice but hardly rocking. Anyway, loads of parents were there, the hall was packed. About halfway through this (very long) show, we came on, turned up the volume big time, and slammed our way through ‘My Generation‘, ‘Mean to Me‘ by Crowded House and ‘Roadhouse Blues‘ by the Doors. It went down like the Titanic with the crowd (and the teachers, Paul even got a talking to…) which was just awesome! Felt so subversive…Guess that was the ‘when’, at least the first time around.”

Paul: “The crazy thing was that, after that rather auspicious (or perhaps inauspicious) beginning, we did nothing much for the next 5 years or so. I mean, we still jammed here and there and wrote some songs, but we didn’t make any serious effort to put something more ‘permanent’ together until 1994, when Ash and I, together with Ben Felton, our original drummer, decided to start rehearsing regularly.”

What can you tell me about the first song you wrote together?

Ashley: “The first song we wrote together was called ‘Under Control’. We wrote it and recorded it on one of those dual cassette players, so each time we bounced a track to the second cassette it lost heaps of volume. We hadn’t finished by the time my parents came back from wherever they went out to that evening, and it was super late, so to finish it we had to whisper the lead vocal. It almost sounds intentional now, like if we back engineered a rationale for it, people might even fall for it.”

Paul: “I still have the original cassette recording of that song – it’s hilarious because we are obviously trying to sing quietly but actually it sounds pretty cool.”

You originally started the band in Australia in the 90s. You both relocated to Europe. Was it a coincidence you both ended up in England?

Ashley: “In the way it worked out, yes, but almost certainly we would have both ended up in this part of the world eventually. Paul moved to the UK first, at a time I went back to uni to do Masters in Sydney. When I was finishing that, I was put up for a sponsored place to study in Leipzig and Vienna. Never had I said yes to anything so quickly. At the same time, my partner moved to the UK, so it wasn’t long before we began jamming again in London when I visited. When I finished in Vienna, we had no intention of moving back to Australia, so I moved to London…”

Fendahlene 1997

Paul: “Actually we have both been over here so long that Fendahlene has technically been a UK-based band for longer than we were a Sydney-based band… Of course, back in Sydney we were gigging regularly and releasing loads of stuff, but we’re definitely catching up. We’ve got lots new songs and other released in the pipeline, so it’s really exciting.”

You released your album ‘High and Low and Back Again‘ last year, ‘A Decade of Near Misses‘ was released in 2009 and ‘Anyone Who’s Anyone‘ in 1998. You seem to have a habit of releasing a full album every 11 years. Are you going to make us wait another 11 years for the next one? 😉 What are your plans?

Ashley: “Had never noticed that! We have some really interesting stuff coming in the next 2-3 months, which we’re not really at liberty to say, but watch this space. We start demos for new material in November. We will do another album but slightly differently this time – with High and Low we went old school and released it after two singles, which doesn’t really work anymore these days.”

Paul: “We’ve got a lot of exciting stuff in the pipeline, it’s going to be great.”

Speaking of your album ‘High and Low and Back Again’, was it a bucket list thing to release it on vinyl? Do you have any tips for other artists who also want to release their music on vinyl?

Ashley: “Absolutely! We had wanted to do that for over 20 years. We’re a studio band if that makes any sense, of course love playing live (and miss it like crazy), but there’s nothing in the world like an album session in a studio, with a great engineer. I would happily spend 6 months of the year recording like that. Vinyl is the natural pinnacle of this. As for tips, the main one we’d recommend – depending on the style of music – is mastering at half speed. It just sounds out of this world. There’s not a lot of people who master like this and it is a little more expensive (but not crazily so), worth saving up for it and taking your time. You will definitely notice the difference.”

You released your first post-album single ‘When the Hit Began‘ in August, which features long-time Fendahlene member Ben on vocals. What can you tell me about your new tune? Do you have any favourite memories of writing or recording this song?

Ashley: “Ah that was the band in one its Australian line ups, with long time Fendahlener Ben on vocals, Bruce Braybrooke on drums and Haggis McGuinness on blues harp. The thing that most sticks out for me was Haggis’s playing. He is quite remarkable – when we played live all his harmonicas sat in a belt over his shoulder like a bandolier. He swaps from harp to harp in the blink of an eye every key change. So when we recorded this, hearing him play a sort of ‘rhythm’ harp throughout, which we think really grounds the song, then his explosion into a short but crazy cool solo, really stuck with me.”

Paul: “I can’t remember writing it, but I remember the recording session so clearly. It was a great session – we recorded a few other songs that same night, which we will be releasing in the near future. It was recorded really quickly – I think the instrumental tracks were recorded in only 1 or 2 takes, we were really on fire and Haggis on harp was playing brilliantly and spurring us on. Then Ben nailed his lead vocals in a single take, we did the backing vocals and then it was done! We also had a fantastic engineer and producer at that time – a great guy called Russell Pilling who is a legend in Sydney and he just knew us, knew our sound and was always able to get the best out of us.”

In your interview with Sara from the Bucket Playlist you mentioned the song ‘High and Low and Back Again’ was about Brexit. How has Brexit affected you?

Ashley: “To be honest, none really so far, but that’s almost certainly because of the pandemic. Not looking forward to trying to arrange an EU show/tour when the time comes. I mean we’ve discussed with Portobello Express, one of our favourite indie bands, of getting slots at the next Donauinselfest, but to take even three of us over with three road crew is 6 x not very cheap work visas. Apart from the paperwork it’s just not worth it for the money. So that huge avenue for UK based acts to play and learn on the continent is gone. And we all know the UK Government was offered a waiver on these visas during the Brexit negotiations – sadly, as always, when ideology takes over common sense (and decency and empathy) goes out the window.”

Paul: “Yeah, I think we’ll really feel the impact when we try to play in Europe. It’s just so frustrating and all so unnecessary.”

How do you balance music with your other obligations?

Ashley: “There’s no perfect way to balance, you just have to make up as much time as you can as you go. It was a little easier in lockdown, for me especially, as I suddenly had a lot more time on my hands, but now that the situation is evolving it is becoming more difficult.”

Paul: “It can be challenging fitting in regular rehearsals and I suppose it would be difficult to go back to playing gigs 3 nights a week like we did in the old days. But on the other hand, I find that I still play guitar every day and I have been trying to get into the discipline of writing a set of lyrics every morning, and I really enjoy doing that. And it’s also easier these days with technology to record really good home demos, which we send back forth to each other. So I find that it’s not that hard to balance music with other obligations at the moment – but it may get trickier when we want to start doing gigs again.”

What can you tell me about your creative process? 

Ashley: “Paul or I would begin with the seeds of an idea, often a melody or progression, occasionally lyrics. The older we’ve gotten, the more ‘complete’ a lot of these ideas are. Then it’s a case of back and forth, especially since lockdown, until we get it to a point where we’re mostly happy with it. We often don’t have the absolute final arrangement until we record – the studio is such a great creative environment for us.”

Paul: “It’s interesting how the process has changed over the years. Back in Sydney when we were rehearsing in a studio every week, we’d bring in the basis of an idea – a riff or a chord progression – and then we’d jam until we had a finished song. Now it’s a bit trickier – we still have loads of riffs and chord progressions, but if we’re not jamming so often the risk is that you end up with a pile of stray riffs and half-finished ideas. And to be honest, there are quite a few songs on the current album ‘High and Low and Back Again’ that were built from riffs or unfinished ideas that we’d had lying around for years. Since we did that album, I’ve been really focused on getting things finished and lockdown has been helpful for that.”

Who writes the lyrics to your songs or do you both write them? What inspires your lyrics?

Ashley: “Both of us – on most songs one of us will come up with the first version, then we both edit and evolve as we go. I really like writing verses. I love storytelling, and verses allow that opportunity, as well as being both the glue for the song, and the signpost – in that depending on how you write them, they can take you on any number of alternate journeys. As an example, I had absolutely no idea that ‘High and Low and Back Again’ was about Brexit until we were interviewed by Sara from the Bucket Playlist. None whatsoever, like in the interview when I heard Paul’s answer I audibly went “really?”.”

Paul: “Lyric ideas come from all different places. Sometimes we might have a riff and a phrase or title just emerges, and so once you have title it’s just a matter of writing verses around that title that will fit. Other times you might have an entire song, with a chord progression and a melody, but no lyrics at all. Those are the most difficult, because you have to firstly think of something to write about and then fit it into the melody that you have in your head. Occasionally if I am having difficulty trying to come up with something, I will lie on the sofa and play a record by someone else and then I find that lyrics will just ‘arrive’. That’s what I did with ‘High and Low and Back Again’. But then sometimes songs just arrive fully formed, lyrics and all, and you sort of wonder “where did that come from?”. They’re my favourite ones to write because it’s almost like you didn’t write them at all.”

Regarding musical styles and genres, is there anything different that you would like to
explore?

Ashley: “Tons. The more and more we discover through our indie community the more you want to explore. I was at a festival the other week in South London called Tomorrow Calling, and I’m seeing acts like Rosie Bergonzi on handpan – look her up on YT, just wow – and all I can think about for the next hour is “how can this work with our music?”. The benefits of indie music are the amazing breadth of styles and genres it introduces you to, and not the mainstream Big 3 record company versions. Have found that especially with pop – indie pop is a billion times better than whatever it is the play on Capital Radio, for example.”

Paul: “It’s amazing how much great stuff is out there, and how varied and interesting it is – in direct contrast to the uniform blandness of the crap that gets played on commercial radio.”

What’s your favourite song from the Cool 20?

Ashley: “Love the current Cool 20 as I didn’t know too many of the acts before I heard the PL. I’d say ‘Serpents of the Sea’ by Matte Martin.”

Paul: “I’m really into ‘Darling, Darling’ by Twelve A.M Flowers” at the moment.”

What song would you like to add as a bonus track and why?

Ashley: “There’s so much amazing indie music at the moment, and I can’t separate the two I am obsessed by at the moment, ‘Miracle’ by Brass Monkey and ‘DC Drawers’ by Vanessa Anne Redd. Both are just sublime.”

Paul: “I am digging a song by the Skinny Dippers called ‘Panties’. There is another song that love called ‘All the Best Debts’ by the Fever Dolls but I am not sure if they are indie anymore!

More about Fendahlene:

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Published by leancool20

Drinks tea, not coffee. Usually dressed in black.

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