Written by Jake Amy
Melbourne has proven itself to be at the cutting-edge of nu-jazz and jazz crossover musics. The influence of vibrant minority communities creates a fresh yet underappreciated arts scene, divergent to that anywhere else in the world. Lewis Moody is a keys player at the forefront of musical exploration, with extensive touring experience (Guy Sebastian, Alex Lahey, Bec Sandridge), fruitful interests in sound design and incredible insight of musical styles. His recent move to London highlights comparison between the Melbourne and London music scenes. In January I had the chance to chat to the incredibly humble instrumentalist and multidisciplinary artist over Skype.
Where did it start?
My parents enrolled me in piano lessons. I think I wanted to learn the saxophone but they said, 'Learn the piano and that will inform you'... I was not particularly sold. We walked into the first lesson. You sat down at an electric organ with two manuals and lots of buttons, drawbars, paddles and sounds. I saw all the buttons, played one note and said, 'I like this, I want to do this'! That pretty much just sums up my entire career... It's just fiddling with buttons!
Where are you now?
I just moved to London, in March last year. I'd been living in Melbourne for 6 or 7 years after I finished studying at WAAPA (in WA). I felt that I was just ready for a change - new city, new vibes, something different. It's been an interesting period of time, settling down in London. It's a massive city. Right now I'm trying to build a network and just relax into living here.
If there was one aspect of the London music scene that you could bring back to Melbourne, what would that be?
That's actually a funny question because they're very similar scenes. As a result, there is a lot of cross-pollination of Melbourne artists coming over and doing stuff in the jazz world here. The big difference is that in Melbourne, [jazz music] is very underground, very niche and only supported by a handful of people. It's kind of under-appreciated, for want of a better word. London is much bigger. It's a city of 9 million people and there is a big population of people who love this music.
Church of Sound released their lineup for the first 3 or 4 months of 2020 - about 12 gigs. All of the first release tickets were all sold out within a day, and you're talking about a 250 capacity room for jazz crossover. The interest in that kind of music is totally next level. In Australia, the quality [of the music] is so good and the music is so happening. It's cutting edge, but it can fall into a heap because of how niche it is. At the same time, that's what makes it really good. You have to kill to get your music heard. As a result, the stuff that breaks through is really good. It's that double-edged thing, you know?
I think also, there's such an incredibly deep and rich culture, musically in London, and it goes back so far. The Caribbean and West-African communities influence everything from jazz through to electronic music. It breathes. It's amazing to come and experience that first hand. I think that is a new thing in Australia. The different minority communities that are influencing the music scene are much fresher, much more new. I think Australia is still in its infancy, and while it's amazing to be here in London, which is almost one hundred years down the road, I wouldn't necessarily want Melbourne to be the same. There is a rich culture and community in Melbourne. It's just fresh and still developing.
As an in-demand musician, how do you prioritise your work?
I don't find myself really strapped for time. I'm definitely busy, but of my own making. I went through a period where I was cutting my teeth, career-wise, so I got deeper into the corporate world as the main motivator to earn a living. I had to make a conscious decision to start prioritising more touring work with pop artists and more art crossover music. Playing improvised music is my bread and butter, and it's as simple as earning 'x' amount of dollars on a Saturday night at a wedding in order to go and do a gig where the money doesn't matter. [Money] is not a factor for me. It's more about what we’re creating and building on.
I think there's also this natural thing. It makes sense who you fall in with and the music you end up making. Especially if you're part of the furniture, musically, in a city. People know your vibe. If you're right for their project they're going to get in touch with you. I think things tend to happen pretty organically.
You’ve just released some work with JK Group... Can you talk about the process?
Yes! I produced/engineered/played on and mixed Josh Kelly's debut record! Josh is the sax player from 30/70, and it was such an amazing experience!
I had a brief little stint renting some studio space at Josh's store in Thornbury. They have a back room there where I was working out of, and Josh and I were hanging out a lot. Already we were pretty aligned. In December 2018, Josh asked me to work on [his record], but I had already bought my ticket to London. Luckily, I had some studio hire remaining for the last two months of my time in Melbourne. I was subletting from Tom Strode at Rolling Stock Recording Rooms. We had this funny meeting where I said, 'Let's get this done well and truly before I leave for Europe', and Maggie (Josh’s wife) said, ‘I’m due in February’. Maggie was seven months pregnant, and it turned out that the only time we could do the two days of tracking fell on Maggie’s due date! Due to the time pressure, I basically cleared my schedule as much as I could. From the first day of tracking to the final day of mixing, there were only 14 days. When we were in the sessions we were like, ‘Okay Maggie, no spicy food, no exercising’! Anyway, it ended up working out beautifully, with Maggie around the studio the whole time, very heavily pregnant, also assistant engineering.
We did the whole record in two weeks. We didn't rush anything - it just kind of ended up being like a perfect storm. The funny thing is it goes off to labels and has to line up with schedules, so even though it took only two weeks to make, it takes a year to release!
Can you talk about the band?
I mean, we had the dream team. Josh and I got to curate the whole process and we were really excited to get people who we flow with from the word ‘go’. Ziggy, Matt, Javier Fredes and I as the rhythm section. Working with Jave is actually a dream. I grew up sneaking into the Night Cat just to see Los Cabrones play, and I used to dream of playing with him. He’s the ultimate… We had James Bowers guest on a couple tracks. I’m on the rhodes and James is on the piano. James is just the most incredible piano player. Having him was wild. Audrey Powne is on a couple of things as well. It was such a nice experience to curate who we wanted, and it made the whole process so streamlined as we’d all worked heaps together.
As a listener, I think your ‘sound’ is so distinctive, not only in the melodic content that you play, but also in terms of what keyboard sounds you use. At what stage of your process do you start to think about sound design?
Like, from the earliest moment! Sound design has always been the first thing that I have thought about. As I was saying, when I was a little kid, fiddling with buttons was my main interest and motivator!
When I was younger, I would pretty much only listen to music if it had electronic keys on it. I’m not sure if you ever saw The Genie? They were the rhythm section from the Cat Empire. I know that James Bowers will attest to this as well: they were everything! The music was similar to the Head Hunters - super groovy. Ollie McGill was always on three boards going nuts with effects. That was really where my passion in sound design started incorporating into my keyboard playing. Electronics are the ultimate gift for a piano player. There’s so much versatility in what you can sound like.
How does that relate to your production work?
I think that it’s all tied together. It’s so important for every sound that you ever create to be incredibly well thought out. Every great record is really considered. What the kick drum sounds like. What the snare sounds like. Bass sound, vocal sound. Nothing is ever just put down haphazardly. I think that's what goes into making good music. Care for detail.
You’re playing with some incredible artists. Does the music become more arranged and specific the heavier into the pop world you go?
It’s funny actually. I had this experience recently. I’ve always thought that the heavier you get into the pop world, the more rigid things become, and the more specific your role is. I just flew back to Australia to do Guy Sebastian’s tour, filling in for Grant Windsor. I got into the rehearsal and I'd learnt my parts and programmed my sounds. I was ready to be very particular. What I actually found was that I definitely had the freedom to say, ‘Hey, I want to put a dank white noise stab in this thing’, and Guy would say, ‘Yeah sure, let’s see what it sounds like’. That was really pleasantly surprising. I’ve heard that across the board. I got asked to play with Rita Ora, the UK singer. In rehearsal, somebody asked her guitarist, ‘How did these arrangements come about? Did the MD arrange it and send it out?’. He responded, ‘Nah, we kind of just get in a room and see what happens’. That really blew my mind. These people are operating at the highest level of pop music. You’re talking stadium gigs. To answer your question, it definitely depends on the gig. Some things I’ve done have been strictly robotic, which is perfectly reasonable, but when I got to experience working with someone such as Guy, it was all suddenly just way more open.
"When I don't get opportunities that I was excited about the possibility of, I won’t think too hard about it. There’s most likely a myriad of reasons - I keep positive vibes. Nobody owes you anything. I’ve found that when I don't become bitter, it’s amazing how much things can turn around."
What’s life like on the road?
I’ve never done the ‘six-weeks-in-a-row’ kind-of touring. Most of the touring I’ve done in Australia is on weekends. Europe has a tighter touring circuit. In Europe you can do 18 shows in 21 days. Touring is such a great experience. You get to see a bunch of the world which you’ve never seen, but you basically work all day. The work is getting up at 4am to get on a plane, travelling all day in a shuttle bus squashed by your gear, rocking up at the venue, sound checking, whatever… that's the work. When you play the show for 50 minutes, that is the pay off. The best thing ever is playing to different crowds in different cities.
I think that one thing that drives me nuts is hearing people complaining about touring. I would never. I feel so lucky to have the experiences that I've had. It’s so hard to get into that scene. You’re only there if you want to be there. It can be trying and testing at times... mainly the boredom. It's hours of sitting around waiting, but just get a book.
What advice do you give to upcoming musicians?
I mean I've had limited experience - I haven't done everything in the world. I think that having ‘hang chops’ is everything. Marty Holoubek coined that term. That doesn't mean that you have to homogenise your personality, and I think that the phrase ‘being a good hang’ can be misconstrued. Thinking that you have to smash beers every night with everybody is not the case. It’s more about your ability to get along with people. Be friendly, be interesting, be interested.
When you move to a city, it doesn't matter how ‘good’ you are. People don’t stop booking their mates.
What’s been an experience you’ve learnt from?
I’ve worked with artists where I have given too much time and then realised that it’s not a situation where I'm going to be around to reap the rewards, for want of a better term. You might work with somebody and think that you’ll go really far and play stadiums, so you put in thousands of hours, for a project that’s not yours. You could find that suddenly you’re out of the gig. It’s really important not to become bitter when you feel let down. When I don't get opportunities that I was excited about the possibility of, I won’t think too hard about it. There’s most likely a myriad of reasons - I keep positive vibes. Nobody owes you anything. I’ve found that when I don't become bitter, it’s amazing how much things can turn around.
In January, Lewis and I finished our interview after I asked him about upcoming work. Lewis messaged me a little update just yesterday about what he’s got to look forward to:
It goes without saying that plans have been somewhat modified due to the isolation life, but in some respects there has been a silver lining. Living in London for the past 12 months has really inspired some new music, much more than I ever thought it would. I think from being surrounded by new sounds everyday, at parties or just even having NTS, WWFM or BB6 on in the house, it's amazing how much new music I feel like I've been absorbing. I've dived a bit deeper into electronic music than I thought I ever thought I would, and the isolation time has been really good for putting stuff down on paper. I've got about an album's worth of new music that I'm still finishing up. Fingers crossed it will see the light of day soon. As well as Josh's record, the new Zeitgeist Freedom Energy Exchange is out and we will be touring to support that release a little later in the year, hopefully including Australia. Recently I've been working with a Melbourne rapper and good friend Soliloquy, producing a couple of albums, the first of which is mastered and ready to go, so we might start hearing a little of that soon. The second of which he just came over to Europe to write. We tracked some drums with Ziggy in Berlin and then did a 10-day intensive at my studio in London. I'm stoked with what we have but it might be a minute before that hits the airwaves. Keep an eye on him though. Otherwise, a little mixing and a lot more writing hopefully, at least until we get back to some kind of normality. It's easy to feel like the industry is never going to recover from this but I have a feeling, especially in Europe, it's going to bounce back quickly.
Keep up to date with Lewis on Instagram: @itsmoocho
We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who have read this article.
Thank you dearly to Lewis for your time.
Interview with Lewis was conducted on 10 and 11 January 2020.
Article first published 26 April 2020.
Written by Jake Amy, edited by Hugh Heller.